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The Infinite Possibilities of Coltrane’s Magic Square

Stefan Hertmans on ‘A Love Supreme’

Stefan Hertmans
Reading time
8 min.

Toward the end of the summer of 1964, John Coltrane left his studio with the draft of a composition that would serve as the foundational text for a whole new genre. Having isolated himself from his young family for five days, and having gone clean again after many narcotic misadventures, he now immersed himself in the spirituality of the black church’s rhetorical rhythms, drawing on the same source Barack Obama would for his speeches later. A Love Supreme, the title of the work in question, had already been divided into roughly four movements, the first of which included the famous series of four notes that structure its base harmony: G / B-flat, G / C, including, here and there, some schematic indications for the piano or the bass and, in the bottom margin of the score, the following exclamation—All paths lead to God / Prayer entitled—A Love Supreme—hastily scribbled in ballpoint.

the recording [...] was completed in one extensive take, ecstatic and uninterrupted

But there was more. Coltrane was deeply submerged in the dynamics of his time. He saw music as the sovereign expression of spirituality as well as the deepest expression of black culture. He had completed these sketches by offering up a psalm on paper, a psalm for which he drew inspiration from the style of black preachers, and which he based on three principles: elation, elegance, exaltation. The foundations had been laid for one of the most revolutionary jazz records of the twentieth century, the recording of which was completed in one extensive take, ecstatic and uninterrupted, accompanied by the trio who had been with Coltrane for years: McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums. A Love Supreme proved a bombshell. Utterly innovative, it opened vertiginous perspectives that even Carlos Santana had to admit he didn’t understand in the slightest—only to return to it many years later, recording it himself after its musical ramifications had revealed their full potential.

Coltrane’s pièce de résistance remains just as spectacular and timeless today as fifty years ago. Around a few small central themes, the four musicians build their absolute improvisational freedom, using it to push jazz’s musical boundaries ever further. As is often customary in jazz, the four notes of the first theme correspond to the four syllables in the title. The first movement, likely the best known, is also the most accessible. In the end, all the musicians engage in a communal singing session (or, rather, crooning session), uttering the words “A love supreme” like an incantation, bordering on ecstasy.

Coltrane wages something incomparable, “playing” the syllables of his own religious poem.

Each of the four movements is given a determinate title: “Acknowledgement,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” “Psalm.” Similarly, each sequence covers the ascending levels of a spiritual exercise: revelation, commitment, loyalty, thanksgiving. The basic tempos might change, but it is in the structure itself where Coltrane’s total freedom of musical spirit is revealed. The grace of his musical process, as paradoxical as this may seem at first sight, promises to hit us with some black, violent, exhilarating, heartbreaking, and revolutionary music. Coltrane also offers us a literal expression of the political turmoil of the 1960s, to be found in the very materiality of his music. As if possessed by a demon, he would spend years dissecting the circle of fifths and its implications for modal play, a little like Johann Sebastian Bach had done with classical harmony in the Well-Tempered Clavier. On Coltrane’s wall, one could always find a large drawing of the circle of fifths. Coltrane assiduously studied it while practicing his pieces.

By tirelessly combining short musical phrases, the quartet offers up an open and completely modal (and, often, far from tonal) musical structure, perfectly homologous with the spiritual openness for which Coltrane had aimed. One should add, however, that the revolutionary rhythms coined by Jones found their antecedents in the complexities of traditional African percussion, while the inimitable style of McCoy, tracking Coltrane’s modal movements, propels the protagonist to new and unexpected levels of expression. All of this, of course, was extraordinary for its time: a piece of music based on black culture, exerting a politics reminiscent of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. A Love Supreme is also a religious incantation, inherited from black preachers. Musically, it is just as complex and superb as Charlie Parker and bebop or Arnold Schoenberg and dodecaphony. A Love Supreme releases sexual energy while being constantly tempered by religious elegance and exaltation.

While the whole of Coltrane’s composition is extremely well measured, its greatest feat appears in the final movement, aptly named the “Psalm.” Backed by his three musicians, who each follow their own musical route, Coltrane wages something incomparable, “playing” the syllables of his own religious poem. One could try it oneself, listening to the music while reading Coltrane’s original words. It remains, after all these years, truly incredible. Coltrane in ecstasy, bellowing his prayer into his tenor saxophone.

How could one possibly go about translating something like A Love Supreme, this colossal block of music, into something as light and abstract as contemporary dance? Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker met the challenge in 2005 in collaboration with Salva Sanchis, melding her intuitive understanding of this incredible music with her own formal genius. In 2017 the production was completely rewritten following a decade of additional choreographic research, and performed by an entirely new group of young dancers.

The starting point remains stunningly simple: four male dancers seize the interplay between the four musicians in Coltrane’s quartet. Yet in the choreographic rendering, nothing is ever illustrative or anecdotal. Certainly, some dance moves may evoke a bass arpeggio, a feather-light tap on the snare drum, a certain melodic inflection. Everyone breathes the freedom that Coltrane had already experienced when he played his piece in his characteristically open and modal style. Anything can change in the blink of an eye, the smallest detail could offer a new perspective, while the musical direction follows its own formal line. Each dancer must, at any given moment, take full responsibility for his positioning within this cosmos of sounds. This endows the performance with a feature that is nearly ethical. A Love Supreme is about persistently extending our understanding of the authentic—a radical task for young dancers, a learning experience like no other.

Furthermore, there was something about Coltrane and the number four

The dance floor is thus transformed, as is often the case with De Keersmaeker, into a kind of spatial metaphor not only for Coltrane’s basic score, but also for the expressive complexity of the total improvisation that continues to govern the logical essence of the piece. The dancers move to music that may not be intended for this specific purpose, but that almost seems made for them when placed in the right hands, possessing the right sensitivity. The result is poignant in its humility even if this simplicity also includes extreme ambition, confronting questions like: How can the body incorporate and translate the freedom and total openness of this music? How do we reproduce this indomitable momentum so fully? This question is implicit in Sanchis’s recent work. His last show, Radical Light, provided a crystal-clear answer that left an impression on this revival of previous choreography.

Furthermore, there was something about Coltrane and the number four: a quartet of musicians, a suite in four movements, his tempos perpetually measured in 4/4 time, a spiritual ascension of four levels. From all this flow all kinds of combinations, cross sections, and openings. The number four as the number of seclusion, existence in itself, and then unfolding in every direction. This is exactly what the performance shows us: the four dancers each temporarily exit whenever “their” instrument goes quiet—yet this doesn’t imply that perhaps in the next instant they won’t be taking on another instrument as their preferred role.

Melencolia – Albrecht Dürer
Melencolia – Albrecht Dürer

In art history, one finds the “magic square” in Albrecht Dürer’s depiction of the mythological character of Melancholy: an allegorical figure contemplating the power of numbers while gazing gloomily at the horizon, contemplating the infinite mathematical possibilities that the human race will never be able to fully comprehend. Her melancholy is one with her fascination. Thus, despite appearances, a finite numerical series is capable of including the concept of infinity. The ecstatic elegance of this music, as it is redrawn, understood, experienced, and danced in this performance, bears witness to the same intuition: an infinite number of possibilities trapped in the ingenuity of a subtle and brilliant form. It is the same perspective with which Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Salva Sanchis have captured and breathed new life into the musical heritage of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, by giving it back to the breathing and thinking body from which it originated.

With thanks to Peter Hertmans for the fabulous listening session in preparation for this production and the discussion afterward.

Published with the kind permission of Rosas, which shared it earlier on its website