Anticipation and the shaping of jazz to come

By Steve Tromans

“It’s not what it sounds like that interests me, it’s what it is.” – Cornelius Cardew [1]

“The future is… at the heart of experience in the durational present.” – Sandra Rosenthal [2]

Last month’s Deep Thought was concerned with our understanding of events of musical performance. Making reference to a performance of Terry Riley’s In C at Birmingham Library in April 2014, and drawing on pertinent philosophical writings on the nature of the process to which we give the name “event”, I examined what goes into such happenings, and what comes out of them, including the relationship between our sense of self as participant (musical or otherwise) pre and post festum (see here  for the full article).

My Deep Thought this month is focused not on a music event already made (i.e., one that has come and gone) but rather on the peculiar conditions inherent in the event-to-be. As with its predecessor, May’s writing makes example of a performance on Birmingham’s live music calendar – a forthcoming gig of my own at the Yardbird Jazz Club, 29 May 2014. Although not as grand a happening as the massed instrumental rendering of In C, the impending trio date nonetheless constitutes, at this moment of writing, an event: an event-to-be. For this reason, I want to take advantage, in research terms, of the complex processes of anticipation associated with my own position as one of the musicians to be involved in the coming gig. This is in order to feed the writing of an article of music research about a happening that has yet to happen, and to explore what a musician-researcher might understand in advance of the music-in-waiting they are professionally bound to the (eventual) making of.

The Yardbird - Steve will be playing there later this month.

The Yardbird – Steve will be playing there later this month.

The time before the time of the event

At the end of this month of May, I have a gig at the Yardbird Jazz Club, Birmingham. The band will consist of myself on electric piano, the drummer, Tymek Joswiak, and the electric bassist, Łukasz Chyla. As I write these words you are reading, the gig has yet to happen. It will happen (providence willing), but not just yet. So what of it, then, at this time before the time of the event in question? In other words: What is the status of an event of music before its eventual emergence, and what can we know of it, in research terms?

As every performance artist knows, intimately, what audiences experience of a given performance is really only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, when it comes to the real nature of the event. Although a concert is scheduled to begin on a certain day at, say (in the case of my own), 9pm, with two sets of 45 minutes, a support slot from 8pm, and a late jam session till the early hours, in reality it has existential roots trailing back long before the advertised date and time. This is not at all to imply that audiences are completely unaware of the pre-existence of a future event, since a fair amount of the work of those charged with its promotion is, of course, directed toward informing potential audience members of the upcoming attraction by various media (online-social, printed posters/flyers, word-of-mouth, etc.) However, there is an important difference in kind between the states of anticipation of a future event felt by punters, and those experienced by players, that is worth making explicit, here, in what I am calling “temporalities of anticipation” in artistic practice.

Temporalities of Anticipation 1: Pastness

The temporality of the anticipated is by its very nature a complex interrelation: it portends of a future happening, but yet is also grounded in one’s past experience of the thing in question. In the example I am giving of the Yardbird night, my anticipation of the forthcoming gig consists heavily of the amalgam of my various experiences of performing in, and being witness to, gigs at that venue over the last few years. And the same goes for my fellow performers, of course. Consciously-felt or less so, all these past experiences gained both on the stage and from the floor have influential bearing on our attitudes toward the latest gig. Ex nihilio nihil fit: “nothing comes from nothing”. Everything has a past.

As the philosopher Gilles Deleuze put it: “one never has a tabula rasa; one slips in, enters in the middle”. [3] One might think or hope, as an improvising musician, that one has the opportunity always to start from scratch in performance, but the reality is that each new instance of music-making is already chock-full of past experiences and artists’ characteristic ways of doing (those creative practices through which audiences recognise them as that particular artist). Such is the nature of professional performance, and when musicians ascend to the stage they do indeed “slip in” and “enter amidst” the far-from-blank page presented by the event of performance, before it has even begun. This is a key characteristic of the temporality of every event, but it does raise a puzzling question as to how one proceeds to make anything new, in a world over-populated with past acts of making…

The Problem of Novelty

On the evidence of the above, one could be led to consider our experiential relations to the impending future always with regard to the events of the past. That prior experiences impact on how we approach similar encounters in our lives is apparent to anyone who has reflected, however informally, on how s/he operates in relation to the surroundings and situations of a life lived. Accordingly, the problem immediately raised from this is one of novelty. By this, I mean the question of how something new is able to come about, if every act of music-making is merely a reconstitution or reconfiguration of habits installed through past acts. However, the seeming paradox of how the staticity of the past can possibly give rise to the novelty of the future – lest that future constitute no more than a creative dead end – can be avoided through consideration of the nature of the time of the present, and its relationship with both past and future temporalities.

In my February 2014 Deep Thought, I drew on the philosophy of Sandra Rosenthal, in her speculative-pragmatic understanding of the nature and operation of time. This was in order to model the experience of being at a live improvised performance, and the complex temporal relations inherent in contemporary expert music-making that explicitly references the work of past expert practitioners (go here to read the full article). In my argument therein, I made the case for a consideration of the “presence” of the present, in the act of live expert music-making, as not only inflected by past and future temporalities, but also transformative of the same as the (temporal) process in which each is able to impinge upon the other, changing their natures as the event is ongoing. For the requirements of this month’s article, as stated at the outset, the focus is a future event-to-be, not a present event in the process of unfolding in a given performance. However, the presence of the present in the temporalities of anticipation of a future event of music-making still looms large, and is vital to our understanding of how musicians go about the task of making anew anew – i.e., undertaking the process of novelty, again and again and again…

Knowledge before and after the event

By teasing out the particularities of the anticipated future, in relation to a process infolding and cross-pollinating past, present, and future temporalities, I am most concerned with the knowledge status of expert music practice prior to live performance. In other words: the knowledge-centred groundedness of the event before the event to come, from the perspective of those who will perform its emergence. It is paramount for expositions of expert music-making practices to be able to stake a claim for the status of knowledge inherent in such practices, in comparison to musicological analyses of the same. This is all the more apparent in an exploration of the nature of the event before its taking place. Because musicological research is traditionally conducted after the event of music-making (analysing scores, transcriptions, audio/video, etc.), it has to wait for music to be made, and traces of that making to be captured on record, for its knowledge-gathering operations to begin. As a consequence of this, it can have very little to offer – or, frankly, nothing at all – when it comes to the (constitutively) un-documentable, as-yet-unexpressed, experiential realm of the event-to-be, from the perspective of an artist charged with its (musical) emergence.

While the music analyst is unable to ground her/his knowledge in picking apart that which has yet to be put together, the musician most certainly has a knowledge-base from which to operate concerning the event-to-be. But how to express this sense of foreknowing in words, beyond the unhelpful vagueness associated with notions of “just feeling it” and the merely intuitive? On this point, Sandra Rosenthal again provides food for thought, and a conceptual apparatus to help with the modelling of the temporalities of anticipation in professional music practice.

Temporalities of Anticipation 2: Presentness 

Anticipatory practices are grounded in what Rosenthal refers to as “epistemic levels”. [4] The qualifier “epistemic” (from the Greek epistēmē, meaning “knowledge”) indicates a knowledge-centred practice, and Rosenthal argues for the founding of the processes of perception and cognition in that which she terms anteception. [5] From this perspective, the anticipatory rootedness of human behaviour is primary to more conscious processes of understanding and knowledge-gathering. [6] The anteceptive is primary, not in the sense of taking chronological precedence (i.e., coming first), but as a “primordial processive activity… foundational both for the human mode of being, and for the human mode of knowing”. [7]

A longer quote from Rosenthal brings welcome reinforcement to arguments against future actions being constituted solely in experiences that have already passed, and once more allows our conception of novelty the very novelty to which it aspires, as a matter of definition. Rosenthal writes: “The structure of human behaviour as anticipatory implies an anteceptive sense of the future. Such an anteceptive sense of the future is not an induction from past experience, but is at the heart of experience in the durational present”. [8] On account of the impermanence of the present, in its condition of continuous passage from past to future experiences, the innovation we anticipate in each new act of music-making in the music world finds its vital tipping point into creativity.

You and me and the event-to-be

So here we all are, then, in our relative experiences of Rosenthal’s “durational present”: my own as writer of this article; your own as reader; my colleagues and I as musicians-to-be at a future event of performance; your own (I would hope in optimism…) as attendee-to-be at the event in question. Bringing these experiences into temporal relation is contributory to the making of music in advance of its official launch date. Without such experiences, in all their personal-social-historical complexities, no event could ever come into its own. With these multifarious experiences ever on board, constitutively, the event-to-be takes shape from the outset as a middling thing: a mediated entity continually transforming, becoming in the flux of the passing present as it anticipates its eventual future in the now – the presentness of the temporality of anticipation.

Afterword/Foreword

In the closing paragraphs of this month’s Deep Thought, I want to reflect a little on the differing temporalities of music-research activity. As musicological research into an event of music-making (albeit a future one), the above article fails to deliver the stock in trade. However, that failure is inevitable. The absence of tangible documented proof of the gig’s existence leaves no opportunity for music analysis. This lack of analysis means there is no musicological knowledge to uncover and disseminate. Yet, on another epistemic level – the anteceptive – I feel the above fulfils its remit to the letter. Each sentence, each paragraph, is grounded in and motivated by an anteceptive awareness of the coming event, and the apparent failure of the words, in traditional music-research terms, is but a surface-feature of the deeper anteceptive current driving the writing. The futurity of the now, the presence of the future: these are the temporalities of anticipation pertinent to the event-to-be; the twin temporal characters at play on the stage of the article’s writing.

For this reason, I have titled this last section “Afterword/Foreword”. It is positioned to conclude the above text, but also to preface the coming event of music-making. As to the eventual (and eventful) sounds of 29 May 2014 at the Yardbird, I would return the reader’s eye to the article’s opening quote, from Cornelius Cardew on the process of improvisation: “It’s not what it sounds like that interests me, it’s what it is”. [9] All that the event-to-be of 29 May “is”, at the time of writing, is a presence to the senses – grounded, as are all things of human understanding, in anteceptive knowing. “Ich fühle luft von anderem planeten”. [10] The future is other-planetary, yet we do indeed feel its air and know its presence through our actions in the now. Free entry. Support from 8pm. All new material.

Notes

[1] Cornelius Cardew, on the what interests him most in the process of improvisation. Quoted in Gavin Bryars Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (1999, p. 127).See the reference list, below, for full details of this landmark work (highly recommended), first published in 1974.

[2] Rosenthal (1986, p. 80).

[3] Deleuze (1988, p. 123).

[4] Rosenthal writes: “the difference between perceptual content and anteceptive content is not the distinction between physical and psychical, external and internal, or matter and mind, but rather between epistemic levels by which humans interact with that which is there” (1986, p. 68).

[5] Rosenthal: “Anteception is an indefinitely rich matrix within which the process of perceptual awareness and cognition in general are rooted, and from which they emerge, and its character enters into their structure and content” (p. 68).

[6] Rosenthal: “The structure of human behaviour as anticipatory both requires and makes possible the emergence of a priori structures of knowing within experience” (p. 80).

[7] Rosenthal (p. 69).

[8] Rosenthal (p. 80).

[9] Cardew, in Bryars (1999, p. 127).

[10] “I feel the air of another planet”: the opening line of the poem Entrückung (Transport) by Stefan George. Famously set by Arnold Schoenberg in the second movement of his Second String Quartet, op. 10 (1907-8). The soprano sings George’s words at the exact point Schoenberg’s compositional practice parts company with the tonal tradition in Western music, marking the beginning of his struggle to “emancipate the dissonance”.

References

Bryars, Gavin. Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, 2nd Ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1999.

Deleuze, Gilles. Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, trans. Richard Hurley. San Francisco: City Lights Books. 1988.

Rosenthal, Sandra B. Speculative Pragmatism. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court. 1986.



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  1. Steve Tromans – the anticipation ends this evening « thejazzbreakfast

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