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.

5 thoughts on “Part II: Phenomenological Explorations of Music”

  1. Cynthia, these are fascinating questions, and I’ve really enjoyed these two posts thus far.

    I really like the kind of “elasticisty” (I’ll come back to this) of a jazz lead sheet; the chordal structure remains the same, but any chordal structure already relates itself kind of inter-connectingly to other harmonic chordal structures…you can always substitute some chord for another (be it the relative minor or major, or something more complex if you have a 7 chord). So the really attentive and creative jazz player will allow the same song to come through but in a completely new way — and I really think that perhaps the greatest improvisations in jazz take place rhythmically, and not simply at the level of chordal substitutions.

    With a classical score, it would seem that you don’t have this kind of flexibility. And yet, there is a precedent for the jazz lead sheet in classical music as well. Both in Renaissance and more fully-developed in the Baroque period, often scores would be written — for instrumentalists — with only chords upon which the virtuoso would improvise. Cuban composer Leo Brouwer calls this the “elasticity” of Bach’s baroque style…one that he says anticipates the “atonal serialism” of Berg and Webern and Schoenberg.

    In another sense of course, and especially as an instrumentalist myself, even a “traditional” score is never performed the same way twice. I really kind of think that there is a kind of “otobiography” (to poach on Derrida) in the performance of a written piece…the performer is herslef re-writing the piece each time she plays it (and each time one’s ear takes in the music, it is taken in in a new way as well). And I think this kind of Derridean displacement of the author aligns itself pretty closely to what you are doing with Gadamer as well. Again, thanks for just a wonderful set of stimulating reflections. Looking forward to more! No one writes about music any more! Give me V Jankelevitch or give me death!

  2. To clarify, the Baroque improvisation was a common technique for lutenists (and this was the case for the Renaissance period as well — the peasant lutenist being kind of the jester’s music for the kingly court). It might extend beyond the lute, but that’s primarily where I’m drawing that example from.

  3. Hi Dave,

    Always good to hear from you. I appreciate your comments and agree that the jazz/classical divide is overrated. I also find your connections with Derrida interesting, especially in light of my very limited knowledge of Derrida.

    Best wishes,

  4. Cynthia, well I perhaps have an equally limited knowledge of Gadamer — if not greater! And my knowledge of anything is always frail. So, perhaps we can offer gifts to one another from out of that frailty. I have seen so many vehement conversations these days (and trapped within their webs at times), it is a refreshing prospect for the delight in mutual upbuilding through theological discourse!

    Perhaps the best place to look for the stuff on autobiography in Derrida is his short volume of a couple of essays entitled, The Ear of the Other. He also does some interesting things with authorship in Plato’s Pharmacy (from Disseminations).

  5. Hi Dave,

    Agreed! The more I read of Gadamer, the more I see that he is committed to a kind of (modified) Platonic ontology. Also, I am pretty convinced that Gadamer is not a relativist. See Brice Wachterhauser’s essay in the Cambridge Companion to Gadamer. So perhaps these are areas where Gadamer and Derrida would differ? Again, I haven’t read enough of Derrida to be able to speak about him with any kind of genuine depth.


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