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Polyphony and Our Future

by Milenko Matanovic

June 11, 2019

The goal of collaborating is to eventually relate to one another in such a way that common differences are transformed into valuable insights. Maintaining strength and flexibility is critical in accomplishing this feat. It involves the confidence to express ideas but also the humility to adjust them to those of others.

In many ways, the art of collaboration mirrors a jazz composition.

Jazz is polyphonic in that several melody lines run with or against each other and create a greater whole along the way.  The concept behind jazz music traces its beginnings from many ethnic musical traditions as well as classical ones. In his crowning Mass in B-Minor, Johan Sebastian Bach demonstrated polyphony with a four-part choir in addition to several instrumental lines. This created a wonderfully intricate yet immensely sumptuous tapestry. How was Bach able to imagine the whole where each part is essential? What faculties did he engage? [1]

New Orleans jazz musicians developed a folk equivalent of Bach’s polyphony. They did not have sheet music. Nonetheless, they learned how to play together with the same spirit of balancing teamwork with individual excellence. They learned to compliment others’ melodies.

Most of us prefer less complicated music with one lead melody line supported by orchestra and chorus. We can whistle these tunes because the dominant themes clearly stand out and above.

The difference between multi-themed and single-themed music play themselves out in our lives.  Too often we expect others to be our chorus and orchestra.  We collaborate as long as we are the only lead tune. 

I believe we could all benefit from developing “polyphonic” practices, learning from Bach and jazz musicians who know how to play their part while supporting the whole.

Jazz is an authentic American art form that integrates European, African, classical and folk traditions into a collaborative adventure that celebrates the team and individuals at the same time. We should all strive to live in a “jazz society”, where the focus on collective ethic does not repress individual talent, but demands it. This type society requires all of us to practice how to listen and play, take in and put out, and express our ideas in such a way that they do not diminish those of others. We will continuously learn.

[1] The Seattle Symphony performed Bach’s Mass in B minor in March 2019: https://seattlesymphony.org/concerttickets/calendar/2018-2019/symphony/sub14