The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue – A phenomenology of music

The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue – A phenomenology of music. – Bruce ellis Benson Cambridge University Press 2003

I first read Bruce Ellis Benson in the book Resonant Witness: Conversations between Music and Theology. He put forward the notion of using the metaphor of improvisation for hermeneutics of the Bible. He used jazz as an accessible model where the musicians remain faithful to their tradition but are constantly improvising and bringing new things to the tradition. Ever since reading that I had wanted to read more of what Benson had to say and finally I purchased The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue.

Benson is strongly inspired by Gadamer and in the preface he sets up a core frame of reference for the book. Gadamer considers musical performance to have same interpretational structure as text or art. By setting this up, he goes on to elucidate his main thesis of the book: that the act of music is essentially improvisational.

In chapter 1 he looks at the ideas of Composition and Performance and what a musical work actually is. He is primarily setting the scene within the Western Classical tradition which is all the more interesting as the classical tradition by stereotype is the least overtly improvisational tradition of music. He considers the distinct acts of composition and of performance as a type of improvisation. One of the ways he does this is by questioning the idea of creation ex nihilo in music.

Composers never create ex nihilo, but instead “improvise”: sometimes on tunes that already exist, but more frequently and importantly on the tradition in which they work. 25

And he goes on to consider that performers “even when performing music that is strictly notated – do not merely “perform” but also “improvise” upon that which they perform.”

There is then a fairly extensive detailing of 11 kinds of improvisation that he sees from the basic, like a change in tempo or volume, to the more sophisticated where everything seems different from the original.

In chapter 2 He looks in more detail at composition itself. He deconstructs the idea of the romantic genius and considers composition more as an act of discovery. The point is illustrated through Godel theorem’s in that Godel’s creative thought was crucial in the way he discovered. A composer similarly ‘discovers’ the best possible arrangement of sounds for his piece.

Again against the grain of the romantic genius, the composer is not free to do what he wants. He has to work within a tradition and normally he is improvising within that tradition.

“Composing” is not simply a matter of bring elements together; rather, they are brought together in a way that transforms those elements. 45

Also for some composers the piece is never finished. Beethoven continued to add finishing touches to pieces and Elliot Carter considered every performance of one his pieces as diferent, but that “which everone I’m hearing always seems the best.” 71

Chapter 3 is intriguingly named as “Performing – The Improvisation of Preservation”. This is an indepth discussion of the score and score’s relation is to the musical work. Is the score to be done purely according to the composer’s intention or are there other factors that impinge? Benson considers that both are required. There might be a text which the author declares as the ‘true’ one. But in every performance or reading of this text we align it with the present.

Chapter 4 looks at music as a constantly evolving activity. And not music as a whole but even the life of individual pieces. The piece ‘April in Paris’ is described in its evolution through the various performers who brought it to popularity and each interpretation has had an effect in how we listen and perform it today.

Invoking Heidegger, a piece of music, “is a world within a world, a musical space that is created within and out of a larger musical practice.” (148) And each new performance is making the piece what it is. It is existing through the constantly evolving performances.

“Chapter 5 : Being Musical with the Other” brought together all that had gone before into an understanding of how we are to be with each other in music activity. Is the composer the privileged one? Or is it he perfomer? He draws first on Emmanuel Levinas concern of the other – “to approach the Other is to put into question my freedom, my spontaneity.” Gadamer’s metaphor of fusion of horizons is brought into get a clearer idea of exactly how we can do music without overtly overriding the other. Responsibility seems to be a key ethic of how to be within a musical context. He presents the responsibility of the participants of the musical activity i.e. the composer, the performer(s) and the listeners towards each other. But he also considers that we have a responsibility to the ‘gift’ (referring to Derrida and Marion). “That responsibility can be parsed out, variously as responsibility to the giver of the gift, to the gift itself, and to the fact that the gift has not merely been given to me.”

He ends with a Gadamer idea but directly linking with Stravinsky,

[The] game is defined neither by the composer nor by the performer nor by the listener. It is a game that has a long history, a performance practice that has been preserved and handed down over the years.

Overall I found the book readable and quite thought provoking. I appreciated the bringing together of the various philosophical currents from Kant to Heidegger to Derrida. I found it particularly illuminating the deconstruction of the idea of genius through very specific examples of composers composing from each other and from themselves and two forged letters that furthered the notion of the romantic genius.

Furthering the idea the musical work as an organic entity was particularly invigorating.

This was written in 2003 before the ipod revolution. Benson does make brief allusions to listening to music in private, considering them to still be an experience of connection to an ‘other’. It would be interesting whether that would made a difference to the contour of the book.

One puzzle that I genuinely have is that, he hasn’t written about the listener. He mentions the listener often but never fully discusses how the listener is improvising. This is probably something that comes along later because in his essay in Resonant Witness his focus is very much on the reader. The truth also is that the discourses around listening are still quite nascent 11 years on.

A stimulating read.


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