The Wire

In Writing

Philip Clark: Dividing lines

November 2014

"The assumption that melodic lines are fixed entities, and all a composer or improvisor can do is extend their length over time, is a misnomer that needs to be quashed." Philip Clark on JS Bach, Jimmy Lyons's ear for architecture and the poetic metaphor of the line

No one ever asked the line if it wanted to be taken for a walk. And had the question ever been pressed, the answer would surely have been no.

Because why would the measured distance between two points in space need to walk anywhere? In music-speak, line has become a hopelessly vague all purpose descriptor, fast veering towards the meaningless. When Paul Klee, who introduced the notion of taking lines for a walk, shaped his own lines on canvas he was secure in the knowledge that they could be perceived as such. Visual artists operate with the certainty that their work can be viewed in an instant; broken and contorted lines eyed up and reordered by the brain. But music functions differently. The line you are listening to now might impact on what you hear subsequently – but equally the line might get purposefully broken; and memory is the only available tool to aid orientation through a musical structure.

I used to swear blind that Jonathan Harvey’s music was characterised by a clear sense of line and probably wrote as much, perhaps even in The Wire. But Harvey’s music was governed by an unflappable harmonic continuity out of which melodic contours evolved and dissipated, inching forwards as they folded back on themselves. In jazz, line has been elevated to a gospel truth. Jazz writers fixate on Lester Young, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane’s lines – start here and terminate at some point in the near future, a route-map as directional and structurally predestined as taking a train from London to Edinburgh.

Late last year I found myself with an oasis of unexpected free time, licence at last to tackle two bountiful box sets that had sat unopened on my shelves for far too long: Jimmy Lyons: The Box Set (Ayler Records, 2003) and Bach: Masterworks – The Original Jackets Collection (Deutsche Grammophon, 2013). For weeks I immersed myself in Bach and Lyons, The Art Of Fugue and The Musical Offering alternating with tapes of Lyons, sans Cecil Taylor, captured in New York loft spaces during the 1970s and 80s, and mostly in the company of the excellent Karen Borca, his partner and improvising bassoon colossus. And this listening experience sharpened up my ideas about line in music, improvised and composed.

If you suspect, perhaps fancifully, that nominative determinism might have played a part in fuelling Jimmy Lyons’s improvisational instincts, all hypotheses about line eventually lead back to Bach. In a recent interview I did with Angela Hewitt about her new recording of The Art Of Fugue (Hyperion), the great Canadian pianist described the agony and the ecstasy of unpicking Bach’s late-period score: learning how to make all those meshed up, four-part lines operate and sing together. “When I do masterclasses,” she told me, “I tell pianists to learn four-part fugues in five ways – once bringing out only the soprano [part], once bringing out only the alto, once the tenor, once the bass. Only then are you ready to work towards a fifth balance, which is what you will play in the end, balancing the parts according to what you want to hear, not just bringing out one voice.”

And a fundamental truth about line, as usually defined in music, is revealed. Taking lines for walks was a playful poetic metaphor and, as his phrase became rolled into the lingua franca of music appreciation, Klee himself must remain blameless. Lines do indeed move forwards in time, but musical memory usurps countable clock time, lines rewinding as prominent notes are resounded. Lines come embedded with inner-dialogues, with simultaneous temporal layers. The assumption that melodic lines are fixed entities, and all a composer or improvisor can do is extend their length over time, is a misnomer that needs to be quashed.

Compositionally, the way of music seems to be that lines have a tendency to breed lines; lines within lines, lines commenting on lines; the identity of a line clarified by its relationship to shadow versions of itself. Bach generates the entirety of The Art Of Fugue – 90 minutes in D Minor throughout – from a single four-bar phrase, a fugal subject that he locks into a discussion with itself. The ensuing counterpoint between order and chaos puts you in mind of Jackson Pollock: a labyrinth of mutually supportive lines held in place by an intelligent design too obscure or capricious to untangle. Analysing Bach’s nuts and bolts techniques, aiming to understand how lines run against themselves in upended, stretched and compressed form – or how superimpositions of the fugue’s subject coexist in altered versions, a tool of the Baroque trade termed stretto – will only take you so far. The code ultimately proves impossible to crack.

If theories about The Art Of Fugue look like they might fall down when applied, say, to the Bach Cello Suites – cellos don’t lend themselves to sustaining simultaneous lines as easily as keyboard instruments – the same compositional itch is in fact scratched as Bach devises ways of implying concurrent lines. Which takes us to the core of the exquisite mysteries that surround the playing of Jimmy Lyons, Cecil Taylor’s alto saxophonist of choice until his death in 1986.

The impact of Charlie Parker powered the base energy of Lyons’s improvisations, but his sense of linear architecture was entirely his own – solos as extended stripes of melody, often running for far longer than is seemingly decent, Lyons wrestling with motifs as amorphous as a Bachian fugue subject, each fresh turn of phrase apparently rebooting the structure. And during my complete absorption in Bach and Lyons, one question doggedly refused to go away.

How does a Lyons solo hang together? What does the phrase you are listening to now have to do with what you will be listening to in the next ten minutes? Parker, Coltrane, Rollins worked with a clear feel for harmonic direction, solos that obeyed (usually) floating rules about narrative tension and release; beginnings, middles and endings. But Lyons teases with a paradox. His improvisations are urgent, go-getting and hurtle forwards through space – yet go nowhere in particular.

In 1980 his trio – with John Lindberg (bass) and Sunny Murray (drums) – opened their set at the Willisau Jazz Festival in Switzerland with “Jump Up”, a performance telling you all you need to know about Lyons’s unique qualities. True enough, you suspect he might have been listening to Ornette’s Prime Time, but his ten minute solo – opening with a sawn off motif that is repeated exactly four times before Lyons starts to mess with its inner balance – quickly diverts back to his core concerns. A hazy bridge passage leads back to the opening motif. But a point soon arrives when Lyons’s solo tells your analytical ears to get off its back. Outbreaks of notes move faster than your ability to add them up, but Lyons’s keen ear for architecture persistently flags up hints of that opening motif. Internal dialogues are being built. He doesn’t want to lose you altogether.

And mirroring Bach’s characteristic shifts of register, Lyons uses register to open up the space. As once subliminally felt hints of high register hollering eventually become the dominant texture, his solo moves to an entirely different flight path. Rather than taking a line for a walk, Lyons becomes a harmonic hub through which many points pass. He invites you to read between the lines.


An interesting subject to explore. The combination of Bach and Lyons is intriguing and 'useful' in considering the musical line. You might find Tim Ingold's study of Lines to be a valuable complement.

Thanks Nigel - just ordered it.

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