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.

Part I: Phenomenological Explorations of Music

guitare-jamie-eva_picasso.jpgAs Bruce Ellis Benson explains in chapter two of his book, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, we tend to think that a musical composition is finished when the piece in its “final” version is written down.  However, there are a number of assumptions that we should question in connection with such a conclusion.  First, why assume that a process of revisions always leads to a better version, much less to the “perfect” version?  Beethoven, for example, was known for ceaselessly revising and offering a number of variants for musical passages and even entire sections of his symphonies. Even if we grant that his revisions generally improved his work, why should we necessarily conclude that they always did?  Second, is it not the case that pressing deadlines, familial responsibilities, or creative inertia also factor into to a piece coming to completion. That is, the artist may not in fact be satisfied with his or her final version, and yet the work must be brought to a close.  If this is the case, then we might even say that the composer is aware of the imperfections in his or her work-the places that at some later time, he or she if given the time, would want to change or develop the work.  Third (and closely related to the second point),  is there a sense in which a composition becomes “fixed” and definite when written down, or is it the case that even for the composer there is a certain “indefiniteness” and indeterminacy involved in his or her work even when the composition is “finished”?  Arguing for the latter, Benson states that although composers have “reasonably” definite intentions, “it would be impossible for their intentions to encompass all of the details of any given piece.”[1]  In other words, often or perhaps even most of the time, the composer himself is unsure exactly how he wants every aspect and detail of the work to sound until the piece is actually played with a specific group and with very particular instrumentation.  As Benson highlights, Mozart would at times perform different versions of the same piece to a group of friends in order to seek their input as to which version they thought best.  Having performed in several jazz orchestras and dabbled in jazz composition myself, I find this claim rather convincing.  It was often the case that our director, who was an accomplished composer and arranger, would present us with his scores and then during the rehearsal time, numerous changes would be made-changes that he could not foresee until the actual music appeared.  Clearly, he had a definite intention of how he wanted the piece to sound, yet the various intricacies of tempo, dynamics, and so forth were not solidified.  

But what about after all these things are made more precise, is it the case that at that point the work is finished?  This leads us to the next issue, viz. what counts as the correct interpretation of a piece?   To illustrate, Benson cites Edward Cone who comments on the difficulties performers face in playing Chopin’s music,

The performer’s first obligation, then, is to the score-but to what score?  The autograph or the first printed edition?  The composer’s hasty manuscript or the presumably more careful copy by a trusted amanuensis?  The composer’s initial version or his later emendation? [and so on].[2]  

To be sure one might give good reasons for choosing and preferring one version over another.  But still we must recognize that performers, conductors and arrangers play a role in the process of composing.  That is, the performers, conductors and arrangers in some genuine sense continue to compose a work that is already as it were “finished.”[3] Yet, as we stated earlier, composers certainly have some definite intentions, but how extensive those intentions are is another issue.  Also, the fact that composers may not even be cognizant of places of indeterminacy in their own compositions until the music is actually performed suggests that a determinate intention, though having some definiteness to it, may also “contain” what we might call a kind of built-in-flexibility that does not destroy its identity. 


[1] Bruce Ellis Benson, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue:  A Phenomenology of Music.  (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 67. 

[2] Edward T. Cone, “The Pianist as Critic,” in The Practice of Performance Studies in Musical Interpretation, p. 244, as cited in Benson, Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, p. 70. 

[3] This idea of on-going composition strikes me as having something in common with Gadamer’s hermeneutical insight that texts always exhibit an “excess of meaning” upon which tradition builds.  Elucidating his position, Gadamer writes: “Every age has to understand a transmitted text in its own way, for the text belongs to the whole tradition whose content interests the age and in which it seeks to understand itself.  The real meaning of a text, as it speaks to the interpreter, does not depend on the contingencies of the author and his original audience.  It certainly is not identical with them, for it is always co-determined also by the historical situation of the interpreter and hence by the totality of the objective course of history. […] Not just occasionally but always, the meaning of a text goes beyond its author.  That is why understanding is not merely a reproductive but always a productive activity as well.“(Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, 2nd ed. trans. and revised Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (New York:  Continuum, 2004),  p. 296).