Ep18. Can improvisation be recognized by listeners?
- 1 Discussion
- 2 Introduction to the controversy
- 3 Presentation of Vijay Iyer's Denial of Improvisation Recognition
- 4 Critique of Iyer
- 5 It is not impossible that someone could recognize improvisations while listening
- 6 NOTES
Introduction to the controversy
There is some controversy over whether it is possible to tell while listening in real-time whether a musician is or is not improvising. Jazz and Rock music college textbook's author (The History and Tradition of Jazz 6th ed., Modern Sounds: The Artistry of Contemporary Jazz 2nd ed., and The History of Rock and Roll 6th ed., all by Kendall/Hunt Publishing, Dubuque, IA), jazz pianist Tom Larson (Assistant Professor of Composition (Emerging Media and Digital Arts) at the Glenn Korff School of Music, University of Nebraska-Lincoln) maintains that “most of the time, it is easy to tell” (quoted in full context below).
Composer of instrumental and electronic music, teacher of courses in composition, theory, computer music, and director of the Gassmann Electronic Music Studios and the Gassmann Electronic Music Series, Christopher Dobrian, argues that audience recognition of improvisations can be “central to the performance.” (quoted in context below)
Opposed to Larson and Dobrian, some theorists, such as Harvard professor and well-known jazz pianist Vijay Iyer (b. 1971) denies that one can tell just by listening whether someone is improvising or not. Let's get into the details of their respective positions in the order just presented.
In his textbook, Thomas E. Larson History and Tradition in Jazz (2002) explicitly states improvisation consists of “simultaneously composing and performing.” If one is composing, then one is concurrently producing a composition. Larson believes when listening to a small jazz group, it is “usually easy to tell which member of the group is improvising a solo.” He puts it this way:
“Improvisation is defined as the act of simultaneously composing and performing. It is an essential element in the performance of most, but not all, jazz. For instance, most of what you hear when you listen to a jazz big band is written down and not improvised. But jazz is an art form of individual expression, and most jazz contains a great deal of improvisation. When you listen to a small jazz group, it is usually easy to tell which member of the group is improvising a solo, but it is important to remember that the other members of the group are also improvising within the framework of their responsibilities to the group sound.” (bold and bold italic not in original)
Christoper Dobrian, Professor of Integrated Composition, Improvisation, and Technology in the Music Department of the Claire Trevor School of the Arts at the University of California, Irvine, argues that audience members recognize some improvisations during a performance.
“The aesthetic power of a sense of spontaneity is important to most performance. In a performance of composed music or of a written play, the audience suspends, at least to some degree, its knowledge that the performance has been largely predetermined and rehearsed at great length. If the performer does a successful job of "acting"—of discovering the subtext implied by the text and convincing the audience that all actions are entirely motivated by that subtext—the audience is helped to forget that the performance is the result of laborious preparation. In improvised music the sense of spontaneity is mostly genuine and often quite evidently so. An audience can determine, by musical and visual cues, certain interactions between players or certain musical phenomena that could not possibly have been planned or foreseen. The appreciation of the spontaneity is therefore not forced and becomes central to the performance.” (bold and bold italic not in original)
There are several important things to notice about Dobrian's positions. First, Dobrian believes that audience members can recognize improvisations based upon musical cues and other contextual factors combined with the extreme unlikelihood that musicians could have previously rehearsed the musical interactions one sees and hears.
To address this question, it is a good idea to learn more about a famous composing duo who writes music (as well as non-music) so that the opposite of how it seems is what they present. These mischievous performers have improvisational elements that seem pre-rehearsed and rehearsed components that appear improvised. This is the duo of Edwin Harkins and Phillip Larson known as [THE].
“The performance duo [THE] (Edwin Harkins and Philip Larson) plays very successfully and cleverly with an audience's conceptions and misconceptions about what is spontaneous and what is not. Their performances include composed mistakes (simulated unintentional spontaneity), pretense that actual mistakes were in fact composed and intentional, unison activities that appear coincidental but were in fact accomplished by secret cues to each other, improvisations which--because of their intuitive understanding of each other--seem precomposed, etc. The aesthetic experience for the audience is one of appreciating being fooled, or appreciating seeing through pretense, sharing "inside" jokes, or simply being uncertain as to whether the performers are sincere or mocking. Furthermore, the aesthetic experience for each audience member may be vastly different, depending on that person's prior experiences and knowledge—depending on whether one "gets" the point, or gets the hidden (possibly conflicting) subtext, or both. Elements such as those discussed in this section—spontaneity, difficulty, predetermination, intention—which are implicit in more traditional performances, are explicity the subject of a [THE] performance.” (bold not in original)
Because of performer's like [THE], we know that it is possible for musicians to intentionally make something composed seem improvised and vice-versa. Does this help Iyer's point that improvisations cannot be recognized? No, it does not. All it proves is that sometimes it is difficult to determine it, which we all already knew. The question remains whether recognizing improvisations when they occur can ever be achieved by an audience. This is investigated in detail below.
Second is Iyer's hyperbolic use of possibility/impossibility that most philosophers consider an UNacceptable way to use the terms "possible" or "impossible." The vast majority of American English language users, certainly 90% or higher, have a looser sense of the standards for what can be said to be possible or impossible. Too often, when Americans say that something is impossible, they only mean to be asserting that it is extremely unlikely to occur. They seldom, if ever, use the term in the philosopher's sense where impossible implies something is self-contradictory.
The second misuse of possibility/impossibility is when Americans say, and they think that they mean it, "Everything is possible." Fortunately, everything is not possible. For example, anything that is impossible is not possible. An example of the impossible is for one object to exist and not exist at the same time. Now defenders of the view that everything is possible may wish to argue that the alleged counter-example is not actually a thing. It is instead a compound statement with the same subject, but with opposing predications attributed simultaneously, where both conjuncts of the compound statement cannot simultaneously be true (or false) since they attribute incompatible predications.
Here is a great example of the use of what we might call the 'weak' impossible given in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
“We commonly speak of things being impossible in a relative sense. If you are stuck in a traffic jam in Paris Montparnasse at 2 PM, and your flight is leaving from airport Charles De Gaulle at 2:30 PM, you may moan: “There is no way that I can make it to the airport in time.” What you mean is that, given the timing, the means of transport available, and other circumstances, it is impossible for you to reach the airport in time. It is not absolutely impossible: if you had Star Trek’s transporter, you could make it.” (bold and bold italic not in original)
The Diffsense website provides this analysis of the word "impossible" as an adjective:
“Impossible as an adjective: Not possible; not able to be done or happen.”
- (Ex1: Memorize): "It is difficult, if not impossible, to memorize 20,000 consecutive numbers."
- (Ex2: Can Happen): "Sarah thinks that nothing is impossible because things can always somehow happen."
The specification that the impossible is 'not able to be done or happen' leaves out the aspect of the modal necessity. It is wrong to equate what cannot be done as equivalent to what is impossible since there are plenty of things that cannot be done, but they are not impossible. For example, when a person named Fred cannot currently dunk a basketball 🏀 when the rim is ten feet in the air, it does not follow that it is impossible for Fred ever to dunk a basketball. In the future, Fred might strengthen his jumping muscles and can now jump high enough to dunk. Even if Fred goes to his death never having dunked a basketball, it would not follow that it is impossible for him to have done so since there still exists a logically possible world where Fred succeeds in dunking. The reason we know that it is logically possible for Fred to dunk is because the sentence "Fred dunks a basketball" is not self-contradictory. The non-self-contradictory character is what constitutes the possibility since the opposite is required for impossibility where a sentence must be self-contradictory. An impossible sentence is "a square has lines of unequal length." Such a claim made is impossible since a square by definition is "a rectangle having all four sides of equal length" and this would require unequal lengths be of equal length, which is logically impossible because self-contradictory.
One can distinguish at least three different uses of impossibility: practically impossible, physically impossible, and logically. Consider them in turn.
Since philosophers have succeeded in distinguishing between the three types of impossibility (and there are likely several more) we are required to recognize the differences.
Superman can stop a locomotive but you cannot. The reason you cannot is because your current strength and physical powers are too small and the forces you can generate are too weak to stop the large amount of inertial forces had by a moving train. Right now, it is practically impossible for you to stop a train. It remains physically possible, however, to stop a train since a train's brakes can do that.
But what if you now become Superman, or have his powers. Now you could stop a train and it would stop being practically impossible for you as Superman or Super Other genders statuses.
But if something is currently physically impossible, then not even Super Superman can do it in the natural universe since doing so would violate laws of nature. Something is defined as physically impossible if doing it would violate a genuine law of nature. For example, matter cannot be accelerated from slower than the speed of light to faster than the speed of light in 'regular' space, according to Einstein's Theory of Relativity, because this would require an infinite amount of force to achieve such an acceleration since the accelerated mass itself becomes infinite at the speed of light.
However, there are two fundamental interpretations of what constitutes the physical impossibility depending upon whether one supports Necessitarianism or Regularism, as explained at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
“Regularists will defend their theory against this particular objection by arguing that the expression “physically impossible” has different meanings in the two theories: there is a common, or shared, meaning of this expression in both theories, but there is an additional feature in the Necessitarians’ account that is wholly absent in the Regularists’.
The common (i.e. shared) meaning in “physically impossible” is “inconsistent with a Law of Nature”. That is, anything that is inconsistent with a Law of Nature is “physically impossible”. (On a prescriptivist account of Laws of Nature, one would say Laws of Nature “rule out” certain events and states-of-affairs.)
On both accounts—Necessitarianism and Regularity—what is physically impossible never, ever, occurs—not in the past, not at present, not in the future, not here, and not anywhere else.
But on the Necessitarians’ account, there is something more to a physically impossible event’s nonoccurrence and something more to a physically impossible state-of-affair’s nonexistence. What is physically impossible is not merely nonoccurrent or nonexistent. 'These events and states-of-affairs simply could not occur or exist. There is, then, in the Necessitarians’ account, a modal element that is entirely lacking in the Regularists’ theory. When Necessitarians say of a claim—e.g., that someone has built a perpetual motion machine of the first kind—that it is physically impossible, they intend to be understood as claiming that not only is the situation described timelessly and universally false, it is so because it is nomically impossible.
In contrast, when Regularists say that some situation is physically impossible—e.g., that there is a river of cola—they are claiming no more and no less than that there is no such river, past, present, future, here, or elsewhere. There is no nomic dimension to their claim. They are not making the modal claim that there could not be such a river; they are making simply the factual (nonmodal) claim that there timelessly is no such river.” (bold not in original)
Warp drives permit a physical object to traverse a different geometric space commonly thought to be located within (or outside) of standard or 'normal' space known as hyperspace. Wikipedia: Hyperspace describes how hyperspace permits faster than light speeds (superluminal) for intergalactic travel in reasonable lengths of time.
Dr. Curtis Saxton understands every point in hyperspace to be correlated with a point in real ordinary space-time, only anything in hyperspace travels faster than the speed of light.
“Hyperspace is not simply another realm, disconnected from the real universe. Every point and time in hyperspace is associated with a place and moment in realspace, and vice-versa. Hyperspace is not apart from realspace; instead it is an alternate aspect of the universe which is only experienced by objects moving faster than light.” (bold not in original)
The logically impossible has sometimes been distinguished by philosophers from what they term as the metaphysically impossible.
One such philosopher is University of North Carolina's Jim Pryor, when he explains how to distinguish metaphysical impossibility from logical impossibility. Prior explains how it need not depend on anyone getting clear on definitional relationships.
“We started talking about supervenience because we were concerned with the question: If something is metaphysically impossible, will that always be because it involves some contradiction or going against some definition? Cases of supervenience can supply examples where we have metaphysical impossibilities that are not just the result of some definition.
For instance, perhaps we'd want to say that how beautiful a painting is supervenes on how paint is distributed on its canvas. If so, then it would be metaphysically impossible for two paintings to have the same layout of paint, but differ in how beautiful they are. But we'd be hard-pressed to come up with a definition of beauty in terms of how much, and what colors, of paint are at each spot on the canvas. Similarly, it seems to be metaphysically impossible for two tables to have the same microphysical structure, but one be such that it would float in water and the other not. We don't need to have a microphysical definition of what it would be to "float in water," to see that that is so. When philosophers talk about "definitions," they distinguish between:
- Conceptual definitions: these are what you need to know, at least implicitly, to understand the term and think thoughts that we'd express with it. For example, to understand the term "square," you need to know that squares have four sides.
- Scientific definitions: these are things like "water is H20," "cows are animals with genetic code GACCTAGCTA," "Something would float in water just in case . . . [some microphysical story] . . ." and so on.
Cases of supervenience show us that there can be cases of metaphysical impossibility that aren't just the result of conceptual definitions. The beauty-facts might supervene on the paint-facts even if we're not able to define "beauty" in terms of how the paint is distributed.” (bold not in original)
Presentation of Vijay Iyer's Denial of Improvisation Recognition
“Improvisation. If we define it provisionally as real-time decisions and actions, then what isn't improvisation? We're improvising from the moment we acquire sensation and motion—you could say it's prenatal. The process by which we acquire cognition—embodied action, situated in an information-rich environment—is improvisation itself. There is a fundamental identity between improvisation and what we more generally call "experience." They are one and the same. Life begins at improvisation. Life is a sustained improvisational interaction with the structures of the world, of the body, of culture. Improvisation is a condition of being alive. (p. 171)
Composition and Performance. Exceptions to the above immediately come to mind: for example, the composition of works to be performed to the composer's exact specifications, and the performance of such compositions. This composer-performer bifurcation is among the more peculiar hierarchical differentiations we have in culture. . . . However, this claim does reposition composition as highly unordinary in the scheme of things. This phenomenon--the micromanipulation of the actions of others at the behest of a single composer-ego—is accepted unproblematically as a structural necessity of music, dance, and theater in the West. We swear by this order of things, so much so that we tend to view improvisation as a rare and dangerous behavior. We tend to forget that the performance of fully composed works is an "extreme occasion," to use Edward Said's phrase, whereas improvisation is not only everyday and ubiquitous, but moreover an utterly central phenomenon in our lives, fundamental to who and what we are. (pp. 171—172 with the following six paragraphs omitted)
A recurring conceit among classical musicians, critics, and listeners is that the best performances of composed works are those that "sound improvised." (What, I always wonder, are the hallmarks of that sound? What exactly does improvisation sound like and how do we know that it's occurring? The short answer, it seems to me, is that we don't; more on this below.) (p. 172)
The "Whether" Question. It is common to ask "whether" a musical act was "truly" improvised. . . . Another complicating factor is that there's nothing inherent in musical improvisation that "sounds" improvised. It's easier to identify things that "sound composed": ensemble synchronies and unisons, very difficult to achieve spontaneously, typically signal to a listener that something was planned. In talking about improvisation, witnesses tend to invoke performers' body language, eye contact, visual cues, or of so-called "mistakes" to prove that these acts were (or were not) spontaneous. But short of such things (which are not essential attributes of improvisation) it seems (end of p. 173)
awfully difficult to pinpoint improvisation as such. There are reliable attributes of a specific improvised idiom—culturally specific principles of variation, parameters of expression, and choices to be made—but nothing in the sound of a musical action that announces, "Yes, I was 'authentically' improvised! You can tell just by hearing me . . . I came into existence in the moment that you heard me. It was only just decided that I should exist. My creator chose me over all the options within reach at that time." And so on ad absurdum. Listeners often want to decode the level of real-time agency in what they just heard, so they tend to ask questions like, "What percentage of that was improvised?" This would seem to suggest that, at least to the uninitiated, it's impossible to know just from listening. And if this is indeed the case, then how does anyone ever really know? There's certainly no point in asking what was "intended" in an improvisation, or what an improviser was "thinking" at that moment. And we still have that "impression" of improvisation discussed earlier, that improvised "quality" that is supposedly conjured by the best classical performers. (It is also common, conversely, to praise improvisations for the apparent presence of compositional elements: motific developments, a "natural" arc, and so on.) If a listener can knowingly allow himself to believe that a fully composed work has just been improvised into existence, or that an improvisation was instead composed, then of what use is the distinction at all? But it is a valuable and meaningful distinction. It brings us to a central paradox: the drama of improvised music involves the understanding that those sounds were chosen and deployed at that moment by those people. And yet, you cannot tell this to be true just by listening; you have to already know that this is happening. It follows that you only really know by referring to something beyond the sound. (p. 174)
Improvisation as a Condition. What I submit (after George Lewis and others) is that we agree to understand improvisation not as a quality but as a condition. . . . Is "improvisedness" audible? It doesn't matter. To paraphrase Peter Falk's character in "Wings of Desire": I can't hear it, but I know it's there. (p. 175) (bold and bold italic not in original)
Critique of Iyer
Iyer has a point that there are no intrinsic sonic marks that reliably indicate when an improvisation occurs. “There's nothing inherent in musical improvisation that "sounds" improvised.” On the other hand, Iyer agrees that when one hears “ensemble synchronies and unisons,” that these may sound composed because of the higher probability that such coordinated effort among multiple independent musicians is more likely to have been planned out and pre-composed prior to their performance.
There are two sides to this same coin 🪙, then. If probabilities are involved of the likelihood of pre-planning and pre-composing when there are extreme coordination and intricate integration of musical passages, then, on the other side of the coin, is where the probabilities also increase because of the likelihood that when what someone plays is so erratic, so wild, so in-the-moment that it is more likely it is improvised than that it had been planned and pre-composed beforehand. Iyer cannot have it only going one way. If probabilities increase for composition from highly coordinated musical ensembles, then the opposite must be true as well. Extreme sounds are more likely not pre-composed but improvised.
Iyer strives to persuade that no one can recognize improvisations by sound listening only. But this is too restrictive. One also cannot tell from only listening to the sound the meaning of the sentence "The man was fishing off of the bank" as to whether the man was fishing 🎣 on the side of a river 💦 or off the top of a financial institution 🏦. Iyer restricts us too much. There is no reason not to permit other features from aiding in improvisation recognition besides the sound. Indeed, Iyer perhaps inadvertently concedes quite a bit when he writes that “"What percentage of that was improvised?" This would seem to suggest that, at least to the uninitiated, it's impossible to know just from listening. And if this is indeed the case, then how does anyone ever really know?” Didn't he now concede that the initiated can recognize improvisations when they occur from only listening to the sounds? Who are the initiated? This will be a matter of degree from the highly initiated, to medium, to low, to not initiated. The more initiated, the easier it will be to recognize when improvisations happen.
The author is also too skeptical in his pronouncements. Merely because some one person, the uninitiated, cannot tell or 'know' when improvisation happens, it does not follow that no one can know, which Iyer appears to concede when referencing the initiated. Additionally, since the issue is over whether people can recognize an improvisation when it occurs, there are no restrictions on how we do it, and Iyer certainly seems to think it can be done (“It's easier to identify things that "sound composed": ensemble synchronies and unisons, very difficult to achieve spontaneously, typically signal to a listener that something was planned”), although it may have to be through some non-sonic means that he lists: “performers' body language, eye contact, visual cues, or of so-called "mistakes" to prove that these acts were (or were not) spontaneous. But short of such things (which are not essential attributes of improvisation) it seems awfully difficult to pinpoint improvisation as such.” So, please don't cut them short; use them, and they provide evidence and increase the likelihood that when musicians extemporize, others can recognize it.
CONCLUSION: Therefore, Iyer's claim is mistaken that it is impossible or 'awfully' difficult in the extreme to hear improvisations as improvisations.
Iyer most likely believes that it is not possible to know with certainty from just listening whether or not a musical passage has been pre-composed. It is possible to have ensemble synchronies and unisons that were improvised. Such improvisational unison ensemble playing may well occur in the early work of Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry. Cherry's tremendous ear and timing, and his extreme familiarity with Coleman's approaches to music-making, may well have sometimes permitted unison improvisations that were not pre-composed. The same ability to improvise in unison is highly probably true of Louis Armstrong mirroring King Oliver.
“There are reliable attributes of a specific improvised idiom—culturally specific principles of variation, parameters of expression, and choices to be made—but nothing in the sound of a musical action that announces, "Yes, I was 'authentically' improvised! You can tell just by hearing me . . . I came into existence in the moment that you heard me. It was only just decided that I should exist. My creator chose me over all the options within reach at that time." And so on ad absurdum. Listeners often want to decode the level of real-time agency in what they just heard, so they tend to ask questions like, "What percentage of that was improvised?" This would seem to suggest that, at least to the uninitiated, it's impossible to know just from listening. And if this is indeed the case, then how does anyone ever really know?”
Extreme blowing performances on a saxophone as done by John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, or Peter Brötzmann would more than likely be improvisational and not pre-composed, so there can be sonic evidence for improvisations, even if no outright marker exists.
Furthermore, in stressing his point that improvisational sounds need not be distinct from pre-composed sounds, Iyer tends to throw some of the baby's bathwater out that could help distinguish between the babies. Iyer accepts that there may be some non-sonic evidence indicative of improvisational occurrences, including “there's nothing inherent in musical improvisation that "sounds" improvised. It's easier to identify things that "sound composed"': ensemble synchronies and unisons, very difficult to achieve spontaneously, typically signal to a listener that something was planned. In talking about improvisation, witnesses tend to invoke performers' body language, eye contact, visual cues, or of so-called "mistakes" to prove that these acts were (or were not) spontaneous. But short of such things (which are not essential attributes of improvisation) it seems (end of p. 173)
awfully difficult to pinpoint improvisation as such. There are reliable attributes of a specific improvised idiom—culturally specific principles of variation, parameters of expression, and choices to be made—but nothing in the sound of a musical action that announces, "Yes, I was 'authentically' improvised! You can tell just by hearing me . . . I came into existence in the moment that you heard me. It was only just decided that I should exist. My creator chose me over all the options within reach at that time." And so on ad absurdum. Listeners often want to decode the level of real-time agency in what they just heard, so they tend to ask questions like, "What percentage of that was improvised?" This would seem to suggest that, at least to the uninitiated, it's impossible to know just from listening. And if this is indeed the case, then how does anyone ever really know? There's certainly no point in asking what was "intended" in an improvisation, or what an improviser was "thinking" at that moment. And we still have that "impression" of improvisation discussed earlier, that improvised "quality" that is supposedly conjured by the best classical performers. (It is also common, conversely, to praise improvisations for the apparent presence of compositional elements: motific developments, a "natural" arc, and so on.) If a listener can knowingly allow himself to believe that a fully composed work has just been improvised into existence, or that an improvisation was instead composed, then of what use is the distinction at all? But it is a valuable and meaningful distinction. It brings us to a central paradox: the drama of improvised music involves the understanding that those sounds were chosen and deployed at that moment by those people. And yet, you cannot tell this to be true just by listening; you have to already know that this is happening. It follows that you only really know by referring to something beyond the sound.
So, do not use only the sounds to recognize when improvisation occurs. The context is acceptable for what can be used to recognize when a musician may be improvising. One does not require certainty to recognize improvisations, but only a reasonable likelihood.
Improvisation as a Condition. What I submit (after George Lewis and others) is that we agree to understand improvisation not as a quality but as a condition. . . . Is "improvisedness" audible? It doesn't matter. To paraphrase Peter Falk's character in "Wings of Desire": I can't hear it, but I know it's there.”
It is not impossible that someone could recognize improvisations while listening
➢ What about other band members? Can they recognize when their bandmate is improvising?
Most of the time, other band members should know whether their soloist is improvising since they have played the same song together. They recognize that what their soloist is playing is different from what that soloist ever played before with them. Furthermore, in the context, they also know that this is the part of the tune where their soloist is supposed to be improvising. They anticipate that an improvisation should be occurring now because they have already previously agreed that this would be the location in the tune where the soloist would improvise.
To test this, suppose that a soloist in private, unbeknownst to any of her bandmates, rehearses and then memorizes a new specific solo. When she performs this rehearsed and memorized solo, she will not be improvising. Could her bandmates tell whether her solo is or is not improvised?
One can argue that they might be able to tell that the soloist is not improvising. Here's how. The soloist they are used to hearing when she improvises sometimes is less than smooth. She makes some mistakes or plays some odd note choices that don't quite work. (See Ontimpr4. On mistakes and improvisation). When her bandmates hear her rehearsed solo, it is coherent and smooth with appropriate architecture that fits the form of the song they are playing. Their soloist plays her rehearsed piece flawlessly. Band members might then infer that because this flawlessly executed solo contained no hesitation that it probably had not been improvised by her.
It is not logically or metaphysically impossible to recognize when a passage of music has been improvised
➢ What do we require for something to be logically impossible?
For a proposition to be logically impossible, it must either be self-contradictory or lead to a contradiction. The contradictory nature makes any proposition logically or metaphysically impossible because it is not possible for the same situation in all respects simultaneously to be true and false.
There is a non-contradictory possible world where audience member Fred listens and recognizes that the soloist played an improvisation. Because there is no contradiction involved, this is a logically possible universe and proves anyone who denies the mere possibility of improvisation recognition is wrong.
Perhaps all the deniers mean is that it is unlikely that anyone can know with certainty that a soloist is improvising.
The degree of certainty required for recognition of an improvisation is relevant to assessing the truth of such a recognition claim. Under many circumstances, we say that you recognized a stop sign 🛑 when you braked your vehicle. Could you still be wrong it is a stop sign? Yes, you could be mistaken if the sign is fake, or an illusion, or a hologram, or a mirage, or a confused perceptual hallucination, or trickery by an evil genius. The absolute impossibility of being wrong does not foreclose a community from crediting Fred with recognizing a stop sign. The community standard is lower or weaker than the impossibility of being mistaken. What is the norm? It is high probability and context that communities typically require for successful recognition of a Stop sign and not that someone needs infallibility in their recognition achievements.
Similarly, then, also for jazz, this should be the standard. Communities hold that highly probably true is good enough for recognizing stop signs or jazz improvisations.
It is false that it is always implausible that one recognizes when a soloist is improvising from listening.
➢ What considerations show these claims of unlikelihood or extreme difficulty are false?
There are numerous scenarios where it is believable that one could tell whether a soloist was improvising.
- CX1: Unlimited multiple takes of the same solo, all different each time and each responsive to the rest of what other band members play. Since the soloist reacts differently in real-time to what others play, she must be improvising to account for these appropriate responses. If the solo were previously structured, bandmates would not find the soloist responsive to their differing contributions. When a band member does three different things on separate occasions at the same point in her solo while maintaining the same level of responsiveness to what other musicians play, she has to be improvising. She would be non-responsive to alternative input by bandmates if her solo on three different occasions were always unresponsive to bandmates altering musical inputs. She is not improvising but playing a pre-composed piece.
- CX2: No likelihood that what one is hearing could even be written down or previously scored. Peter Brötzmann solos, with their squeaking and extemporaneous honking and bleating, have a low probability of pre-composition because they are so wild sounding. Why would anyone even bother to pre-compose music with so few structural internal relations?
- CX3: Band members know when a soloist in their band is improvising because of many things. The soloist is expected to improvise, has always improvised in the past, says that they (it's a gender-neutral soloist) will be improvising during their solo.
- CX4: Soloist makes appropriate musical quote commenting upon what is currently happening in the room. A made-up example based on an actual performance would be if, upon seeing a patron walk into the club wearing a bright red vest Charlie Parker during his improvised solo quotes the song "When the Red Red Robin (Comes Bob Bob Bobbing Along)." (Hear him play it here during his improvised solo on "52nd Street Theme," performing in Waukegan, WI in 1947.)
- CX5: fMRI Scientific brain monitoring and different brain regions light up more when soloist improvises than when playing a prepared pre-composed solo.
- CX6: Supported by testimony because a reliable soloist informs you she is going to improvise her solo. You know her to be an honest witness, and afterward, she confirms that she did improvise her solo. Is it probable that you can recognize that what she did during her solo was an improvisation? Well, doesn't it at least raise the probability that you can realize her solo was improvisatory?
Suppose it does raise the likelihood of recognition of improvisation. In that case, audiences in general at a jazz concert have expectations that any soloist will be improvising, thereby increasing the probability of recognizing an improvisation when heard.
How likely or unlikely one will be in recognizing when someone improvises is a relative matter with different contexts and scenarios making significant differences in the likelihood of identifying improvisations.
- Thomas Larson, "Five Basic Guidelines for Defining Jazz," in History and Tradition in Jazz, "Chapter One: Understanding and Defining Jazz" (Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing, 2002), 3. Now in its 6th edition.
- Thomas Larson, "Five Basic Guidelines for Defining Jazz," in History and Tradition in Jazz, "Chapter One: Understanding and Defining Jazz" (Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing, 2002), 3. Now in its 6th edition.
- Chris Dobrian, "Thoughts on Composition and Improvisation," 1991.
- Christopher Dobrian, "Thoughts on Composition and Improvisation," University of California, Irvine, 1991.
- Francesco Berto and Mark Jago, "Impossible Worlds," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ([http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2018/entries/impossible-worlds/ Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
- The likelihood of more than three types of logical impossibility is reminiscent of the naive cross-examining lawyer when he made the mistake of asking a philosopher on the witness stand whether he believed in God? The philosopher replied that he knew nineteen different definitions of God and would the attorney want him to go through each one and say whether he believed in that one or not. Haha! ☝️
“Definition: Statements are the kind of sentences that are either true or false. As such, a statement is an assertion that something is or is not the case. A statement is true if what it asserts is the case, and it is false if what it asserts is not the case. . . . Questions, commands and advice are typically not statements, because they do not express something that is either true or false.” (bold and bold italic not in original)
From "What Are Statements? Definition and Examples," authored by Dr. Patrick Girard. Originally from Quebec, Canada, Dr. Girard received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Stanford University in 2008 and currently is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Auckland.
- "Laws of Nature," Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.]
- Dr. Curtis Saxton, "Hyperspace Environment: Collusions and Mass Shadows."
- Jim Pryor, online at "UA 1. Central Problems in Philosophy: Necessity, Possibility, and Conceivability."
- Vijay Iyer, "Improvisations: Terms and Conditions," in Chapter 19 of ARCANA IV: Musicians on Music, edited by John Zorn, (Hips Road, 2009), 171–175.
- Vijay Iyer, "Improvisation: Terms and Conditions, 173–174.
- Such improvised ensemble playing may perhaps occur in Balinese music-making. In early New Orleans jazz, group improvisations often occurred and some could possibly be perceived as complex ensemble playing that had been pre-composed even while it was improvised.