Begbie on The Ways of the Hand and Embodiment

In a section called “Embodiment” found in chapter 8 of his book, Theology, Music and Time, Jeremy Begbie discovers and number of theological gems through engaging David Sudnow’s work, Ways of the Hand, which is an account of a classical pianist’s struggle on the road to becoming a jazz improviser. Sudnow describes in detail how at first he felt estranged from his body, viz., his hands. That is, the connection between his hands, the rhythm and metre, and the lines he wanted to play was at best strained and often more of a dis-connect. However, over time his hands began to anticipate the “shape” of various chord clusters and melodic lines—in short his hands “became one” with the piano, which was now in a sense an extension of his own body and not simply a tool to be used. As Begbie explains, “the hand would treat the keyboard as a terrain to be engaged, relating to its contours, for example, to the contours of different keys […] Knowing what the next note or next notes would sound like was more to do with hand sensations than visual inspection of the keyboard. […] From the point of view of piano improvisation, listening is as much to do with the hand as with the ear” (pp. 225). Havin reached this point in his studies, Sudnow describes his former alienated relationship between himself and his hands as being healed. “The hand ‘had ways’ with the keyboard which opened up potentialities of sound not readily discoverable in any other way” (p. 226).

As Begbie points out that “the constraint of the body, far from being treated as a prison to be escaped or obstacle to be fought, become integral to the realization of freedom.” In other words, though it is the case that the body does have limits—in this case, one’s hands may simply not have long enough fingers to be able to play certain chord voicings. However, the main point still stands, viz., “the body is not seen primarily as negative confinement but is drawn into a process such that its own peculiarities, specific capabilities and so forth are employed as a resource of channels of sensitivity and response, intelligence and insight, expression and articulation. In short, in and through our bodies we become free, free for interacting more fruitfully with realities beyond ourselves” (p. 230). Here Begbie begins to make a number of excellent theological connections for those who want to uphold the Biblical emphasis on our embodiedness, as well as a balanced account of freedom within constraint. “For here is a construal of free personal being in which the particularities of the body are regarded as intrinsic to human identity and its formation, in which the body is viewed as a field of dynamic processes of exchange in our commerce with the world, in which the senses are not treated as inherently passive and in need of compensation by the active mind, and in which bodily action is not viewed merely as the outward (or even optional) consequence of some ‘inner state’ or intention. Likewise, there is much here for those at work in theological epistemology who urge that we become less dependent on controlling paradigms which ignore our embodiedness and our active participation as God’s physical creatures in a God-given physical world. It is also possible that there is material here for a Christology which would want to take the embodiedness of Jesus with due seriousness” (pp. 230).

Furthermore, in the case of the instrumental jazz improviser, the new “somatically realized freedom necessarily involves an exploration of the keyboard, a respectful interaction with its physical peculiarities which coheres in significant ways with a theological ecology respectful of the non-human physical world” (p. 231). Lastly, as was mentioned in passing above, the instrument is no longer seen as a mere tool or intruder, but rather “as materially instrinsic to the creation of the music. […] Rather than being a hindrance to expression, an obstacle to an idea, it becomes, through bodily engagement, part of the expressivity” (pp. 231-232). Interestingly, in distinction from the way most music is composed in the classical tradition, viz., creating the musical line and then making it conform to a particular instrument, jazz improvisers create their melodic lines in terms of their own instruments. Consequently, one’s instrument is not a tool to be fitted to musical ideas created apart from that instrument, but rather “its own properties, characteristics and features are explored, honoured and incorporated into the music. […] The instrument is allowed to ‘have its say’. This attitude is redolent with theological resonances of honouring the contours and characteristics of the physical world in which we have been given to participate, in marked contrast to subsuming the natural world under pragmatic, utilitarian categories” (p. 232).

Part II: Benson on The Voice of the Other

Wanting to avoid a “logic of reciprocity” [echoing Levinas] in which a dialogue turns into a monologue, as when one party sets the terms of reciprocity, Benson turns to Gadamer in order to begin mapping out what a healthy dialogue might look like. According to Gadamer, “good will” toward the other, as opposed to “proving that you are right,” is crucial. Likewise, reciprocity begins “at home,” and involves vulnerability. “True reciprocity is only possible if I make the first move—without knowing that the other will reciprocate” (The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, p. 168). Once this “move” is made, then what? Here Gadamer introduces the metaphor of a “fusion of horizons” (Horizontverschmelzung) to help explicate this relationship with the other. In terms of successful musical dialogue, we might say that “communication takes place when the ‘horizon’ (or perspective) of the listener ‘fuses’ (or, perhaps better, ‘connects’) with that of the performer, composer, and tradition. The score and/or composer has one sort of horizon (temporally, culturally, musically, and perhaps otherwise) and performers and listeners have yet other horizons. The goal, then, is a ‘fusion’ of these horizons to enable a genuine dialogue” (p. 168). However, the downside of this metaphor is that perhaps in the fusing of these horizons, “the ‘otherness’ of the other is lost,” and we are back to one voice (p. 169). Though it is the case, e.g., that in an orchestra the many voices must blend into one voice, we still desire a situation in which the individual voices or instruments retain their individuality. As Benson noted in a previous chapter, “it is all too easy to impose our own horizon and then proclaim it as the ‘authentic’ horizon of the past. To be honest, performers always face this reality. The goal of the composer, performer, and listener seeking a genuine dialogue, then, is both to be aware of this danger and to be creative in allowing each party to have a real voice” (p. 169). Yet, we might also point out that perhaps our situation is not as bad as it seems. After all “since my horizon is never truly ‘mine’ (given that I am part of a culture—both musically and in general—that I do not possess and cannot control), then ‘my’ horizon is always a shared horizon and is always affected by otherness” (p. 169).

If a true fusing of horizons takes place between the composer, the work, and the performer (as well as the audience), then in what sense is composer’s voice still heard? As Benson astutely observes, “music has no existence apart from the voices of the conversation” (p. 170). Though it has been common in the classical music tradition following the Werktrue model to attempt to let the music “speak for itself,” this is in reality impossible. The composer must allow the performer to be his/her representative, thus interpretation of the work by the performer (who is also part of a musical tradition) is inevitable. “A text can only mean by way of the act of interpretation and a score can only sound through a performance. […] But that in no way means that the interpreter simply (as Gadamer puts it in a later text) ‘disappears—and the text speaks.’ For, in speaking on behalf of the composer (and the musical tradition), the performer does not simply disappear” (p. 170). Here Benson introduces an interesting analogy to help us think through how we should understand the relationship between composer, work, and performer. Just as stringed instruments are tuned on the basis of tension, “so the relationship of musical partners depends on tension to be maintained. On the one hand, as composer or performer or listener I open myself to the other when I feel the pull of the other that demands my respect. On the other hand, my openness to the other cannot be simply a complete giving in to the other, for then I am no longer myself and am instead simply absorbed by the other. Thus, a dialogue can only be maintained if there is a pull exerted by both sides. The danger for genuine dialogue, then, is not the presence of tension but its loss or imbalance. A dialogue is only possible when each partner both holds the others in tension—that is, holds the other accountable—and feels the tension of accountability exerted by the other. As strange as that may sound, these ‘tensions’ actually make the ‘freedom’ of dialogue possible. Why that sounds strange is because we usually think of freedom as ‘negative freedom’—freedom from constraints. But what I have in mind here is ‘positive freedom’—freedom for genuine dialogue. Of course, in order to ‘feel that pull,’ one needs to be able to listen to the other” (pp. 170-171).

Part I: Benson on The Voice of the Other

In chapter 5 of his book, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, Benson engages in a discussion of the “other” in a section called, “The Voice of the Other.” He begins by briefly introducing Emmanuel Levinas who sees philosophy as “suppressing or transmuting the alterity of all that is Other.” In addition, Levinas claims that a desire for autonomy fuels the desire to suppress otherness. If we consider Kant’s view of the free and highly individualistic artistic genius along with his views of morality which center on autonomy, Levinas’ claim is strengthened. In other words, for the artistic genius to manifest her genius, she must be completely free—“unfettered.” As Benson explains, Kant sees this kind of free, autonomous space as something positive, as it establishes the conditions necessary for artistic creativity. Levinas, however, views this autonomy as dangerous because one person’s freedom comes at the expense of the other’s freedom. From another perspective, we might say that for Kant freedom is construed negatively, i.e., freedom is not being constrained by another, whereas, for Levinas, a certain constraint by the other is a positive thing (p. 165).

Relating this back to our musical dialogue, we recall that on the Werktreue paradigm, the composer is privileged and the emphasis is on re-creating “authorial intention.” With the Werktreue model, it is clear that the performer (as well as listener) is the suppressed other. So what might serve as an answer to the “autonomous monologue” of the Werktreue ideal? As Benson notes, some might suggest an existentialist antidote of “authenticity” (Eigentlichkeit). Here Benson makes a helpful connection between a practice of the romantic (musical) performance tradition with Heidegger’s notion of Eigentlichkeit. In the romantic tradition, performers are told to “make the piece your own.” For Heidegger, to be eigentlich means to “be yourself” which is of course tied in with authenticity. In one sense, this is of course good advice for a musician to follow, however, “the problem is that the structure of Eigentlichkeit is all too close to that of Kant’s autonomy. When Heidegger says that ‘understanding is either authentic, arising out of one’s own Self as such, or inauthentic,’ it is hard to distinguish this sense of authenticity from Kant’s account of autonomy. For, in both cases, the self is not merely supposed to be the principle but the sole determining factor” (p. 166). Thus, going with the strict Eigentlichkeit model, the performer is privileged and the alterity of the composer and listener is denied (think of Paganini and the virtuoso tradition). Instead of privileging any one of these three, Benson suggests we listen to Levinas, who says “to approach the Other is to put into question my freedom, my spontaneity,” as well as Gadamer, whose (in our context) ideal composer, performer and listener is open to the other who “breaks into my ego-centeredness and gives me something to understand” (pp. 166-67). Benson then adds, “to treat the other as other requires that I recognize the other as having a kind of claim on me. Naturally, the kind of claim and the force of that claim depend upon the specific dialogue, for dialogues can be of different sorts and even musical dialogues differ. Yet, to take the other seriously means that I am not simply ‘free’ to do ‘whatever I please’” (p. 167).

More to come…

Benson on “Premeditated Spontaneity”

Having spent four years of practicing six to eight hours a day as performing jazz guitar major, I wholeheartedly agree with Benson’s take on jazz as “premeditated spontaneity.” That is, contrary to the common and even “romantic” view of jazz improvisation as a kind of musical ex nihilo creative act, Benson argues that jazz improvisers actual heavily rely on musical ideas worked out in advance which, as it turns out, enables them to be spontaneous. “As odd as it may sound, the musician who is most prepared—not only in terms of having thought about what is to be played but even having played various possibilities—is most able to be spontaneous. It is when one already is prepared that one feels free to go beyond the confines of the prepared (with the assurance that one can always fall back on them if necessary). In the same way that Gadamer argues that the experienced person is most open to new experience, it is the experienced improviser—the one who has already thought a great deal about what is to be played—who is most able to play something surprising. Experience can turn into a rut, but is can also beget spontaneity” (The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, pp. 142-143).

Benson on the Elusive “Work Itself”

Continuing his discussion of the “ergon within the energia,” Benson introduces Ingarden’s position. Ingarden’s fundamental assumption is that there is an essential (not simply an accidental) separation between a work and its written and aural expressions (The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, p. 126). Ingarden is concerned to preserve a kind of superhistorical ergon that remains untouched by the energia of actual music performance through the course of time. However, Ingarden himself is aware of this tension, which makes his contribution highly instructive. First, Ingarden begins by asking as to the relation between the work and the score. According to Ingarden, the score preserves the work and helps to maintain its identity (Ibid., p 127). Yet, Ingarden admits that the score does not exhaust the work and merely relates aspects of the work—the score functions as a kind of “schema.” By acknowledging both that the score maintains the identity of the work in some sense and yet the score does fully circumscribe the work, we are pressed to ask, what then is (ontologically speaking) the “something more” that the score fails to capture?

Ingarden’s position is more or less a kind of Platonism when it comes to the role of performances. That is, for Ingarden, a work possesses a “stock of possibilities” and is “in a sense inherently complete” (Ibid., p. 128). In essence, over time the various performers of a work are not adding anything new, rather they are discovering the latent possibilities already “embedded” in the work and that simply need to be actualized. Thus, the work does not really change over time but merely “appears” to change. However, as Benson observes, “the problem with this view is that—practically—these possibilities seem not to come merely from within but also from without: for they arise—at least partly—by way of performance traditions, which are themselves developing” (Ibid., p. 128). But, being a good phenomenologist, Ingarden does not totally ignore the fact that the work seems to go beyond the intentions of the composer due to Unbestimmtheitsstellen—“places of indeterminacy” that are born with every work—some of which are only made determinate through a live performance.

Contra a Platonist-type understanding of a work, Benson argues for a kind of mediating way that acknowledges that a work possesses a “stock of possibilities” that constitutes it, yet those possibilities are supplemented by additional possibilities that arise over the course of time and as a result of evolving musical traditions. “Thus, we could say that Bach had intentions for the St. Matthew Passion that were complex and specific. But the performance by Mendelssohn did not merely bring out those possibilities (even though it did that too). Rather, it also created certain possibilities—possibilities that truly did not exist before” (p. 129).

In light of the “interconnectedness of work and performance,” Benson ends the section by suggesting that instead of “work” which seems to suggest a “finished” product, we should return to the denomination “piece.” Piece implies a more fragmentary and on-going character—something “inherently incomplete, for the musical context in which it exists is in flux” (pp. 132-33).

Victor Terras on Dostoevsky and Tolstoi

In his book, Reading Dostoevsky, Victor Terras makes a few interesting comparisons and contrasts between Dostoevsky and Tolstoi.

In regard to heroes, “Tolstoi’s heroes and heroines are ordinary people, engaged in typical relationships, mostly normal ones. The forces that move them are the ones the most men and women know well—for example, the sex drive” (p. 37). With Dostoevsky, “typical relationships” and characters are marginal, as he claims that a “deeper truth” is opened up with exceptional characters and not-so-typical relationships. According to Terras, “normal love affairs do not interest Dostoevsky. Even simple adultery is a nontopic. Dostoevsky is fascinated by passions that seem to be a manifestation of a metaphysical yearning for an absolute, for something that defies reason—in a word, the Eros of Plato’s Symposium. Eros has many forms: the earthly lust of Fiodor Pavlovich Karamazov […] Dmitry’s sensual but more exalted ‘aesthetic’ love, Ivan’s cold intellectual passion, Aliosha’s spiritual agape” (p. 38)

As is well-known, Dostoevsky is found of developing characters such as Prince Myshkin, Aliosha, and Sonia Marmeladov who exemplify genuine Christian agape. Here we might get the impression that this aspect of Dostoevsky is similar to the “old Tolstoi” who often wrote of the purity of love. But, as Terras explains, “the keynote of Dostoevsky’s feeling is different. Nowhere in Dostoevsky is there a real challenge to, must less a putdown of, that powerful god, Eros. There is nothing resembling the old Tolstoi’s squeamish distaste for sex in Aliosha’s extreme chastity, or in Myshkin’s virginity. Myshkin and Aliosha are both bridegrooms. The Dostoevskian saint is chaste because of too much, not too little, Eros” (p. 39). It seems to me that St. Augustine, C.S. Lewis, and Kierkegaard would say the same of the Christian saint.