Product or process: thoughts on the analysis of improvised music

To the practitioner, the idea of separating these two concepts, product and process, might seem overtly utilitarian. Surely the experience of spontaneously creating music cannot be reduced to mere processual considerations, or indeed, viewed entirely as a definitive final product with all the inherent logic, structure, and phenomenological experience of a notated composition? In my experience, it is not uncommon to find scholarship— concerning analysis that is—which, implicitly or explicitly, fosters a perception of dichotomy toward these stances (that is improvisation as a product or improvisation as a process). Perhaps this is unavoidable, a fundamental consequence of epistemological and methodological positioning?

On an interesting tangent, these stances (and the associated dichotomy) can be recast, extended, and generalised to encompass broader definitions: listener/performer, researcher/researched, subject/object, and emic/etic (actor/observer). However, for this post, and in the name of brevity, I’ll stick with the narrower (or perhaps more precise) terms, product and process.

Returning to thinking as a practitioner, is there significant utility in separating these two concepts? Moreover, is their diametric opposition as pronounced as we might think? I think it is easy to overstate this apparent dichotomy, and the reality is arguably more nuanced and complex. It is probably useful to reframe the vantage points ‘product’ and ‘process’ as being situated on a spectrum, rather than immutable opposites. Furthermore, it should be noted that it is also possible to mitigate extremes on this spectrum. For instance, the musically synchronic position resulting from examining jazz improvisation as if it were a product could be reduced by the inclusion of a cultural and historical context into the narrative.

Nevertheless, where you place your examination (either as a practitioner or researcher) on this spectrum is likely to impact your approach significantly. For example, viewing the musical object (in this case jazz improvisation) as a product will lead you down a distinct methodological and epistemological path. As a result the music analyst might find themselves utilising techniques such as Schenkerian Analysis, Motivic Analysis [examining the incidence and use of motives, be they rhythm, pitch, or contour], Formulaic Analysis [the deconstruction of pre-learned formula, i.e. ‘licks’ and concepts, in relation to the production and creation of jazz and / or improvised music], and Set Theory.

Although using such analytical tools might provide insight into the melodic and harmonic structure of the music being examined they fail to consider musical parameters which are arguably central to jazz: timbre; rhythm (although Motivic Analysis does consider this to some extent); phrasing, and how this engages with structural elements of improvisation and cyclic forms; dynamics and dramatisation; articulation; and, most crucial in my opinion, interaction and interplay between members of the ensemble and how this impacts the trajectory of improvisation. Furthermore not only are the above parameters not addressed, but when using the aforementioned methodologies, they also often give little or no consideration to the cultural, historical, psychological, or sociological contexts that impact and influence the creation of jazz.

So what if we view jazz improvisation as a process, and consider using this stance as a launchpad for jazz analysis? In many respects, this is the purview of music psychology, music cognition, and in some case neuroscience. Without a tangential delve into those disciplines, there have been some interesting and insightful studies examining the processual aspects of jazz improvisation, notably work by Johnson-Laird. In 1987 and 1991 Johnson-Laird developed and tested a Chomskian inspired model which split the process into three stages:

  • The Deep Level: improvisers commit basic structures (chord changes, pre-learned formula) to memory.
  • The Shallow Level: improvisers assess and consider aesthetic decisions regarding the immediate entity currently being produced (i.e. hitting target notes).
  • The Surface Level: the improvised melody/object is generated.

Some issues with examining jazz as a process in this manner are that there is a tremendous shortfall between theorised models and the actualised complexity of improvising jazz. Many studies have used various constraints, rules, and models to facilitate a computer in generating jazz improvisation and, as you can imagine, the results have been very mixed. I would claim that there is more to jazz improvisation than the mechanistic logic often found in processual models; in my opinion, the process of improvising jazz is so infinitely imbued with complexity that current—and indeed arguably any—generative models are just not able to adequately describe the process.

So where does this leave us? Analytical methodologies closer aligned to ‘improvisation as product’ seem to view the object as a definitive artefact understandable primarily through analyses grounded in European analytical techniques, with little consideration for cultural or historical influence. Meanwhile, processual approaches, although explicating and demystifying some of the generative elements of jazz improvisation, seem unable to explain the musical object in its entirety, nor consider it’s cultural and historical contexts.

Enter Jazz Ethnography [check here for some further information on ethnography]. Jazz Ethnography often referred to as ‘insider studies’, attempts to assess the ideas, thoughts, and experiences of those engaged in jazz practice through interviews and observation to better understand the society/culture from the point-of-view of the subject. Seminal works by Ingrid Monson (Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction) and Paul Berliner (Thinking In Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation) have demonstrated that a combined approach incorporating nominal analytical methodologies, ethnographic methods, and cultural and pedagogical concerns is conceivable and arguably achievable.

Although ethnographic studies have unquestionably broadened discourse in jazz scholarship, I’m not sure to what extent they have encouraged and engendered a revision of analytical tools. Nevertheless, the inclusion of ethnographic methodologies and historical and cultural considerations into the field of jazz analysis seems to have aided in producing blended approaches which have lessened the product-process dichotomy.

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