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JMM 2, Spring 2004, section 9 — JMM book review

Kühl, Ole. Improvisation og Tanke [Improvisation and Thought]. Copenhagen 2003: Basilisk. 114 pp. ISBN: 87-91407-00-1.

(Reviewed by Kristian Tylén)

9.1. Introduction: Parker and Ornithology

What is the meaning of bebop? And how is this meaning communicated and understood? These are some of the challenging and troublesome questions treated by the Danish musician, theoretician and semiotician Ole Kühl. The result is presented in an insightful and intelligent book, called Improvisation og Tanke (Improvisation And Thought), Basilisk, Copenhagen 2003. The only unfortunate thing about this interesting work is that it is only accessible to the rather limited audience of Danish-speakers – but just grab your dictionary and get started.

The “empirical” object of Ole Kühl’s investigation is bebop improvisation, and, to be more precise, Charlie Parkers solo in the tune “Ornithology” - a rephrasing of the classic jazz standard “How High the Moon”. Kühl approaches the tonal and metric expression of jazz improvisation as a kind of meaningful semiotic intention. The argument for the choice of jazz improvisation is interesting in itself: in the act of improvisation the musician creates a musical expression online and addresses it to fellow musicians and listeners. It is a communicative situation not unlike oral verbal language - a crucial point that becomes relevant on all levels of the analysis.

Kühl directs his attention at three levels in jazz improvisation equally important for the meaning production: the figure, the chorus and the group. I will return to these concepts below.

9.2. A Theory of Music and Mental Space Blending

Besides musical theory, Kühl finds his theoretical point of departure in semiotics, cognitive linguistics and even neurobiology. The main inspiration comes from the mental space and blending theory proposed by cognitive linguists Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner, and especially in its modified “Aarhusian” form, due to the work of Per Aage Brandt.[1] In the ultra short version, mental space theory explains the way our cognitive system handles coherent pieces of meaning and relates them to other pieces of meaning in various ways. A hypothesis is that, much (if not all) of our online meaning production and human creativeness as such springs from a simple cognitive procedure where semantic and structural elements from two mental spaces (i.e. pieces of coherent meaning) are blended into a new space whereby new meaning emerges.

When first introduced, the theory of mental spaces was supposed to account for some cognitive mechanisms underlying basic linguistic operations. During the last decade, though, and especially due to the introduction of conceptual blending, the scope has expanded considerably to encompass a broad range of research objects from literature and metaphors to advertisements and figurative art. Today many cognition-oriented scholars believe the processes underlying the theory of mental spaces and blending to constitute the underlying mechanism of human meaning production and reception. The present study, Improvisation og Tanke, adds yet another area of human expressive behavior to the research field of mental space theory – i.e. music, or to be more precise – jazz improvisation. As emphasized by the author, however, a mental space approach to music yields a further development of the theory: if we are to talk about “musical meaning” it is not, or at least infrequently, in the normal semiotic sense of a salient sign referring to a piece of represented reality. Music does not have a conceptual level of meaning in the same way as e.g. language or figurative arts. A note or a rhythmical pattern cannot as such point to something external. On the other hand, music is a mode of human expression and must be meaningful to us - why else bother to write, play and listen to music? Thus, Kühl’s proposition is that the content of a “musical” mental space must be of a more basic and primitive cognitive nature than is the case with other sorts of mental spaces: A pre-semantic meaning that only becomes graspable for the listener in the process of blending with other pieces of pre-conceptual meaning and stabilizing contexts.

In the case of musical improvisation, single notes and rhythmical values are processed in different parts of the brain and only then are they integrated into recognizable “figures”, stabilized by the context of their metrical and harmonic surroundings. These ‘surroundings’ are temporally structured according to a theme and an underlying harmonic text – the chorus. In the course of improvisation the improviser makes up musical figures in correspondence with the harmonics and metrics of the chorus, and in and ongoing musical interaction with the jazz group.

9.3. The Figure

Kühl provides a microanalysis of Charlie Parker’s solo from “Ornithology”. Inspired by modern linguistics, he convincingly identifies a segmentation of the solo line into discrete “sentences”. Each of these musical sentences has a duration of approximately 3 seconds. This corresponds very well to a study made by the German neuroscientist Ernst Pöppel on music, temporality and consciousness. Pöppel’s discovery is that our consciousness has a built-in temporality in the processing of perceptual data: temporal “micro-windows” of perceptual data are integrated into larger macro-windows” and sent to the consciousness giving us coherent conscious experiences. The basis for the segmentation is thus neither accidental nor a product of Parkers aesthetic dispositions, but rooted deeply in our neurobiological nature. Like the intonation patterns of most verbal languages, each improvisational sentence is centered around an accentuated stress - a tonal and/or an expressive focal point. On this level of analysis the expressed tonal line is signifying the underlying harmonic and metric text. The soloist creates a chain of figures on the spot that (more or less) relates to each chord of the harmonic progression and its metrical position in the text. The “meaning” of the expressive figure is in other words harmonics and metrics.

Kühl continues to pursue the analogy with verbal language and draws the reader’s attention to an interesting and important point: While most jazz music until the birth of bebop has been characterized by quite straight and symmetrical metrics, Parker’s improvisational style introduces a new and very syncopated way of playing, which is close to the metrics of spoken language. Parker’s solo can be seen as expressing different metrical strategies: In some cases Parker places focal points on the stressed beats of the underlying harmonic ground, e.g. the chord changes. But often the expressive focal point is displaced from its signified harmonic ground by an eighth or by whole poly-rhythmical sequences. Parker “attacks” or “plays against” the metrics of the underlying text, creating an expressive “distance” between the signifying solo line and the signified harmonic/metrical text. One could be tempted to suggest a comparison with Picasso’s portraits of women: we find examples of a striving for expressive distance between signifying strokes and signified reference (the posing woman). The special tension created by this “not-alike-ness” draws attention to the utterer of the expression more than it does to the referent content – to the brilliance of the improvising instrumentalist more than to the nature of the harmonics to which his solo relates. This expressive distance is probably one of the constituting elements of art as such!

9.4. The Chorus

Kühl goes on to analyze the next level of meaning production in bebop – the chorus. In jazz music the soloist will improvise over a number of choruses. Jazz musicians are thus keenly aware of the repetitive chorus and its employment.

Most interestingly, the predominant harmonic structure of jazz and bebop – the II-V-I progression (subdominant parallel – dominant – tonic) – is approached cognitively as a sequence of events and states. The second step subdominant and the fifth step dominant are cognized as events striving at a new tonal destination, i.e. the tonic that is cognized as a stable state. The harmonic text for “Ornithology” can then be seen as a number of “striving events“, moving from one “lingering state” to another. As in verbal representations of event sequences – i.e. narrations - the overall sequence of harmonic events form a kind of story. Using the detailed terminology of the semiotician and narratologist A.-J. Greimas, Kühl describes the harmonic scheme in terms of a classic fairytale structure: From the initial state of G major a series of events bring about the contrasting state of Eb major - which is harmonically as far as you can go from the tonic – for finally to end up “at home” in G major. Roughly speaking: Home – Out – Home. The meaning of the chorus is, thus, of a dynamic, narrative kind.

9.5. The Group

The third level of meaning selected by Kühl for closer study is the jazz group and its social interaction. He describes some of the basic roles and relations between instruments in jazz interplay and between the solo and the comp. The focus is on the cognitive underpinnings for the online communication between the members of the jazz group while playing. In a cognitive feedback between perception and intention the musician must simultaneously adjust to and act on the ever-changing musical landscape. Often musicians will use the metaphor of “conversation” with regard to the ongoing process of interplay. In the act of improvisation, the soloist comes up with certain tonal and metrical lines – musical ideas – but only in the interplay with the comping musicians is the idea realized in relation to the actual harmonic and metric context.

9.6. The Socio-Cultural Framing of Bebop

An important chapter in Kühl’s presentation is dedicated the special socio-cultural background for the emergence of bebop as a genre, i.e. a contextual framing of the group category treated above. The emergence of bebop in Harlem 1946 cannot be explained solely as a logical continuation and development of the musical material of swing jazz. Obviously, the new genre was fashioned by musicians making conscious aesthetic choices, but these were probably to a large extend motivated by economical, social, cultural, and political factors. Thus, Kühl emphasizes some elements of early African-American history as being crucial for subsequent events in Harlem: When slaves were brought from Africa to America, the different tribes were split up so that each slave was separated from his or her ethnical group, culture and language. The next generations of Afro-Americans grew up rootless, lacking a cultural identity, a common language etc. Harlem became the center for the search of a new African-American cultural identity and for an aesthetics that would mark an opposition to the older generation’s acceptance of African-American inferiority.

Charlie Parker encounters this creative milieu in 1938, and in this context a new musical genre emerges. Performances are by small jazz groups in small clubs, not for a dancing but for a listening audience. It is music that has the exotic syncopated metrics of African-American spoken language and is technically and theoretically inaccessible to the broad non-African-American masses. Bebop music constituted a message – a message about identity, dignity, respect and equal rights for all.

At the end of the book, Kühl succeeds in comping elements from musical theory, cognition, neurobiology, history and anthropology into an integrated model of musical meaning.

9.7. Jazz Improvisation: A Special Blend

The different levels of analysis are gathered together to yield an overall cognitive model of “the meaning of jazz”, i.e. a network of mental spaces and blends: From the base space of jazz interplay and improvisation, three mental spaces are set up: the figure, the chorus and the group. The bebop figure constitutes the presentation space. It refers to the harmonics and metrics of the second space – called the referential space. These two spaces are blended into a new space containing a musical intention – the soloist’s idea of what he would like to play right now. This blend is unstable, however, until the introduction of the third input space. The interplay of the group constitutes the content of the third space. This space supplies the necessary contextual relevance to the first blend. The soloist can now in correspondence with the comp of the group realize his/her musical intention in a concrete act. This act constitutes a second blend – the realized improvisationally meaningful lines that are sent back to the base space.

9.8. Conclusion

Throughout his book, Ole Kühl touches with great insight upon a wide spectrum of meaning production in jazz and bebop, from the micro-levels of tones, rhythms and neurons to the overall considerations of history and culture. The reader is given a thorough introduction to music as a meaningful mode of expression, as well as to the structure of its (troublesome) content. Modestly, Kühl keeps his theories close to the subject and builds up his argumentation in a logical fashion. Perhaps the most outstanding feature of the presentation, however, consists of Kühl’s own observations and analyses of Parkers solo: Should future developments supersede Pöppels temporal windows of consciousness, or Fauconnier and Turner’s mental spaces and blends as adequate descriptions of the actual cognitive operations of mind and brain, there will still be plenty of reasons to consult this book.





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JMM: The Journal of Music and Meaning

ISSN: 1603-7170
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