Unpacking layers of meaning in Steve Lacy’s composition “Existence”

Unpacking layers of meaning in Steve Lacy’s composition “Existence”

I wrote an essay for a new book on Steve Lacy to be published by French publisher Lenka Lente.



It was pouring outside, and Steve Lacy stood by the window in his room on the third floor at the New England Conservatory in Boston, staring at the intense rain. It was Fall 2002 and I had a lesson with him. He played raindrop sounds on his horn, carefully articulating and shaping his sound and explaining how he had been studying the sound of rain since the late ’60s. He had even written a suite about the weather: the Precipitation Suite. The pitches he played were from the “Rain Scale” and he wanted me to learn the scale. I was a Jazz composition student at the time and asked why he chose these particular pitches. He answered, a bit mysteriously, “because they sound like the rain.” I’m not sure if he had another secret theoretical explanation, but I immediately agreed that this scale resembled the melancholic, droopy feeling of being in a rainstorm. He explained more about the concept of “Rain” – the form, the intro, the conception – and then we played another piece from the Precipitation Suite, “Cloudy,” a series of 12-tone rows to be played out of time with other players, creating moving clouds.

I had known Lacy’s playing since the early ’80s, first with the Instant Composers Pool’s Herbie Nichols Project and later through records and concerts with his own groups. Then I got ahold of Findings, Steve’s sought-after book on his experience with the soprano saxophone. His philosophy and approach to music resonated with me, as did his overtone exercises and etudes. Taking lessons with him was a dream come true.

Later, I taught “Rain” to many students in improvisation workshops and led an almost- magical large ensemble performance of the piece at the Follow the Sound Festival in Belgium. Studying the sound of raindrops on each instrument, then collectively starting with a few drops and increase them into a wild rainstorm (effectively becoming white noise) is eye-opening and incredibly powerful as a collective music-making experience. Most students love playing “Rain”: the idea is so simple yet opens doors to many layers of complexity and study. Lacy called the piece aleatoric, programmatic, serial, minimal, modal, impressionist, and tonal all at once.

In another lesson, Lacy taught me his piece “Existence,” from the six-part Tao Suite. With this piece it became clear to me that he was not only an exceptional and original soprano saxophonist and Monk specialist but a deeply serious composer as well. His works are not just nice tunes with a cool harmony, or vehicles for blowing. They are works of art containing multiple indicators of meaning, including the title, the dedication (Lacy dedicated virtually all of his compositions to a specific artist, musician, writer, scientist, or other high-level practitioner), often a picture of the dedicatee, a date, sometimes a place where it was composed, and specific performance instructions. In many cases, these references connect in a way that makes artistic sense but is hard to describe. Many of Lacy’s pieces, especially those written after the mid ’70s, are melodies set to a text or poem that relates to the title and dedication. About the dedications he said, “It’s a personal thing. All my pieces are dedicated, but I don’t always say it. That blocks the listening if you have too many things in mind.”(1) About titles Lacy said, “They’re all specific stories, each one of those pieces. Every piece I write has a reference to somebody as well as the things which have to do with the person.”(2)

The layering of meanings in Lacy’s work became even more clear to me after I visited his widow Irene Aebi in Belgium in 2012, when she entrusted me with scans of Lacy’s 50-odd composition notebooks. I have continued to research this goldmine of over 500 compositions up till today, playing unknown and unrecorded Lacy pieces with my band The Whammies (including Han Bennink, who had his own Lacy stories to add) and the full arrangements of some pieces that he only recorded as solo versions. After a long journey, the notebooks were finally acquired by the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, and can now be studied on request.

These notebooks paint an interesting chronological picture of how Lacy developed himself as a composer, writing for his own bands and for commissions. They are an invaluable journey into a jazz composer’s mind, including how he conceptualized the interaction between composition and improvisation for his own groups over the years. In the first few notebooks we find messy sketches from a very experimental early period (right after he moved from New York to Italy around 1967) where he delved into graphical scores, word combinations, conceptual free improv ideas, anti-Vietnam war protest music, and the first sketches for suites such as the Precipitation Suite and Tao Suite. The pieces in the early ’70s are studies in how one can write music about anything – from the weather to food, materials, animals, expressions, feelings, etc. Cahier n°4 (1973) alone contains “The Wax,” “The Wake,” “The Wage,” “Weal,” “The Wool,” “The Woe,” “The Wow!,” “The Oil,” “Salts,” “Fruits,” “Laps,” “Nags,” “Flaps,” “Ladies,” “Scraps,” “Flops,” “Slabs,” “Worms,” “Lumps,” “Stumps,” “Moms,” “Snorts,” “Slats,” “Stabs,” “Hops,” “Snips,” “Chops,” “Tots,” “Tracks,” and “Revolutionary Suicide.” The vast majority of works from this period are interval patterns grouped into loops, repeated a number of times, followed by a free improvisation. After the mid ’70s his works become mostly texts set to music, and more melodic.

Almost all of Lacy’s pieces are for his own small ensembles, with the exception of a few commissions and his 18 etudes for the soprano saxophone (the Practitioners series). We often see several incarnations of successful compositions, where rhythms are refined and parts added, much like Duke Ellington writing different arrangements of his works. This suggests a never- ending practice of developing the music. The notebooks also reveal his notational system for the second voice to many of his melodies. He simply wrote a number 1 or 2 (meaning a minor or major second below) under each pitch. This doubling of the melody a second below (often played by Steve Potts) is uniquely characteristic of Lacy’s compositional sound, and immediately gives his melodies a piercing, atonal character. Lacy’s penmanship gets increasingly detailed, refined, and beautiful; towards Cahier n°7 (1977) he seems to have found his notation style. Some of his later scores are gorgeous and precise, adding another layer of meaning and artistry.

An excellent example of a piece with multiple layers of meaning is “Existence,” the first piece in the Tao Suite:


  • “Existence” (Tao #1) to John Coltrane, Rome 1969, revised 1975
  • “The Way” (Tao #2) to Alberto Giacometti, NYC 1967, revised 1982, 1985
  • “Bone” (Tao #3) to Lester Young, 1970
  • “Name” (Tao #4) to Charlie Parker, Paris 1970
  • “The Breath” (Tao #5) to Gil Evans, 1969
  • “Life On Its Way” (Tao #6) to Duke Ellington, 1974, revised 2004


Each composition is based on a poem from the Tao Teh Ching, the 2500-year-old text by Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, in Witter Bynner’s translation from 1944. The word Tao (pronounced “Dao”) is difficult to translate, but seems to come closest to “the Way,” which became the title of the first composition Lacy wrote in the cycle. “Existence” is based on the fourth Tao poem in this translation (the many translations of this ancient Chinese text vary wildly; in many other English translations of this poem the word “existence” doesn’t even occur).

The first version of “Existence” occurring in the notebooks is a messy sketch. In 1970 he wrote a first full version in rubato time, with specifics about which instruments play which pitches. A third version appeared in 1975, with the melody written in time, fixed to 24 bars. Later he composed a separate bass line. In one of the last notebooks, he wrote a piano part based on the scales.

In our lesson, Lacy taught “Existence” by playing eleven different pentatonic scales to me and saying the words of the poem. He did not give me a score, so I took notes. Pentatonic scales are often considered more fundamental or rootsy than other scales, since they occur in many different musical cultures around the world. Some of the “Existence” scales are traditional pentatonic scales; others are different combinations of five pitches within the octave. They express each phrase in the poem (as with “Rain,” he gave no theoretical explanation of why a particular scale fits with a particular phrase, other than that it feels right with the text). One is supposed to memorize these eleven scales and then improvise on them, a daunting task since most jazz players know very well how to play inside and outside of standard chord changes, but not over other exotic pitch combinations – unless they really practice and memorize them. Then he explained the intro, where one “warms up the saxophone” or sets the atmosphere of the tune by slowly exploring the pitches of the first scale, much like the rubato “alap” introduction to an Indian raga. Then one plays the melody rubato, consisting of again eleven pitches of the chromatic scale (the D is missing), all in octaves. Each note of the melody is also the first note of each pentatonic scale. Lacy told me he practiced intervals for a very long time, picking a few of them randomly to focus on each day. He spent one whole year practicing octaves alone, which he called “the most underrated of all intervals.”

The melody of “Existence” follows the rhythm of the words of Tao Teh Ching’s fourth poem. While playing the melody, one should express the words and sing them in one’s head. The scales fit under the melody, as a harmonic context, and can be voiced by the piano. After the rubato version, the melody follows in up tempo with the rhythm section. The scales go by quickly, and the improvisation over the eleven scales falls within a 24-bar form.

Because of the complexity of the improvisation and the fast tempo, Steve called this piece his “Giant Steps” and dedicated it to John Coltrane. I wonder how Coltrane would have improvised over it? It surely would have been a challenge for him to improvise over eleven fast- moving, non-traditional five-note scales, since his harmonic approach was so based on traditional scales and chord changes. Maybe he would have sounded like Tommy Flanagan struggling his way through the changes of “Giant Steps,” unfamiliar with this new harmonic language.

Apart from a few solo dates, there are six recordings of “Existence” with Lacy’s groups. The stongest versions are the duo with pianist Michael Smith from 1976, on the record Sidelines(3) and the full, quintet version from 1979 on the record The Way(4). Lacy of course was able to improvise over the form and the scales, but other improvisers – including trumpeter Ambrose Jackson, saxophonist Steve Potts, pianist Michael Smith – seem either to struggle with the scales in the fast tempo and lose the form, or just play accompaniment lines during Steve’s solos. Bassist Kent Carter plays on four of the six ensemble versions and is solid, keeping the form without trouble.

“Existence” is unique, as the only Lacy composition with a set form and complicated scale sequence for improvising. Almost all of his other compositions have free, open blowing sections, sometimes over a specified pitch set. Only a handful of his compositions include improvisation over a traditional chord progression. Lacy’s deep study of Thelonious Monk’s music might have exhausted his interest in improvising over standard song forms (12, 16, or 32 bars) with chord changes, creating a hunger for free improvisational spaces in his own compositions.

Lacy’s interest in the Tao Teh Ching as a moral and ethical compass shines through much of his thinking and his attitude towards life and music. One idea is that the music is always there – you just have to grab it, play it, and make it come alive. In several interviews Lacy also talks about mystery: how some things just can’t be explained. “Why is my job to be in music? I can’t answer that, it’s too mysterious for me really.”(5) “I love what can’t be explained, though.”(6) Maybe this last quote is what ties together the multiple levels of meaning in his music: an acceptance and embrace of the mysterious forces in life (and art) that one can’t explain. This is a perfect starting point for improvisation.

Lacy said about improvisation that “if the music is good enough, you’re not thinking.”(7) In one of our lessons, he compared improvising to driving a car: you’re aware, but you’re not thinking about every turn. This leaves a lot of room for the unknown, the mystery, the subconscious – and gives another beautiful balance and contrast to his compositions’ mathematical intervallic systems, repetitive rhythms, and dense piano harmonies. In many cases the multiple indicators of meaning (the title, text, dedication), together with the melodic and rhythmic material, give the improviser enough ideas to inspire the improvisation. No further instructions necessary.

In his last notebook, months before dying of cancer in June 2004, we see arrangements of “Life On Its Way” and “The Breath.” Lacy’s handwriting is a bit jagged, as he was not in good health and was battling cancer (I drove him to a masterclass a few months earlier, when he told me he wasn’t doing well). It’s hard not to see this as a deliberate choice to arrange these works again: perhaps the Tao Teh Ching gave him strength and reflection at the end of his life. But finally, one of the most powerful (and perhaps Tao-inspired) statements about music comes from Lacy himself in his piece “Saxovision”: “We don’t determine music, the music determines us; we only follow it to the end of our life: then it goes on without us.”

Jorrit DIJKSTRA, January 2021

  1. Steve Lacy: Conversations, edited by Jason Weiss, Duke University Press, 2006, page 74
  2. Weiss, 103
  3. Sidelines, Steve Lacy / Michael Smith, Improvising Artists Inc., recorded in Oslo, September 1976
  4. The Way, Steve Lacy Five (with Steve Potts, Irene Aebi, Kent Carter, Oliver Johnson), Hat Hut, recorded in Basel, January 1979
  5. Weiss, 79
  6. Weiss, 32
  7. Weiss, 30