josh blog

Ordinary language is all right.

One could divide humanity into two classes:
those who master a metaphor, and those who hold by a formula.
Those with a bent for both are too few, they do not comprise a class.

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9 Nov '02 08:33:31 PM

A while back I mentioned that I had been thinking about a question - what is there in a recording of improvisation to hear as improvisation? Actually, I don't remember saying "recording" - I think I just added that in. The question stands for either live or recorded improvisation, though. ("Recording" doesn't make this any more of a problem, that is, because it's no less of a problem when you've got the improvisers right in front of you: it's not like they just make mistakes or something live, and that's the distinguishing feature.)

I must have been listening to Monk when I wrote the question down. In the Rouse-Riley-other guy group especially (more than earlier groups of Monk's), the solos often become chains of variations on the melody played in the head of the song. But there's always something about them that I have trouble putting my finger on. They always sound fresh - even though I can tell the original melody is back there somehow, sort of ghostlike, each phrase sounds new or different, its own thing, so that there's a tension between sounding distinct and sounding like a variation. It's a sensation similar to listening to Bach's Musical Offering, but there it feels more like there were just a bunch of elements in the source material (a voice in a canon, usually) that have been manipulated in some methodical, principled way that I may not be aware of but which I could be if I wanted to. In contrast, this thing with later Monk (and I mean mostly Monk's solos and Rouse's solos, but it also happens in the piano comping and the bass solos) always feels more creatio ex nihilo, every time - even though I know there are a number of techniques involved in improvisation that amount to recomposing on the spot with the aid of some compositional principles, though that may not be the most accurate way to describe the actual practice.

I have some kind of suspicion that a big part of the answer to my question looks like this: you can tell it's improvisation when there's some kind of structure which is not closed (that's a verb) or completed or etc, followed through on somehow. Putting it like this leaves the matter of what structure or how closed open: that means the structure does not have to be very interesting or complicated, and the degree of openness can vary a lot. In some music this seems to result in a kind of slackness, laziness almost - maybe it's a good reason why, say, Phish songs were always sort of limp, especially on record where the actual process of fucking around with the structure is not apparent since the songs seem otherwise to be like other rock songs. But for other kinds of music - bebop for example - the structure places lots of restrictions on the possibilities, on what the musicians can do and still sound "right", have things resolve in something conforming or rewarding expectations, pleasing ways. In these cases, signs of improvisation don't need to be as blatant as those in a jam band performance (extremely slack structure or perilously observed deference or attention to it; excessively repetitive parts, by which I mean both in terms of numerical repetition, and implicit repetition due to relative lack of change in the harmonic rhythmic melodic etc. qualities of the music).

That's so vague that I don't know how much work I can do right now to make it more definite. But, here: I bought Ready to Die the other day and I was pleased by how improvisational Big's verses often sound. Maybe they were freestyled, I don't know. If not there are still interesting things that bear on questions about improvisation there, and in rap in general, which probably because of its historical sources still often has qualities that are at least similar to improvisation, even when every single word in a rap was written before recording, and the recording was manipulated and produced endlessly. Here's one: the freeform structure of the rhymes, against a relatively unchanging background beat and music. By "freeform" I mean the way that a rhyme gets picked up, and made for any number of lines, then dropped for another rhyme. Something about this form means that the rhymes can be "dumber" or more "obvious", that they can hit harder, be more intensely felt. "Dumber" and "obvious" only sound like terms of disapproval given the picture in which the words and rhymes are written at leisure, with time for careful consideration, hunting for rhymes that are new and surprising. But with the same picture, this kind of freeform-but-tight lyrical structure can be not a sign of inability to rhyme, but an indication that the rhymes are more spontaneous - or an injunction to treat them as if they were, for affective purposes.

Now transfer that line of thinking to jazz.

(It can even be transferred to rock, where the threat to structure does not seem as apparent, but where it is often put in a certain light by the recording-as-transparent-window-onto-performance trick.)

9 Nov '02 06:40:54 PM

Note to self for later: read this article on Adorno by Rosen, link from Sinker.

7 Nov '02 07:16:28 AM

Note for later: the voice of a child.

7 Nov '02 06:38:45 AM

On Parables

Many complain that the words of the wise are always merely parables and of no use in daily life, which is the only life we have. When the sage says, "Go over," he does not mean that we should cross to some actual place, which we could do anyhow if the labor were worth it; he means some fabulous yonder, something unknown to us, something that he cannot designate more precisely either, and therefore cannot help us here in the very least. All these parables really set out to say merely that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already. But the cares we have to struggle with every day: that is a different matter.

Concerning this a man once said: Why such reluctance? If you only followed the parables you yourselves would become parables and with that rid of all your daily cares.

Another said: I bet that is also a parable.

The first said: you have won.

The second said: But unfortunately only in parable.

The first said: No, in reality: in parable you have lost.

- Franz Kafka, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir

7 Nov '02 06:11:45 AM

More on Deleuze and the image of thought - this time Deleuze himself, from p. 153 of Patton's translation of Difference and Repetition:

Teachers already know that errors or falsehoods are rarely found in homework (except in those exercises where a fixed result must be produced, or propositions must be translated one by one). Rather, what is more frequently found - and worse - are nonsensical sentences, remarks without interest or importance, banalities mistaken for profundities, ordinary 'points' confused with singular points, badly posed or distorted problems - all heavy with dangers, yet the fate of us all. We doubt whether, when mathematicians enage in polemic, they criticize each other for being mistaken in the results of their calculations. Rather, they criticize one another for having produced an insignificant theorem or a problem devoid of sense. Philosophy must draw the conclusions which follow from this.

4 Nov '02 08:27:47 AM

I need to think about this more, but when trying to push an idea related to this (about music affording certain kinds of experiences and activities) in a seminar, I met resistance related to the usual line of criticism of secondary properties. James O. Young is supposed to have something to do with this in Art and Knowledge, which I cannot at the moment recommend, but at the moment I also can't say what it has to do with it. But. My intuition is that this affordance thing works despite it possibly not working to think of say the affective qualities of music as secondary properties. Why? Not sure right now. But it should have something to do with the entrance of function on the scene, even (especially) in the case of a song affording certain emotonal experiences. That is, the trick is to put it in terms of what the listener is doing, not what it is about the song that the listener can come to know (i.e. attribute to it in some intersubjectively valid way).

Yeah, I know. Just pretend like you skipped this entry.

2 Nov '02 05:31:02 AM

Oh, look. (See here next.)

1 Nov '02 07:06:45 AM

Another quote, this one from Raimond Gaita's A Common Humanity, p. 26. He is writing in part to argue for a richer understanding of the worth of others than traditional talk of obligations seems to support. The book seems to me very deep and thoughtful so far, and I'm taken enough by what the quote says indirectly about love that it seems a little crass to post it for the reason I originally intended, which is that I think understanding how we value art depends heavily on recognizing the ways in which our relationships with records are often much like the ways we interact with people, most importantly the ones we love. I don't really think it's that crass, though, since I would rather understand this with people, first. Anyway.

"Our sense of the preciousness of other people is connected with their power to affect us in ways we cannot fathom and in ways against we can protect ourselves only at the cost of becoming shallow. There is nothing reasonable in the fact that another person's absence can make our lives seem empty. The power of human beings to affect one another in ways beyond reason and beyond merit has offended rationalists and moralists since the dawn of thought, but it is partly what yields to us that sense of human individuality which we express when we say that human beings are unique and irreplacable. Such attachments, and the joy and the grief which they may cause, condition our sense of the preciousness of human beings. Love is the most important of them."

1 Nov '02 06:46:00 AM

A reason why to often not put much emphasis on whether or not a person is right about what they think about a record: if we're interested in understanding why the record is important to them, why it's meaningful, how it affects them, then often the "wrong" things that they think are just as or more important than the "right" ones. If I hear a record as sad, quibbling with me over whether or not I am really experiencing sadness or some other more subtle or esoteric emotion because of some independent characterization you can give of the music ("when listening objectively others agree that this record sounds reservedly hopeful") seems to implicitly denigrate its importance for me.