Book Plug: Interstitial Soundings. Philosophical Reflections on Improvisation, Practice, and Self-Making

Interstitial SoundingsMy new book, Interstitial Soundings. Philosophical Reflections on Improvisation, Practice, and Self-Making, is now available for purchase. Below I have included a brief description of the book. Also, Cascade/Wipf & Stock has put together a very nice promotional flyer with lengthy excerpts from the first two chapters. Those interested may download this document via this link.*

In the present work, Cynthia R. Nielsen brings music and philosophy into a fruitful and mutually illuminating dialogue. Topics discussed include the following: music’s dynamic ontology, performers and improvisers as co-composers, the communal character of music, jazz as hybrid and socially constructed, the sociopolitical import of bebop, Afro-modernism and its strategic deployments, jazz and racialized practices, continuities between Michel Foucault’s discussion of self-making and creating one’s musical voice, Alasdair MacIntyre on practice, and how one might harmonize MacIntyre’s notion of virtue development with Foucauldian resistance strategies.

*Used with permission of Wipf & Stock Publishers.

Part III: Begbie on Re-Sounding God’s Truth in the World of Music

[This is the concluding post for this series:  click on the links for Part I and Part II].

Lastly, turning to a section entitled, “Anticipating,” (chapter 10), I highlight some of the more constructive ways in which Christians might re-sound God’s truth.  Having just discussed how the cross of Christ alone is able to meet three very legitimate postmodern suspicions-escapisms of various flavors, a naïve optimism in human nature, and violent domination-Begbie helps us to see how music can express and embody an already-not-yet, authentic Christian hope.  The hope that Begbie envisages is decidedly not a future only, other-worldly nay-saying hope, but hope “of a future tasted now:  the remaking of this world and of our own humanity, previewed in the raising of Jesus from the dead, and to be enjoyed now through the Spirit” (263).  Following the lead of Russian theologians such as Berdyaev and Bulgakov, Begbie contends that the arts possess the ability to make manifest a proleptic taste of a fully redeemed, re-created cosmos.  Here the picture is not of music transporting us to a world wholly unrelated to our present world, but of music functioning iconic-ly, enabling us to experience now something of the beauty and harmony of the new creation.  There are of course countless possibilities as to how music might grant us such a foretaste.  The very structure of a piece is, for example, one such possibility.  As Begbie explains, “[t]he phenomenon of a future anticipated can also sometimes be found in the way a piece is structured, creating a sort of parable in sound of Christian hope-as when, for example, an ending comes ‘too soon'” (266).  Just as Jesus’s resurrection is a proleptic picture of the final resurrection of God’s people at the end of the present age (wherein the future irrupts into the present), so too music can reflect this “ending-in-the-middle” aspect of the Christian narrative.   For example, in the third movement of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony no. 41 in C major, we find a “perfect cadence,” which is typically a signal for closure, after the end of the minuet section (266).  However, the piece continues and the presumed ending functions as a transition to something new, to the trio section.   By structuring his piece with a surprise perfect cadence, whose ending turns out to be a new beginning, Mozart communicates the basis of an authentic, Christian hope:  “[t]he resurrection of Jesus is the ending, but found in the midst of history, generating a new beginning” (267).

In sum, my overall impression of Begbie’s book is extremely positive, and I highly recommend his book to anyone interested in engaging theology and music in a refreshing, imaginative way.  Although one might have hoped for more space given to non-Western music, Begbie shows sensitivity to such concerns and is careful not to exalt Western tonal music as the standard for Christian music or music in general.   Begbie has helped us to see the fruitfulness of bringing music into conversation with theology, and we are thankful for his fresh reflections, which have, no doubt, stirred our imaginations “by setting every aspect of music in the context of the breathtaking vision of reality opened up by the gospel of Jesus Christ” (308).

Part I: Begbie on Re-Sounding God’s Truth in the World of Music

I recently read yet another excellent book by Jeremy S. Begbie, Resounding Truth:  Christian Wisdom in the World of Music.  Once again Begbie brings music into conversation with theology-a conversation that continues to yield fresh insights.  One of the goals of Begbie’s book is to explore how Christians might “re-sound” God’s truth in the world of music, as well as to help us “re-think” our own pre-conceived views of music. The book as a whole is divided into three parts.  Part one provides an overview of the way music is practiced in Western culture and attempts to clarify the meaning of the term, “music.” In this section of the book, Begbie considers the ways that marketing and selling shape how we understand and practice music and how innovations in sound technology have distanced music from its “physical roots” (56)-topics particularly relevant to contemporary discussions in the sociology of music.  Likewise, Begbie argues against the trend to focus exclusively on (static) works-an approach that has characterized musicology in the West.  Instead, “it is best to think of music primarily as an art of actions,” the two chief actions being music making and music hearing, both of which are “socially and culturally embedded” (57).  Yet, Begbie also stresses that “music is embedded in a sonic order-it involves the integrity of the materials that produce sound and of sound waves, the integrities of the human body, and the integrity of time” (57).  In other words, though he gives full weight to the constructive and culturally conditioned aspects of music, Begbie likewise wants to do justice to the givens of music, or as he puts it, to “music’s embeddedness in a cosmos created out of the inexhaustible abundance of the Triune god” (58).

In part two, Begbie examines how music was understood and practiced by representatives of the “Great Tradition” (e.g., Pythagoras, Plato, Augustine, and Boethius), selected Reformation thinkers (Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli), and three modern Protestant theologians (Schleiermacher, Barth, and Bonhoeffer).  The final chapter of part two concentrates on the lives of two contemporary Roman Catholic “theological musicians,” Olivier Messiaen (1908-92) and James MacMillan (1959-). Begbie’s analyses of these two musicians are particularly helpful, as his explications and musical examples enable us to see how bringing music into dialogue with theology opens up “new spaces” for re-sounding God’s inexhaustible truth in a polyphonic mode.

Turning first to Messiaen, Begbie focuses on his treatment of time and eternity.  In contrast with the harmonic structures that characterize and dominate traditional Western music, structures that constantly move from tension to resolution and create a “dynamic of desire,” Messiaen’s music is permeated with harmonic sequences that remain unresolved for several passages (e.g., a long series of dominant seventh chords which fail to reach an expected tonic chord).  In combination with his atypical harmonic choices, Messiaen also employs innovative rhythmic techniques in order to create a musical impression of eternity.  For example, by using nonretrogradable rhythms, that is, “rhythms that sound or play the same backward as they do forward,” Messiaen’s music has a circular feel rather than a sense of linear, forward movement (however paradoxical that may seem in light of the temporal nature of music).  As Begbie explains, “[j]ust because they do not sound different when reversed, they present a kind of fusion of past, present, and future in which beginning and end fold into each other” (170).  Of course, Messiaen’s music does not completely lack traditional harmonic and rhythmic elements; however, when joined with his non-standard harmonic and rhythmic practices, a mysterious, bewitching effect is produced, which he believed particularly fitting for “embodying the truths of the Catholic faith and above all the truths of eternity” (170).   Though at times, Messiaen appears to overemphasize eternity to the detriment of created time, Begbie provides several examples to assuage such concerns.  For instance, Begbie highlights Messiaen’s view that our future life with God will not be a static existence but will involve movement of some sort.  In other words, when temporal creatures, as it were, enter into eternity, this should not be understood as “time’s destruction and the end of all movement and dynamism but the fulfillment of time, a kind of time in which past, present, and future can no longer be separated” (174).   Here Begbie distinguishes between temporality characterized by “transience and decay” and a more positive sense of dynamic, eternal existence-the latter set in sharp contrast with any idea of eternity as “nothing but pure stillness” (174).

Turning next to MacMillan, we find a composer, who unlike Messiaen, does not sense the need to abandon or subvert the traditional tension/resolution harmonic patterns of Western tonal music.  Instead, for MacMillan, such techniques “are a compelling means of keeping a composer in touch with a world that, though created good, has been so severely marred and disfigured” (176).  Conflict and struggle characterize MacMillan’s music, as his theological vision takes seriously the harsh realities and injustices so prevalent in the world.  A severe critic of the “modernist myth of progress,” MacMillan embraces extremes and is not afraid to give expression in his music to the messiness of embodied existence (178).  Rather than reproduce the saccharine sentimentality present in much Christian music today, MacMillan’s “pieces frequently display the dialectics and juxtaposition of extreme violence and extreme tranquility, the confrontation of dissonance and consonance” (179).  As Begbie notes, what seems to motivate MacMillan’s opposition to “monodimensional” (music lacking the conflict and struggle of reality) and overly sentimental expressions of music, is his embrace of our embodied existence and specifically, Jesus’s “flesh-involved engagement with the world in its fallenness” (180).  In other words, MacMillan is not driven by a nostalgic conservative impulse to return to a perceived Golden Age of music; rather, his desire to continue and expand the tension/resolution patterns of the Western tradition comes from his deep ties to the Christian narrative-a narrative whose center involves the crucifixion and resurrection of a God made flesh.  In short, although both Messiaen and MacMillan are committed to the same Christian story, each has a different “center of gravity.”   “[F]or MacMillan it is God’s cross-shaped involvement with this world of time, for Messiaen it is the joyful eternity that the timeless God has promised and secured for us” (180).

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.

Begbie on Improvisation, Christian freedom, and a “Restful Restlessness”

“First-rate improvisation is marked by a restful restlessness. We are freed from the anxiety of having to create structure from scratch, forms which will give meaning to the improvisation—we don’t have to ‘make it happen’ we can entrust ourselves to the given. At the same time (or rather, with and through time!) we are freed by these very structures for music-making with endlessly fruitful possibilities.

We are speaking here of the shape of Christian freedom—a restful restlessness. By being given in Christ the firm stability of divine grace, the ‘gentle rhythm’ to be learned and endlessly re-learned, we are freed from having to ‘make it happen,’ […] freed from having to fabricate authentic human being. And yet this very gift liberates us for a life of joyful (not anxious) restlessness, a perilous ‘emptying of our hands’ for the sake of music of limitless interest and variety, in the knowledge that failure has in a sense already been accounted for and future error will in some manner be taken up.” (Theology, Music and Time, pp. 244-45).