Donald Keefer Professor of Philosophy
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it ain't got that swing:
Musical Performance Practices and the Possibility of Musical Meaning
Delivered to the American
Society for Aesthetics, Eastern Division Meeting,
Swing refers to a form of jazz that is now part of the history of our culture, part of our museum culture. I see it in a special place in the music museum, the Swing Wing. The loco motion of Big Band Swing was surpassed by other types of jazz, but today we still call that sense of controlled vertigo in any performance, "swing." It is tempting to reflect on the deeper cultural significance of swing.
Duke Ellington's song, "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing," can be read as a manifesto against the reigning intellectual culture of his time. Swing is emphatically about the body. Dionysian defiance of gravity. Whatever doesn't work its magic through the body doesn't count. There is a deep Socratic wisdom here: a life without swing, is not worth living. Other philosophers come to mind. Rene Descartes might have very well said, "I Swing, therefore I am." A Hegelian recognizes that History is nothing more than the realization of swing in time.
Perhaps it would be better to see
in Ellington's lyrics a modernist anthem. They reflected the modernist dismissal
of the relevance of history. So-called serious music, like academic art had
been treated in
The Duke is talking about music, and in particular the way a certain type of music is played. It would take a strong poet to say or show what swing is, but I will take it for granted that most of us could recognize a jazz piece played within the style of swing. The mode of performance, the sort of spin we look to be applied to the notes, is integral to the style. A mere score, or chart, wouldn't betray the swing of the piece, except by an instruction, such as, "With swing."
What is Ellington's "meaning"? The song's statement calls to mind situations where we are told that someone's potentially insulting statement "doesn't mean a thing," and that, despite the fact that we are feeling offended or hurt, we should attach no importance to it. Our speaker didn't mean it that way. Suppose the situation is reversed however. An utterance is taken as meant to be insulting. Here there is an implication that the speaker meant to bring about a certain set of feelings. This may be a promising lead in the search for the meaning of swing. Can we say that swing is about creating some set of feelings, which in themselves are seen as intrinsically valuable—pleasures and feelings, whose absence provide a primary clue that something fundamental is missing?
We have a complex situation here. One doesn't have to feel the insult to recognize it as such. Likewise, it is common place that we can hear music as sad without becoming melancholy as we can hear a performance has swing without being swept up in it. Nonetheless, we put a high value on our receptivity and sensitivity. Incapability to feel an insult, be sad, or perhaps even go with the swing, might be described as a moral flaw. We judge people on the range of feelings they can feel, and the appropriateness of those feelings. Likewise we seem to judge music and performance by the capacity to express a range of feelings in the appropriate manners, times and places. Granted, expression is not an unproblematic expression. This Austinian performative sense doesn't really capture the meaning of "musical meaning of swing." Receptivity and intention to swing seem no more than social conditions for the possibility of a communal meaning, not to be confused with the swing-in-itself.
Clearly, Ellington's "meaning," signifies something more akin to worth or value. Imagine a country and western song expressing the very same sentiment: "It ain’t worth a hang if it ain’t got that twang." Here music's meaning is analogous to questions about the meaning of life. What makes music worth listening to? The affective impact of Swing, Ellington responds. The meaning is tied to some publicly accessible object; a particular sound-event played with certain production-values. We are led back to the Swing-an sich. What is going on when a performance swings? The musicologist, Joseph Kerman associates it with Big Band music. He claims it emerges as an attempt to retain the improvisation of earlier jazz. That "anything can happen" feel was threatened with annihilation by the demands of large ensemble production. I may not have been around to take the "A-Train," but this seems to be quite off-track. Tracing it to its practitioners may be more useful. Another musicologist, Joseph Machlis, notes that "swing" is a shorthand way of referring to the rhythmic and melodic styles of music writing and performance influenced by Louis Armstrong. While we may have gone uptown, we may still lack a notion of what swing is.
Kathleen Higgens, in her recent book, The Music of our Lives, while continuing to associate "swing" with improvisation, associates it with the notion of the "vital drive" of the music, accessible only through performance. "Observing the gap between what is recognized in performance of a jazz work and what can be indicated in a transcription can give one a strong intuitive sense of what is meant, say, by 'swing'. ... The musical work that we hear and value involves what Charles Keil calls 'vital drive'. Vital drive gives us an impression of lively musical intelligence and feeling guiding what we hear performed." Crucial to the style of swing, then, seems to be a degree of improvisatory freedom not found in classical music with its strict adherence to the score. Adherence to the score in swing would produce a stiff and poor rendition of the work—and if we take Duke Ellington at his word, no music here.
This demand and freedom to supplement the sonic content of the musical work is said to mark the crucial difference between practically all types of so-called popular music, including jazz and all so-called classical music. It is sometimes put this way: In most musics of the world, there is no difference between the performance of a musical work and the musical work itself. They are one. The performer creates the music on the spot. In Western classical music, a distinction exists between the work itself and its performances. Its performances are putatively repeating something that has a determinate identity of its own, unlike jazz or other types of more performance/improvisatory forms of music. Music theorists, musicologists, and philosophers of music have characteristically focused all of their attention on this entity that all performances owe their identity to.
Consider the philosopher, Alan Goldman's recent remarks on the value of music: "...music is an ideal world, completely created by composers and tailored to their audiences. ... Composers, ..., are completely in control of their world (taking performance for granted) and so able to lead their audiences where they will, requiring only full command of the musical medium." What does this mean, "taking performance for granted"? Does this mean that performance is simply the medium through which the music speaks, no more constitutive of the musical experience than printing is to the experience of fiction? Goldman develops a fascinating geographical model of the music world in this paper. Different styles and periods are continents awaiting our visitation and journeys. Auditing a work is akin to a journey through its musical space through time. But Goldman's terrains are incredibly structural, maplike, and abstract. Tones, of course, are perceived as bearing spatial relations to each other--higher, lower, more spread or densely packed, and so on. Such spatial relations obtain literally only in scores from which the tones are produced. These relations change as the notes follow one another, and we perceive changes in spatial relationships through time as moments. In Goldman's musical journeys, the navigator always gains more than the mere passenger. Surely this is not necessarily true. There are things along the roadside that really captivate our attention: the quality of the light, the coloring, the pace at which it all comes at us.
Some musicologists, particularly the music theorists, betray an open hostility to performance and its emotional associations. Benjamin Boretz wrote, "Sounds are not part of music, however essential to its transmission." And soon after, "I would liken an aesthetic experience to an informal act of 'quasi-analysis,' in which the component qualities of concrete entities rather then their gross entityhood are what is being taken note of." This aesthetic "noticing" or "note-taking" seems a faint wimper of the organic transport of what we expect from our engagement with music and the other arts.
Just as Plato contrasted a pure ideal, essential object or standard with its instances or objects that "participated," or "represented" that ideal, likewise, such theorists seem to adhere to a similar view with respect to musical works and their instantiations. Crucial to Musical Platonism, as it was with its originating metaphysic, the actual world that we confront in our daily lives, is at best a pale imitation of the splendor of the Ideal World. The philosopher, Peter Kivy cites the following example in defense of his musical Platonism. Johannes Brahms is said to have declined an invitation to go to a performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni in favor of sitting at home with his own copy of the score. According to Kivy, this event provides evidence for the independence of the musical work from its possible performances. Brahms and Boretz appear to find the introduction of sounds into the abstract musical landscape a troubling blot on the universe of perfection. Imagine a great chef turning down an opportunity to dine at some world class restaurant on the grounds that he or she can just as well sit at home and savor the recipes! After all, in this case, the chef need not worry about variables such as the freshness of the ingredients, dinner conversation, service, the year of the wine. This chef may experience the dishes in their pure essential form. Psychologists call this neurotic synecdoche, "fetishism."
There is enough moral indignation around today that I will not lament the apparent perversion of musical activities by these thinkers. Let's just say it provides but one way of approaching music by a select gifted few who are capable of processing imaginatively musical scores. But far from presenting us with an ideal way of approaching music, given its unavailability to most listeners, even performers and composers, it appears a questionable role model for musical experience. Most of us know the music world through the experience of performances, live and on recordings. Even the Boretzes and the Brahmses must have had to endure a fair amount of performance to be guided through the score so fluidly. Performances provide the horizon of all musical experience.
I want to argue that classical music is not essentially different from swing. In fact, I chose the problem of swing, because it is a especially dramatic case of the standard distinction in classical musical performance between "just playing the notes" and "making music." According to anthropologist Henry Kingsbury, musicians make an analogous distinction between technique or chops versus soul. Musical events in which just notes are played fail to have significance in a way analogous to a swingless jazz piece. I will sketch the anatomy of this below.
First, many musicians share a general
uneasieness over the concept of musical meaning. Their attitude
is best illustrated in the following probably apocryphal story. Directly after Beethoven had performed what was to be
called his Pathetique Sonata, a patron inquired
to him, "Herr Beethoven, what does it mean?" Beethoven angrily dashed
back to the piano, so the story goes, and plays the sonata through again. This
has been taken as a fable against representational/semantic meanings in music.
Music does not function like language or any system of referential signs. I
take it to mean that performance of music exhausts the meaning of the work.
The meaning only exists in performance. Beethoven's alleged reaction might
be an indication that he was angry that anyone would be in search of some extramusical/performance ideas through which to understand
the work. In the context of romantic aestheticism, asking Beethoven what his
sonata means would be like asking God what was the meaning of the trees or the
Perhaps, we have been looking for meaning in all the wrong places. I want to consider the possibility that the myriad of techniques, shadings, attacks, anticipations, dynamic alterations, employed in the temporal unfolding of musical events constitutes the ground or possibility of musical meaning. Musical meaning, for most listeners, seems to be tied up with the potential affect of the music. The range of possible affects of a work depends on the sounds as they are temporally shaped and shaded during performance.
Anyone who claims musical works exist determinately, independently of their performances, is likely to point out that agreement between performances of the same work provides support for their position. On the contrary, they would point out, musicians, to be perfectly true to the music, must be guided by the immanent meanings of this transcendent work in their selection of the variety of agogic techniques mentioned above. Indeed, many classical musicians dedicate themselves to the service of the composer's output. These musicians devote themselves to a kind of Musical Kantianism:
Follow the score.
Perform a work in such a way that it will be in harmony with all other performances.
Respect the composer's intentions.
Always treat the composer's opus as an end, never merely as a means.
Let the music speak for itself.
We may readily agree with those who cling to the independent existence of a work is that ethics and care of handling a work itself proves its pre-eminent existence. How could our common ideas of music performance be so utterly off base? One need not be a Platonist to hold some relative independence of musical works from their performances--from all their performances. If anything, the scored work provides the ground of possibility for converging performances. Nonetheless, these well worn maxims suffer for their familiar Kantian abstraction. They only place limits on the performer. Don't violate the score, and don't simply inject any spin you so desire on the notes. But the content is missing. Musical Kantianism, despite its high minded admonitions, may leave open the field of musical possibility far wider than what most musical literati would tolerate.
These are deep practical problems. Dead composers are unable to clarify their intentions. It is not even clear that we are always so compelled. Consider the famous problem of Beethoven's metronome markings--universally ignored, until quite recently. Historical information is spotty. Some of the most important information detailed in the score is the most open to varying interpretations. There are no strict rules on tempi, fermati, phrasing, dynamics, yet many scores contain instructions concerning these. How long should I pause here for this fermata? For the non-musicians, let me provide a practical analogy. A STOP sign commands drivers to stop, not to proceed until it is safe. As such it is formal. It doesn't tell us how to stop. Slamming on the brakes, just in time to stop, may not be breaking the law, but it may disturb any passengers on board. Crawling to a STOP can be annoying to those in back. Obeying the STOP sign is embedded in driving practices, which narrow the range of possible actions in light of established needs, wants, and values of the public in transit.
Performers are very much the drivers in musical aesthetic experience. It seems that most listeners have a keen awareness of when a musician is "just playing the notes" or is really "making music." What audible difference could their be between a musician who follows all the instructions and one who injects meaning into the work--one who makes the music live? A few years back, when the Smithsonian released modern bands performing old big band music, some complained of a lack of spontaneity, a stiffness not heard in the old recordings. It is difficult to account for these judgments. Presumably, the performances didn't swing as the old ones did.
Some of the perplexity can be cleared up considering a few important practical considerations. In professional ensemble playing, there is a constant sensitive modification of each member's shaping and phrasing in light of blending with what the others are doing. The emergent performance is truly a group effect, irreducible to the individual wills of the members of the ensemble. Solo and ensemble performance alike require a tremendous control of emotional and physical energies--as the Kantian maxims imply above. Rarely are musicians are required to imitate past performances (though with the advent of recordings, it is no doubt the case that modern recording artists are often compelled to provide live performances that are expected to repeat their performances from the recording studio). But, the crucial destructive change lies in the hyper-management of musicians' energies in pursuit of recreating the past sonic event. Such excessive pre-shaping would be destructive to the life of any performance, but especially so, it would seem, the emergent group dynamic energy and spontaneity expected of jazz.
This episode takes us to the most general parameters of musical performance practices or paradigms. The whole of our instituted performance practices provide the ground of musical meaning. At the most general level, musical paradigms constitute what we expect out of performances, production values, the contribution of the performer, what the ideal situation of audition is, preferred modes of presentations, and even a repertoire. A musical education consists not so much of passing on information about music and its history, but an aesthetic education of the body as a musical instrument. Music theory vacuously prohibits parallel-fifths in standard-practice part-writing, until the musician learns to abhor the sound of them when they occur in that style. Too little attention has been paid to this training process, its institutionality, and its impact on the constitution of our performance practices and thus, whatever the meaning listeners carry away with them during a performance.
As preliminary to resolving the ontological puzzle about musical works and their performances, I propose the following line of reasoning. While musical works have an ontological priority to their performances, they lack a full fledged ontological independence from the performance-practices that make their performance possible. Such performance practices have no inherent independence from performances. Performances both conserve as well as alter the ongoing production values that develop around particular periods, genres, and even particular works. The French phenomenologist, Michel Dufrenne, expressed this well when he wrote, "The musician gives the truth to music." In this sense, in their productive capacities musicians constitute the meaning of a work through their performance.
This line of thinking should help explain how performances of the same work tend to converge around fairly similar sonic parameters. But helps capture our sense of historical shifts in performance practices. It calls more for a sociology of music performance than a philosophical account. It must be noted that despite the proliferation of musical-theoretic disciplines in academic settings, the education of musicians remains an aural tradition. Every instrument, and every musical period has its foremost specialists whose role in the constitution of the more localized performance practices is essential. Typically, there is a pedigree of lineage. The giants of the field can trace their musical ancestry back into the 19th century. Many of these leaders of the field are not resident artists at the most prestigious musical institutions of the land. It would be a mistake to imagine that this is a simple case of "might makes right." As Lydia Goehr illustrates in her work, the classical musical world is inherently conservative. Institutions are more likely to be bound to seek to conserve the standards in their musical apprentices, thus insuring their economic, cultural, and aesthetic viability. These practices are more than just routes to the concert hall, then to the bank. This would be to understand practices simply in ways of acquiry external goods. Alistair MacIntyre corrects this notion:
By a 'practice' I am going to mean any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved are systematically extended.
I can think of few forms of social behavior today that exemplify better MacIntyre's understanding of practices than musical performance practices. A musical education then is the inculcation of these standards and values, the sensitization and training of the body, mind and spirit. The studio-instructor provides the frontline in what Goffman has called, "the bureaucratization of the spirit." Henry Kingsbury in his anthropology of the conservatory system, Music, Talent, and Performance, narrates quite few episodes of this training as it occurs in private lessons and master classes given by some of the more notable pedagogues in the institution he focused upon.
These anecdotes and reports make clear that musical pedagogy can not be reduced to mental training, production of mechanical skills, or transmitting information: In "Lesson with the Master," Kingsbury writes about how the renown pianist, Marcus Goldman would admonish his students with such instructions as, "Make it go forward, there," and "Feel it intensely--want to go there, but don't."
Instructions such as these show Goldmann to be teaching by telling the students directly how to feel a piece, how to feel while playing particular passages. This was a frequently used device for Goldman, and it shall not go without saying that in this he was referring to internal affective states. ... However, Goldmann's attention to playing with feeling was not manifested soley in a concern with musical manifestations of internal states such as passion, calm, anxiety, foreboding, or exuberance. Playing "with feeling" frequently entailed preceiving the musical structures of the text in association with bodily motions--most notably of the hands and arms--and with the physical dynamics of singing and breathing.
One strategy frequently used by Goldmann [in his master classes] was that of asking a student to sing a particular passage, an exercise that compels the student to experience the phrase in terms of a finite amount of exhaling breath, and to clarify beginnings and endings of phrases, experienced physically as points where a singer can inhale. When Goldmann told a young clarinetist to "take a breath, there" he was making a comment that was at once a technical and interpretive, and he was doing this by giving a physical, bodily directive. Moreover, it was not only the players of wind instruments who were told to breathe or to "make it breathe" at phrase endings. Such directives were given to pianists and cellists as well, and the expression has become such a commonplace that its metaphoric character is in many cases lost.
What emerges from Kingsbury's ethnographical observations is that interpretation of musical scores is a highly flexible and complicated matter. Different teachers have widely divergent techniques and methodologies. All take the ideal or most desirable emotional-aesthetic impact of the piece to be the final court of decision in the matter. All find abhorrent any student who merely just plays the notes. It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing. The shaping, timings, and colorings that trained musicians bring to a particular work are constrained by the performance practices of the period at the present. Musical interpretive activity is further complicated by the issue of the adequacy of the edition. The usual dualism between musical work and performance finds it problematic to base all on the work, because of the contestability of editions. The works of Chopin provide some of the most intractable problems from the so-called "common practice period," where the musical notation reached a commanding determination of what was to happen in performance. Not only did Chopin notate different versions of the same works, raising a selection problem as to which one is his definitive version, competing editions raise the stakes even higher.
I would claim that, in performance, these construct a world of meanings in the work at that moment. Stepping back, as the philosophers would have it, we might reason that the musical work, the repeatable thing, is more a range of possible colorings, feelings, timings, and meanings (if we can ever make sense of that term), as constructed normatively by socially-instituted performance practice. Nothing transcendent here. This thesis, I believe, is only deepened by the apparent historicity of performance practices. We can now listen on record to the recent history of changes that performance practices have undergone.
For too long, the philosophy of classical music has resided in the stable, supposedly invariant aspects of scores or what they signify. I said that the performance of Bach and Ellington were not essentially different. What unites them is that we pass in performance from merely making sounds appropriate to the specifications in the score to making music. In Swing, there is not only more room for improvisation, it is demanded that the performer create meaning on the spot through such creative addition. It has long been overlooked that in the performance of Vivaldi, Beethoven, and Chopin, to name a few, that musical meaning is likewise produced by improvisation. True, a subtle micro-improvisation is always at work, even in the most meticulously laid out interpretations. Every act of phrasing is an act of micro-improvisation. Listeners, as I noted, hear the difference. The most audible aspect of this phenomena has been studied by psychologists. They have charted this by studying listener response and using sophisticated computer programs to analyze musicians' temporal deviation in performance. Sure enough, little deviation and listeners reject the musicality of the performance.
So far, I have at most theorized about the conditions of meaning of music. I have toyed with the possibility that meaning is tied to potential affects. But I haven't said anything about the meaning and value of actual pieces or their performances. I am afraid I shall run in the other direction. I am skeptical that it is possible or even prudent to yield a singular meaning from a given piece. I suspect that the philosophical search for meaning, like the musical performer's longing for an ideal standard are searches for an anchor on the high seas of cultural flux. As a musician, there are all sorts of aspects I find significant about various works, but I would hate to be pressed to come up with one thing. Hence, I will look in the more global direction for some clue to the significance of musical works.
These performance practices are not spun out of a wholly distinct cloth from our other cherished practices and values. Certainly corresponding to the distinction weighted in favor "making music," we are wary of people who just go through the motions. Deep practical analogies can be found in the kitchen and in the bedroom, two of our most private, personal worlds. In the kitchen, we say that the cook who tastes and improvises all along the way in the execution of a recipe is the gifted cook, rather than one tied to the recipe. In the bedroom, what could be closer than the analogy of making love with that of making music as opposed to just having sex with that of just playing the notes? The two analogies capture two different highly valued potentials in the human spirit. One, we admire individual inventiveness and initiative. Two, we praise and yearn for the capacity to reciprocally provide and receive love, pleasure, excitement from another human being. There seems to be some deep practical analogy between the two realms of activity. As anthropologist, Clifford Geertz notes,
[T]he central connection between art and connective life does not lie on such an instrumental plane, it lies on a semiotic one. . . They materialize a way of experiencing, bring a particular cast of mind out into the world of objects, where man can look at it."
Different periods or even works clearly serve different larger human values. Virtuoso music is a case in point. Besides being thrilling to listen to, there is the admiration of individual ability, skill, and talent. I want to conclude by pointing to the diversity of performance practices abounding in today's classical musical world. Given the competition for scarce resources, there are a number of proponents in various camps at work to discredit the other. No where is this more apparent than in the early music movement. There has been little or no attention to extramusical values the musical practices might be connected with. It seems to me that one of the cultural calling cards of the authentic performance movement is not its Spartan dedication to scores and historical authenticity, but that a new experience of music is created which expresses a historical nostalgia for a time before electronic technology, before machines. In short, its historical exotica may open the door for a retraining of the human spirit for simpler, plainer emotions that tend to be lost in the world of heavy traffic, heavy metal, and economic anomie.
 Cf. Aristotle, Nicomachaen Ethics, 1126a4ff.
 Listen, p. 383.
 The Enjoyment of Music, (New York: Norton, 1970), p. 583.
 K. Higgens, Music of Our Lives, (Philadelphia: Temple Press, 1991), p. 43.
 J. Levinson, in Music, Art, & Metaphysics, provides one of the few instances of philosophical reflection on the importance of performance.
 Alan Goldman, "The Value of Music," JAAC, v. 50, no. 1 (Winter 1992), 42.
 Ibid., 41.
 B. Boretz, "Nelson Goodman's Languages of Art," in B. Boretz and E. Cone, Perspectives on Contemporary Music Theory, (NY: Norton, 1972), pp. 34,43.
 P. Kivy, "Platonism in Musical: A Kind of Defense," Grazer Philosophische Studien 19 (1983), 109-29.
 See H. Kingsbury, Music, Talent, & Performance: A Conservatory Cultural System, (Phila.: Temple U.P., 1988), pp. 136-9.
 [I have found this story applied to other composers such as Tchaikovsky.]
 In the extended version of this paper, there are a number of proponents of this view. I take it has enough intuitive appeal among philosophers and musicians alike, that we need not run through the gamut of positions for this forum.
 Consider the following joke: The origins of the expression, Andantino--generally translated as a little faster than Andante, which is a walking pace, a mystery tempo in itself. Two italians were playing chamber music. They came to a piece without a tempo marking. One asked, "How fast should we play this?" The other responded, "Ah danta know."
 Kingsbury, ibid.
 Goehr, ibid.
 A. MacIntyre, After Virtue, (Notre Dame, Ind.: Notre Dame Press,1981), p. 175.
 Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, (NY: Anchor Books, 1959), p. 56.
 Geertz, "Art as a Cultural System," in Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology, (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1983), p. 99. In a Deweyian vein, he also writes, p. 118, "The artist works with his audience's capacities--capacities to see, or hear, or touch, sometimes even to taste or smell, with understanding. . . [T]hey are brought into existence by the experience of living in the midst of certain sorts of things to look at, listen to, handle, think about, cope with, and react to; particular varieties of cabbages, particular sorts of kings. Art and the equipment to grasp it are made in the same shop."
 This paper owes its existence to a fellowship grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities to study at the ASA Summer Institute on Philosophy and the Histories of Art. Particular thanks must go to Jeffery Geller and Jerrold Levinson whose feedback on my original thoughts presented at the institute may have helped dodge a few dangerous glitches. Two other debts must be paid. My musical training provides a special springboard for these thoughts. This involved study with a maestro of my instrument and later attendance at a conservatory. My experience there remained in danger of being merely personal, until Henry Kingsbury's book, Music, Talent, Performance came out. This outstanding account of the conservatory system provides a wealth of demystification of the many of the assumptions surrounding the world of classical music.