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).