Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Musical Improvisation: Church, Spirit and Body (part 1/2)

Excerpt from Jeremy Begbie's chapter in "The Modern Theologians" edited by David Ford.
Source: http://www.crescendo-jazz.com

Improvisation, "the simultaneous conception and production of sound in performance"(1), despite the flurry of interest in it in recent years by musicologists, is treated by many musicians with suspicion, even disdain. Yet the evidence is that not only is there an element of improvisation in virtually all music of all cultures, but that there is scarcely a musical technique or form of composition that did not originate in improvisation or was not essentially influenced by it. This suggests that instead of regarding music which is strictly notated and largely planned as the norm and improvisation as an unfortunate distortion or epiphenomenon, it might be more illuminating to invert that and ask whether improvisation reveals to us fundamental aspects of musical creativity easily forgotten in traditions bound predominantly to the practices of rigorous rehearsal and notation. If it does, any conversation between theology and music must take improvisation very seriously. Moreover, we quickly discover that striking theological overtones emerge in any study of improvisation (2). Here we can highlight this by referring to just two fields of doctrine: the Church and the Holy Spirit (3).

Much of the recent literature on improvisation has highlighted the implicit social and even political provocations it presents. In particular, it disrupts conventional barriers between "composer", "performer" and "audience", since an improviser is normally all three concurrently. Improvisation seems to offer uncommon opportunities for profitable ‘dialogical interrelations’ between musicians (4). In more formalised concert music-making, communication is interposed by an external agency, the score. By shifting attention to social process rather than the resulting text, improvisation encourages a particular kind of immediacy of personal exchange which is undoubtedly one of its most attractive features.

In this way, improvisation can embody to a significant extent what Alistair McFadyen has described as "undistorted communication" (5). In "monologue" the individual manipulates or is manipulated: one person treats the other as a means to an end, such that the other becomes self-confirmatory. The other’s otherness becomes "a repetition of a previously privately co-ordinated understanding" (6). In "dialogue" (undistorted communication), the other’s particularity is acknowledged such that one allows for the possibility of one’s own expectations and intentions to be resisted: "To recognise and intend the freedom of the other in response is to recognise that the form and content of that response cannot be overdetermined by the address" (7). There is "a readiness to allow the calls of others to transform us in response" (8). This does not mean that we assume the superiority of the other, nor quantitative equality between dialogue partners. Commenting on McFadyen’s work, Francis Watson writes: "Something similar is suggested by the Pauline image of the church as body, where the allocation of varying gifts and roles by the same Spirit establishes a formal [not quantitative] equality... within a diversity of roles which allows for hierarchical elements so long as these are understood in strictly reciprocal rather than monological terms" (9). Very much the same could be said of improvisation, in which there can be growth of personal particularity through musical dialogue. All the skills which promote reciprocal ‘undistorted communication’ - which should characterise the Church as persons-in-communion - are present in a very heightened form: for example, giving ‘space’ to the other through alert attentiveness, listening in patient silence, contributing to the growth of others by ‘making the best’ of what is received from them such that they are encouraged to continue participating, sensitive decision-making, flexibility of response, initiating change, role-changing, generating and benefiting from conflict. Without the mediation of a verbal text and conventional verbal communication, these skills have to be learned in musical modes and thus in a sense re-thought and re-learned. This may well contribute to freer communication in other fields. There is much to draw upon here if we want to develop a properly theological account of ecclesial freedom which sees it as mediated by and through the other in a process of concentrated dialogical action, where the constraint of others is not experienced as essentially oppressive but as conferring and confirming an inalienable particularity and uniqueness. Not only are modernist conceptions of self-determined and self-constituted individuals questioned, but also the dissolution of self-identity implicit in some postmodernism (10). Significantly, homogeneity of sound has little place in jazz. ‘Sound in jazz is... the slow, expressive vibrato of Sidney Bechet’s soprano sax; the voluminous, erotic tenor sax sound of Coleman Hawkins, the earthy cornet of King Oliver; the ‘jungle’ sound of Bubber Miley’ (11)

  1. Roger Dean, Creative Improvisation (Milton Keynes, 1989), p. ix
  2. For example, writers such as Arthur Peacocke have made effective use of the model of improvisation in relation to the doctrine of creation, to illuminate God’s free interaction with the world. Arthur Peacocke, Theology for a Scientific Age (Oxford, 1993), pp. 175ff.
  3. For much fuller discussion, cf. Begbie, Theology, Music and Time, chs. 7-9.
  4. E. Pr√©vost , ‘Improvisation: Music for an Occasion,’ in British Journal of Music Education, 2/2 (1985), pp. 177-186.
  5. Alistair McFadyen, The Call to Personhood (Cambridge, 1990), ch. 4.
  6. Ibid., p. 26.
  7. Ibid., p. 119.
  8. Ibid., p. 121.
  9. Francis Watson, Church and World: Biblical Interpretation in Theological Perspective (Edinburgh, 1994), p. 112.
  10. Ibid., ch. 6.
  11. Berendt (1983), 144. The ethical implications of jazz for modelling ‘desirable social relations’ are explored vividly by Kathleen Marie Higgins, with particular reference to ‘progressive’ jazz and race relations. Higgins (1991), 170-80.