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From Classical to Jazz: notes on the journey from performance to Improvisation
This Master’s thesis was documented my transition from Classical to improvisational playing, comparing the pedagogical methods of the conservatory with the pedagogical methods of acclaimed Bebop pianist Barry Harris.
The paper examined underlying assumptions of the Western Art Music canon and its traditions through the lens of German Idealist philosophy, and sought to compare and contrast these ideals with the pragmatic pedagogical methods of American vernacular music.
A Classical Training
As a young man I had nothing but disdain for vernacular music and nothing but confidence in the Western classical canon. I had spent an entire childhood in rigorous classical training. My teacher, Ms. Kelsey, was a staunch matriarch from the Midwest. She was approaching her late seventies, wore her hair in a large Iron grey Edwardian bun, and gave lessons in a small clapboard bungalow surrounded by oak trees.
Everything in her cabin denoted a prim sense of order. There were small black and white photographs of musicians, all of whom I assumed to be reverently important, storage cabinets from the thirties 1930’s containing neat piles of Urtext scores, all bearing the yellowy imprint of age. Just to cross the threshold was to enter into a different era. She had had a modest career as a former concert pianist, and now spent her last years passing on the classical canon with keen and relentless severity.
Despite her dauntingly austere demeanor, she was a good and thoughtful teacher, with much to recommend her. Her knowledge of the canon was broad, and her methods of instruction stressed listening at the deepest level. There is no doubt in my mind, even to this day, that she was a teacher of unusual depth and refinement, and her musical understanding was of a seriousness that could have been called comparable to any other teacher of international caliber at that time.
I thought of her as the Nadia Boulanger of northern California, and the small knot of students that formed around her were proud to call her their teacher.
There was however, no mention of any world of music outside of that of the Western Canon. There was no mention of world music, or roots music of the Americans, and certainly no mention of popular contemporary music. There was most certainly no mention of Jazz. On such matters we remained grimly silent, as if to mention them would be to endure the unendurable. On one occasion, to introduce a little levity, she mentioned Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta, HMS Pinafore. The mention of any music beyond the early 20th century, however, or the suggestion that it might bear any relevance to what we were laboring on in the studio, was beneath consideration. This was also the position of my parents, despite their ownership of a Dave Brubeck record, an Oscar Peterson record and two albums by Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel. My father did have an album of Japanese Noh drama, a record of Sitar ragas, and a recording of chanting Tibetan Gyoto Monks, all three of which I always found very interesting to listen to. We listened to them infrequently.
Under Ms. Kelsey’s tutelage I was introduced to classical music as a hermeneutic tradition: my only job was to interpret the sacred and original texts. Contained within this notion was also the idea that every possible nuance, musical, cultural or otherwise, was to found in the musical score as it was written by the composer. The more original and complete the score the better. Added to this was a late Romantic notion that the composer was a type of medium that communicated between the ineffable realm of absolute music and the world of performers and listeners, and that any intrusion of the performer’s misguided intentions on this process might muddy this potentially sacred thread of communication. Any interference or misguided interpretation on my part would muddy the streams of pristine musical purity. My job was to act as a sort of medium so that an idealized cultural form might make its sublime appearance in the world.
At eighteen, I was convinced that I did this sufficiently well and would somehow make a career for myself as a pianist. I had always shown a remarkable facility for the piano since I was little, cribbing little bits from my older sister’s piano lessons and then demanding lessons for myself. I had worked my way up quickly to a promising pianistic repertoire. I had been taught a generous helping of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, along with the Italian Concerto and the French and English Suites. I had polished five or six Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven sonatas, and was beginning to work my way through the Chopin preludes and etudes; and even, at this point, thundered my way as best I could through two Chopin ballades, a Prokofiev sonata, and the Rachmaninoff Etude Tableau. I expressed nothing but highest praise for Schubert, whose impromptus I played but whose sonatas I remained reverently afraid of. I expressed a slight suspicion of Liszt, who I thought might have been a charlatan. Though I was verging on the discovery of Scriabin and the Impressionists, and perhaps even might listen to some Stravinsky or Darius Milhaud, I remained confident (in only the way that a naive adolescent can) that music outside the Western canon was nothing more than a vulgar pastiche, a trifling hodge-podge of vernacular and popular entertainment and Americana that was beneath me to play and faintly embarrassing to listen to. Jazz was relegated to some strange region of my adolescent mind, a corner that was filled with vague caricatures and cartoonish assumptions that made me feel frankly uneasy.
In any event I felt confident that I wouldn’t have to deal with the world that American vernacular music represented since I would be one of the lucky few who would spend his entire life immersed in the small and select cabal of classical musicians, working together like the monks and nuns of a highly select order. Perhaps I would win a competition and concertize around the world. Perhaps I would become a chamber musician and spend my summers at Tanglewood. Perhaps I would become a composer and a teacher at a small and highly respected musical institute for the musical elect, dispensing musical wisdom to the truly gifted. This was the strange shape of my musical ambition in youth, a projected fantasy life that took place is some imagined empyrean of high culture that neither my teachers nor my parents did much to inform about or dissuade me from believing in. Part of it, I believe, was simply due to that they themselves were convinced that it also existed. Whatever the case, I had no cultural context for understanding or listening to Jazz in any real sense, as I had grown up in a small suburban town in the north of California, far away from the bustling urbanism or the cultural plurality in which music writ large could thrive.
All of this changed for the worse when I went to conservatory. I found that my years of isolation at the keyboard served my socialization skills very poorly, and I found myself stranded in a large raucous, university in the middle of California with very little to say about common day to day American culture. Even in this fairly affluent and upper middle class environment I found myself seriously challenged by the my peers’ fluency with vernacular and contemporary culture, and through them was exposed to a type of laissez faire freedom and lack of concern with canonical culture that I found frankly mind boggling. I also found myself cultivating a very specialized skill set that had very little relevance to the world at large. If had been working on a new software or technology my peers might have selectively forgiven me for my awkwardness in the knowledge that whatever I was working on in the lab would someday prove technologically useful or make me immensely rich.
I was shocked to find that other young people my age weren’t always particularly thrilled to hear me play a Bach English Suite. At times, they found it boring, at others frankly odious or ostentatious.
Many of the ardent emotions professed in the music, especially those of the romantics, often seemed to them overblown and mildly ridiculous. These were young adults who had been raised in the dawning irony of late capitalism, and they wanted music that addressed the themes they had experienced growing up: alienation, suburban life and its discontents, overwhelming commercialism, the perversion of ideology, the boredom of middle class prosperity coupled with their strange inability to feel.
They found my immersion in pre-ironic so-called classical culture in turns intimidating, overwhelming, and finally not terribly interesting. I was stuck, in a sense, in the same boat as a scholar of Middle English or Anglo Saxon: I was immersed in an incredibly complex and vivid world whose internal coherence and self referential tropes were so dense and historically passé that they were mostly incomprehensible to the general reader or listener. I might as well have tried to give a rousing reading of Beowulf out loud at a party.
These were symptoms of a schizophrenic split in my musical personality that had already begun to manifest itself much earlier. I had sacrificed most of my adolescence, and at my parents behest, most of my social life, in order to learn an arcane and complex system of musical signification that I felt did not connect in the least to American life.
I did not feel that Mozart or Bach, great and enduring and magnificent as they were, had anything to say about California, or life in a small town near the bay. I did not see my peers at classical music concerts, and suffered often the vague adolescent embarrassment of being the youngest person in a concert hall. I intuitively knew that as musicians, the Viennese of two centuries ago had little to say about the sun, the air or the people around me.
I also began to resent my peers, who had very unselfconsciously absorbed a vernacular music (in the form of classic rock and the new American hardcore) in a way that seemed to be wholly naturally and unaffected. How was it that they could turn on the radio or go to a concert and be perfectly in tune with the landscape and the people around them, while I spent hours a day at a piano and had nothing in common with anyone?
I would, after much strategic argumentation with my parents, wrest permission to attend these performances, but I would always do so as an interloper. I would bang my head as some band with an expletive for a name thrashed out incoherent and often pointedly humorous and vulgar political noise, and for a while I felt vaguely liberated. I would always feel curiously contrite the next day, however, as if I had betrayed a sacred trust, and I would find myself back at the piano.
Furthermore, I became very consciously aware, in fact, that I was afraid of most of America, and that this was largely a consequence of having been raised in splendid isolation with the Western classical canon. I relinquished a normal pattern of North American socialization with the barely conscious understanding that I had been called to something, higher, richer and deeper.
Yet as a calling it held little comfort because membership to the elite of classical performers, as I soon hoped to be, was mostly an aspirational affair. The Western classical canon has its roots in the metaphysical ideals of the Enlightenment and the Romantic era.
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Though I practiced piano for several hours a day, listened to the recordings and attended concerts of its most distinguished performers, I never felt myself to be part of any community. That I might even have the authority to call myself a ‘classical musician’ was tenuous at best, and if I were to do so, a critic or adjudicator might eventually disagree or simply scoff at the notion.
This was the case, I noticed, with the classical performers I noticed on stage. They appeared isolated, slightly diffident and cranky stoics, striding to the piano with the faint suspicion that their artistry might not be matched by the listening skills of the audience. There was even that suspicion: that while listening to the Western canon, I might not be appreciating it properly, or if I was, I might be appreciating it in an improper fashion.
Like St. Augustine, I was afraid that in giving way to the sheer wordly pleasure of the sound I might be committing some type of sin, to be remedied by a deeper structural and intellectual understanding. So even in the appreciation of Western music, not only in its production, there was always the faint possibility that one might be missing something essential, and that further study was the only remedy.
Things were equally testy for me as a student. My conservatory teacher, once a star student at Juilliard, was not a happy man. He too had dreamt of a career and had, after a long and laborious search, found himself teaching piano at my large and middling liberal arts university. Being a formidable pianist he had succeeded in walling himself behind an invincibly cerebral and disdainful personality, and I very mistakenly thought that he would be the person to teach me the skills with which to carve my way in the musical world.
It would take him three years to completely ruin the pleasure of playing music for me. By turns exacting, cutting and vitriolic, he reduced me into the type of paralyzed neurotic wreck that I have since seen churned out so often by the classical conservatory system. I struggled under a huge work-load while consistently feeling barely inadequate if not downright incompetent.
The anxiety of not having an integrated cultural and social context that would help me understand why I was forcing myself to learn what I was learning, coupled with the dread knowledge that I was not nearly as good as the pianist in the next room or some imaginary younger pianist in New York (or Vienna, or Shanghai), made it impossible for me to practice effectively.
My musical support community consisted of about forty other young individuals as maladjusted as myself, schooled in a competitive mentality that had them practicing against each other in their separate rooms. That was the extent of our musical community.
Once a week, as a requirement that was meant to foster musical community, my conservatory had ‘salons’ where students were required to listen to other students perform. Most of us regarded it as a chore, and eventually a system of stamped cards was introduced in order to enforce attendance. We didn’t want to hear our fellow musicians: we wanted to supersede them.
Though I won the conservatory wide concerto competition in my senior year, I gave my victory performance in front of the local symphony without joy. I then played a grim and cruelly over ambitious senior recital. It consisted of the Bach Partita in Bb, the Beethoven Sonata No 7 op. 10, the Liszt Mephisto Waltz and the Piano Sonata in Eb minor by Samuel Barber.
My parents described the performance as technically competent but grim, as if I were struggling unsuccessfully with some intangible burden throughout. My teacher was less generous. My final grade in performance for that year was a C -, curtailing (in my mind) any possibility of going on to graduate school. At my final lesson in conservatory, my teacher declared me “unteachable”. To my understanding, I had spent nearly fifteen years intensely training for failure. Then I graduated.
A Shift in Cultural Understanding.
In light of this (perceived) traumatic failure to learn music, I was to completely abandon the piano for a period of close to five years. During this time I would play very seldom and anemically, and mostly apologetically. I considered the possibility of making the transition to more contemporary and vernacular forms of music, figuring that perhaps because I had failed in the highest and most technically demanding forms of music, I would have success with something ‘easier’. I had migrated to San Francisco and then to New York City, and bands were springing up everywhere. On occasion I would join in at a rehearsal.
I found however, that I did not have the wherewithal to join in. I’d find myself getting too technically testy with my more intuitive musical peers, or there would be musical in-jokes that, in my years of specialized training, I had simply missed. Peers that had spent a few intense years practicing guitar in their rooms and absorbing a segment of the contemporary zeitgeist were now forming little groups and going out to play at venues.
They were succeeding, in other words, as musicians. I noticed that their approach was often entirely intuitive, collaborative and grew out of an almost unconsciously organic response to what was happening around them. They were often willfully unschooled in the technical or theoretical aspects of their instrument, but if they were musically voracious listeners with good ears, intelligence and innate musicality, they could often create sounds and effects from their instruments that were unprecedented and intensely novel.
Their involvement with structure was entirely about adding little unexpected twists and novel flourishes to the standard American song-form. As far as I could tell, they didn’t ascribe to any musical taxonomies and they resisted categories and classifications.
When playing with them, I found myself attempting to be specific in ways that weren’t relevant and that often seemed academic and fussy. I would tell myself that they weren’t ‘real’ musicians, but secretly I envied them. My greatest success at this point was not as a pianist, but as a drummer for a small punk rock combo.
They told me that they liked my playing precisely because I was new to drumming, and they found the unschooled minimalism refreshing. Their previous drummer had been too highly trained, they said, and they had been annoyed by all the excessive and meretricious rhythmic tics he had been adding to their songs.
It was in this environment that I very gradually decompressed from the strange and isolated assumptions of my Western musical upbringing. Part of this involved coming across certain private music lovers, whom I would call unacknowledged musicologists and scholars, who would grant me the privilege of listening to their immense record collections.
It was through these individuals, and not at conservatory, that I was introduced to American popular music, and became gradually more aware of its immense sweep and scope. Not only was introduced to the earliest blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, rock ‘n roll and beyond. I was allowed to trace, through listening, their evolution into all the myriad forms of contemporary music.
I learned that genre classification was simply a taxonomical convenience, and that there was music to be found everywhere: in banjo picking and in German electronic dance music, in African high-life and in Texas swing. I also learned that among the most accomplished musicians, genre classification was a thing of the past. The style of music one played was far less important than whether one was actually creating something listenable. I was being shown directly that music had literally occurred and was occurring everywhere. I was finally receiving a proper musical education.
The farther I went into my exploration of the myriad forms of music as they are practiced in North America, Africa, the archipelagoes and elsewhere, the more ashamed I became of my adolescent assumptions about the scope and content of musical production.
I was especially fascinated by the thought of an incredibly sophisticated musical culture that had grown up entirely on the other side of the American color line, starting with Storyville in New Orleans in the mid nineteenth century.
I was drawn to the biographies of young working class black musicians of the 1930s and 40s who, after being self-taught or taught through an obscure lineage of virtuosos largely unknown to the public, suddenly declared their arrival on the musical scene with a mock aristocratic flourish, dubbing themselves “Count” or “Duke” or “Earl”. Jazz for me was a mirror image of the classical world, an entirely different musical approach that had grown up out of diaspora, necessarily fusing a plurality of influences and making itself up as it went along.
Most importantly, what they were doing appeared deeply rooted in community. These were musicians who were playing not only for adjudicators and a select group of highly trained listeners, they were playing for their own encouragement, amusement, and survival. After years of refined idealism, the notion that a musician might try to make his or her audience laugh or dance seemed like a true revelation.
Listening to their recordings and attempting to replicate what they were doing, through the time honored process of aural transmission, brought me back to the piano. I was eventually introduced to a musical community in the form of other jazz musicians, and while we worked privately on our own idiosyncratic musical ideals, what brought us together was the almost physical need to play.
I also found myself performing in a group as a means of practice, instead of practicing privately in preparation for the possibility of performance. In every respect, in fact, the way in which I learned to improvise in the American vernacular idiom was the inverse or opposite of what I had been trained to do as a classical musician. I had yet to consolidate these insights into anything I would call a coherent body of practice or thought surrounding my musical practice, though happily it had been restored to my life.
My first attempts at improvisation and what they taught me.
It was 1992 when I made my first attempt to improvise a melody over the 12 bar Bb blues. As I start to play the changes in my left hand, I gradually become aware that I only know my chords in roots position. To be more specific, I am very familiar with chords in different inversions in theory, but I rapidly learn that playing in real time my hand will only play what it feels most comfortable playing, which are the most rudimentary chords available.
Playing them in the lower region of the keyboard they seem dangerously far away from my right. Already I can sense that there is something very wrong with my conception of how the Bb blues is supposed to be properly played.
There is also the question of what I am supposed to be playing with my right hand. A helpful book has shown me the standard blues scale, which I can see is a kind of altered minor scale that sounds familiar to me from the recordings I have been listening to.
But the task of concentrating on those remote left-hand chords is too taxing for me to concentrate on what my right hand is doing. Even with 15 or more years of playing experience, I have the vertiginous experience of having to think and play in an entirely novel way. Every time my right hand plays a few notes, there is an awkward pause as I scramble to think of where to place my left.
I am constantly stumbling, starting and stopping. Despite over twenty years of advanced classical training, this is going very badly. The shock of having to stop and think before placing my hand down on the keyboard is both frustrating and anxiety inducing. I feel as I have been reduced, after twenty some years of intensive training, back to the level of a beginner.
Five years later, my left hand has memorized the basic chords and inversions of both the 12 and 32 bar blues, as well as the harmonic figured bass pattern known as rhythm changes. By drilling the chords with my left hand until they instinctively remember where to go, the harmony falls naturally where it is supposed to fall.
My hand has also memorized and appropriated the spatial and interstitial distances on the keyboard in an organic, almost uncanny way. Whereas five years before I had to see notes on a page before my hand knew where to go, my hand has a deeper and more intrinsically physical relationship to the keyboard’s terrain.
I have learned to do what David Sudnow describes as ‘going for the sounds.’ (Sudnow 1978, 34) I have even memorized some inversions and other fancy voicings I have picked up by ear from my two new favorite pianists: Ray Charles and Nat King Cole.
The right hand has also moved along quite well. Instead of stumbling and stopping every three to four notes, my right hand has grown accustomed to playing pieces of scales and arpeggiated patterns that correspond with the chords in the left hand. I know that playing a Bb dominant, I can play Bb major or F major, and I know to flat the third, 6th and 7th degrees of the scale, (the ‘blue’ notes).
By exhaustively listening and imitating records, I can mimic certain favorite phrases or ‘licks’ by these pianists, their idiomatic trills and skips that add a unmistakably authentic and bluesy flavor. I have progressed enough to be included as professional musician in a few local jazz and blues combos, where it is generally held that my playing is up to standard. Yet I feel strangely dissatisfied with the overall integrity of my playing.
While I know that I must play a tonic or dominant scale with a corresponding seven chord, I still lack the ability to play the complex chromatic lines that seem to correspond so well with rapid left hand shifts in harmony. I seem to be stuck playing one scale with each chord, and when I attempt to think my way from one scale into the next, especially if there are more than two chord changes in a given measure, I find myself stumbling in much the way I did as a beginner.
For whatever reason, an easy fluency seems to elude me when I try out a melodic line that is longer than four measures. While I understand that scales correspond to tonal centers, I am completely lost when it comes to thinking about what their underlying harmonic relationship might be.
Why is C major related to F? What is the difference between a major and a dominant 7th chord? The jazz theory books that are piled on my piano all seemed far too abstract and abstruse, advancing the school of rote practicing of chords and their corresponding scales. How many more chords and scales would I have to play before I could play songs?
When these correspondences proved too taxing to think about, I fell back on my ear. Yet this proved disappointing also, as my right hand fell into repeating the same melodic habits. Improvising a small solo, I would wince as I recognized my right hand playing the same practiced and memorized phrase it had hundreds of time before.
I began to feel like the bore at a party who tells the same joke over and over again to his friends. While this repetitive or rote nature of some jazz has been noted by critics such as Adorno (1938), it is nevertheless one of the most common ways of describing the process of jazz improvisation. For the most part, it is generally held that jazz improvisation consists of “patterns…usually learnt in the form of ‘licks’ or set sequences.
The repetition and transposition of these licks form the basis for jazz improvisation” (Kingscott and Durrant 2010, 127). Kingscott and Durant continue to describe their early attempts at jazz improvisation in a way that uncannily echo my own:
Early attempts to ‘make-it up’ lacked any sort of success-indeed there seemed very little help available from anyone as to how one goes about improvising. As one learns more about the instrument, and listens more, the gist, the idea that jazz performers are embellishing pre-existing material, becomes clearer (instrumentalists use ‘stock’ licks and phrases that can be heard in several solo section).
Nevertheless, even with additional tuition and support, it is often difficult to feel fulfilled as an improviser. The choices we make as we improvise, while adequate, sometimes even quite good, often lack the dynamic excitement of the performance of others. (2010, 128 )
In my experience, improvisation first confronts you with the confounding paradox of how to draw on a life-time of musical knowledge and conditioning while simultaneously attempting to create something new. It is precisely this conflicted aspect of improvising that makes the real time and lived aspects of improvisation so difficult for improvisers to transmit to non-improvisers: “No amount of demonstration seems adequate as, when one improvises, it can never just be in the here and now—the musician is drawing on a lifetime of musical experiences (Kingscott & Durrant 2010, 131).
So even though my musical understanding, appreciation and vision had shifted to the point where I found the idea of fluent improvisation desirable, I also found that the undertaking was far more complex than I had originally surmised. I had achieved my long held dream of fluency adequate enough to carry myself through a song well enough to fool an audience, but there was a still more complex level of integrated harmonic understanding and musical freedom that I could hear in recordings but not find practiced anywhere.
Listening to the most advanced bebop players, especially Bud Powell or Charlie Parker, I was equally bewildered by the incredible harmonic richness they seemed to pull, as if by magic, out of the same chord charts I had before me. Where I was seeing II, VI, IV, V, I and its corresponding scales, Powell and Parker were whirring at light speed over a vast harmonic array of extra chromatic notes, accidentals and voicings that apparently did not exist on my piano keyboard.
There is a level of jazz improvisation that one settles on through force of accumulated rote habits, where dozens of little motifs recycled with perhaps minor flashes of inspiration and technical bravado allow the melody to shine for brief moments.
It would be safe to say that this in fact the type of improvisation one hears in the majority of clubs and restaurants where professional and semi-professional players have done what they can with the methods available to them, no doubt suffering from the same pangs and self-doubt that I was suffering. Then there is the improvisation of full-fledged masters that transcends the rote figuration of the chart and explodes into something akin to full-blown invention.
As Lee Brown remarked in a recent article about jazz improvisation as exemplified by Charlie Parker, often referred to as the outstanding master of the art:
Parker does not simply shuffle through his materials mechanically, but he looks for ways to exploit them with constantly fresh effects. And it is easy to strengthen the evidence about the case. The alternate recording ‘takes’ that the Savoy and Dial record companies made of Parker’s performances often take very different courses than those on the original record releases. So a characterization of musical materials does not tell how a player will use them. (Brown, 2000, 116)
While I was happy and justifiably proud of the advances I had made in the improvisational idiom, I was stuck in a dangerous musical limbo that waits for many classical pianists who transition from classical to jazz and improvisational playing.
I was adequate, and could perform more ably than pianists with no training, but there was a lingering harmonic clumsiness to my left-hand voicings, and an overly cautious symmetry to my right-hand lines, which also had the annoying tendency to repeat themselves. I was, in fact, only a third of the way to my destination of playing improvisational piano that was fully free, able to express a variety of harmonic and melodic ideas at every turn, and able to drive itself forward rhythmically with spontaneity, alacrity, intelligence, drive and grace.
An untrained listener might call me a jazz pianist, but I knew better. In the early bebop parlance, I was still trying to play hip, but all that was coming out was corny.
A New Pedagogy
About seven years ago, through a series of events I can only call synchronicity, I had the tremendous fortune to meet with one of the last great jazz pianists of the bebop era, Barry Harris. A jazz pianist’s pianist, Barry Harris is a close associate of Bud Powell and Thelonius Monk, as well as a musician whose enormous musical range encompassed both classical and jazz repertoire.
He served as a sideman to the greatest musicians of the twentieth century, and knew most of them personally. When the time came, he was personally requested to play at the funerals of Bud Powell, Bill Evans and his long-time friend, associate and mentor, Thelonious Monk. He had schooled several generations of jazz musicians starting during his adolescence in Detroit, including a younger John Coltrane.
It was his approach to harmony and rhythm that helped solidify many of my final insights into the fundamental differences between classical and jazz pedagogy as I experienced them, and who was able, through his specific mentorship, able to teach me how to musically improvise successfully for the first time in my life. He still resides at the mansion purchased for Thelonious Monk by the eccentric and beloved patroness of the bebop era, the Baroness Pannonica Rothschild.
I believe Harris’ approach to the keyboard offers one of the most comprehensive approaches to improvisation, in that it allows students to approach their area of musical fascination with the most freedom and latitude.
Unlike many jazz pedagogical methods, Dr. Harris encourages an organic and embodied approach to harmony and the keyboard that elicits an inquisitive and creative rather than an imitative approach. The entire structure of his teaching practice, usually conducted as an ongoing conversation about harmony and melodic motifs in a large recentered classroom that welcomes students of all ages and abilities, reflects his open-ended and non-hegemonic musical practice.
As such, he opens up the possibility for a pedagogical practice that is more deeply rooted in shared and inclusive and exploratory community, away from the sterile isolation and imitative aesthetics engendered by so many classical conservatories today.
This paper will attempt to trace the shift in my musical understanding as I moved from a musical practice rigidly based in the hermeneutic tradition of the Western art music to one that is more aleatoric and vernacular. In making this transition, many assumptions that I held concerning both the value, import, cultural positioning, pedagogy and cultural transmission of music have shifted radically.
So has my understanding of the element of time and history in relation to the unfolding of musical performance, the role of musical community in cultural transmission and pedagogy, and what in a more general sense is meant by musicality. It has also completely changed, as my thinking about music’s spatial and temporal unfolding in space are intimately related to the way in which the physical body interacts with and physical extends and participates in the process of making music.
Improvisers think with their hands, and in order for this notion to become even feasible, improvisers must finally relinquish notions of Cartesian hegemony within the body as well as a notion of a sovereign identity directing the hands to do their bidding. To tentatively reach for an epigram that might summarize all of these essential shifts: Improvisers are more interested in the continued process of musical becoming and being than they are in the process of musical production and perfection.
Thus in making this musical transition, mere technical and theoretical information can do little to help the classical musician who wishes to improvise. To shift from a score-based to improvisational musical practice is fundamentally an ontological one. No amount of practice books or theory lessons well help a struggling musician fully understand what is meant by being in the musical moment and allowing an idea to unfold in real-time.
Nor can the process be cerebral or intellectual. Improvisation involves rethinking one’s approach to the instrument and the body’s relationship to it, as well as a re-examination of what constitutes a valid musical process and goal. For much of my life I was involved in practice as a largely cerebral process, in which I attempted to master a score through repetition and finally a sort of totalized apprehension of the score, hoping to reproduce in a consistent way.
As an improviser, my emphasis in practice is closer to that of a dancers: I practice certain motifs and musical gestures in the hopes of embodying them, on an organic level, so that they can become organically integrated into my repertoire of musical gestures and motifs. Thus the highly idealized model of delayed gratification I worked with in my early practice habits have been supplanted by something richer and more embodied. Practicing is now a form of musical becoming rather than a musical striving.
The Theory of Improvisation
This study will also consider the profound theoretical and philosophical shift engendered through my exploration of the much larger world of vernacular music in general and improvisational music practice in particular.
The Western canon of classical music is one that aims towards constructing both an internal structural coherence and an idealized unitary identity. Part of this reason is rooted in the Western canon’s exceedingly rigid cultural positioning, even at this late date, as the purveyor of an idealized cultural space rooted in the subjective metaphysical ideals.
Because of its increasing reliance on an internal and self-referential system of musical signification, music of the Western canon has been place in the awkward position of perpetuating a cultural practice that is more idealized than actual, more historical than topical.
The following section of this paper will thus attempt to establish the different philosophical streams that have formed Western art music and the practice of jazz improvisation. It will then focus on the particular philosophical shifts in musical understanding that I believe are required in improvisational practice, and how the Barry Harris approach s especially well suited for the classically trained pianist who wishes to improvise.
Western Art Music and Jazz Improvisation: A Methodological Comparison.
To state that contemporary performance tradition of the Western art music canon is distinct from the improvisatory vernacular music tradition of the African Diaspora is to state a truism so vast that one almost despairs of ever encompassing it. Speaking broadly and looking pragmatically, it is still possible however to make essential theoretical distinctions between the two schools.
To do so, rudimentary terminology will help keep concepts distinct. Thus, music that has its origins in the European classical tradition is referred to as ‘Eurological’, while the immense spectrum of North American music that has arisen from the African Diaspora, from the turn of the 19th century to the present day, is referred to as ‘Afrological.’ (Lewis, 2009, 88).
This investigation arises out of the assumption that the two distinct forms of musical praxis that I am comparing and contrasting here grew out of two widely divergent social and cultural milieus, under radically different forms of pedagogy and performance practice.
In making this comparison, I am hoping to uncover some of the problems that arise when classical performers attempt to make the transition from score-based performance to improvisation. Assuming that musical pedagogy in any musical genre necessarily reflects its broader philosophical grounding will necessarily entail looking at the philosophical underpinnings and assumptions that have formed the foundation of classical performance practice as a whole, followed by a comparison with the philosophical underpinnings of vernacular music and improvisational practice.
As this study will address problems of classical pianists and their ability to adapt to the demands of improvisation, this will entail a focus on the cultural emergence of the pianist composer as the dominant creative musical figure in Western art music of the 19th century. This will then be contrasted with an examination of the cultural and socio-historical origins of jazz improvisation and the figure of the jazz pianist composer.
This examination requires more than an ethno-musicological and ethnographic comparison however. Before comparing the two schools, I believe it is necessary to address the specific philosophical assumptions ingrained into classical pianists through the culture and pedagogy of Western art music.
In short, classical pianists, despite the intensity, breadth and depth of their specific musical training, remain disadvantaged in the realm of improvisatory music. To understand what is necessary for classical pianists to learn, it is equally necessary to examine what they are to unlearn, especially if this knowledge forms a barrier against their deeper understanding of improvisational praxis. In my personal experience, the obstacles facing classical pianists stems from three areas: their ingrained suspicion of music outside their scope of cultural experience, their almost superstitious obedience to the written score, and the way in which they envision their body at the keyboard.
It is this last point, the relationship of the performer’s body to the keyboard, that I believe has the most lasting relevance for the effective teaching of improvisation. This is because Improvisation, as I will discuss, is predicated on an intimate and intuitive spatial relationship between the hands of the performer and the keyboard that is effectively circumvented by a highly analytical and score-based approach.
Jazz improvisers see their hands and see the piano keyboard differently than classical performers, and without learning this intuitive and physical relationship to the keys, effective improvisation (which I will define more concretely in the next section), becomes nearly impossible.
Each of these problems emerge from the same underlying assumptions that still appear to govern a great deal of classical pedagogy, and I hope to address these assumptions and their ensuing problems systematically in the next section of this paper.
What is Effective Improvisation?
Before moving onto the task of dismantling some of the philosophically grounded musical assumptions that interfere with improvisational skill, it is necessary to roughly outline what I believe effective improvisation is. As I have already made clear, jazz improvisation demands a set of skills that differ radically from those of trained classical pianists. First, there is the emphasis on musical spontaneity, or the ability to compose in ‘real time’.
This means that the improvisatory musician must spontaneously generate melodic lines over the given harmonic-structure of the song, at the moment, with only the harmonic outlines of the chart and the song’s original melody as a template. In the case of a jazz pianist, the right hand must improvise a melody in real time while the left hand provides a suitable harmonic accompaniment in the left, intervening at moments that both complement the melody harmonically and drive the piece forward rhythmically.
To clarify, it should be noted that jazz improvisers generally rely on abbreviated musical notations known as ‘charts’, ‘lead sheets’ or ‘changes’. Jazz song form, in contrast to classical music, is generally strophic, following the structure of lyrics that follow a Verse/chorus/verse/ format. This form, repeated cyclically, is often 32 bars long and provides the basic template upon which the improviser elaborates. The song usually consists of a first verse or ‘head’, which establishes the song’s main melody, and is often repeated twice.
The song then moves to a harmonically contrasting section known as a bridge, after which a return to the main melody completes the song form. This is technically referred to as AABA song form, and is the essential template for thousands of popular American songs and ballads that make up the basis of improvisational jazz repertoire.
Thus, it is the task of the improviser to be familiar with the main melody, and comfortable enough with this form to be able to alter the melodic content while maintaining the song’s original melodic structure.
Consequently, a jazz improviser is someone who must be intimately familiar with the harmonic changes of both of these song forms and the measures in which they occur. An accomplished improviser generally has these harmonic changes memorized to such a degree that playing these harmonic shifts is essentially automatic.
This is a degree of familiarity that goes beyond mere memorization and becomes a form of musical embodiment. Jazz pianists, who are continuously looking for new melodic avenues with the right hand, must be secure enough in their knowledge of the left-hand harmonies that the hand necessarily finds the chord shapes it needs through something resembling instinct. This is important to note for my later discussion addressing the role of embodiment in improvisation.
While the essential harmonic changes of a piece are provided by rudimentary notation, (usually with chord symbols written below the melody), the voicing of the particular chord is left entirely to the improviser.
Thus while the essential chord structure is provided for the left hand, it is the improviser’s job to determine if the chord should be played in first second or third inversion, whether the chord should be played in the lower end of the keyboard or closer to the improvising right hand, and whether the chord voicing should omit certain notes that might clash with the melodic flow of the improvised right hand.
Thus, the effective playing of harmonic changes in the left hand, commonly refer to in jazz parlance as ‘voicing’, is actually a huge part of the art of improvisation.
To summarize, the jazz piano improviser must use the rudimentary structure of the chart (the chord symbols and the main melody of the song) as a point of departure for excursions into musical elaboration that must be invented spontaneously in real time.
An improviser who faithfully follows only the broadest written changes and adds a plausible melody on top is doing the bare minimum. True pianistic improvisation involves the ability to add the subtle range of harmonic substitutions in between written chords and a fluent right-hand melody that uses these added harmonic touches as points of reference.
The left hand, in addition to being harmonically rich, must also provide the rhythmic bedrock that allows the right hand to remain fluent and to allow the entire ensemble of left and right hand to come together as a rhythmically viable whole.
The piano has always been an instrument that has been exploited for its orchestral effect, and never has this been truer in the case of jazz piano. The improvising pianist seeks to create the entire effect of a dance, with rhythm, harmonic texture and instrumental solos. This effect is created only when the left hand performs its own rhythmic and harmonic function in a manner that is separate from and complementary to the right hand, which performs its own independent melodic function.
Thus, the classical pianist, who often reads scores with the left and right hand in unison, must learn to mentally ‘separate’ the function of the left and right hand. Classical pianists must come to point, in other words, where they are comfortable to have the left hand and right hand perform completely independent and complementary functions.
The skills of an effective improviser are three-fold. The effective pianistic improviser must be able to generate a viable, forward driving melody in real time that corresponds with the harmonic structure provided by the left hand. This in turn is founded upon a rudimentary harmonic structure which is merely outlined, but never completely provided, by the song chart.
The left hand must be able to play harmonies that touch on and expand the basic harmonic structure provided by the chord chart. Finally, the left hand must be able to provide a rhythmic continuity or drive to the entire improvisation, making the ensemble of right and left hand.
The improvising pianist needs to be able to perform these three interrelated tasks in real time, without stops, hesitations or breaks. In order for the improvisation to unfold, improvising pianists must be present in a particular way that combines a readiness for surprise with a deeply ingrained, almost instinctive musical knowledge, that combines deeply ingrained physical memory with an equally light and hovering talent for novelty and small adjustments.
This unique combination of instinct and almost precognitive skill works, much in the way a skilled juggler keeps multiple objects in the air at once. The slightest hesitation or miscalculation and everything falls to the floor.
These criteria demonstrate that classical pianists face some challenges that require not only a change in technique, but also a radical shift in the grounding of their musical thinking. While these issues are addressed at levels of great complexity in the compositions of the Western art music repertoire, they are entirely rooted in the score.
In improvisation, the pianist is required to become intimately familiar with these elements in real time and in the body in a way that is never demanded from score based playing. Because these musical elements are pre-arranged with such complexity and thoroughness by the composer down to the last detail, pianists who must conjure them out of thin air find themselves at an understandable loss.
Improvisation requires an approach to musical production rooted in the present, an approach that opens the space of musical production as a field of potentiality rather than a space of musical reproduction. Improvisers rely on the harmonic structure of the piece only insofar that they are able to use it as a means of opening a new field of musical potentiality, or musical becoming.
It is not enough, however, to say that classical musicians are simply score reliant, and that by removing the score and having them rely on their listening habits and rote imitation they would find themselves able to improvise. A concerted effort to introduce classical musicians to a broader range of listening in different idioms would be useful, but even so it would give classical musicians little guidance about how to begin to engage in these different forms of musical production.
Even without the score, classical musicians are still enveloped in cultural and musical assumptions about the nature of musical production. The historical and cultural import of their musical genre, the way in which they visualize the keyboard and physically relate to the keyboard, the manner in which they inhabit musical space and time, their notion of musical presence and the manner in which they respond and listen to musical cues—these are only a few of the many musical elements of comprehension and understanding that need to shift in order for classical musicians to be open to improvisation.
Not until some of these underlying approaches ingrained in their training are patiently shifted can classical musicians fully understand that improvisation, especially in the jazz and vernacular idioms, are different forms of musical approach that offer a completely different form of musical investigation and praxis.
Shifting such assumptions, however, is more difficult than it appears at first. The conservatory’s insistent and competitive demand for technical excellence and the mastery of new repertoire strengthens students’ commitment to the largely invisible truisms and cultural assumptions that drive their work ethic.
My professors, some of whom had been educated at the most highly regarded musical institutions in the world, seemed largely intent at promulgating a view of classical music that stressed its internal coherence and its unitary structure. They did so not necessarily out of any particular conviction, but because it had never occurred to them, in their own equally intense earlier training, to think otherwise. Thus the notion of Western music’s specialized status, as a cultural monolith with its own specialized and complex system of self-referential symbolism, was promulgated to me as a matter of course.
Joseph Kerman was among the first to point out how of Western art music had pursued its formalist concerns and lofty aesthetic concepts to a point where it had virtually sealed itself off in its own hermetic area of specialization, with scant ties to the larger socio-historic context from which it arose (Kerman 1980, 319).
This attitude of isolation and exceptionality, he argued, came about through an ideology he termed “organicism”. By organicism, he refers to the tendency to evaluate Western art music through “technical demonstrations of internal coherence” that lead to tautological assumptions about each works inherent coherence and aesthetic worth” (Kerman 1980, 322). Kerman singles out Schenkerian analysis for promoting Western art music as a complete conceptual system governed by an underlying and coherent structure. This deep musical structure, or Ursatz, was conceived of as being the deepest layer of musical understanding.
In Schenker’s view, this layer of understanding cleaved so completely to the composer’s original intentions, it usurped any need to examine any socio-historical or cultural concerns surrounding the work. Kerman then attempts to demonstrate how Schenkerian analysis gave rise to a self-reinforcing and positivist history of Western art music.
In his view, Schenker conceived of the classical tradition as a procession in which the torch of highest musical achievement was passed from one towering musical figure to the next in an unbroken line of excellence. Schenker promulgated this view precisely because of his faith in the superior musical coherence of Western art music’s underlying structure, carried on by largely Germanic and Austro-Hungarian composers. (Kerman 1980, 320).
Schenker was able to effect this shift in emphasis, Kerman argues, by speaking about works entirely in terms of their formal and internal coherence, eschewing any references to their larger socio-historical contexts. He then demonstrates how Schenker sought to explain the composer’s intentions entirely through a reading of compositional structure, and provides an example of Schenker’s reading of Schuman’s “Diechterliebe”.
Kerman demonstrates how this approach, with its tautological assumptions, makes it increasingly difficult for classical performers to feel a sense of contemporaneity and cultural relevance with their musical peers from other musical practices. In doing so they perpetuate several of the ongoing and problematically broad assumptions about the coherence of classical structure, it’s progressive harmonic development, the genius of its great composers, and the complexity of their formal developments.
With its largely oral tradition, often constructed ad hoc through experimentation and necessity, and subject to thousands of variations due to disparate social and cultural influences, vernacular music seems philosophically incompatible with art music’s unitary and organicist aims. To extend beyond Western art music’s internal and tautological coherence is to violate an unspoken taboo.
As the years and the decades go by, the predominant position of analysis grows more and more paradoxical, paradoxical, because the great German tradition of instrumental music, which analysis supports, no longer enjoys the unique status it did for the generation of Schenker and Tovey and Schoenberg.
There is no need to enlarge on the various factors that have so drastically changed the climate for the consumption of and appreciation of music today: the wide variety of music made available by musicological unearthing on the one hand and recording technology and marketing on the other, the public’s seemingly insatiable hunger for opera of all sorts; the growing involvement with non Western music, popular music, and quasi-popular music, and also a pervasive general disbelief in hierarchies of value. It is not that we see less, now, in the German masters, but no longer shut out perspective on great bodies of other music, new and old. ( Kerman 1980, 319)
As this examination of the improvisational tradition will show, it is precisely this tautological approach, towards assimilation and away from variance in approach, that leaves experimentation and creation of improvised musical forms outside the scope of the classical musicians training. The belief that the musical score contains an underlying, univocal and essential meaning that is ineluctably bound up with its structure has led to an particular form of hermeneutic reverence for the written score that not only sees it as the framework for a musical performance, but a specific expression of a set of cultural and philosophical ideas.
This belief in the fundamental and intended meaning of the classical musical score has led to the tremendous weight on formal interpretation as opposed to experimentation.
Classical Pedagogy and the Written Score: The Fear of ‘Wrong Notes’
With classical repertoire entrenched as it is in its own formalism and analysis, a particular reverence for the score was bound to develop. If Schenkerian analysis placed the entire burden of meaning on a piece’s harmonic and formal structure, any deviation from the composer’s structure in any significant way could be read as a deviation from intended meaning.
As Kerman points out, placing the burden of the composition’s signifying power on its fundamental structure has led performers to become almost superstitiously reverent of the intended score. With no larger cultural context with which to relate the intended meaning of the composer, and no critical hermeneutics in place, the student and performer find themselves at a loss to do anything but delve deeper into the structure of the piece.
This is by no means a refutation of the importance of structure and its relevance to the overall intentions of the composer. No matter what the level of skill of the performer, however, the ability to think outside the paradigm of structure can become difficult.
This inability to think outside musical structure was recounted by noted improvisational pianist Keith Jarrett during a conversation with concert pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy. Both pianists were familiar with each other’s work and discussed it at length.
What was interesting, however, was the lack of familiarity; fear even, expressed by Ashkenazy when he asked Keith Jarrett about his improvisational practice. As Jarrett himself recounts:
I once had a conversation with Vladimir Ashkenazy. We were on a cruise with the English Chamber Orchestra and I gave him a tape with some of my improvisations. When he had listened to it, he said, “How do you play all the right notes?” I said, “No, you see they just become the right notes by virtue of their environment.” Then he said, “I’d love to be able to improvise but I know I’d need so much time to get into the right headspace to do that.” Of course, he didn’t use the word “headspace.”
But he knew he’d have to shut everything down. From where they are you can’t get to the improvisation and have it be you, because you’ve been trained to be outside of yourself.(quoted in Fonseca-Williams 2005, np)
Jarrett, a young student at the Curtis Institute, would be well aware of the rigors of a classical training and is one of the few pianists working today who plays in both genres. However what is specifically interesting in this case, aside from Ashkenzy’s wondering incomprehension, is Jarrett’s use of an almost philosophical language to describe what he achieves musically.
He mentions, first of all that notes “become” the right ones “by virtue of their environment”. To musicians who are trained to believe that notes reside on a page this almost qualifies as a mystical statement. What he appears to be suggesting, however, is that a conceptual shift in orientation on the part of the player is necessary for improvisation to succeed. When notes cannot be taken from the absolute reference point of the score, they must instead be judiciously placed by the performer in a larger ‘environment’ which no doubt involves the direct perception of the improviser.
This is borne out by Ashkenazy’s insight that in order to improvise he would require a psychological, if not ontological shift in perspective, a change of “headspace” as Jarett helpfully clarifies for him later. This includes another interesting insight on the part of Jarett, who claims that for classical pianists to improvise they would have to learn to “shut everything down.”
He also suggests that improvisation is a unitary pursuit, one in which the music must “be you”, once again a formulation that appears to referring to a transcendent unity. It refers to something deeply pragmatic that nonetheless entails a radical shift in both the performer’s perspective and approach to the body.
As Jarrett states, classical musicians are trained to be “outside” themselves, by which he appears to be referring to the bifurcation of the performer into the mind that conceptually encompasses the written score and the body that performs it.
Improvisation, as I will argue, involves a much more intuitive melding of the performer and the music that allows the improviser to generate music in real time, without the benefit of a score or revision. A classical performer, Jarrett is suggesting, needs to “shut everything down”. In saying this, Jarrett seems to implying that classical pedagogy is not so much an apprenticeship that imparts certain technical skills, but a deep form of cultural indoctrination that cements classical performers’ views of music performance to the point that it becomes difficult for them to perceive other forms of musical praxis.
So the classical musician’s reverence of the score is not merely a form of superficial dogmatism, but is ineluctably bound up with several assumptions that underlie the project of Western art music as a whole. It is not only that reliance on the score engenders a strange dependency that affects even the most prodigiously gifted and fluent musicians (as Ashkenazy undoubtedly is) , but that the reliance on the score is actually part of a much larger series of assumptions that gave rise to the classical canon as a whole.
As Jarrett points out, thinking outside the score necessarily entails thinking outside certain outdated philosophical parameters that have been gradually locked in place throughout the evolution of Western art music. Many of these assumptions find their roots in the assumptions of the analytical approach discussed earlier.
There is something even deeper, however, in the culture of Western art music that, as Jarrett makes clear, fundamentally shifts the positions of the classical pianist in such a way that the ability to grasp the improvisational idiom is nearly impossible.
In order to fully understand this problem, however, I will discuss more carefully the philosophical roots of the mindset of classical pianism specifically. My examination will examine to the greatest extent possible the most basic of these assumptions.
This will require a detour through the metaphysics of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and the ensuing thinking that followed him regarding the nature of subjectivity, its relationship to aesthetics and art, and the resultant shift in the status of both music and the composer musician.
Philosophical Roots of 19th Century Western Art Music.
I have examined some technical and pragmatic reasons as to why classical musicians have difficulty in imagining themselves as improvisers. Chief among these is Kerman’s argument against Schenkerian analysis, which s an argument against musicological essentialism.
A broader postmodern critique might simply argue that classical music is haunted by several spectres of a philosophical culture that has long been rethought and in some case outright dismantled in the criticism and theory of other disciplines.
Concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty and univocity of meaning have lingered in the pedagogy and performance of Western art music up until the present, to an extent that it remains coolly distant or outright alienated from other musical disciplines in an integral way. The story of music’s ascension to its uniquely privileged aesthetic and philosophical position in Western art music, however, is still more nuanced and detailed.
Over the last thirty years or so, musicologists have begun to gradually open up the canon of Western art music and cross-reference it within its larger socio-historical and even micro-political contexts. While their concerns vary, most are in agreement that Western art music’s drive towards its own internal coherence can be best understood in light of its relationship to the shifts that took place in continental philosophy.
This philosophical shift was away from the dogmatic metaphysics of the Enlightenment and towards the more nuanced aesthetic theories of the German philosophers, critics and thinkers who followed Kant. Their main concerns revolved around a problem that was examined but left unresolved by Kant: how to synthesize the profoundly subjective knowledge imparted by sensual intuition with the objective, systematic knowledge imparted by reason.
For reasons set forth in Kant’s analysis that I will address shortly, the focus of philosophy after Kant, especially the writing of the German Idealist school, shifted more and more towards aesthetics and the subjective experience of beauty as the basis for understanding human experience.
Instrumental music, which had been regarded during the early Enlightenment as lacking in artistic power because of its lack of linguistic specificity, suddenly grew in stature in the thinking of writers of the German Idealist Period (dates). Fredrich Schelling, Wilhem Henriech Wackenroder, Ludwig Tieck, Freidrich Schiller, Johan Gttleib Fichte, and E.T.A .Hoffman were all involved at one level or another with exploring the power of music to convey ineffable, if not mystical, truths about human subjectivity that were otherwise inaccessible to rational and systematic analysis.
In short, they conceived of music as a vehicle for contacting a sensuous level of subjectivity that went beyond language and transported the listener into the realm of the transcendent and the sublime.
These ambitions for a newly conceptualized subjectivity were not only limited to music. They were shared across the spectrum from poetry to aesthetics to literature, and permeated the intellectual culture of Germany in the late Classical and Romantic periods.
There lingers around these writers a desire for a theory of subjectivity that would allow for broader self understanding and freer expression: a way in which the irrational and subjective could somehow be resolved with the empirical and the social. The ideals and claims centered on the aesthetic power of music as an oracle for the hidden depths of human experience pushed Western art music to grow in complexity, formal ambition and freedom like never before.
It also instigated a philosophical dialogue between the arts to change the direction of composition, lending momentum to a cultural movement that reached its aesthetic and philosophical goals with Wagner.
Fervent nationalism, endemic to German idealism and broadly implied in the mythic pan Germanic narratives of Wagners operas. is one such trait with problematic ties to the emergence of National Socialism. Steinberg (2006) has argued that it was precisely the problematic legacy of Wagner that caused classical music to retreat defensively into extreme formalism after the Second World War, substituting culturally embedded narratives with abstract mathematical tonal schemas that eschewed identifiable cultural reference points.
Added to this are older claims about the validity of other forms of musical praxis, including Adorno’s problematic claims concerning the “regressive” listening required by popular music (especially jazz) and his characterization of art music since Mozart as a “Flight from the banal” (Adorno, 1938, 299).
Classical performers do not suffer from a lack musical knowledge that prevents them from becoming fluent improvisers. Rather they have been taught that looking outside the parameters of their genre is to abandon a complex philosophical and aesthetic project for something less complete. More importantly, it is the spectre of Western art music’s vast underlying meaning: the complex and irresistible force of its constructed signification that demands the entire attention and loyalty of the student performer. I will begin with an examination of Kant, who can be seen as the precursor to this massive shift in cultural emphasis.
Kant, Schelling, and the German Idealists.
Kant’s critiques have been characterized as attempts to reform and subsequently unify the several competing schools of metaphysics in his day. On the one hand there was the dogmatic metaphysics of the Leibniz-Wolff school, which sought to demonstrate metaphysical truths through largely universalist, positivist and mathematically styled proofs.
On the opposite end were the radical skeptics or idealists, led by David Hume, who maintained that absolutely no positive knowledge of the outside world was possible outside of human experience, rejecting even the possibility of a priori synthetic concepts. Kant can be seen as a metaphysician who wished to find his own ground between these positions of positivism and radical doubt. His critique would involve a very thorough examination of the central philosophical issues of his time.
Kant (1781) finds Descartes’ positing of the mere declaration of self-awareness is too tentative and incomplete to serve as the basis for a new epistemology. For instance, Kant points out that self-awareness must also remain consistent through time, and not be challenged or overturned by changes in external reality. This necessarily means that self awareness and awareness of the external world necessarily rest on a priori assumptions.
Before I perceive the color of a wall, for instance, I must intuitively know that the wall remains the same wall in space and time, which means that my perception of its solidity rests on two synthetic a priori judgments that precede any further judgments I make upon it. Kant thus maintains that the consistency of reality is maintained for us by a series of synthetic a priori judgments that are already in place and lend the changing world of impressions their cohesiveness and consistency (Kant 1998, 205 ).
These observations allow Kant (1781) to state that the world of human experience and the world of external objects, while they are related through perception and consciousness, have no direct relationship outside of it. He emphasizes this distinction by naming these two realms phenomena and noumena.
The consistency that we observe in the phenomenal realm (the world of human experience, consciousness and subjectivity) remains consistent because it is grounded entirely in its own a priori conceptualizations. The external world of objects-in-themselves, the noumenal realm, remains unknowable in any direct way, since the objects exist outside of human experience.
Kant does not find this satisfactory however. His goal is to construct a more refined metaphysics, and the goal of metaphysics is to seek exactly that which is beyond the limits of human experience. Metaphysics, Kant asserts, rightfully focuses itself on the noumenal realm, where it can ask transcendent questions that result in concrete knowledge. This is especially true when we wish to apprehend what Kant envisions could be the essential nature or ground of subjectivity.
Here, however, human sensibility reaches a wall. Our experience, though it is grounded in subjectivity, cannot see past itself into its origins. To do so would require seeing ourselves outside the boundaries of our own experience, which is of course impossible. Before we make our objective attempts to examine the self, the self is already subjectively present.
This new formulation of subjectivity and its relationship to the objective world had a tremendous subsequent impact on the world of philosophy and by extension the world of the arts, literature and music. After Kant, the human subject, with all of its limitations, paradoxes and frailties, comes back into the foreground and re-establishes the primacy of human experience.
This return also spelled the end of both dogmatic metaphysics and radical skepticism, replacing them with a metaphysics in which human experience and agency were recognized as having a limited yet central role in the apprehension of reality. ‘Intuitions’ as Kant called the synthetic a priori concepts that aid human perception, are central to metaphysics.
This shift towards an intense examination of the subject’s relationship to experience meant that Kant was increasingly drawn to those forms of subtle human experience that linked inner perception with an external reality. One of these areas that increasingly drew his attention was the perception of beauty in the arts.
“In order to establish more concrete links between the external world of nature and the inner world of subjectivity, Kant turned increasingly to aesthetic experience, to what makes us create and appreciate beauty.”(Bowie 2003, 37).
With aesthetics now a central matter of concern, philosophers and writers after Kant turned to art as the domain in which the truth of human subjectivity and experience could be grasped and the Kantian split between the self-aware subject and the external world might be possibly resolved. These two concepts appear again and again in German idealist and Romantic literature as the Self on one hand (meaning subjectivity and the world of representation and experience) and Nature (meaning the external world of things-in-themselves). This was generally approached in two ways: by placing the whole of ‘nature’ inside of subjectivity, or placing the whole of the self inside of nature.
Johann Gottlieb Fichte, who hoped to become a student of Kant, resolved this conflict by shifting his emphasis away from the noumenal realm entirely. The salient fact of subjectivity was not to be found by establishing a ground from which it could then be said to concretely emerge. That the self was able to spontaneously reflect upon itself was an indication of a much greater truth: that of human freedom and agency.
What matters most is not the epistemological means by which we come to be self-aware, but the infinite possibilities that are posited by the instance of self-awareness. Fichte thus “radicalizes the Kantian turn towards the subject” by making philosophy a means of exploring human agency (Bowie 2003, 72).
Fichte becomes fascinated with the moment of self-perception and self-awareness, especially when the observing and acting self become unified in action and the distinction between them disappears. Ficthe’s main focus is not human being but doing, and he moves philosophy from the realm of speculative metaphysics to a desire to apprehend the undivided self in the moment of its own undivided action.
Freidreich Schelling also attempts to resolve Kantian dualism by positing a model of consciousness that prefigures modern psychology and also attempts the first comprehensive philosophy of art. Consciousness has intuitive elements that cannot be directly known by the self, yet remain foundational to awareness. Schelling then concludes that the highest possible act is artistic, for the artist relies on both aspects of the self, the conscious and intuitive, to bring his or her work to fruition.
This creative action brings the unconscious to light in a way that philosophy cannot accomplish, since “art always and continually documents anew what philosophy cannot represent externally, namely the unconscious in action and production and its original identity with the conscious” (Schelling 1795, 27 )
The German idealists, consequently, were primed to conclude, as Hegel, Schelling or possibly Holderlin did in an anonymous philosophical pamphlet did in 1796, that “the highest rational act of reason is an aesthetic act” (Bowie 2010, 38). The cultivation of one’s aesthetic sensibility becomes the highest form of intellectual endeavor.
As a result, instrumental music is finally enshrined as one of the most suitable mediums for this new type of aesthetic endeavor. This cluster of philosophers and writers had already struggled with the deterministic intelligibility of language and its entanglement with epistemic and systemic thought, and wished for an escape hatch.
If the highest intellectual endeavor aimed to incorporate both the sensible and the ever elusive, intuitive ground of subjectivity, it would seem the music, especially instrumental music, would be the ideal medium. Instrumental music, with its paradoxical ability to elicit identifiable emotions and sensations without the use of language, was viewed as the ideal vehicle for the exploration of a newly discovered subjectivity.
As Ruth Katz points out: “music is the most articulate of media, though it itself cannot say what it is articulate about” (Katz 2009, 135). This indeterminacy would prove crucial to music’s central role in the thinking of this period in both philosophy, criticism and composition.
Claims about music’s powers of revelation reach exaggerated heights of purple prose in this particular era. A representative example is E.T.A. Hoffman’s historically significant review of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. As a review and as a piece of literature, it claimed more significance for music than had most likely ever before been proposed before that time.
“Music opens up an unknown realm to man [sic]; a world that has nothing in common with the surrounding external world of the sense and in which he leaves behind all feelings which are determinable by concepts in order to devote himself to the unsayable” (Hoffman quoted in Dalhaus and Zimmerman 1978, 197).
It is apparent in this passage that Hoffman appeared deeply familiar with the philosophical concepts of internal and external worlds as formulated by his philosophical predecessors and peers, and this is borne out in the fantastical melding of the actual and imaginary that happen in his fiction. He appears to lean towards the possibility of music providing access to a transcendent subjectivity that finally resolves the split first exposed by Kant’s metaphysics.
A radical shift in temperament has taken place in regards to claims for the arts in general and for music in particular. Indeed, one can say that the grail of the German Idealists of this era was the possibility of a transcendental union of the sensuous within the conceptual— supplanting the problem of mind/body and subject/object duality with the experience of aesthetic unity.
Aesthetic experience is relegated to its own sublime area that combines and simultaneously transcends the physical, the intellectual and the spiritual. The intuitive aesthetic language of music becomes a form of supra sensual sensuousness. In this way, music becomes likened to a concept that “Reveals the higher truth of sensuous immediacy” (Bowie 2008, 232)
Untrammeled and authentic subjective experience becomes an object of yearning, an ideal to be sought after through aesthetic discipline and experience. It is the duty of the performer, through arduous contemplation and personal sacrifice, to better understand and encompass subjective experience as a gateway to the transcendent.
The explorer of subjectivity moves forward into the unknown realm of the self, proceeding like a naturalist into a new and exciting terrain. It is a position enshrined in the Caspar David Friedrich’s painting of the solitary wanderer, who, from his lone vantage of the mountains, has access to a vast and wild vista of rocky promontories and swirling mist.
The thinker, poet, writer, and composer are theorized as solitary pioneers in a new subjectivity, appointed with the task of reaching untold vistas of subjective splendor. It is fitting that it is just this painting that was chosen for the Deutsche Gramophone release of Maurizio Pollini’s landmark recording of Schubert’s “Wanderer Fantasie”.
Without stumbling too far into his massive and labyrinthine metaphysical system, outlines of Hegel’s metaphysical theology are visible in this outlook, with his notion of the infinite struggling to be perceived within the finite. In the more poetic formulations of the German Idealists, Hegel’s conceptual dialectic of becoming casts off its more rigorously formulated bonds and give rise to an even more radical conception of self which placed new and unheard of stresses on the individuals working at the frontiers of cultural production.
From the roots of Enlightenment metaphysics and romanticism, a new cultural methodology is born. It gives rise to a new idealized archetype of the creator as a promethean figure, whose natural gifts and fortitude alone allow them to withstand the stresses and solitary pressures of a grand new quest in search of the transcendent self.
With these privileged new claims for subjectivity, and their deep links with the act of musical composition and creation, the musical work shifts tremendously in its importance. The composition is no longer a provisional experience, or even an attempt to entertain or distract the listener, but becomes instead a sort of privileged window on the subjective aesthetic realm of the composer.
The great composer is elevated to the position of visionary, whose powers have revealed his own utterly unique form of supra sensual experience. The composer is not seen as skilled organizer of notes, but rather as a person who is able to convey the larger overarching truth of human subjectivity to the listening audience. Thus the performance of a musical score begins to occupy a region of high seriousness that it heretofore had not occupied. In interpreting the work, the performer becomes the communicator of a great supra sensual truth enshrined in the score, and the audience, rapt and silent, gains access to this realm through the act of listening.
Most importantly, the entire direction of artistic endeavor at this juncture seems predicated on a positive grasp of subjective being, granting aesthetics the power of some type of ultimate ‘proof’ that a unified and tangible idea of “self” that encompasses and explains our limited and fragmentary experience at the moment.
Envisioned in this way, varying, improvising on or embroidering upon this vision can be seen as a surrender to the very forces the composer of the great work is struggling against. To embrace the provisional, the fragmentary, the fleeting and temporary in way that isn’t resolved in a larger formal structure appears, in this context, to be almost sacrilegious.
The Emergence of Serious Music Culture and the Figure of the Genius Composer
This shift in perspective, however, cannot be attributed to metaphysics alone. The socio-cultural forces also played a serious role in the emergence of a serious music culture that would eventually be receptive to the notions put forth by a small handful of new Romantic composers pursuing their abstruse and rarified ideas of a new musical subjectivity.
While the quest of the genius composer was a solitary and exclusively male pursuit, the individuals in question were able to do so with the help of an established and wealthy system of patronage that valorized, after some initial resistance, the musical pursuits they were undertaking. In her study of the socio-historic climate surrounding Beethoven, Tia DeNora (1995) makes the compelling argument that while the extraordinary talent and genius of the canonized composers are primarily stressed, the societal structures of which they formed a part played no small part in cementing their legacy.
In focusing first on the construction of ‘serious music culture’ of the Classical to early Romantic era, she demonstrates that the fickle public that once flocked en masse to Mozart’s public concert series in Vienna in 1783 had dwindled to a single subscriber by 1789 (DeNora 1995, 11).
Attendance at his operas however, remained consistent, pointing to the circumstance that societal fads and whims (opera was still in, public concerts were out), had as much an influence on Mozart’s success than his unquestionable genius. She also points out that the fickle approbation of the listening public tended to waiver whenever an artist decided to do something that pushed the formal boundaries of what he had previously attempted, citing a review where the writer for the magazine, Der Muzik, complains that “Mozart aims to high in his artful and truly beautiful compositions, in order to become a new creator, whereby it must be said that feeling and heart profit little” (DeNora 1995 12).
She then continues to demonstrate how Mozart was continuously dogged with accusations of “over-learnedness” and an exasperating tendency to over tax the listener.
Then as now, audiences are fickle and apt to reward what they easily understand and find naturally appealing, as Adorno would (1943) bemoan over and over again throughout his writing. How then, did we get to the figure of the towering Promethean genius, unwilling to compromise with philistine audiences in the relentless pursuit of the highest goals of true art? DeNora attempts to show that many of the artistic attributes we now give unstintingly to the figure of the lone genius composer are part of a carefully constructed social mythos that sprung up around Beethoven.
Uncompromising visionary genius, a distaste for ‘superficial’ social mores, a gruff and temperamental affect, a willingness to shock and even repulse the listening audience in order to push formal artistic boundaries: all of these qualities were traits of Beethoven which in turn gave rise to the Beethoven myth. If we are to have a clearer picture of Beethoven as a composer, DeNora appears to suggest, then we had better disentangle him from many of the provisional and unquestioned attributes that may or may not have been projected onto him by his peers and three hundred years of musicological scholarship.
DeNora contends that Beethoven’s social position—his relationship with patrons, his own uncompromising and canny ambition and his very fortuitous emergence at a time when the socio-political and philosophical climate of the culture was ready to receive his ideas—were as much a part of his success as his unique talent and vision.
The reciprocal relationship between society and the creative individual is a thorny and potentially irreducible one that can hardly be settled here. DeNora’s thesis concerning the social construction of the heroic Beethoven myth, however, is hardly revolutionary. If it were ventured as a statement about Melville, for instance, it would hardly raise an eyebrow.
So it is interesting to note the alarmed and almost injured reaction to DeNora’s thesis from Charles Rosen, a highly noted pianist scholar and specialist in Beethoven, who, unwittingly or not, is an adherent of the traditionalist and analytical assumptions discussed earlier by Joseph Kerman. In his response to DeNora’s thesis, he fairly accuses her of cherry-picking her scholarly material.
While he cannot completely refute her basic assumption concerning socially constructed aspects of Beethoven’s legacy, he appears equally unable to relinquish the notion of Beethoven’s genius as something singular, triumphant and enshrined within a larger historical narrative. To do any less, it would seem to Rosen, would de-valorize his conception of Beethoven’s genius (Rosen 1996). Rosen appears to be stuck between two extremes: that of a transcendent valorization of Beethoven’s genius or a Beethoven stripped of his laurels, lost in a sea of cultural relativism.
He appears to miss what DeNora is aiming at: that it is precisely the cultural assumptions surrounding the myth of Beethoven’s genius that have the highest potential to obscure its true import and value.
There is reason for this type of caution, for the cherished absolutism that Beethoven has enjoyed spills over into a codified descriptive language that rises up to reinforce it. As Janet Levy points out, musicological literature is peppered with what she terms “covert and casual values” that have arisen because of the tautological assumptions of values attributed to composers, often selected in ways to reinforce previously assumed values, even when such assertions contradict previous statements (Levy 1987, 27).
Jose Bowen builds on Levy’s assertion by stating, “Many of our cherished musical values—unity, economy, logic, originality, simplicity, complexity, spirituality, periodization, elitism, universality, seriousness and even the work-concept—arose because we have accepted Beethoven’s music as the standard” (Bowen 1998, 92)
These are serious concerns because it is precisely unconscious assumptions such as these that often become stumbling blocks for aspiring pianist composers. The largely socially constructed figure of the hero genius, coined by and through Beethoven, leaves a legacy that will haunt both composers and classical music performers in the centuries that follow.
The lone romantic figure, blazing a trail through arts and letters and allowing acolytes to follow reverently in their wake, also gave rise to those idiosyncratic figures that are still considered the most advanced and practitioners of Western art music: pianists.
It is my contention that the new conception of the musician as solitary and taciturn monk plumbing the far reaches of aesthetic experience is no better encapsulated than in the figure of the concert pianist, an idiosyncratic figure invented by long line of pianist composers starting with the Beethoven, as we have just demonstrated, and continuing all the way through to Rachmaninoff.
The development of Western pianism is an almost archetypal (and with the exception of Clara Wieck, exclusively masculine) example of the philosopher/poet/ scholar figure that is enshrined in the writings of the German Idealists and the Romantics. Rather than standing in common with the rest of humanity, the pianist is always exceptional, an explorer of the higher reaches of aesthetic experience reached through a formidable combination of both intuitive and natural gifts combined with relentless technical acumen and skill.
The pianist, from the start, is supposed to be an exceptional human being with fundamental gifts that exceed those of other musicians by an order of magnitude. To be called a pianist is a cultural designation that is still met, for those who understand the scope of study required to pursue it, with something bordering on awe.
The classical pianist is a cultural archetype like the genius composer or the symphony orchestra conductor, figures of such immense skill and cultural knowledge that they seem to stand at the very helm of their cultural area. Exceptionality and uniqueness, even eccentricity in the service of great art, is one of their defining traits. By necessity the pianist works nearly alone, in monkish solitude, striving to serve his art.
The very radical harmonic, structural and performative ideas invented by figures such as Chopin and Liszt, considered transformative in their day, gradually became enshrined in practice and eventually reified after a fashion. The soaring and unbounded pianistic fervor of Chopin is now well ensconced under the fingers of nearly every graduate of a major conservatory, where his etudes have become the new gospel of a virtuosity that is no longer exclusive or unique.
It was only a matter of time, then, before a pianist emerged who sought to take the philosophical underpinnings of Western art music as described here and take them to the next logical step in their evolution. The pianist who would do this was, oddly enough, a pianist who refused to play the better known works of the 19th century Romantic piano composers, perhaps out of distaste for their over saturation of the concert repertoire of the time.
Yet in tracing his very explicitly stated ideas concerning his mission as a solo pianist, he is fully in accordance with the idiosyncratic, and ultimately idealist temperament that was set forth by his musical predecessors. This was a pianist, in other words, who thought of himself not only as a classical musician but a musical theorist and a man of ideas, as expressed in his idiosyncratic practice and his voluminous writings on the content and meaning of his own musical praxis. That pianist was Glenn Gould.
Gould’s Idea of North
At the age of thirty-two, the height of his career, Canadian pianist Glenn Gould shocked the classical world by announcing that he would retire from public performing in order to pursue recording exclusively. Still considered by many to be one of the most influential and accomplished pianists of the twentieth century, this sudden gesture of refusal spoke to Gould’s agonized relationship with the public at large and his wish to continue his pursuit of music in monastic isolation.
Gould’s abandonment of public performance for recording technology was a calculated move in the career of a pianist who was deeply concerned about the essential direction of his musical practice. Gould recognized that recording afforded a degree of control and perfectionism hitherto unheard of in the realm of live public music. He was especially excited by the possibility of splicing fragments of different performances in order to create virtually perfect and idealized renditions of certain works.
Praised by some critics as a fearless embrace of the avant-garde, his drastic shift in direction appears to have in it a direct line to the musical thinking of the previous two centuries. The relentless striving of the artist, even an artist of international respect and great virtuosity, desired to move even farther into the realm of the purely conceptual.
Investigating the roots of Gould’s ideas about recording technology, and there are many, it is apparent that Gould was, philosophically at least, deeply steeped in the classical music culture of his day, an era that had yet to see the beginnings of the so-called new musicology. Due to his prodigious talent and facility, he also enjoyed some of the Romantic hero status that had been traditionally conferred on the performers in his lineage.
A black and white photo essay of the young Gould playing Bach, complete with tousled, sweat soaked hair and rapturously absorbed, almost Dionysian contortions of his face and body, show that a transcendent and romantic conception of his musical genius was well in place. Why then did he decide to leave performance behind?
In his relentless pursuit of technical and musical perfection, which was already considered formidable in his day, he remained restless and dissatisfied with all the aspects of performance that were beyond his conceptual control. He believed that the entire social structure surrounding the ritual of the concert hall, concertizing and the promotion of shows was insincere and vulgar (Hecker 2008, 79).
Moreover, he believed that the music’s ‘creative’ listeners were not being given their due outside of recordings. His views, in part inspired by the media theory of his Canadian contemporary Marshall McLuhan, approached the recorded medium as a site of mutual empowerment, where the creative listener and the performer merged in the creation of a new type of musical experience that enhanced the individuality of the listener’s experience while erasing the odious identity of the performer.
Recorded music, in other words, would serve as a mediated network and feedback loop between the performer and the listener, allowing each a more privatized, autonomous and mutually creative relationship. In his own words:
[The performance] undergoes a profound metamorphosis as a result of its exposure to that chain, to that network, and the result is a performance transformed, a performance transcended, a performance sent out into the world, if you like, charged with a very special mission. In my opinion, that mission is to enable the listener to realize the benefits of that invisible network, that climate of anonymity which the network provides. (Gould quoted in Hecker 2008, 80)
It appears that Gould envisioned a utopian musical interactivity where the entire focus was shifted away from the social context of performance and focused instead on the primacy of the performer and listener’s experience. Gould’s utopia was a purely mediated musical space where the creative agency of the performer and the listener could interact freely without the constraints of authorship or the cult of the individual performer (Hecker 2008, 79).
In Gould’s futuristic vision a perfectly viable version of the musical sublime as envisioned by Romantic idealism emerges, a music that arises from a pure fusion of listener and performer that allows them both a full range of creative freedom in a conceptualized realm that is untrammeled by social convention or by the constraints of physical space.
Gould’s utopian vision of a purely mediated musical space is almost eerily anticipated by Schelling’s personal visions of music as an art form that has done away with the troublesome confines of subject and object:
[I]t [music] is…pure form, liberated from any object or matter. To this extent, music is the art that is least limited by physical considerations in that it represents pure motion as such, abstracted from any object and borne on invisible, almost spiritual wings. (Schelling 1893, 149)
E.T.A. Hoffman echoes Gould’s dictum that the personality of the performer should interfere as little as possible in the vision of the composer:
The true artist lives only in the work that he [sic] has understood as the composer meant it and that he then performs. He is above putting his own personality forward in any way, and all his endeavors are directed toward a single end-that all the wonderful enchanting pictures and apparitions that the composer has sealed into his work with magic power may be called into active life, shining in a thousand colors, and that they may surround mankind in luminous sparkling circles and, enkindling its imagination, its innermost soul, may bear it in rapid flight into the faraway spirit realm of sound. (Hoffman 1810, 783)
In the purely mediated space of recording, a conceptual realm where real and sequential time play little to no role in the ultimate aesthetic result, it is as if Gould had finally found a viable field in which to play out the idealist vision of a pure music outside the confines of the temporal, the social and the physical.
Yet Gould’s vision also became increasingly hermetic to the point of annihilating itself in a series of increasingly eccentric and uneven explorations that were further exacerbated by his continued demand for more and more solitude. It is fitting perhaps, that he is the pianist who was chosen to record a few exquisitely polished minutes of Bach for the gold laser disk mounted on the Voyager satellite, which now continues to travel far beyond the reaches of the solar system into the depths of interstellar space (Hecker 2008, 78).
Another, extremely crucial aspect of Gould’s pianism has deep repercussions for this investigation: there is virtually no embodiment in it. Gould’s vision of the perfect musical experience, taking place as it does in an idealized and purely mediated space of recording and listening, is one where the body does not exist.
In fact, Gould struggled with his body throughout both his performing and his recording career, in the adoption of his signature bizarre crouch, his incessant humming which listeners and critics found problematic, and his life-long battle with hypochondria. As I will show, improvisation is a wholly embodied practice, and the route towards successful improvisatory practice is entirely through the body.
The Origins of African American Vernacular Music
While Western art music followed its own increasingly specialized and formalized philosophical and aesthetic aims, vernacular music flourished throughout North America in its own way. From the 19th century onward, variations on folk song forms brought to North America by immigrant and slave populations took root and spawned musical genres that are still evolving at the present moment.
Guided largely through oral tradition, recording and performance, this history has been anything but carefully unified. The history of vernacular music is rife with anecdotes of chance meetings, unlikely influences and the cross-pollination of genres, musical practices, and techniques. The story of jazz is necessarily made up of similar historical, musicological and ethnographic fragments. It is a narrative that could hardly be more distinct than that of Western art music.
Afrological and vernacular music is the product of dispersion. Its means of dissemination was through Diaspora, cultural miscegenation and the commingling of dozens of scattered cultures and traditions. It had no official representation in the institutions of sovereign power, the academy, and no champions in academia. In the words of Gunther Schuller,
The developments in Europe, following a centuries-old pattern in ‘art music’, were generated by the vision of single individuals—what the romantic century liked to call the inspirations of ‘creative genius.’ Jazz, on the other hand, was not the product of a handful of stylistic innovators, but a relatively unsophisticated quasi-folk music—more sociological manifestation than music—which had just recently coalesced from half a dozen tributary sources into a still largely anonymous, but nevertheless distinct, idiom. (Schuller 1968, 8 )
Jazz also emerges in America at the same time as the first recording devices were beginning to be used by musicians, listeners and ethnographers. It is precisely the use of recording that allowed a largely oral musical tradition to be radically and heterogeneously dispersed throughout a continent as vast as varied as America.
Moreover, the use of recordings is one of the key elements in the education of all jazz musicians who wish to learn how to improvise. The development and history of jazz and the transmission of improvisational practice is unthinkable without it. Recordings also provided the semblance of a unified history, at least in the form of recorded archives, for a music that was, in its earliest years, nomadic and scattered.
This continues to pose a daunting problem for ethnographers, and Schuller wisely refrains from identifying any one account as definitive and instead names several competing theories. In the past forty years, it has been determined that jazz, generally agreed upon to have been formulated in the city of New Orleans (a major port city for the slave trade) contains elements of African, Brazilian, Cuban, Spanish, Caribbean, Creole, native American and European cultures.
With the absence of a unified, philosophically sanctioned cultural narrative, jazz is apprehended as many jazz musicians continue to do: through fragments and pieces that are gleaned as one searches through its rich, varied and scattered tradition.
Part of what is known is that a majority of jazz’s particular and peculiar rhythmic and harmonic practices can be partially traced back to the musical culture of Africa, from which populations were displaced to North America during the centuries of the slave trade. These musical practices were collective, and in fact sprung up from a musical culture that could not be farther from that of Western art music’s conception of music as a specialized area of cultural endeavor.
For Africans, music was an endeavor thoroughly woven into every aspect of social, religious and daily life, together with all of the arts and handicrafts such as painting, weaving, decorating and story-telling. It is telling that even until now, no actual word for ‘art’ (in the sense that it is used in the West) exists in any African language“ (Schuller 1986, 4).
With its overwhelming stress on collectivity, it is safe to say that African music was rooted in a tribalism and collective character which is difficult for an individualist Westerner to fully comprehend. The ability to play musical instruments was often viewed as a sacred gift conferred upon players by ancestral spirits, and music was often viewed as a means of communicating with them for the betterment of life within the community (Berliner 1981, 51).
Thus musical production in African tribal society was more predicated on the collective participation in a group ritual, devoid of any Western notion of a public ‘performance’ divided between ‘musicians’ and ‘listeners’. This deeply integrated and often sacred character of music meant that music served the rituals and gatherings of a collective tribal identity.
The use of instruments, the specific time for the use of certain songs relating to festivals, celebrations and collective endeavors such as the harvest, meant that tribal musical life was very circumscribed by custom. Thus the sheer melding of musical influences and practices the freedom from cultural constraint that occurred in North America from the 17th century onward were in a sense unprecedented.
It is important to stress the novelty of this event, because it reveals something essential about the character of jazz. Outside of European and world traditions, excluded from the academy until the middle of the twentieth century, jazz has always been a strange hybrid at the periphery of established culture, and is precisely this character that is the source of its power.
As the drummer Max Roach puts it, jazz represents a unique break not only from Eurocentric cultures, but from the equally rigid and restrictive traditions that have bound the music of other cultures that have rigid parameters for the use of instruments, motifs and rhythms.
In America, we haven’t formulated so much of a musical tradition as in Europe, and we’re still free to do different things. For example, I think Gunther Schuller is working on an opera with a jazz band in it. Before Charlie Parker died, he was talking about doing a double concerto with Yehudi Menuhin. It’s not like India here, where traditionally you play can’t play afternoon raga in the evening, or Africa, where a certain drum can only be played on a certain occasion. We have the freedom to try out a lot of things, and we’re not set in our ways. (Berliner 1994, 458)
However scattered and diverse its origins, there is no doubt that jazz eventually involved into its own distinct and incredibly powerful form of idiomatic expression. The question is, how did this tradition coalesce and how did it finally develop and come to fruition in the subsequent schools of jazz that dominated the popular music of the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s, reshaping the directions of American musical drama, and forever altered the direction of vernacular American music?
Early ethnographic research suggests that early African American musicians might have received their first formal instrumental training on European instruments (such as the bugle, flugelhorn, trumpet, fife and drum) as early members of military corps bands. Black freemen and mixed race minorities were conscripted for musical duty instead of armed combat in colonial America, often as a precaution against armed insurrection (Lewis, 2003).
These colonial drum and fife corps grew over time into early modern military brass and concert bands, deepening their instrumental skills and repertoire and forging a deeper connection with civilian populations through their performance at social gatherings as well as military functions. After the Civil War, African American musician veterans often became traveling professional musicians, attaching themselves to road shows and to the hugely popular Minstrel shows that were all the rage across country. A very large number of these bands converged on New Orleans, largely due to its African American leadership. (Lewis, 2003).
The popularity of brass bands and the large number of military trained African American musicians caused the brass band tradition to take root in African American communities, and New Orleans become a hotbed of African American brass music. W.C. Handy, trumpet player and composer of the early classic “Basin Street Blues”, a foundational Blues classic, began his early musical career in one of these bands, the Mahara Minstrels (Lewis, 2003).
These socio-historical conditions led to a large number of African Americans from around the turn of the century to be formally trained in military music corps, where they were instructed as musicians in the European marching band Idiom. In the hotbed of cultural miscegenation that was New Orleans these elements co-evolved with remaining strains of African, Caribbean, Latin and Native American influences that were still a huge part of the daily lives of that city’s ethnically and culturally diverse population.
The African tendency, noted by Schuller, of musical integration into all aspects of daily life had continued, after a fashion, with the communities that had been transplanted to North America.
In his extensive and thorough ethnography jazz improvisation, Paul Berliner (1994) echoes Schuller’s insistence that African American communities, especially in jazz’s early golden age, were permeated by a level of musical saturation and community.
This level of community involvement with music at all levels made it possible for young fledgling musicians to grow up as astonishingly well-trained musicians familiar with a wide range of different idioms and styles.
In interviewing a spectrum of jazz musicians who grew up in largely African American neighborhoods in Harlem, Chicago, Kansas City, New Orleans and Philadelphia, Berliner discovered that the one common factor in the childhood of each musician was that music was everywhere: at home in record collections and instruments, in the band rehearsals of parents or close relatives, at church, at the local music store, in big name big bands and music programs at school, and during block parties and street festivals. It was in guild bands and in doo-wop choirs and in professional dance bands and touring marching bands.
These musicians also describe their early music environments as largely poly-musical, spanning from spirituals to folk tunes to dance tunes to simplified arrangements of classical symphonic repertoire. Most importantly, there were no strong divisions made between each of these different iterations of musical form or genre, since music was divided more by its social and communal function that it was by an overriding pedagogical or critical theory. Music was simply part of a large and roiling communal fabric that extended from church to the living room to the corner dive bar to the bandstand and back (Berliner 2003, 28).
Berliner also notes the extraordinary number of opportunities young musicians living in this community are given to play. The musicians he interviewed were often encouraged to sit in bands at church services, often to the loud encouragement of choirs and congregations.
The jazz drummer Max Roach recalls that many musicians developed an affinity for emotionally connecting with an audience through their playing during the long, often electrically charged and Dionysian sermons delivered weekly in Baptists churches, and that these musicians became renowned not merely through their technical ability, but more through their ability to echo the cadence of the preacher and emotionally connect with the congregation (Berliner 2003, 41).
Young musicians already had at their disposal a willing and extremely responsive crowd of peers and supportive adults that helped them develop an intuitive emotional connection with a large audience.
To stress the musical saturation of African American communities is not to diminish, by contrast, the musical environment that surrounded the young Beethoven or other young composers of the canon. Bonn had a rich musical folklore, a national theatre orchestra, opera, and numerous orchestras and school choirs.
Folk music is ubiquitous in all cultures, after all. However, it is important that all biographies of Beethoven point not to his desire to join a band or a musical community, as was often the main ambition of the jazz musicians interviewed by Berliner, but to become famous court composer and virtuoso soloist like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Already at a young age Beethoven’s ambitions (and his father’s) were distinctly set on the highest social rung of society, and there is no doubt that he unquestionably identified the highest musical achievement with the societies upper echelon, not with the collective musical experience of his community.
According to Berliner, jazz and improvisational music first flourished in communities where musical environments were far more informal and collaborative. Solitary practice was indeed a serious pastime for musicians who were looking to hone their skills to perfection; soloists and ensembles did indeed have outstanding reputations, and competition over who qualified as the top musical talent of a given scene was frequently contested and occasionally violent.
That being said, the musical environment Berliner describes appears more densely saturated with a broader array of divergent musical experience, was less culturally hegemonic, and was far richer in opportunities for musicians to absorb a variety of musical experiences. “In reflecting on their early childhoods, many jazz artists describe the process by which the acquired an initial base of musical knowledge as one of osmosis” (Berliner 2003, 22).
Most obviously, it could be said that German Romantic composers had not yet existed in a broad, media saturated culture, where recordings, radio and television further saturated the environment with a further layer of sights and sounds. Even more important is the central recordings, especially vinyl records, would play in the often self-imposed regimens of imitations and listening that were often crucial to the musical development of generations of jazz musicians.
This bears mentioning because the pedagogical style of the most effective jazz educators, such as Dr. Barry Harris, whose methodology I will examine in detail later, seems to follow this de-centered and non-hegemonic level of musical instruction. His classes are not segregated by instrument or level of ability.
A Barry Harris class generally consists of a room full of instrumentalists of different types (saxophones, pianists, guitarists, for example) gathered around a piano where Harris sits and discusses a few key musical concepts in the form of small scaffolding exercises of phrases that he then asks everyone to copy in unison, to the best of their ability.
This organization seemed like a revelation and a shock to me, at first, because my years of meeting privately with a teacher in a studio led me to believe that a group approach was a recipe for chaos. So I was surprised and gratified to find that, as long as no one played over each-other, each student was able to follow Harris at their level of understanding, and grow entirely at their own pace.
From Rhythm to Form to Harmony
To summarize, vernacular American music, and jazz in particular, is characterized by its diverse and polyglot character. It was disseminated through the agency of recording, the integrated and musically saturated character of African American communities, and the popular music industry.
Though rooted in Diaspora, jazz retained its vigor through its diversity of approaches and its almost instinctive and communally integrated approach to musicality. This more deeply integrated, non-formalized and pan-musical approach was also noticed by Schuller (1968). He ventures, for instance, that African American musical culture and its unique sense of form and rhythm extends beyond instrumental and musical production and is in fact integrated with all aspects of daily life, especially language.
African musical rhythm, he maintains, cannot be understood separately from the musical qualities of African American speech, as the two influence and mutually reinforce each other. According to Schuller, the timbral richness, the free play with rhyme, rhythm and sound, and the generally inventive and musical quality of African American speech patterns as documented in ethnographic literature, show that African American musicians conceived of language’s relationship to music in a way radically different from musicians in the Eurological tradition. “All verbal activity, whether quotidian social life or religion and magic, is rhythmicized.
And it is no mere coincidence that the languages and dialects of the African Negro are in themselves a form of music, often to the extent that certain syllables possess specific intensities, durations and even pitch levels “ (Schuller 1968, 5) These musical speech qualities surface fairly early in the history of jazz, starting with the first recorded instance of scat by Louis Armstrong on his pressing of “The Hebbie-Jeebies”.
He had dropped his lyric sheet, and with recording time being valuable, decided to make up his own stream of happy nonsense lyrics (Mezzrow 1990, 119) Schuller’s assertion of the inherent musicality of African American language is also evident in the meteoric rise of rap and hip-hop since the 1980s.
The implications African rhythmic organization on proper improvisation cannot be more crucial for understanding the classical musician’s struggle with improvisational fluency. Having been trained with the importance of phrasing that is circumscribed by the European notion of vertical rhythmic alignment, classical musicians find themselves experiencing the desire to stop if the musical phrase they are producing overlap or crosses what they sense is the rhythmic end of a bar line.
Crucial to developing improvisational fluency is the ability to stop in the middle of one measure and carry it through over the bar line into the next. Jazz phrasing which vertically aligns itself with the strict endings and beginnings of beats has no swing and is essentially lifeless. Musician Chuck Israels explains, “Great jazz players start and end in different places as they go from chorus to chorus,” and adds:
It’s often beautiful to start a phrase just before the end of one chorus and carry it over into the beginning of the next. Because that’s such an obvious line of demarcation in the form, you want to dovetail that join together.
There are the formal issues, and some people have an instinct for them and som don’t. Charles Mingus once said, “How come all these modern players ply “I Got Rhythm’ with the same eight-bar phrases? How come they don’t play from the end of the second eight bars into the bride or from the end of the bridge into the last eight bars? Why do they always breathe after every eight bars?” With great players like Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, you could never predict the places they were going to breathe” (quoted in Berliner 1994, 246)
Proper improvisational phrasing in jazz thus requires a maverick element of spontaneity, something that resists the uniform alignment of the pieces structure and the expectations of the listener. From the standpoint of rhythm, ostensibly its most essential element, jazz improvisation is predicated on spontaneity and unpredictably: a rhythmic flow that extends horizontally past the formal contents of the chart.
So it is very important to note that Schuller mentions that African rhythmic organization is, in contrast to Western music’s vertical alignment, largely horizontal in character (Schuller 1968, 11). Citing the work of ethnographer and musicologist A.M. Jones on the origins of African rhythm, Schuller first notes that Jones had discovered that African rhythm is additive, rather than divisive.
European meter is based on divisions of equal units of time broken into measures, and ensembles stay together by keeping a strict vertical alignment among all the musicians present. In his study of native African rhythm, however, Jones finds that African rhythm is horizontal in alignment, meaning that each musician can play an additive rhythm (for instance, 3 + 2+ 2) and slide back and forth until a satisfactory and complex rhythmic counterpoint is finally established with the other rhythmic players.
The concept of “groove” and “swing” it turns out, is a horizontally rhythmic affair (Schuller 1968, 12). Swing is an essential element in jazz, one that necessarily combines rhythm and phrasing as a means of emphasizing the offbeat
This horizontally sliding aspect of African rhythm is deeply intertwined with the structure and form of jazz music. To play a motif that begins and ends at odd places towards the end or middle of the bar line means that the underlying harmonic structure cannot be too unpredictable, since the improviser requires at least some foresight into the change that is coming up in the next bar.
As I discussed in the section on ‘effective improvisation, this explains the repetitive, ostinato like repetition or ‘chorus-pattern’ of the twelve-bar blues and later on the 32 bar ‘rhythm changes.’ The seamless and circular ways in which these forms are repeated provide a harmonic bedrock over which the improviser can add his or her own melody.
Without an understanding of jazz’s horizontal rhythmic principles, however, attempts to add a harmonically congruent melody to I IV V necessarily seems dull. Harmonically congruent melodies that coincide with the beginnings and endings of each ‘change’ provide no rhythmic or harmonic counterpoint for the ear, and no intriguing interplay.
The ‘magical’ quality of master players that many aspiring improvisers look to with longing and frustration is often a matter of mastering this ability to propel musical ideas forward by starting in the middle of or towards the end of bars and phrases. It is also this rhythmic principle that will eventually lend harmonic complexity to the original 12 bar and 32 bar blues form.
With rhythmic movement established and moving forward reasonably, improvisers gradually grow more and more confident and able to integrate richer harmonic material into their playing. As a beginner, the main focus is to keep going without stopping, a process which has been likened to a child’s first forays on a bicycle. Once rhythmic balance has When an improviser feels rhythmically situated and stable within the confines of the form, the harmonic possibilities of the structure begin to appear and are suddenly ‘graspable’.
The challenges of understanding additive rhythm in real time, the deeply integrated and communal nature of musical experience, and the almost intuitive way in which jazz musicians ‘feel’ their way into successful improvisation, also center around a crucial aspect that is missing from Gould’s retreat into the pure space of listening: embodiment. Without the guideposts of a score and its vertically aligned rhythms, the improviser must develop a deep level of familiarity with his or her instrument.
This familiarity is necessarily linked to musical possibilities the improviser has access to on the instrument, in this case the keyboard. Classical performers can perform daunting technical feats on the keyboard if they have sufficient time to repeat and prepare themselves for the eventual performance. Improvisers, however, think in real time, and before they can think about technically stunning leaps and jumps, they must learn to seek out and find musical opportunities that are as close at hand as possible.
Jazz musicians study harmony not so that they can engage in a more sophisticated analysis of the score. For the improviser, harmony is the bread and butter of improvisational flow, a means of seeing directly on the keyboard those places where the hand can tunefully venture. Thus, the notion of harmony, rhythm, and melody are intertwined for the keyboard performer at an embodied level.
The Bandstand Education
The learning of jazz improvisation is a collective endeavor for a reason. The assimilation of musical elements, and the way in which they are finally made to fit together, are of a subtlety and order of complexity that students who practice exclusively on their own would despair of getting it right.
Traditional jazz performance places far more emphasis on ensemble and band playing than it does on solo playing. Generally the most intimate piano performance setting for jazz in the trio format, in which the piano is accompanied by an upright bass and drums. The evolution of jazz from an early form of dance music and a popular form of nightclub entertainment has gradually cemented this notion of rhythmically driven ensemble playing that necessarily encompasses a strong bass line, a steady forward driving rhythm, and a prevailing melodic element in its sound.
Even in solo performances, the pianist is careful to set forth some intimation, through use of rhythm and the addition of a plausible bass line in the left hand, the trace elements of a trio.
How are such deeply ingrained and coordinated integration between formal, harmonic, and rhythmic elements embodied by the fledgling jazz player? Returning to Berliner’s emphasis on the prevalence of large and flourishing communal musical cultures in jazz’s golden age, it may be said that jazz is a musical idiom that can only be learned collectively.
The real time interaction between players, or ‘jamming’ is an essential practice that, apart from chamber music or ensemble playing, appears to be absent from the classical performer’s experience.
In jamming, a group of jazz musicians, following the structure of the chart, play songs in a manner that has been informally codified through the last hundred years of jazz’s history. Generally, the band plays through the entirety of the songs form with the song’s recognizable melody intact, then through the entirety of the song form. After this point, each instrument in the ensemble has a chance to play a solo through the entire form of the song.
After soloing through the entire form at least once, the solo is then passed on to the other instrument of the ensemble, and so on, until all the instruments have had a chance to solo. Then the entire band reprises the song’s melody, plays through the song one final time, and ends the song.
This format, generally known as ‘chorus format’, has been the standard method of ensemble playing since the earliest days of jazz, generally in the order of brass and woodwinds first, strings second, and percussion last. This form can be varied slightly through practices such as ‘trading fours’ in which the instruments each play four measures each of the song chart, in rapid succession, so that the song becomes, at higher tempos, a rapid- fire exchange of improvised musical ideas.
This is essential to understanding the learning of improvisation, since it is nearly impossible for any musician to do so without the guidance of other musicians. A beginning solo pianist will have difficulty getting a feel for what constitutes proper rhythms, and might struggle to find sufficient melodic fluency in the right hand. For this reason, listening to more accomplished musicians on the bandstand is an essential practice.
The intensely embodied aspect of jazz improvisational practice is engendered not through solitary practice of the score, but through the countless cyclical repetition of the song form heard over and over again. Only this type of intensely repeated listening allows the beginning improvisational musician to start to grasp, on an embodied level, exactly how the song is fleshed out harmonically, rhythmically and melodically.
Finding a player whose embodiment of improvisation conveys the essence of improvisational practice is a highly personal journey. There are certain accomplished players whose natural sensibilities and approach to the instrument manage to simply convey the solution to expressive and technical problems that have eluded the questing student for years.
After four years of teaching himself the essentials of improvisational harmony and rhythm, and after a series of fledgling and frustrating experiences playing with small trios and quartets, David Sudnow claims that it was listening to the piano playing of Jimmy Rowles that effected the single most important shift in his playing, underscoring the necessity of witnessing live performance by more accomplished improvisers.
More than any single experience, it was listening to Jimmy Rowles play the piano that marked the crucial turning point in my progress toward competent play in the fourth year, and when I reflect upon the most significant changes that began to occurs in my ways with the keyboard during this period, this experience epitomizes the nature of this transition. (Sudnow 1978, 81)
The development and evolution of a player’s improvisational technique and style is generally honed not in private practice, but in communal settings where the player struggles to play along, try out new ideas, and finally gain a foothold in the musical community.
This is done through intense communal playing, listening, and the identification of certain advanced players whose unique musical approach find a resonance with your own. The way forward in improvisation is always through finding a subtle and distinctive way of altering tone, rhythm, harmonic organization and spacing , and this can only take place through intense collaborative playing and listening.
In improvisation, the hands on the keyboard are the score, and it is through the ability to ‘read’ the possibilities on the keyboard that are at hand, as well as being able to hear a few notes ahead, that allow the improviser to move forward interrupted.
For a classical musician, the worst possible moment is being lost in a blank space, where the mind can no longer refer back to the score and the hand can no longer move forward from memory. For the improviser, the worst moment is when all possible ways forward aren’t visible, or, more frustratingly, are visible but are out of reach.
A Philosophy of jazz?
Because there are so many voluminous personal and ethnographic accounts of what happens during improvisation and how its many performers have gradually grown to master the idiom, the idea of a philosophical grounding to jazz improvisation sounds almost incongruous.
That being said, a shift in continental philosophy did take place in which conceptions of subjectivity changed in such a way that an understanding of the primordial relationship between player and instrument became far easier to grasp. The conceptions of subjectivity discussed earlier stressed a continuous distinctness between the subjective and objective world, however subtly formulated , and stressed ways of resolving this difference in a larger aesthetic or philosophical theory.
In the philosophy of Husserl and Heidegger, however, this entire theoretical project was recast in a completely different light.
In Being and Time (1926), Heidegger was the first philosopher of his generation to fully repudiate Kant’s earlier metaphysical ambitions. He proclaimed that subjective experience rested on a foundation that was already given in the very act of being. This subjectivity, or Being, as he insisted on describing it, arose concurrently with the world, and the two were intertwined at such a fundamental level that any attempt to disentangle them was futile.
This is a direct refutation of Kantian ‘proof’ of objective reality. Heidegger cites Kant’s claim that the “scandal of philosophy and human reason in general…is that there is no cogent proof of for ‘the existence of things outside us” (quoted in Heidegger 2010, 195).
Heidegger insists instead that the scandal of philosophy does not lie in the absence of such a cogent proof, but resides in the fact that such a proof continues to be actively sought by his contemporaries in philosophy:
The scandal of philosophy does not consist in the fact that this proof (the proof on an objective reality) is still lacking up to now, but in the fact that such proofs are expected and attempted again and again. Such expectation, intentions and demands grow out of an Ontologically insufficient way of positing That From Which, independently and ‘outside’ of which, a ‘world’ is proven objectively present. (Heidegger 2010, 196)
In this fashion Heidegger posits reality as a problem of Being, with reality or world emerging concurrently and simultaneously as the self, in a manner that resists analysis, because such analysis detaches subjectivity from the world in precisely a way that a larger understanding immediately becomes impossible.
“The ‘Problem of reality’ in the sense of the question whether an external world is objectively present or demonstrable, turns out to be an impossible one, not because its consequences lead to inextricable impasses, but because the very being which serves as its theme repudiates such a line of questioning, so to speak” (Heidegger 2010, 198)
The fundamental ‘giveness’ of physical reality is also noted by Merleau Ponty in The Phenomenology of Perception (1945), in which he contends, much like Heidegger, that before any analysis of subjectivity or objectivity can take place, the body and consciousness are already present, in a primordial fashion or ‘giveneness’ that resists categorization or analysis.
The world is there before any possible analysis of mind, and it would be artificial to make it the outcome of a series of syntheses which link, in the first place sensations, then aspects of the object corresponding to different perspectives, when both are nothing but products of analysis, with no sort of prior reality.
Analytical reflection believes that it can trace back the course followed by a prior constituting act and arrive, in the ‘inner man’- to use Saint Augustine’s expression- at a constituting power which has always been identical with that inner self. Thus reflection is carried off by itself and installs itself in an impregnable subjectivity, as yet untouched by being in time. (Merleau Ponty 2009, x, xi)
- As Eleanor Stubley notes in her response to Merleau Ponty, “Music was originally known as “techne”, intimately bound up with the body. Musicians were people who filled the intervals or spaces between sounds with their bodies (Stubley 2006, 44).
The relationship between Heidegger, Merleau Ponty and the emergence of jazz improvisation may seem like quite a leap without examining the implications of Heidegger’s new ontology for the relationship between musician and instrument.
With Heidegger’s approach, the necessity of objective analysis or proof, and the transcendent aesthetic of ‘being’ envisioned by the German Idealists, is reduced in importance. What matters in Heidegger’s philosophy is not a cogent and analytically sound explication of being, but a thorough and truthful account of being as it unfolds in the moment. Self and world co-emerge, and the best means of understanding their interrelationship is through observation and description, or what would be formally termed a phenomenology.
This type of descriptive phenomenological ontology can only best describe musical production at the keyboard as a co-creation of hand and keyboard ineluctably bound up into a new type of being present at the keyboard. Heidegger facilitates, through his new formulation of subjectivity, a description of improvisation that sounds remarkably close to the descriptions of jazz musicians, with their talk of ‘Being inside the music’ and their insistence that in playing their instrument they are not playing from a score, but playing directly from their lives.
In attempting to follow Heidegger’s extremely dense attempt at the description of this relationship, often with the use of neologisms of his own invention, it becomes obvious that the description of interrelated being-in-the-world is tremendously difficult precisely because it resists analysis.
The very act of being engenders a type of engagement and simultaneous forgetfulness that makes objective or analytical descriptions of its unfolding awkward at best. From this perspective, it becomes far easier to understand the difficulty accomplished improvisers had in attempting to describe to me, in concrete terms, what it was they were doing when they managed to play spontaneous phrases that I liked, or that seemed particularly fresh and inventive.
They were attempting to describe something that came out of a complex interrelationship of body and instrument that arose before they could find the analytical language with which to describe it. One teacher kept stumbling over his words and repeated, with some frustration, “You just have to feel it.”
A philosophical and phenomenological account of what occurs precisely at the level of the hand at the keyboard was not precisely outlined until David Sudnow attempted a phenomenological description of his experience at the keyboard in his book, Ways of the Hand (1978). In this work Sudnow establishes his grounding in the embodied nature of improvisation: that only in playing an improvisatory idea only does one learn to grasp it. In other words, the hands must engage in their own form of thinking, separate from any analytical or a priori knowledge being provided by the thinking mind.
This immediacy, of thinking through the body instead of thinking before acting, is what engenders the physical transformation he notices in the course of his learning to improvise. Thus, he documents a curious transformation that occurred not at the level of musical understanding, but at the level of his physical being.
In sitting down at the piano, Sudnow recognizes that his hands take on a different character as soon as he sees them in relation to the piano keyboard, by virtue of the thousands of hours during which he has seen them placed there and visualized the different musical pathways that they have traversed.
The hands, his mind and the keyboard, in other words, have become an amalgam, fused together through their mutual interrelationship and specific history, in which they developed their own form of mutual agency. It needs to be stressed that this is not exactly what we call reflexive learning or muscle memory, as the mind remains actively engaged with the body and most importantly through the body. Sudnow is describing a combined agency of hand, mind and keyboard. As he states in his introduction:
If I watch my hands on a typewriter, I don’t recognize their movements. I am startled by the looks of my hands while typing, just as I’m surprised by the sight of my profile when surrounded by mirrors in a clothing store…But the sight of my piano-playing hands is familiar. I know their looks, not only in those intimate ways in which we all know our hands looks, but as my jazz-making hands.
It is the ways of the hand that I watch now. For a long time in learning to play jazz piano, I was busy watching my hands and the terrain of the keyboard to see that they did not get into trouble; or I was looking at the keyboard in order to find places to take my fingers, so that instructional work was occurring as a form of guidance in which my looking was very much implicated.
Then my look became preoccupied in more subtle ways, party to a kind of imaginary conceiving of various aspects of the territory in which I was moving…my hands have come to develop an intimate knowledge of the piano keyboard, ways of exploratory engagement with routings through its spaces, modalities of reaching and articulating, and now I choose places to go in the course of moving from place to place as a handful choosing….I want to offer a close description of the handicraft of improvisation, of the knowing ways of the jazz body.” (Sudnow 1978, xi,xiii)
This is an important distinction, because it moves away from the model that would ascertain that Sudnow simply ‘knows’ what to play because he has trained his entire self to direct his hands to do his bidding.
Rather, his formulation implies that his hands know where to go because they have become accustomed to the environment of the keyboard. They inhabit and dwell on the keyboard, and as a result are changed by the keyboard as much as the keyboard is changed by them.
It is not a matter of hands controlling the keyboard or the keyboard expressing dominion over his hands. The central fact is that, through becoming deeply familiar, his hands change into something different, which he refers to as “jazz piano player hands” (Sudnow 1975, xiii)
The exact language of this distinction is important because it shifts emphasis away from earlier metaphysical description of human agency. In Sudnow’s description, he is not controlling his hands, but a special symbiotic knowledge is unfolding in real time through the agency of the hand and keyboard.
In light of Sudnow’s description of this particular type of integration between hand and keyboard, Keith Jarrett’s rather cryptic remarks about Vladimir Ashkenazy’s training had made it difficult to “Be outside himself” Become understandable. With its peculiar emphasis on subjectivity as it has been carefully constructed through centuries of accrued musical culture, the notion of relinquishing one’s hands to the instrument to find their way is not only difficult, but essentially unthinkable.
In improvisation the hand is no longer a docile body carrying out the command of a sovereign mind, it is a free extension of the body that is asked to explore and discover musical terrain on its own, all within the learned system of distances that make up the keyboard.
Just as I had noticed in my early attempts at improvisation, Sudnow’s hands had to grope about the suddenly unfamiliar terrain of the keyboard learning the distances from place to place, constructing from this apparently random accumulation of intervals and interstices a gestalt or coherent sense of where and how to proceed. In making the shift from music based on mimesis or written scores, Sudnow found that something had come between himself and his hands:
The hand had to be motivated to particular next keys to depress, and when there was nowhere for it to go it became totally immobilized, stumbled around, and between ‘me’ and ‘it’ there was a rather alienated relationship. (Sudnow 1975, 18)
Sudnow’s entire journey throughout the book is an attempt for a musician to get his body to perform a musical idiom and style that he had already mentally apprehended as a deeply appreciative listener and a pianist with considerable musical training.
The book becomes a detailed and descriptive account of how the rationalizing and objective mind of the author begins to loosen its directive and analytical tendencies in order to connect with the intuitive intentionality of his hands. Sudnow’s journey suggests that the acquisition of his ‘jazz playing hands’ involved a type of mind body integration that defies rational analysis but can be acquired gradually through continued endeavors and attempts in the moment.
If the keyboard is truly a phenomenological terrain that the hand must memorize, the internal blueprint for that terrain must be properly designed to fit handily beneath it. My personal objections to the many theory books I attempted to read was not that they didn’t impart valuable theoretical information but they did not impart it in a way in which it could be embodied.
The hand requires access to theoretical knowledge which fits comfortably within its reach, modeled intimately on its journey across the keyboard. The gap between an exercise with chords in root position or simple inversions accompanied by scales is still light years away from the closely grouped and rhythmically complex harmonic rendition of “Autumn in New York” by an experienced jazz pianist.
Yet I could never find a teacher who could break down the minute harmonic movements of the left hand across a chorus, nor was I ever shown how an actual improvisational line could be organically constructed, phrase by phrase, beneath my hand in real time. A truly feasible pedagogical approach to improvisation in jazz, then, teaches theory as an embodied practice, if it is to be grasped at all. Thus I am not arguing in favor of phenomenology against theory, I am arguing for a phenomenological approach to the teaching of theory.
In improvisation, all layers of musical experience come together. Only in this way can a truly integrated approach to improvisation become feasible. As I mentioned in the introduction of this paper, only one pedagogical approach that I have experienced in my long search for improvisational fluency has come close to organically uniting all these aspects of improvisational production; that pedagogical method was developed by Barry Harris.
The Barry Harris approach
As mentioned previously I have sat down next to Harris on many occasions to be taught within a larger group of musicians. I have found that these sessions have invariably enriched my approach to keyboard improvisation in a way that addressed not only the need for harmonic materials and ‘places to go’, but continuously reinforces the philosophical position that the improviser’s hands think at the keyboard, through their embodied position there.
Just the vision of Harris at the piano was gently instructive. A legend of pianism and pedagogy for over sixty years, he still sits at the keyboard, quizzical and bemused, exploring the terrain with hands that show evidence of age and a recent stroke. Yet he still succeeds in pulling from the keyboard sequences of harmonic progression that always sound unfailingly complete and interesting.
This is partially because his own amazement never ceases. As he is fond of saying, “I’m the oldest student in here. You think if I really understood this stuff, I’d be sitting here with all of you?”
Most of these sessions consisted of Harris asking me to play a scale or harmonic pattern. He would then ask me, patiently and step to step, to add to the scale or reconfigure the harmonic pattern in such a way that certain relationships became visible to me that before were completely hidden. Harris is an endless source of these types of ‘scaffolding’ exercises, which integrate key harmonic ideas into sequences or progressions that be practiced in all twelve keys, building upon the understanding of the player and then asking him or her to make a small leap to the next level of musical understanding (De Vries, 2005).
This particular organization is what allows students of all skill levels to follow along as best as they can. There are no distinctions or skill levels in Harris’ classes, though there can be broad distinctions made between beginner, intermediate and advanced. The only rule is that no student should play when Harris is speaking. Otherwise, the entire room is a muted cacophony of instrumentalists of all stripes discretely trying to get their hands around the latest harmonic sequence he has given them.
For this reason, Harris’ classes are quite open and democratic in their structuring. The participants, instrumentalists of all ages and stripes, generally gather around him, seated at a grand piano, and wait for him to give them instructions.
At my first session I noted four guitarists, two saxophonists, several keyboardists with their own keyboards, and a trumpeter. A stand-up bass player and a percussionist accompany Harris on the bandstand, to fully round out the sound of certain examples, and to learn with all the others.
The first general instruction was to play a scale, usually the bebop scale, which is a major scale with the natural and flat seventh added. Then, using this as a starting point, he would begin to build in a scaffolding fashion upon this single concept until all musicians found themselves playing a fully articulated melodic phrase. These phrases were generally structured to fit around standard harmonic cadences that abound in the song repertoire, especially end cadences or turnarounds.
Thus it was very common to painstakingly construct a phrase, piece by piece, to finally realize that it fit in a complex way over a harmonic sequence such as II, VI, IV V I. In doing this repeatedly, I had the feeling that Harris had managed to completely slow down the embodied thinking process required in soloing, break it down into manageable chunks and teach us fledgling improvisers, by slow degrees, what it means to think in the harmonic and rhythmic grammar of jazz.
These short scale exercises also aid the student in the difficult task of anticipating and thinking through the logic of musical phrases, building inevitably towards the coveted notion of flow. Improvisation, it turns out, is nothing but the extension of discrete ideas that, through gradual integration and repetition, expand into new ideas.
Harris’ method virtually guarantees that over time, the student is ineluctably led into this process of grabbing onto an idea in real time, predicting its natural harmonic direction, and then extending it in one of several possible melodic venues. This exercise also happened over common harmonic sequences such as bridges, and constantly demands that student expand and build on previous ideas. As Berliner notes in his account of Harris’ classes:
Barry Harris’ exercises also prepare students to appreciate comparable aspects of improvisation. At workshops, after teaching students several discrete patterns compatible with seventh chords and drilling them in the sequential application of each over the eight-bar “rhythm” bridge, Harris places additional demands on them.
They must construct “New Bridges” by selecting four of the phrases and performing them each time in a different order. Within the compositional bounds that Harris provides, students cull the precise skill of making selections rapidly from a limited store of optional patterns and placing them appropriately within a progression, one musical statement to a chord. “That’s how the music works,” Harris advises them. (Berliner 1994, 2005)
Sometimes the process, requiring intense concentration, could go on uninterrupted for three hours, with Harris pausing to answer questions or elucidate a point that a struggling student hadn’t understood. The focus, as always, was playing in real time, in short segments that generally spanned a single harmonic progression of four chords, such as a turnaround.
The focus was also on being able to rhythmically engage the phrase at different junctures of the measure, especially lines that start on odd or syncopated beats in the measure, such as the second half of the third beat and the second half of the fourth beat, is done exhaustively until the horizontal rhythmic sense, discussed earlier by Schuller, becomes thoroughly embodied. Harris always adamantly maintains that interesting improvisational phrases start and stop at irregular places within the measure, and the ability to ‘pick-up’ a musical idea is essential. It also aids in helping the improviser to hear more and more places where a phrase could rhythmically begin and end.
The Barry Harris “Myth’ of Harmonic creation.
Nothing was more enlightening however, than the explanation Harris gave me during the summer session of 2008 where he laid down the entire foundations of his harmonic approach to bebop.
This explanation represents a sort of mythic initiation to the Barry Harris pedagogical method, as many students have smilingly told me their own accounts of being pulled aside and asked to listen to and play through his self-invented account of how harmony is essentially organized. In his typically unique fashion, he gave the entire theory in the form of a creation myth.
In this myth, he explains how the 12 notes of the chromatic scale can be explained as the combination of the two whole tone scales, which in turn give rise to the three diminished chords. He then explains how each of the three diminished chords is related to four dominant chords.
Because there are four dominants related to each of the three diminished chords, all twelve key centers are represented. More importantly, the myth is Harris’ way of relating how each group of four dominants are harmonically linked by each of the three diminished chords. In elaborating the harmonic organization of the keyboard in this way, he sets the stage for a visual understanding of keyboard harmony in which different harmonic options are close at hand.
Thus, his teaching method focuses on enabling the improviser to visualize a rich palette of possible harmonic possibilities within a very short span of keyboard. Ideally, major harmonic shifts can be made note through the subtle alteration of a single note.
Sitting next to me and with his customary deep gravitas that is always tinged with equally deep whimsy, Harris asked of me: “Play the chromatic scale from C all the way up to the C above it.”
“Now, the chromatic scale is the same as the void before creation,” he explained. “When God looked down upon that mess he first divided it. What do you divide the chromatic scale into? “
I was stuck for an answer.
“The two whole tone scales,” he said, playing the whole tone scale starting on C and the whole tone scale starting on C#, outlining them with his hands.
“Now what are the two most important elements of creation?” He continued with mock theological seriousness.
“Light and Dark”? I asked trying to recall Genesis as best I could.
“No!” he exclaimed, raising his index finger warningly in the air. “Man and Woman. God was lonely, so he said, ‘I’m going to make myself some people.’ Now what happens when Man and Woman get together?”
I shook my head. He wrinkled his great brow at me, genuinely concerned at my slowness.
“They have children: the three diminished chords.” Harris then proceeded to outline the diminished chords starting on C, C#, and D. “Now play the C diminished chord for me.”
I played the chord outlining C, D#, F#, and A.
“Lower that C at the bottom by one-half step,” he instructed.
“Now what chord is that?”
Looking at it dawned on me. “That is the B dominant seventh chord.”
“Good. Now lower the D# by one half-step.”
This resulted in the production of C, D, F#, A, or an inversion of the D major 7 chord. Through this process Harris revealed to me that the C diminished chord was related to four dominants, each found just a half-step below each note of the chord.
By lowering F# a half step you produced F dominant 7, and by lowering A to Ab you produced an Ab dominant 7. The four related dominants of the C diminished chord were B, D, F, and Ab(G#). The four related dominants of the C# diminished were C, D#(Eb), F#(Gb), and A. The four related dominant 7chords of D diminished were C#(Db), E, G and Bb(A#).
“The related dominants of each of the three diminished chords are their four brothers and sisters,” Harris continued, extending his metaphor. “What do brothers and sisters do together?” he asked finally.
I was at a loss for words at this point.
“They play together. Each of the three diminished chord is the key to their four related dominants. The four dominants come together through the diminished chord they are related to. They all play together, and they sound good together, because they are related. They are family.”
Three diminished chords, with four related dominants each, it should be noted, adds up to the twelve major key centers. Harris had managed to harmonically map all twelve keys onto a single octave.
This method of envisioning the interrelationship of the tonal centers on the keyboard is the heart his improvisational approach. It should be added that Harris, in more complete telling of his harmonic creation myth, also points out that each whole tone scale contains two tritones, which he refers to as the ‘genes’ of each whole tone scale.
The combination of the two whole tone scales and their two tritones results in the ‘creation’ of the three diminished chords. Tritones, of course, are simply the notes of each diminished chord broken into pairs.
The implications of this harmonic system relate back to Sudnow’s discovery about the improviser’s hand and its relationship to the keyboard. The hand must feel comfortable and at ease in making its transitions, and the eye and mind most realize that these transitions are more closely grouped together than they imagined. In this case, Harris’ contention that all major and minor dominant sevenths can be explained as inversions of six chords.
Once again, in seeing seeing six chords as inversions of seveths, Harris tries to pack the harmonic organization of the keyboard as closely together as possible, so that all understanding of harmonic movement is contained within the octave. It turns out, fortuitously, that thinking in these harmonic terms also enables the student to start seeing harmonic options that are not necessarily visible when viewed in traditional jazz notation.
The further one investigates Harris’ unique and compact harmonic and scalar views, it becomes evident that he is combining a very acute sense of harmonic sophistication with a very pragmatic and handy means for their exploration. For instance, one of the key tenets of the Barry Harris method is that all chords are derived from scales.
As opposed to most jazz pedagogical methods, which speak of chords and scales as two distinct entities that need to somehow be brought into harmonic relationship with each other, Harris’ method demonstrates how chords are simply aspects of scales frozen in time, and are thus organically linked.
Thus, learning what scale is related to what chord is a matter of learning the essential harmonic grammar that binds certain harmonic key centers together. One common improvisational scale that I was familiar with from my pre-Barry Harris days was the diminished scale. I’d either picked it up from a theory book or heard a jazz pianist using it. In any event, it was a part of my harmonic vocabulary. After the previously outlined lesson, however, something suddenly became clear to me.
A diminished scale was nothing more than a diminished chord with its four related dominants added. This can be easily demonstrated with the C diminished chord. Adding the related dominants of B, D F and G# to the C diminished chord results in the C diminished scale. The same applies for the diminished scale beginning of C#/Db, and the diminished scale starting on D.
The diminished scale is quite convenient, because it serves as a universal platform through which to harmonically travel from one of the related dominants towards another of the related dominants. Harris refers to this principal of connecting one related dominant scale to another dominant scale as “Running the Four Related Dominant 7th Scales ‘into-each-other’” (Harris/Reed 2005, 6). An exercise from the Barry Harris Workshop Video Part 2 states:
Use this idea—scale into scale—to create movement. Keep in mind that since chords come from scales, you are outlining the following key chord progressions:
two beats each of Am7B5-D7
same as 9a), adding the resolution to G minor( or major);
one bar each of Cm7-F7 or two bars of F7 (or Cm7-F7-F#m7-B7 two beats each);
same as C, adding the resolution to Bbmaj7 (6)
With this methodology the improviser combines three essential aspects of the improvisatory experience, harmony, rhythm and the application of rapidly shifting ideas, and learns them simultaneously in real time.
This differs however, from rote learning, because instead of applying a scale from a method book and applying it because the book has a predetermined harmonic framework from which it issues directions, students are asked to understand as they construct the phrase in real time, from the ground up.
The elements of harmony, rhythm, and melody can all be acquired through an embodied process of learning and playing. It is as if Harris has broken down the thinking and playing involved in improvisation and distilled it down to its most essential elements, allowing improvisers to build each element in an embodied fashion until the phrase is mastered.
The phrase is then shown its proper harmonic context and students are allowed to place the harmonic sequence, usually a common turnaround or harmonic sequence such as the bridge of a rhythm changes, so that they can experience the insertion of their newly formed harmonic and melodic sequence into an actual song form.
No session of the Barry Harris Workshop is conducted without a rhythm section present. Most sessions end with an invitation to play the scale sequence within the context of song with the rhythm section.
Thus students are further enabled to sharpen their formal and rhythmic skills, as they must hear the precise moment at which they are then able to insert the phrase they have spent the session perfecting.
At the end of a collective lesson, students, if they have been playing close attention, will have found a way to employ a readily understood melodic and harmonic sequence and have practiced playing it in real time at the appropriate spot within the song’s structure. They have learned harmony, rhythm, and performance as three mutually reinforcing aspects of improvisation.
An embodied jazz method rooted in theory that can be visualized.
This described session of Harris’ first and most important theory lesson revealed two things to me. First, in looking for harmonic congruencies outside of the space of a single octave I was forcing myself to over think, looking for correspondences that, even if I were to see them clearly, would not necessarily help me play more convincing harmonic movements.
I grew to intrinsically understand that a move of a single half-step in my left hand constituted a serious harmonic shift. With practice, my chord voicing became subtler. The whole of Harris’ harmonic method, especially with chords, was to show how this organic interrelationship between harmonies played directly into the position of the hand. Improvisation, I learned, is more about relaxing and moving as little as possible over the keyboard, something I had already observed from watching footage of other great pianists, both jazz and classical.
I saw also how this corresponded to Sudnow’s assertion that in looking at his hands he was eventually able to see places where he could direct his hands to go as he played. As I grew in my ability to see harmonic possibilities grouped cogently together on the keyboard, this type of visualization at the keyboard began to make embodied sense to me.
As for scales, Harris’ constant insistence on practicing key harmonic shifts with melodic lines derived from the harmonic content of the left hand and forcing me to play one scale into another, sparked a deeper and more intuitive thinking about theory that had never occurred to me as a conservatory student sitting in counterpoint. I was also training myself to play lines that had truly organic roots in my theoretical understanding, and I was playing them rhythmically, in real time.
This was the first step in learning an approach to improvisation that was not based on repetition by ear, but on direct understanding of the places where the hand could go. Instead of the fixed template of the scale, or the fixed memory of the lick, I began to see that there was not one place where my hand could go, but at least four.
A major part of improvisation, I was beginning to see, involved being able to visualize the terrain of the keyboard differently, and especially in being able to see varied and substitutive harmonic relationships at close quarters in ways that allowed them to fit directly under my hands. It was laborious and painful, yet, because it is combined with a constant intellectual effort to understand the underlying harmonic grammar, it was never dull. Add rhythmic variation, and the building blocks of Charlie Parker’s and Bud Powell’s incredibly close-knit and brilliantly diverse melodic and harmonic variations started to (albeit distantly) seem plausible.
Because he believes in close harmonic groupings (traditionally jazz pianists, I was surprised to find out, generally never stray far beyond four octaves in the middle of the keyboard), Harris eschews all references to 9, 11 and 13 chords. These chords, in his understanding, are far better understood in their relationship to the diminished and their related dominants.
For example, one of his founding harmonic principles is to point out that every minor dominant 7 is exactly the same as a major 6 chord an A minor 7 = C major 6). In fact, there are no harmonic principles in this system that do not always imply a relationship that can then be extrapolated into harmonic movement.
Second is his continued insistence that chords come from scales. Only in completely intertwining the knowledge of scales and chords can the improviser develop enough organic fluency that will allow the rapid and complex harmonic shifts that highly advanced and varied improvisation requires.
Two unique harmonic creations that he has made to illustrate this point are two scales which he calls the major 6 diminished scale and the minor 6 diminished scale. Both of these scales are formed by combining the C6 chord (seen as an inversion of A minor 7), with the B diminished chord. The minor 6 diminished chord is played by combining the minor 6 chord (starting on C and seen also as an A 7 flat 5) with the same B diminished chord.
The result is a framework that allows for rapid and sequential harmonic movement that fits directly under the hand, because all potential substitutions required for harmonic movement become visible.
Howard Rees, a teacher and collaborator with Harris has run the longest running jazz improvisation workshops in Toronto. He explains the liberating harmonic approach of the 6 chord voicings and how they might be applied:
Here are some starting points for seeing the relationships between 6 voicings and their functional equivalents: a) For major 7 chords, play the major 6 chord whose root is the fifth degree of the major scale. B)
One approach to a dominant 7 voicing is to play the minor 6 chord on the fifth degree of the dominant. C) Another dominant 7 approach is to use the minor 6 inversions of major 6 chords, so this combination is natural. E) The same goes for minor 7 flat 5 and minor 6 chords. With the latter two examples, thinking in terms of 6 voicings opens up the possibility of moving voicings along a corresponding major or minor 6 diminished scale and then resolving to the next chord, rather than simply hold to a static voicing. “ (Reed/Harris 2005, 29)
This harmonic approach places emphasis on learning substitutions in this way as organic parts of a scalar superstructure. The student learns to play movements, as opposed to chord structures.
Furthermore, the intimate interrelation of the scalar and harmonic structure always leads to startling new correspondences that are often a half-step away. What is most important is that through the application of this harmonic form of understanding, emphasis is placed on an embodied approach that combines mental, aural and physical approaches that are learned gradually and organically into the player’s growing understanding and facility. Harmonic and scalar movements are shown, at a very basic level that at every turn, there are at least a dozen places to ‘go.’
Harris is adamant that improvisation is about possibility, and about opening up the terrain of the keyboard harmonically so that the hand has several places to go. As he explained, “You see, as musicians, we tend to fall in love. But if we keep playing the same thing, if we fall into a pattern, that love can’t last. That’s why we always need to be looking closely to see new ways of doing things.”
Implications of the Barry Harris Method
This is of course, only a very cursory summary of a vast harmonic system. The implications of Harris’ relation of the three diminished chords and their four related dominants plays out and elaborates itself in ways that make it clear that bebop harmony, at least as Harris understands it, is nothing more than a logical extension of the harmonies laid out by 19th century and 20th century Romantic composers.
The foundation is relatively simple; the implications are as vast as the keyboard itself. Harris is insistent on this point. As a child prodigy who was extensively trained in classical repertoire by a Russian pedagogue, he insists that his harmonic system of jazz is nothing more than an extension of formal classical harmony.
He is adamant about pointing out how the authors of the major American songbooks, such as Harold Arlen and George Gershwin, were fully trained classical musicians well versed in the intricacies of formal European harmony. In a sense we have travelled full circle, with Harris leading away from the analytical and formal study of harmony as an after-thought and back to its study as a living language that is contained within actual sequences.
There have been many times during my group lessons where, after playing a certain harmonic sequence, I have noted its deep similarity to a passage from a Chopin nocturne or etude. This is to say that while the approaches of both schools of pianism are divergent, their harmonic and expressive aims are commensurate.
My discovery that theory is not a series of printed axioms that one must wrestle to integrate with one’s own practice, but the very living underpinning of an embodied musical practice, has opened up my improvisation in ways I wouldn’t have been able to anticipate when I first began improvising twelve years ago. I have found that by training myself to see the keyboard in this new and integrated harmonic fashion I now have an exploratory fluency that I hope will only continue to deepen and grow.
In this paper, I have attempted to show how classical approaches to the keyboard differed from improvisational approaches at a philosophical level. Certain metaphysical conceptions of subjectivity, combined with Western art music’s tendency to create its own continuous, uniform and internally coherent system of signification, have led classical pianists to embody as series of musical assumptions that make it difficult for them to approach improvisation at even the most basic level.
By Contrast, jazz’s varied ethnography and polyglot approach uses the basics of popular song form as a launching pad for ever increasingly complex explorations into harmony melody and form. In the end, it seems that improvisation is impossible unless the pianist willingly relinquishes the notion that he or she in control or must necessarily refer to a score or a theoretical system.
While improvisation requires theory at the deepest level, it is useless unless knowledge of this theory is embodied at an almost instinctive level through the repetition of harmonic and melodic sequences.
Vernacular music’s insistence on an integrated musical approach in the moment also reflects certain developments in continental philosophy regarding being. Whether or not these two divergent developments in completely different areas of the cultural sphere are somehow related is the subject for another paper.
However, it does seem promising that as vernacular music developed its uniquely sophisticated and embodied approach, this same approach was also championed in arts and the humanities across the spectrum. It seems that as a model for agency in the world, improvisation is far more philosophically relevant to the modes of being we find ourselves increasingly engaged in during this rapidly shifting phase of our cultural history.
Jazz, like many cultural developments from the modernist ear, is concerned with novelty. It seeks to increase its scope and stay on the cutting edge of what is generally considered to be new. Harris contends that the music of the future is one that grants the highest degree of freedom and the broadest and most subtle range of expression to its musicians.
Thus, he is fond of referring to bebop, a jazz movement of which he was a part of some fifty years ago, as “the music of the future.” As with all cultural endeavors, only time will tell. However, it is equally important that the essence of his brand of improvisational music be preserved from any misconceptions or subsequently enshrined in an ever calcifying methodology. Music, according to Harris, is meant to be alive.
At its most accomplished level, the learning of improvisation is a means for a musician to engage the harmonic and melodic possibilities at a level of mental and physical integration that transcends the formally bounded and retrospectively controlled limits of score based performance.
As beautifully unified, pristine and expressive the repertoire of Western art music remains, it has lost fundamental contact with an organic level of embodied musicality that has deprived it of both cultural saliency and the room to expand and grow in a fashion that is culturally relevant.
In expanding my knowledge to embody its basic precepts, I have shifted my view of music entirely. I am no longer struggling to perfectly execute repertoire with an eye to achieving an abstract and sublime level of subjectivity. My level of engagement has shifted from nervously shepherding my hands to perform the recollected score and towards reading real possibilities contained within the space of the keyboard.
I am continuously at work in digging through the grammar of harmonic materials and deciding the immediate relevance they have to my immediate experience. I can see that musical knowledge employs not only the analytical mind and the docile hands, but it engages the knowledge of the body at the deepest level.
Not only do my hands follow directives, they are also able to begin grazing, in a fashion, on the musical riches the piano keyboard has to offer. I no longer experience the vast quantities of undigested knowledge ahead of me (and it is indeed vast) as a pressing challenge or as a depressing testament to my musical inadequacy.
There are hundreds of songs to learn and thousands of solos to play. Every aspect of my playing, rhythmic, harmonic and tactile, can be further refined, expanded and improved upon indefinitely. I see, very happily, that there is always more to understand, new harmonic intricacies to uncover and more music to be played.
I have become engaged with music as an ongoing process, and as such I engage with music at a level that far exceed my previous compartmentalized understanding. Improvisation, in this view, is always about the nearly endless harmonic possibility that lies waiting in the piano keys. In the words of Harris,
“There are just so many pretty things”
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