• A new year, a new academic quarter...

    I'm excited to be back in Los Angeles after having spent a few weeks running around Germany. I ate way too much bratwurst and drank way too much beer. But now that I'm back in the land of kale and diet vodka, I'm sure I'll drop whatever winter weight I put on. It's a new quarter at UCLA (where I'm in my last quarter of course work for my PhD), and I'm excited to be working with musicologist Bob Fink on questions of musical canons, philosopher John McCumber on the limits of the idea of Enlightenment, and as always with my advisor, the remarkable Dr. Roger Savage, on a philosophical hermeneutical reading of free improvisation and the relevance/vehemence of aesthetic experience. All this, and attempting to work toward a practical competence with German language. It's good work if you can get it. 

    Also, I found that Germany really was exactly like the description featured below. Happy New Year, y'all!


  • Tim Price is Heavy

    Last night I had the pleasure of speaking with Tim Price for about 90 minutes regarding Joe Farrell, jazz history, general saxophone nerdery, the New York and Boston jazz scenes for the past forty years, and so much more. If you're not hip to Tim Price, check him out. Heavy cat, wonderful educator, and generous human being.



    This video is obviously the product of some really, really stoned conversations, performances, production, and editing. Thundercat + Adult Swim, Eric Andre, $5K, and lots of influence from the Tumblr-verse, 80s television production techniques, and Tim&Eric? I don't know, man. So weird, but if you can dig the 80s-style irony and banality of the video, the audio track is crazy rewarding. But at what point does this kind of self-reflexive irony eat itself, lose its efficacy, and fall into nihilism? Feels as though this kind of work is teetering on the edge of that cliff.

  • Bit of lit review about embodied situated cognition and mirror neurons + music...

    Cross-posted from Ethnomusicology Review. Here I'm making something of an argument for incorporating new findings and research methods into our investigations of musical meaning. I might be wrong, but I'm intuiting that this stuff is going to be incredibly helpful in accounting for music's ability to move performers and listeners. It's all much more complicated and multi-tiered than I can imagine, I'm sure, but this seems important. Thanks for reading, and let me know your thoughts!

    Modern scholarly attempts to account for musical meaning in the academy are roughly divided among musicology, ethnomusicology, and systematic musicology. Perhaps responding to Joseph Kerman’s call in 1980 to move beyond analysis and descriptive criticism as methodologies, musicologists have borrowed liberally from feminist studies, comparative literature studies, gender studies, and deconstructionism to impute historical and ideological meaning in the Western canon, pop music, etc. Ethnomusicologists use these methods, often with an additional focus on ethnography and Geertz-ian “thick description” to describe the import of musical activities in “othered” musics. Systematic musicology - depending which continent one is on or whom you ask - tends to focus either on empirically oriented study of music cognition to investigate music or, conversely, philosophical approaches to understanding musical meaning and affective power. While not neatly divided or without blind-spots, these disciplines and their methods have produced much in the interest of furthering a collective understanding of the relevance of musical phenomena and its role in building identities, histories, social systems, and economies. Still, some of the aporias of music studies can not fully be addressed by just one epistemology and its concomitant methodologies. To that end I’d like to offer an argument for the incorporation of some relatively new theories and methodologies from the fields of embodied cognition and neuroscience that may be deployed to offer new ways of describing and understanding the why, what, how, and so what of music, especially freely improvised music. I will offer below something of an introduction and literature review of recent material on embodied situated cognition and mirror neuron research with an aim to suggest their relevance to music researchers.

    In jazz music, improvisation is commonly associated with ideas of freedom, the numinous, and cosmological significance as observable in the musics of John Coltrane, Sun Ra, and Steve Coleman among many, many others. Musicians and listeners alike speak anecdotally about their experiences with improvised music in terms of motion, space, euphoria, trance, identity, dilation of time, etc. While these experiences and the part they play in the jazz tradition have been addressed both anecdotally in magazines and rigorously in academic journals and books (Berliner 1994; Monson 1996; Jackson 2012), the question of meaning in regard to musical improvisation has not been sufficiently addressed. Mainly due to its consideration as primordial, improvised music is oftentimes stripped of social context, historically relevant means of production, structure, etc. From this perspective, musicians seem to embrace Eduard Hanslick’s epistemologically confused assertion that “instrumental music is music purely and absolutely” (15).* As Hanslick suggested in 1854, when we (attempt) to remove notions of “content” from our understanding of musical meaning (social elements, emotion, etc.) and recognize it solely as “tonally moving forms” (29), it still moves us. Neuroscience may be offering a new way of investigating and accounting for the mysterious embodied, pre-reflective elements of musical meaning so present in instances of musical improvisation.

    Recent theories of embodied situated cognition and/or enactivism (Feldman and Narayanan 2004; Gallese 2003; Lakoff and Johnson, 1999) describe humans not as body and mind, but social mind emerging from its physical embodiment; neither reducible to the other, but each mutually inflecting. Thought is therefore not an abstract, disembodied activity or thing, nor is it simply the brain. Embodied cognition recognizes cognition as something both empirically available but also socially constructed, and that the tools of language and abstract thought are not disembodied, but informed by our embodiment and social identity in the world (Maturana and Varela 1987; Varela, Thompson, and Rosch 1991). Therefore:

    … the proper locus of mind is complex, multilevel, continually interactive process that involves all of the following: a brain, operating in and for a living, purposive body, in continual engagement with complex environments that are not just physical but social and cultural as well … [w]ithout a brain there is no meaning. Without a living, acting body - no meaning. And without organism-environment interaction - no meaning. (Johnson 2007: 175)

    Embodied cognition seeks the roots of concrete and abstract conceptualization alike in patterns and qualities of sensorimotor experience (Johnson 2007: 174). “Abstract” concepts are thus second-order, emerge from our first-order embodiment (Hampe and Grady, eds. 2005; Johnson 2007: 135-154), and pre-reflectively influence our understanding of ourselves in the world.

    The import of the idea of music as embodied process is further enriched by theories from embodied cognition such as image schemas and embodied metaphors. Concepts created in one modality of experience are commonly mapped onto another. For instance, in music we speak of “high” and “low” sounds which are in fact neither high nor low. Rather, our understanding of “pitch space” is mapped cross-modally from experiences in the spatial domain. Our concept of melody, too, borrows from several domains of experience as we conflate spatiality, temporality, and goal-seeking metaphors to make sense of our perception of movement and direction in music (Johnson 2007: 235-62). Music scholars have begun to effectively appropriate these findings and methods to investigate the relationship of gesture and musical meaning (Godøy 2003; McGuiness and Overy 2011).  Our culturally generated and understood gestures are tied to our embodiment and map visual and aural aesthetic experience onto our sensorimotor structures of knowledge about the world.

    Embodied cognition theories suggest that our physical gesturing both expresses and plays an active role in constituting our thought, and also that our use of linguistic metaphor (including that employed in music theories) is based on embodied image schemas. We perceive others’ intentions and feelings through their bodily movement, and thus embodied interactions underpin our sense of self, our social relations and our capacity for intersubjectivity and joint action. (Clayton and Leante 2013: 194)

    Music, then, perhaps even before understood as culturally situated by a listener, has bodily meaning potentially crossing several modalities of perception.

    Also germane to the study of musical free improvisation and questions of communication and meaning is the relatively new study of the mirror neuron system. Discovered by Italian researchers in the 1990s, the mirror neuron system is a group of neuronal structures in primates and humans which mirror observed actions. Very simply put, these cells respond and fire when a subject observes an action performed by another just as if the subject were actually performing said action themselves. For example, if a subject witnesses another grasping a cup, the same neurons that would fire if the subject were herself grasping a cup “light up”. In observing others, we have virtual experiences that use the very same neural structures as if we ourselves were performing said actions. Research suggests these neural structures are deeply tied to empathy, affect, and associative learning. Even more explicitly relevant to investigations of intersubjectivity, feelings of movement, communication of affect, and emotional contagion in music studies is the finding that mirror neurons act multi-modally: experience of virtuality seems not to be limited to visual observance of performed acts. Studies show that simply hearing an activity performed activates the related neurological structures of performing said activity (Rizzolatti, Fogassi, and Gallese 2001; Rizzolatti and Craighero 2004). This finding is remarkable as it seems that perhaps simply hearing can feel the same as performing said act. When we see musicians performing, we ourselves may have a virtual experience of performing. When we hear music without seeing it being performed, we may regardless have a cross-modal virtual experience of our own bodies performing; moving our limbs or position of bodies, moving in space.

    These processes of cognition are constantly at work as we build our understanding of our world and our place in it. Perception of sound is inherently tied to sensorimotor experience in creating cross-modal, virtual experiences of movement. All of these processes are pre-reflective and, in effect, run in the background of our cognition. Music, it seems, is a multi-level, cross-domain activity which engages us on multiple fronts, e.g., biological, psychological, intellectual, social, etc. By recognizing individuals as neither disembodied minds nor the sum of their social attributes, we see that mind arises from embodiment; the social nature of mind is non-reducible. Returning to the mystery of the affectual veracity of freely improvised music, we can see how embodied situated cognition theory and the mirror neuron system are but two paths of study leading to an understanding of music as an engine of embodied, cross-modal metaphor and embodied, pre-reflective knowledge. Their study and incorporation into existing methodologies can only enrich our understanding of the why, what, how, and so what of music. As Christopher Small suggests with his gerund “musicking”, music, like cognition, is not a thing we have, but a thing we do.

    *The notion of stripping a music of its context is fallacious as all music is necessarily produced and heard by socially situated persons. Improvisation, too, is necessarily a socially situated and intertextual phenomenon. For a rigorous discussion of the intertextuality of improvisation and its relevance to music cognition, see: Hogg, B. 2013. “Enactive conscience, intertextuality, and musical free improvisation: deconstructing mythologies and finding connections.” In David Clarke and Eric Clarke, eds, Music and Consciousness: Philosophical, Psychological, and Cultural Perspectives, pp.79-93. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Berliner, P. 1994. Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite art of Improvisation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Clayton, M., B. Dueck, and L. Leante eds. 2013. Experience and Meaning in Music Performance. Oxford: Oxford.

    Feldman, J., and S. Narayanan. 2004. Embodied Meaning in a Neural Theory of Language. Brain and Language 89: no 2 385-92.

    Gallese, V. 2003. A Neuroscientific Grasp of Concepts: From Control to Representation. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 358: 1231-40.

    Godøy, R. I., 2003. Motor-Mimetic Music Cognition. Leonardo 36 (4):317-19.

    Hampe, B.,and J. Grady, eds. 2005. From Perception to Meaning: Image Schemas in Cognitive Linguistics. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

    Hanslick, E. 1854/1986. On the Musically Beautiful: A Contribution Toward the Revision of Aesthetics of Music. Trans. G. Payzant. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.

    Jackson, T. 2012. Blowin’ the Blues Away: Performance and Meaning on the New York Jazz Scene. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

    Johnson, M. 2007. The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Kerman, J. 1980. How We Got into Analysis, and How to Get Out. Critical Inquiry 7, no. 2, 311-31.

    Lakoff, G., and M. Johnson. 1999. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books.

    Maturana, H., and F. Varela. 1987. The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    McGuiness, A. and K. Overy. 2011. Music, Consciousness, and the Brain: Music as Shared Experience of an Embodied Present. In David Clarke and Eric Clarke, eds., Music and Consciousness: Philosophical, Psychological, and Cultural Perspectives, pp.245-62. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Monson, I. 1996. Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Rizzolatti, G., L. Fogassi, and V. Gallese. 2001. Neurophysiological Mechanisms Underlying the Understanding and Imitation of Action. Nature Neuroscience Review 2:661-70.

    Rizzolatti, G,. and L. Craighero. 2004. The Mirror-Neuron System. Annual Review of Neuroscience 27:169-92.

    Small, C. 1998. Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.

    Varela, F., E. Thompson, and E. Rosch. 1991. The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  • Summer Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation

    I'm excited to be headed to St. John's, Newfoundland today to take part in the two-week Summer Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation at Memorial University. Seminars, lectures, performances, and a music festival; it promises to be a wonderful time.

  • Review: Tigran Hamasyan's "Shadow Theater"

    Finally available in the United States, Tigran Hamasyan’s new record Shadow Theater is too much. And I mean that in the very best way. It is by turns melodic, lush, proggy, overwhelmingly complex, meditative, lamentful, disorienting, very old, very new, nod-your-head-so-hard-it’s-gonna-come-off rocking, and metal. What sorcery is this? What genre is this? It’s like Keith Jarrett, Sigur Rós, and Megadeth had a love child. In what world is this music possible?

    One might ask: "So, how is this jazz?" Admittedly it’s problematic to categorize Shadow Theater as such, but useful still. Jazz outgrew the bounds of its earliest manifestations long ago. Not confined to swing rhythm or canonical instrumentation, jazz musicians have big ears and have been incorporating the world’s sounds into their compositions and improvisations as far back as can be memory can reach. If modern jazz began with bebop, we can point even to Dizzy Gillespie bringing in Latin rhythms and harmonies, and Charlie "Bird" Parker quoting Stravinsky in his improvisations. “Jazz” is more than an authorized history and a canonized collection of recordings. It is an attitude of approaching music-making that borrows judiciously from everything, moves within the bounds of its common compositional structures as long as is productive, values adventure, exploration, and the valorization of personal agency. Jazz as creative improvised music embraces the world of sound, all types of experimentation and risk-taking, borrows from all idioms, and above all else, has a very long memory. No other musical idiom serves as a bastion for human musics and the human spirits of incorporation and play as does the polysemous term “jazz”. This having been said, Shadow Theater is undoubtedly a manifestation of that attitude and practice.

    As there’s so much packed into this record, rather than attempt to take it all apart I will restrict my commentary to just two tracks.

    About fourteen minutes into the record we arrive at Drip. By this point we've already been through so much in the first few tracks that the respite of Lament (which immediately precedes Drip) was almost necessary as a rest before moving on. If the listener hadn’t already understood it by the time Drip begins, it should be obvious that Tigran’s influences cast a wide net. Beginning with chunky piano which sets up a dubstep wobble, a groove unfolds incorporating an old-world melody in the vocals (and samples?) and Ben Wendel’s Warne Marsh-informed tenor. There are so many layers here: traditional eastern European plus modern jazz piano plus clubby wub wub. Nate Wood (drums) and Chris Tordini (bass) somehow keep a huge groove on the big cycle of 4/4 happening in spite of the melody’s rhythmic deviations. Drip is so much fun. Tigran’s obviously been listening not only to the jazz canon and Armenian music, he’s well acquainted with dubstep, EDM, and chopped and screwed. Perhaps most important for this track (and the whole record, for that matter) is the large presence of vocals. Areni Agbabyan's incandescent vocal contributions embody a sinuous, powerful frailty that pairs extremely well with Tigran's. The huge presence of singing in Shadow Theater serves to humanize otherwise forbiddingly complex musical structures. These aren't just tunes or compositions. They're songs.

    Showcasing Tigran’s more traditionally-oriented jazz piano chops is track ten, Pt. 2. Alternate Universe. Coming out of the dramatic urgency of Pt. 1. Collapse, the sonic space spreads out into a pulsing groove reminiscent of Hancock or Jarrett but uniquely Tigran in its melodicism and percussivity. Nate Wood’s ability to animate the vamp of the first few moments of the tune, imply mixed meters, and play free within complex structure before stopping on a dime for a through-composed section at 2:39 is impressive. Extremely impressive. This track exhibits Tigran’s compositional style which commonly chops up big grooves into re-arranged quanta that seem both familiar and alien at the same time. You’ll be nodding your head with the “big” beat while the floor drops out on your familiar rhythmic subdivisions. The effect is one of disorientation, but not of being lost. The driving melodies in Alternate Universe, like in all of Shadow Theater, offer a golden thread through the shifting sonic landscape. This music is big. It’s cinematic. It’s old, new, challenging, and wonderfully human. As Stravinsky challenged the world with the (then) shocking violence of Le sacre du printemps, the violent rhythmic bashing that closes Alternate Universe gives voice to elements of human experience which can be hard to listen to but bear representation. It’s so metal.

    Tigran has created music that defies category but, for lack of better alternative, can effectively be categorized as "jazz". This is contemporary music which speaks from a place of multiplicity, which pushes at the borders of stylistic bounds, and as such, challenges listeners to recognize their own complex humanity. Do we not, each of us (as Whitman might suggest), contain multitudes? Are we not each of us wildly complex and, in our humanity, boundless? This music is ecstatic. It manifests a seemingly impossible transcendence within immanence and bears many, many repeated listenings. Bravo, Tigran, et al. Bravo.  

    There will be more to this review at Ethnomusicology Review’s Space is the Place subsection of Sounding Board (which I curate). I’ll be adding a review of his upcoming performance at the Alex Theater in Los Angeles. Stay tuned!

    In the mean time check out this wonderful live performance of Drip.


  • So my lovely friend Lauren Frost (of Cake Batter fame) and I have decided to record songs we like from time to time. Just to hang, have a few drinks, and see how far we can stretch our collective GarageBand chops in a few hours. She's a singer. Like, a really good one. And I own lots of instruments. This time I tried lead vocals (and a faux drawl, ha) for Ryan Adams' Oh My Sweet Carolina. Me on guitar, vocal, bass clarinet, melodica, and claps. Lauren on vocal and claps. Pretty rad way to spend a Friday night, really.

  • since feeling is first

    This poem hit me in the face this morning. Beautiful reminder to get outside of my head and revel in the nonconceptual, in the embodied primary being of self. Thank you, Mr. cummings. 

    since feeling is first
    who pays any attention
    to the syntax of things
    will never wholly kiss you;
    wholly to be a fool
    while Spring is in the world

    my blood approves,
    and kisses are a better fate
    than wisdom
    lady i swear by all flowers. Don’t cry
    —the best gesture of my brain is less than
    your eyelids’ flutter which says

    we are for each other: then
    laugh, leaning back in my arms
    for life’s not a paragraph

    And death i think is no parenthesis

    - e.e. cummings

  • Recent Listening | Recent Thinking

    Recent Listening | Recent Thinking

    It's been an eclectic listening list these last few weeks:

    Serge Gainsbourg - Histoire de Melody Nelson (How come no one hipped me to this record years ago? Thanks, Chuck.)

    Tigran Hamasyan - The Poet EP (Perhaps the most exciting new music I'm aware of.)

    Talk Talk - Laughing Stock (Sounds like late Radiohead but was released in 1991.)

    Charles Mingus - Ah Um (Duh.)

    Chris Thile - Bach: Sonatas and Partitas, Vol. 1 (All the notes.)

    Final Fantasy - He Poos Clouds (Owen's a perpetual favorite.)

    Wayne Shorter - Without a Net (What.)

    Wilco - Sky Blue Sky (Nels Cline!!!)

    Also, I'm just beginnig to organize my thoughts surrounding a research project which would situate the corpus of philosophical literature addressing the transcendent, numinous, ineffable, "sending" nature of musicking in relationship to the debate over qualia as defined by thinkers like Dennett, Nagel, Chalmers, Churchland, etc. This might be a HUGE undertaking. It might be a dead end. The coming months will bear it out. This is, though, the overarching theme of my work for some years. Feels good to finally get some traction.

  • Sometimes it's late but you can't sleep so you record an Iron and Wine style arrangement of a glam rock anthem with GarageBand on your laptop. So there's that.

  • Humans of New York -or- How to Fight Lonliness

    I live in Hollywood, Los Angeles but I used to live in Brooklyn, New York City. While they’re very different places (famously different, in fact), they share a noticeable type of interpersonal insularity. In a big city you learn to maintain a kind of bubble around you, a buffer protecting you from other people who are everywhere. In NYC, they’re above you, below you, in front and behind you, in the path you’re walking, next to you on the train, etc. But you don’t talk to them. You don’t strike up conversation on the train. Even though you might be crushed up against them, you respect and maintain an illusion of personal space. It’s not dense in the same way in LA, but there’s still a “keep to yourself” kind of vibe as a kind of illusory attempt to maintain anonymity in a city built on perceived value via appearance and status.
    So, you get into your iPhone, or your book or whatever. You get good at acting like you don’t notice people. You don’t maintain eye contact. And in doing so you somehow get to feel alone in a city of eight million. You also lose out on the chance to learn from eight million people living lives not so different from your own; dealing with similar problems, doubts, successes and celebrations, too.
    It can be lonely living in a big city - but it doesn’t have to be.
    To that end, Brandon Stanton has been photographing and interviewing people in New York City since November of 2010 and sharing the portraits and bits from interviews on his blog, Humans of New York. You can lose hours on this blog reading people’s insights, struggles, little celebrations. It’s crazy addictive. I’ve always been pretty sociable with strangers but living in big cities for years has been beating it out of me. Reading Stanton’s blog has been helping me see people as people again, not just as obstacles. Hope it might do the same for you if you’re feeling alone in a crowd. Here's a favorite of mine:

    TLDR: Go read Humans of New York

  • Jerome the Gentle, Jerome the Great

    Jerome Holloway, an old friend and musical associate from my Chicago days, has recently ended up calling Los Angeles home. In the last few weeks I've had the pleasure of hanging, playing, and writing with this serene and talented man and am happy to report that a few of us are heading to San Diego this weekend to record his music at the beautiful Lost Ark Studio. He's been described as playing "brown-eyed-folk," something like if Marvin Gaye and Ray LaMontagne had a love child. Check it out!

  • Truth in Ethnomusicology: Adequatio vs. Alitheia

    As I begin my doctoral studies at UCLA’s department of Ethnomusicology, I can’t help but notice the pronounced and ongoing disagreements within the discipline as it tries to circumscribe its interests, methods, and bounds. The discipline comes by this discord honestly as it was originally comprised of the coupling of traditional empirical musicological methodology with empirical sociological/anthropological methodology. That original coupling is not the problem, rather the problem has been the gradual but seemingly begrudging admittance of the import of music’s non-empirical (or extra-empirical) character. Namely, its practical manifestation as phenomenal human experience and activity which is not entirely describable via empirical methodology. Much of music’s situatedness in culture has to do with its numinous character, its perceived otherness, its embodied what-it’s-like-ness, articulated as affect or mood. To effectively address this feature of musical phenomena we must turn to a different epistemological model. The reigning and most entrenched epistemological model used in academia is based upon a correspondence theory of truth, famously articulated by the sentence, “The cat is on the mat.” This utterance asserts that observable entities the cat and mat both exist and are situated in a singular relationship to one another. The cat is on the mat and, if the observed world agrees with the utterance, the utterance is true. In this framework of truth, the cat either is or is not in the stated relationship to the mat and can not simultaneously be on and not on the mat (tertium non datur, or the law of the excluded middle). This example of adequation between communicated concept and what-is-the-case is representative of the elements which make up an observable, empirical truth. It seems, however, that we inhabit and experience the world in another way (perhaps many other ways) as well. The familiar but strange effects of music, for example, are consistently described in terms of both/and rather than either/or. Musicked agents commonly describe the phenomenal experience of being musicked as allowing them to be simultaneously themselves as well as part of a community, mind, or spirit, to be both here and there, to lose their concept of individuated self, to lose or experience dilation of time, etc. These phenomenal experiences are incoherent to and violate the empirical, correspondence theory of truth and can only be addressed by a model of truth which respects embodiment, intuition, and the para-logical chiasmic reality of the both/and - the phenomenological model of truth. I prefer to think of empirical and phenomenal models of knowing not as incommensurate, but estranged. Both models of knowing are real, both are useful, and we must encourage cross-training of theory and methods within our discipline so that we may fully engage the rich and complex phenomenon that is music. Living concepts of truth in the Western world have historically been determined by the interplay of these two concepts: the truth of description and the truth of revelation, truth as adequatio and truth as aletheia. We ethnomusicologists, as the acting body of our discipline, must learn to respect, address, and use them both.

  • Art is hard.

    I was fortunate to check out John Scofield’s Uberjam and Dave Holland’s Prism last night at UCLA’s Royce Hall. The music reminded me of something I’d written years ago with regard to non-diatonic music - a bit of writing inspired by repeated listening to John Abercrombie’s Class Trip record some time around 2008. I now recognize some of what I was talking about as intuiting the discipline and content of Poetics Theory, Husserl’s On the Phenomenology of Consciousness of Internal Time, and maybe even Meyer’s Emotion and Meaning in Music - all things I hadn’t read yet upon having written this five years ago. The feature of non-diatonicism I discuss as manifest in jazz, experimental pop, and concert music has the dual role of attractor and repeller for listeners depending on their proclivity or training to work for affective payoff in art. For both listeners and musicians, it’s true what they say: Art is hard. The affective payoff, though, can be substantially greater and more informing propping up that other old phrase: Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

    On Melodic Narrative In Non-Diatonic Music: John Abercrombie's Class Trip

    How is it that western listeners, upon listening to musics situated in non-diatonic harmonic structures, can recognize melodic narrative as cohesive and forgive culturally trained notions of diatonicism? For instance, in the music of John Abercrombie, melodies are often characterized as having large jumps in tessitura, jagged melodic movement, yet somehow a smooth resolution – all in non-diatonic harmonic contexts.  

    In diatonic music, including music which employs traditional methods of harmonic variation (borrowed dominant, neighboring modulation, etc.), melodies can seem more musically “home” oriented than in Abercrombie’s music. Large melodic jumps are forgiven quickly as they are locatable within a diatonic context, their use and employment obvious and easy to follow to the acculturated western ear. The effect of Abercrombie’s melodic jumps is more jarring as the normal functions of melody/chord tones are violated leaving their acculturated expectations unfulfilled.  

    I sometimes perceive a melodic narrative as an organism on a path; a three dimensional shape moving through harmonic space being “lit” and “colored” by the surrounding harmonic environment’s various colors. Imagine for a moment a melody as a magnificent worm working its way through labyrinthine structures in which various lights shine upon it both temporally and with regard to its situatedness in three-dimensional space, illuminating various features and characteristics as it travels. In familiar diatonic structures, the organism-melody-narrative is illuminated in ways that, though possibly unexpected, are beautiful to behold - if safe and culturally expected/accepted. In non-diatonic harmonic constructions our melody-worm-narrative is illuminated not in the generally accepted manner but from different angles, different colors, in unfamiliar volumetric spaces. Hence features of melody are brought to light that are unexpected, ugly, or breathtakingly beautiful. Is this the function of non-diatonic harmonic structure within a primarily diatonic culture? Is this why some listeners are drawn to musics that make them listen in new, surprising ways? The element of harmonic surprise will often be the very component of a composition or improvisation that will keep me listening to it repeatedly, surprised and delighted by a harmonic turn again and again. Not only the particular harmony, but the ways in which the particular harmonies color melody; allowing it to be seen from different angles and perceived from unfamiliar aspects as it finally resolves.  

    Instrumental music has this unique opportunity to interest the listener subtly, perhaps obliquely, as the listener is not being fed discursive language in tandem with melody and harmony. Harmonic complexity can, as in the case of programmatic music, paint complex affectual pictures by shining different “colored lights” on melodic narratives that are unreachable via traditional song form. There are perhaps certain affects that can be touched more effectively via wordless musical prodding than a direct rough handling. 

    AJ Kluth -2008