Neither derivative nor imitative: presence and timeliness in music made live

By Steve Tromans

“Despite many linkages to jazz history, his music sounded neither derivative nor imitative.” – Ted Gioia, on Charles Mingus.[1]

“The present can function as it does only because its activity incorporates past and future.” – Sandra Rosenthal.[2]

This month’s article came about as a result of my very recent Friday night out and about on the Birmingham jazz scene, and one extraordinary performance. The Friday in question was 31 January, and the performance, that given by Paul Rogers, Robin Fincker and Fabien Duscombs (collectively known as Whahay) at the Ort Cafe, Balsall Heath, Birmingham, in a promotion by Tony Dudley-Evans and Mike Hurley. Aside from the exceptional musicianship of the players concerned, the evening was marked by that hard-to-define extra “something” that has characterised many a memorable night of music-making. In other words, there was a real “vibe” to proceedings; an ambience that seemed somehow to transport those present away from the everyday and into another temporal “zone”.

The question of the temporality particular to great live performance occurred to me following conversations with two regular attendees of the jazz scene in Birmingham, and to whom I am grateful for catalysing the concerns of this article.

Presence and the jazz artist

Great performers have presence. Think Miles Davis, Billie Holliday, Cecil Taylor, Elvin Jones, Wayne Shorter, Charles Mingus: each is marked by a singular way of practising his or her artistry in public that not only captures the attentions of an audience, but holds it in the moment as the performance unfolds. These expert practitioners have an air about them, something perennially difficult to enumerate discursively or model in research terms, yet immediately sensible to the faculties of those exposed to that presence.[3] In other words, you know it when you see it, hear it, feel it, experience it.

There is a peculiar temporality conjured in the presence of a great performer, one that leads the members of their audience to collectively embrace a seemingly infinitely paused, or infinitely extended, time. This temporal quality characterises memorable events of performance, with the real time of the real world temporarily suspended from experience. These different temporal sensibilities are well known to fans of live performance, and the often imperceptible move from the everyday ‘real’ time to the “infinite” time of thoroughly engaging expert practice is one of the pleasures of a music made live that no other medium of presentation can replace. But what is it about the temporality of expert performance that sets it apart from the commonplace? And how accurate is it to describe such acts of music-making, and their immediate appreciation by an audience, as being “in the moment”?

Time and the experience of live jazz

Whahay

Whahay

Our understanding of what constitutes something as existing, or as being experienced “in the moment” is part-and-parcel of our understanding of that temporal state we label “the present”. From an everyday point of view, the present is easy to describe: it is what is happening at this very point in time, such as the very moment you are reading this sentence right now. But consider that commonsense point of view a little longer and the idea that the present is anything that can be isolated to a given “point” or “moment” in time is actually nonsensical. Every act we undertake in the world takes time, even those acts we think of as instantaneous, such as seeing something beautiful to the eyes, or (more pertinent to our concerns, here) hearing live music of an extraordinary quality. Every act of perception (light entering our eyes, or sound waves resonating with our bodies) requires a certain amount of time to be interpreted by our faculties, since we humans are, dare I saw, quite slow-witted in comparison to some of the other creatures and creations on this planet (super-computers included).

In spite of our commonsense assumption that we live very much in the present moment of time, for every act of perceiving music-making in live performance there is, in fact, a complex intermingling of past, present, and future temporalities. For instance, the philosopher, Sandra Rosenthal, uses the term “passing present” to give a sense of this temporal complexity. In a recent publication on the philosophy of time, she writes: “past and future enter into the total character of the passing present as present possibilities”.[4] Rather than being discrete categories of experience, past, present, and future are implied by each other – in fact, depend on each other for their distinguishing qualities.

The pastness of the present

The past, as commonly understood, is a once-present that has ceased to be; fixed, unchangeable, and obsolete in relation to the “liveness” of the present moment. On Rosenthal’s view, however, the past is not “dead”. It is a dynamic presence in our experience of the present, and a key factor in how we make sense of our perceptions of the world around us – and, in particular, our appreciation of live music-making. To give the example of last Friday’s Ort gig: the performance given by Rogers, Fincker, and Duscombs was billed as involving the music of Charles Mingus, albeit from a free-jazz/free-improv perspective. For me, this set up an interesting experiment in practice-as-research terms, which I’ll elucidate, below.[5]

charles_mingus_wallpaper_wide-HD

Charles Mingus

Regrettably, the great Charles Mingus died in 1979, aged only 56. However, as all musicians and music enthusiasts well know, the influence of the greats continues to be felt for many years after their physical demise. For this reason, despite the fact that three musicians of Whayhay, and the audience gathered at the Ort, were totally committed to experiencing a music made in the moment of performance on the night, the fact that the music of Mingus was to feature in that performance brought (what Rosenthal would call) a “pastness” into our collective experiences of the present-time events of the gig as it unfolded before our senses. By this, I mean that even though new music was being made in a live setting, with the celebrated freedoms associated with the practice of “free” playing, the presence of the past as a conditioning element in those present-time acts of music-making and its reception was unavoidable. It was the pastness of that present-time experience.

As soon as the jazz-savvy audience became aware of the presence of Mingus tunes like Jump Monk, Reincarnation of a Lovebird, and Better Git it in your Soul, in the trio’s music-making, a temporal relationship between past experiences of jazz and present-time acts of music-making was inevitably set in motion. In terms of better understanding such past-present intermingling, the words of Rosenthal are instructive: “The passing present brings novelty in its flow… part and parcel of the context of processes that preceded it and that follow from it through ongoing adjustments”.[6] And that sense of the temporality that follows on from the events of the passing present brings us to the question of the involvement of future temporality, and its presence in live-music experiences.

The futurity of the present

If the past is, contrary to popular belief, not a fixed, static temporal state, forever relegated to the once-was of historical time, then what of the future? As the passing present has a pastness which characterises it as the present in relation to a dynamic, changing past, so it also has a futurity. This “future-ness” is a quality of becoming that inheres in the evolving present as possibility. When improvisers make music in the (temporally complex) “moment” of performance, every act of that making is speculative towards a whole range of possible futures. In other words, for every note and phrase played, there are many more left unsounded. These are the potential courses of action that suggest themselves to the improviser, as he or she is engaged in the present-time task of making music. As the music unfolds in time, each choice made “actualises” from those potentials, and, of course, these actualisations are what we capture as audio data in our recorded documents of performances given. However, as this article is focused on demonstrating, there is far more going on, temporally, in live performance than merely that which is eventually sounded out. The various potential future-becomings are a persistent feature of present-time acts. They flavour our experiences of live music-making, adding a ghostly dimension of “what if” to every note and phrase; future echoes that may or may not be actualised, but are still felt as being “there” (but notably absent from our transcriptions of recorded performances – hence, I feel, the dangers of placing too heavy an emphasis on music notation, or other means of making music a visible thing, in music research).

The presence of the present

Since it is part of the character of the present to have a pastness, or a quality of the past that is active within its ongoing novelty, the potential futures that accompany present-time acts of music-making are similarly grounded in a sense of what has come before, in past experiences. However, this does not mean that the past holds the key to everything that is, and is to come. Such a conception makes the present merely transitory, and the future stagnant, whereas our very experiences of the complexities of the temporal shout out quite the opposite.

To return to the example of Whayhay, on a rainy night in Birmingham in an intimate performance venue at the end of last month: the past of jazz, in the form of the music of Charles Mingus, and the future-potentials eagerly anticipated by the audience, conjured through the speculative music practices of those three expert improvisers, were dynamically involved in the performance as it unfolded. These active past and future qualities contribute to what I would call the “presence” of the present, or its “liveness”. In exceptional music made live, there is a temporal presence that draws on past experience and future speculation, but is not reduced to, respectively, the mere re-presentation or inevitable enactment of either.

As the jazz historian, Ted Gioia, wrote of Mingus: “Despite many linkages to jazz history, his music sounded neither derivative nor imitative”.[7] This is the temporality of expert musicianship: it attempts to neither recreate the past nor ignore its roots in it; and its very acts of creation draw on its history and actualise possible future courses for music-making. The liveness of expert improvisation bristles with possibilities – for the past as much as for the future. Rosenthal refers to this as “the hereness and nowness of present actualisings enter[ing] into the character of the past and the future, changing the possibilities inherent in them as real possibilities”.[8] In this way, events of expert music practice, such as that of 31 January 2014 at the Ort, can be considered as experiments in temporal complexity. They open the channels of communication between jazz of the past and the future, and make possible a novelty in the music that emerges out of the complex character of the present “moment” of performance. This is what we feel as the “presence” of great art made live, and the reason we still continue to strive to make it, and go to concerts to experience it firsthand. Long may such artistic experiments continue, since they are the lifeblood of the music we hold dear, and a means of sustaining its vitality into the ever-emergent though as-yet-unknown future.

Notes

[1] Gioia (2011, p. 299).
[2] Rosenthal (2000, p. 143).
[3] On the difficulties of putting the less tangible qualities of live performance into words – the problem of discursivising the temporality of expert performance practice – see, for instance, Peggy Phelan (1993) on the essential “ephemerality” of all performance.
[4] Rosenthal (2000, p. 142).
[5] Practice-as-research is a term that entered research discourse in the late-20th century. It signifies an approach to research that argues for the validity, in academia, of practices not usually considered to have an academic standing. For instance, in music, a performer’s or a composer’s practices of making the music they are skilled at making can be argued to constitute a complex, multi-faceted undertaking that is easily as academe-worthy as the practices of musicology. The integration of music practitioners into the world of academic music research is a hot topic in contemporary times, and a far from resolved matter – on either side of the argument. For a useful overview of the current situation in practice-as-research (or “artistic research”, as it is sometimes called), see Coessens et al (2009).
[6] Rosenthal (2000, p. 142).
[7] Gioia (2011, p. 299).
[8] Rosenthal (200, p. 142).

References

Coessens, Kathleen, Darla Crispin, and Anne Douglas. The Artistic Turn: A Manifesto. Leuven: Leuven University Press. 2009.
Gioia, Ted. The History of Jazz, 2nd Ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2011.
Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. London: Routledge. 1993.
Rosenthal, Sandra B. Time, Continuity, and Indeterminacy: A Pragmatic Engagement with Contemporary Perspectives. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. 2000.



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  1. Anticipation and the shaping of jazz to come « thejazzbreakfast
  2. Steve Tromans – May 2015 | thejazzbreakfast

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