Part V: Phenomenological Explorations of Music


[See part IV].  This is my concluding post on the “Phenomenological Explorations of Music” series.

Having examined the calculated aspects of jazz improvisation, as well as highlighting the some of the ways in which improvisation and places of indeterminacy emerge and exist in classical music, I now turn to discuss (by way of Benson’s insights), the idea that a sharp dichotomy exists between the work and its performance.  In chapter four (“The Ergon within the Energeia“) of his book, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, Benson discusses the ways in which a musical ergon or product both emerges from musical energeia or activity, and yet this ergon “still remains within the play of musical energeia” and cannot be separated from it.  In other words, Benson believes that given the fuzzy boundaries between composition and improvisation, coupled with the unavoidable presence of interpretation involved in performances and the on-going nature of musical traditions, perhaps musical works are more properly described in dynamic rather than static terms.  Benson even goes so far as to say that

the telos of music making cannot be defined simply in terms of the creation of musical works, or even primarily so.  Instead the work becomes a means to the end of making music, not an end in itself.  [Likewise], if the work exists within the play of musical energeia, then it cannot be seen as autonomous or detached.  Like a living organism, it is ever in motion and constantly in need of care and infusions of new life to keep it alive.[1]

One of Benson’s goals in this chapter is to attempt to explain “this elusive thing that exists within musical energeia,” and in order to do so he dialogues with Roman Ingarden’s position.  Ingarden’s fundamental assumption is that “there is not merely an accidental but an essential separation between the work and its written and aural expressions.”[2] Ingarden takes this route because he 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, as Benson points out, Ingarden himself, being a good phenomenologist, is aware of tensions within his own position, which makes his contribution highly instructive.[3]  First, Ingarden begins by asking, what is relation between the work and the score?  According to Ingarden, the score preserves the work and helps to maintain its identity.[4] Yet, Ingarden (as was the case with Cone) admits that the score does not exhaust the work and merely relates aspects of the work-the score functions as a kind of “schema.”  If we acknowledge both that the score maintains the identity of the work in some sense, and yet the score does fully circumscribe the work, then we are pressed to ask, what then is the “something more” that the score fails to capture?  To this question, Benson adds, “[i]s there something that guarantees the identity of this surplus that goes beyond the score?  Moreover, what connection is there-if any-between this more and musical energeia?”[5]

In order to try to deal with the differences that surface between various performances of the same piece, Ingarden takes the position that a work possesses a “stock of possibilities” and is “in a sense inherently complete.”[6] Consequently, according to Ingarden, over time the various performers of a work are not creating anything new, rather there are simply discovering the latent possibilities already “embedded” in the work which 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.”[7]  But again, being a good phenomenologist, Ingarden does not totally ignore the fact that the work in practice does in fact go beyond the intentions of the composer due to, what we have referred to previously as “places of indeterminacy” (Unbestimmtheitsstellen), which are as it were “born” with every work, and some of which are made only determinate through a live performance.  Thus, Ingarden at least implies that these untouchable works are in fact in process and dynamic.

Against what Benson labels as a kind of Platonist understanding of a musical work, Benson argues for a mediating way which acknowledges that a work possesses a “stock of possibilities” that constitute it, but that those possibilities are supplemented by additional possibilities that come into being over the course of time via the performances themselves and as a result of evolving musical traditions.  Elaborating his view, Benson explains,

a composer may indeed have a complex conception of the work (and so potentially a relatively complex conception of the work (and so potentially a relatively complex set of “intentions”), but those intentions are supplemented by the actual performances and the development of performance traditions.  Thus, we could say that Bach had intentions for the St. Matthew Passion that were complex and specific.  But the [later] 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.[8]

If instead we opt for Ingarden’s position, we find ourselves in the following rather paradoxical situation.  That is, if we claim that musical works somehow transcend and are not touched by musical activity (energeia), then we must conclude that “no one every really experiences a musical work.”  Ingarden himself denies that we experience “a given musical work as an ideal aesthetic object.”[9]  As Benson puts it, “[o]n Ingarden’s account, then, the work itself turns out to be something that no one ever hears.”[10]  A second rather serious tension in Ingarden’s account again springs from his strict dichotomy between musical work (ergon) and musical activity (energeia).  Understandably, Ingarden is concerned to secure the identity of a musical work, and this is why he argues for a “superhistorical” work.  This allows Ingarden to say that the work is not simply identical to the score but possesses some degree of autonomy from both the score and the various performances.[11] Yet, Ingarden also admits both that musical works have an historical origin, and that “the properties of a work are constituted intersubjectively-and over time.”[12] Ingarden then leaves us somewhere between the historical and the superhistorical.  For Benson, this inbetween-ness highlights the failure of a position which advocates a sharp dichotomy between a work’s existence and identity on the one hand, and its “aural embodiments” on the other.[13]  Consequently, as mentioned above, Benson opts for an “interconnectedness of work and performance,” and suggests that instead of the denomination, “work,” which connotes a finished product, we should return to the idea of “piece.”  Piece implies both that which is “connected to a contextual whole” from which it cannot be completely severed, and it communicates a more fragmentary and on-going character-something “inherently incomplete, for the musical context in which it exists is in flux.”[14]

Although my essay probably raises more questions than it answers and only scratches the surface of what might be accomplished by bringing music into conversation with the insights of phenomenology, hopefully some the themes that we have considered-identity and difference, musical places of indeterminacy, and the various ways that music presents itself to us, from its origin (Ursprung) to the “final manuscript” (Fassung letzter Hand)-has provoked us to stretch our thinking about both disciplines in new ways. 


[1] Benson, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, p. 126. [2] Benson, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, p. 126. [3] Benson adds, “Ingarden is well aware that the real question of the work’s identity is not merely static ontologically but also (and essentially) historical in nature” (p. 127).  As older musical works are kept alive and interpreted anew in subsequent eras and by diverse musical traditions, something of the old is retained.  The question is, what exactly is this something that is kept alive?[4] Benson, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, p. 127. [5] Benson, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, p. 127. 

[6] Benson, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, p. 128.

[7] Benson, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, p. 128.

[8] Benson, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, p. 129.

[9] Roman Ingarden, Ontology of the Work of Art:  The Musical Work-The Picture-The Architectural Work-The Film, trans. Raymond Meyer with John T. Goldthwait (Athens:  Ohio University Press, 1989), p. 108, as quoted in Benson, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, p. 130.

[10] Benson, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, p. 131.

[11] Benson, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, p. 131. 

[12] Benson, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, p. 131.  Cf. Ingarden, Ontology of the Work of Art, p. 110, 115, and 119-20. 

[13] Benson, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, p. 132.

[14] Benson, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, pp. 132-33.

Philosophical Musings of a Three-Year Old

My beautiful, brilliant and extremely delightful daughter, Ashley, has recently been showing signs of a budding philosopher (as well as a budding ballerina, a budding botanist, and a budding comedian).  Below are some of the more philosophical comments and inquiries that she has posed recently:

  • (1) Application of the principle of non-contradiction. How so? We use a timer that we call a “dinger” when we put her in “time-out” for disciplinary purposes. Our dinger recently bit the dust, and we have yet to replace it. A few days ago, I needed to put her in time-out, and after doing so realized that we still are without a dinger. So I told Ashley that I would be the dinger, seeing that she was protesting that without a dinger she didn’t or couldn’t possibly stay in time-out. Right before I left the room, Ashley, with a very serious look on her face said, “How can you be the dinger? You are the momma?”
  • (2) Am I my body? Before turning out the lights and saying goodnight, we often ask Ashley what her job is, that is, we pose the question, “what are you supposed to do?” To which she answers, “Stay in bed and go to sleep.” Lately, we’ve had a difficult time getting her to stay in bed, as she likes to explore in her toy box and make up all kinds of imaginary worlds, which each get their own song and characters. So we’ve added, “show us with your body that you will stay in bed”-meaning show us with your actions not just your words. To this, Ashley asked, pointing to her toe, “Is this my body?” “Yes,” we said. Then she pointed to her elbow, “is this also my body?” “Yes,” we answered. Ashley looked puzzled, as if she wanted to ask, “shouldn’t we then say bodies, and not body?” or “how many bodies do I have?” Then she touched the bedpost and asked, “Is this my body?” “No,” we replied. Pointing back at herself, she asked, “Am I my body?” Pretty good question for a three-year old.

The Life and Art of Romare Bearden

I recently came across this website, as I was searching for information on artist, Romare Bearden.  The excerpts below are taken directly from the website, here and here. In case you are not familiar with Bearden’s life and work, please visit the site and enjoy the virtual tour, which includes a biography and a showcase of his wonderful art. 

 “The complex and colorful art of Romare Bearden (1911-1988) is autobiographical and metaphorical. Rooted in the history of western, African, and Asian art, as well as in literature and music, Bearden found his primary motifs in personal experiences and the life of his community. Born in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, Bearden moved as a toddler to New York City, participating with his parents in the Great Migration of African Americans to states both north and west. The Bearden home became a meeting place for Harlem Renaissance luminaries including writer Langston Hughes, painter Aaron Douglas, and musician Duke Ellington, all of whom undoubtedly would have stimulated the young artist’s imagination.

Bearden maintained a lifelong interest in science and mathematics, but his formal education was mainly in art, at Boston University and New York University, from which he graduated in 1935 with a degree in education. He also studied at New York’s Art Students League with the German immigrant painter George Grosz, who reinforced Bearden’s interest in art as a conveyor of humanistic and political concerns. In the mid-1930s Bearden published dozens of political cartoons in journals and newspapers, including the Baltimore based Afro-American, but by the end of the decade he had shifted the emphasis of his work to painting.

During a career lasting almost half a century Bearden produced approximately two thousand works. Best known for his collages, he also completed paintings, drawings, monotypes, and edition prints; murals for public spaces, record album jackets, magazine and book illustrations, and costume and set designs for theater and ballet.


From shortly after he graduated from college through the late 1960s Bearden maintained a full-time job with New York’s Department of Social Services, specializing in cases within the gypsy community. Work in his studio was concentrated at night and on weekends. Nevertheless, starting in 1940 Bearden’s art was represented in solo and group exhibitions, both in Harlem and downtown (below 110th Street), and it consistently received enthusiastic reviews. Religious rituals and literature played an important role in Bearden’s life and art. So did music–from sights and sounds of folk musicians gathered for “the Saturday night function” in the south, to the hot tempo of Harlem clubs and dance halls.

In the early 1950s Bearden devoted considerable attention to song writing, and several of his collaborations were published as sheet music, among the most famous of which is “Seabreeze,” recorded by Billy Eckstine. In addition, throughout his life Bearden wrote essays on social and art-historical subjects, as well as three full-length books coauthored with friends: The Painter’s Mind: A Study of the Relations of Structure and Space in Painting (1969) with painter Carl Holty; and Six Black Masters of American Art (1972) and A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present (posthumously, 1993), both with journalist Harry Henderson.”

[The painting displayed above is, Captivity and Resistance, 1976, a collage of various fabrics on canvas African American Museum in Philadelphia © Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, N.Y.  The central theme is the 1839 Mende rebellion aboard the sailing ship Amistad. Prince Cinque, the hero of the battle, is portrayed at center holding a staff. At right is the ominous apparatus for a lynching, presumably that of John Brown whose spirit shadow hangs over figures representing abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman].

Part IV: Phenomenological Explorations of Music

guitare-verte-et-rose_picasso.jpgContrary to the common negative characterization (see part III), improvisation as expressed in jazz involves a high degree of prepared and calculated musical ideas.  All too frequently we hear the rather pejorative comment that in jazz it matters not what note one plays given the dissonance prevalent in jazz and its penchant for non-resolution.  Though perhaps in some expressions of jazz such a remark might ring true,[1] on the whole it tends to paint a rather misleading picture.  A more accurate account is that jazz improvisers are intensely aware of what notes they play, when to play them, and for what reason this note or that scale should be played as opposed to others.  For example, consider the common harmonic structures in which one finds purposely altered harmonies, i.e., dissonances that are deliberately applied to certain chord structures.  One of the first skills that a beginning improviser learns is that most traditional jazz pieces consist of what is called the ii-V-I harmonic progression.  For example, in the key of C major, the ii-V-I progression is:  D minor 7 – G7 – C major 7.  Because the V7  (or dominant 7) chord has multiple functions-e.g., it can serve as a transition chord into another key or as a common way to resolve back to the tonic key-it is a top candidate for harmonic alterations.   Why?  It is the chord that either leads us directly to a resolution back to the tonic key, or it functions as a transition chord to take us to a new key that will then serve as a temporary resolution of sorts.[2]  Given these functions, as opposed to being a “place of rest” (such as the tonic chord) or even a “temporary rest stop,” altering or extending its “normal” harmonies heightens the tension by adding new tonal colors into the mix.  Jazz musicians are deeply aware of these possibilities, and maximize the tension-release motif in their solos. In fact, it is a common practice among jazz musicians to have numerous altered patterns prepared in advance-patterns which they have practiced for hour upon end in all twelve keys (and modes) so that when performance time comes, the music has become such a part of them that it flows effortlessly from them.  Thus, it is in no way the case that jazz musicians simply fumble around, pulling notes out of thin air, rebelliously disregarding the harmonic structure of the piece because they have some kind of perverse attraction to dissonance for its own sake.  While this might de-mystify jazz improvisation to a certain extent, it does not eradicate that side of jazz that involves a strong degree of spontaneity and communal interplay.  In other words, mystery is still alive and well in the art of jazz improvisation because no matter how many patterns one has prepared in advance, the dynamism and community of jazz makes it such that in Heraclitean fashion, “no pattern is ever played exactly same way twice”; yet, the patterns are quite identifiable, as is the piece itself. 

If jazz in fact is not a free-for-all and involves, as I claim, a number of previously prepared musical ideas, one might be led to believe that notation is the crucial difference between composition and improvisation.  However, as Jeremy Begbie points out, “it seems odd to claim that composition only happens when musicians write music down.”[3] Here we might also mention that it is not uncommon for jazz musicians use written arrangements for both large and small ensembles.  In light of this apparent “dead end,” Begbie offers the following as a possible way to differentiate composition and improvisation,

A more promising way forward is to take composition to refer to all the activity which precedes the sounding of the entire piece of music, everything which is involved in conceiving and organizing the parts or elements which make up the pattern or design or the musical whole:  and improvisation to mean the concurrent conception and performance of a piece of music, which is complete when the sound finishes (italics added).[4]

With the above conception, composition entails all the musical activity that takes places prior to the performance of the piece as a whole, whereas improvisation consists in the simultaneity of conceiving and performing a musical idea. In other words, the act of improvisation emphasizes experiencing the “present,” i.e., rather than highlighting product or result, the accent is on process and activity, as “conception and performance are interwoven to a very high degree.”[5] With what Begbie has just said in mind, perhaps we could say that the improvisation that emerges in the musical genre of jazz is a kind of present, spontaneous, music-making activity that purposely and re-creatively utilizes prepared and hence thoroughly familiar musical ideas.  Yet, we should also highlight the following with regard to classical composition, which hopefully only complicates rather than contradicts Begbie’s way of distinguishing improvisation and composition.  Despite the fact that a kind of mythology portraying composition as a flash of instantaneous inspiration coupled with the Kantian idea of a creative genius tends to dominate our conception of the way in which a musical composition comes into existence, I agree with Benson that composers themselves actually engage in a great deal of improvisation.  As Benson observes, “composers are more accurately described as improvisers, for composition essentially involves a kind of improvisation on the already existing rules and limits in such a way that what emerges is the result of both respecting those rules and altering them.”[6]  In the end, given the mutual interplay between composition and improvisation, perhaps it is better to think of improvisation in terms of a continuum that ranges over both jazz and classical music, and that the structures of each allow for a greater or lesser degree of improvisation to manifest in the actual performance of the music.


[1] The same however could be said of some expressions of twentieth and twenty-first century classical music.[2] Though I have stated this in an either/or way, to be sure there are other roles that a dominant 7th chord can play.[3] Begbie, Theology, Music and Time, p. 183.  Also, would writing down an improvised solo then make it a composition?

[4] Ibid.,  p. 183. 

[5] Begbie, Theology, Music and Time, p. 184. 

[6] Benson, Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, p. 133.

Part III: Phenomenological Explorations of Music

nicolai-reznichenko_trio.jpg Regarding the history of the term “improvisation,” and the unfortunate negative attachments that have come to be associated with it, Jeremy Begbie writes,

At first it [improvisation] carried the relatively neutral sense of extemporization, […] By the 1850’s it appears to have acquired pejorative connotations-off-hand, lacking sufficient preparation (as in ‘improvised shelter’, ‘improvised solution’).  Many musicians and musicologists continue to view it with considerable suspicion, if not disdain.  For some it is synonymous with the absence of rigour.  There are educationalists who see it as a distraction from authentic music-making.[1]

Contra this pessimistic and mistaken construal of improvisation, I suggest that jazz improvisation requires just as much skill, creative genius, and intellectual stamina as written orchestral compositions, and that the latter in fact are not without improvisatory elements.  To begin with, it is important not to gloss over the pervasiveness of improvisation in music in general. Before going further, I should pause, however, to acknowledge the well-known difficulty among music specialists in arriving at a satisfactory definition of improvisation.  Given this difficulty, we shall move through a number of possibilities, noting various aspects of improvisation broadly construed with the hope of finally obtaining a working definition of improvisation as related to our present purposes.

If improvisation is understood as a simultaneous occurrence of composing and performance, then improvisation cannot be limited to jazz.  In fact, what we find is that improvisation characterized in this manner has been prevalent in a wide variety of cultures and musical genres-from Gregorian chant, to Baroque music, as well as the majority of non-Western expressions of music which are by and large not notated.   However, even subsequent to the development of music notation, we find composers such as J.S. Bach, Handel, and Mozart highly skilled in the art of improvisation and expecting those who performed their pieces to possess this skill as well.  Nonetheless, as concerts in the 18th and 19th centuries gained in notoriety, the growing sophistication of musical notation seems to have played some role toward a more diminished view of improvisation.  Although the increase in notation severely limited opportunities for improvising in classical[2] music, the improvisatory elements even in meticulously notated music cannot be totally removed so long as human beings are the performers.  Avid music listeners can attest that whether speaking of an individual soloist or an orchestral unit, the personalities, stylistic particularities, and interpretative nuances manifest in the actual performance of a musical work all contribute a degree of creative liberty that falls within the sphere of improvisation broadly construed.   For example, how do we explain why we prefer one well-known cellist playing Bach’s solo concertos over another renowned and equally proficient cellist?  The notes on the page are exactly the same; yet, we are aware of differences in the ways in which one performer interprets the piece or articulates a musical passage.  In addition, it is common for a soloist to engage in what is called “ornamentation.”  That is, rather than simply play the melodic line as written, one adds neighboring tones and trills[3] that dress up or “ornament” the melody line.     

A second consideration possibly fueling a negative view of improvisation as somehow intellectually substandard is perhaps due to an overly rigid distinction that we in the Western musical tradition tend to make between improvisation and composition.  As I have indicated, improvisation is often understood as non-calculated, free-flowing and as lacking in intellectual rigor.  Composition, in contrast, is thought to be more or less inflexible, rule-governed and by nature, given its high degree of musical notation, purposely without spontaneity.  However, as we shall see, both views are misleading and set up sharp distinctions that do not correspond to what takes place in actual music making and performance. 


[1] Jeremy Begbie, Theology, Music and Time (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 180.  [2] I am using the word “classical” in this essay in the colloquial, generic sense.  I am not referring to the specific style of music that falls historically between the Baroque and Romantic periods. [3] A “trill” typically consists in the rapid alteration between two musical notes adjacent on the musical scale; however, there is no fixed or single way of executing a trill.  Whether or not one has “correctly” executed a trill is largely dependent upon the context in which it is found, and the musical genre in which one is performing.

Part II: Phenomenological Explorations of Music

nicolai-reznichenko_trio.jpg What I have in mind with this flexibility that maintains identity (see part I) can be illustrated by way of a jazz musical example, specifically, what is called in jazz parlance, a “lead sheet.” A jazz lead sheet is similar to a notated score for a classical piece; however, only the melody is written out in standard musical notation. In other words, in contrast to a classical score in which the bass line, the chords or harmonic structure, and more or less every note that will be played is written out in full musical notation, a lead sheet allows for significantly more flexibility. For example, above the melody line one simply finds chord symbols, as opposed to chords displayed in standard notation with specific voicings.[1] Writing the chord symbols in this manner affords the pianist or guitarist, as well as the bassist, a significant amount of creative freedom in performing the piece. However, we should be clear that this freedom does not destroy the identity of the piece, as one must choose harmonies and bass lines that fall within a certain trajectory of the specified chord symbol that will support the melody and mark out the general harmonic structure of the piece. Thus, with a jazz lead sheet, one is in a sense “tied to” the “score,” i.e., one must agree to submit to the “givens” that make the piece to be what it is and respond accordingly.[2] Yet, in other sense, one’s own personality, skill level, and creative sensibilities also come through making each performance something unique. One might even say that the flexibility that lead sheets afford, coupled with the distinctly human traits and personal idiosyncrasies that manifest in improvisation, in a sense engenders greater intelligibility and appeal to the piece itself. That is, the built-in flexibility of lead sheets aids in preserving the piece through the passage of time while simultaneously allowing and even expecting various re-articulations and new insights because it “has room for” the creative expansions that come with temporal progression and the furthering of tradition. Here I imagine that someone might object, stating that such places of indeterminacy might apply to jazz, but what about classical music in which the score is very precise? Doesn’t the extensiveness of the written score in classical music ipso facto rule out the possibility of the kind of indeterminacies that I have described? Although this is a commonly held opinion, it seems to me based upon a number of assumptions, two of which include: (1) the idea that jazz is a kind of free-for-all in which musicians simply improvise as it were ex nihilo, whereas classical music, in contrast, eliminates all improvisatory elements, and (2) the notion that a strict division exists between the work (as a kind of suprahistorical essence) and its performance (which allows for variations and supplementations). In the next post, I shall address the issues and questions surrounding (1).

[1] For example, one would simply see “C major 7” or “D minor 7” written above the melody line, instead of the actual musical notes C, E, G, B (for C major 7) or D, F, A, C (for D minor 7) or the various specific voicings in which these harmonic structures may be displaced (e.g., E, G, C, B or C, G, B, E and other possible variations for C major 7). [2] The communal aspect of jazz performance is an important factor here as well. For example, if the pianist simply decides to play chords that have no relation whatsoever to the chord symbols, the rest of the group or ensemble will be affected (not to mention thoroughly frustrated) as their parts will not correlate at all with the random harmonic superimposition on the part of the pianist.