Ep23. Can jazz have any musical works or performances equaling the best of Western classical music?
- 1 Discussion
- 2 Introduction
- 3 Is jazz necessarily little music?
- 4 What musical features make Beethoven's Ninth symphony great music?
- 5 Could any possible jazz composition or performance have the equivalent of the musical factors that makes Beethoven's Ninth symphony great?
- 6 What is musical complexity and how can it be measured?
- 7 NOTES
Whether there are any jazz compositions or performances that equal the best of Western classical music is not the same question as whether it is possible for there to exist any jazz as great as the best classical music.
The differences between the two questions concerns not actual jazz works, but possible jazz works that are equally as great as the best of classical music.
To the first question, one way to try to answer it in the affirmative, is to supply actual examples, then defend them as being as great as the best of Western classical music. Actual examples of great jazz equal to great classical music are discussed at PoJ.fm's Ep22. Has jazz produced any musical works equaling the best of classical music?
In the following quotation, drama critic at the Wall Street Journal Terry Teachout (1956–2022) (Commentary’s critic-at-large and the author of Satchmo at the Waldorf, a one-man play about Louis Armstrong) claims about the best of classical music that “it is self-evident that in any direct comparison between the two musics, jazz must necessarily come up short.” (bold and bold italic not in original)
“Beyond this, it seems to me self-evident that in any direct comparison between the two musics, jazz must necessarily come up short. The Marxist historian Eric Hosbawm, “who has (surprisingly enough) written penetratingly about jazz, discussed this problem in his 1959 book, The Jazz Scene:
- Jazz is little music and not big music, in the same sense as lyrics are little poetry and epics big poetry. . . . Limitation of scope and relative smallness of scale do not make an art less good or true or beautiful. They do, however, put certain artistic achievements out of its reach. . . . If we ask: has jazz produced anything like the Beethoven Ninth, or the Bach B-Minor Mass, or Don Giovanni, the answer must be a flat no.
But it is no less evident that within its admittedly narrow compass, jazz at its best is one of the most expressive forms of music that Western culture has yet produced. And while comparisons with classical music must be made with extreme caution, surely it is safe to say that such recordings as “West End Blues,” “Ko-Ko,” or “Parker’s Mood” embody the profoundest of human emotions no less truly than a Schubert song or a Chopin nocturne. I therefore feel secure in predicting that the recorded masterpieces of jazz’s first century—many of which are to be found in this list—will continue to be heard and enjoyed so long as music itself retains its hold on our hearts and minds.” (bold not in original)
One of the philosopher's responsibilities here is to argue in favor, or against, what criteria should be used to determine greatness.
Just as an example, if we use as our standard of greatness how a single person judges an experience she, he, or they had of hearing a performance, then jazz could be rated as a more profound musical experience than having heard a great classical music. Under these criteria, if personal subjective satisfaction or appreciation is the criteria used for determining greatness, then it would no longer be 'self-evident' that classical music always wins.
Upon what basis might Terry Teachout have believed the superiority of classical music over jazz to be 'self-evident'? Two theories defending self-evidence come to mind. It might be that the best of classical music is superior to any actual jazz performances or recordings because there are no actual candidates that have been discovered that can compare to the best of classical music. The analogy would be comparing any tricycles to a Formula One Ferrari race car for speed and handling on a closed race track. One could believe it is self-evident that given the criteria of speed and handling which type of vehicle would always win.
But this is not true for any actual race. The Ferrari could always break down while the tricyclist presses on and ends up winning the race, as we know from Aesop's fable of the tortoise and the hare.
Furthermore, if the Ferrari versus tricycle question is investigated relative to possibilities, then there appears no reason why a motorized tricycle, which is still a tricycle, could not in principle be equal or greater than any Ferrari in both speed and handling. For example, suppose the Ferrari tops off its speed at 300 kilometers per hour and has a cornering power of .84G of Lateral Acceleration/Cornering Power. Given these limitations of the Ferrari, a possible tricycle only has to go faster, say 350 kph with a superior cornering power of .90G. Hence, a possible tricycle could be superior to a 2022 Formula One Ferrari, in theory. We know that winning tricycle is possible if we know the concept of a tricycle with that speed and cornering number is not self-contradictory.
Which classical music pieces does Marxist historian and jazz author Eric Hobsbawm believe that no jazz musical work could ever compare? He lists these three: Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, or the Bach B-Minor Mass, or Mozart's Don Giovanni.
- (Objection 1): Surprisingly, Teachout cautions anyone from comparing classical music with jazz, “while comparisons with classical music must be made with extreme caution,” but does it anyway and not just in any wishy-washy manner. Teachout has already asserted that no jazz work can compare in musical greatness to the best classical music pieces.
- (Objection 2): The claim of self-evidence can only be based upon one or both of two factors. The two factors are labeled (F1) and (F2).
- (F1) There are currently no actual examples of any jazz musical works, either performed, recorded, or composed that are as great as the best Western classical musical works.
- (F2) There are inherent limitations to the musical features of any musical compositions using a jazz format compared to what is available for classical music compositions.
Philosophers need to investigate whether (F1) or (F2) are true. An investigation of (F1) is done at PoJ.fm's Ep22. Has jazz produced any musical works equaling the best of classical music?
The answer to the second question posed by (F2) is investigated at PoJ.fm's Ep23. Can jazz have any musical works or performances equaling the best of Western classical music?#Could any possible jazz composition or performance have the equivalent of the musical factors that makes Beethoven's Ninth symphony great?
Suppose that a jazz piano player plays a complete jazz version containing outstanding jazz improvisations of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Would we now have a jazz musical work equal to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony?
Presumably, one can argue the answer to that question both ways with "Yes" and "No." The yes answer is that the jazz version must be as great as Beethoven's Ninth Symphony since it is a performance of that very Ninth symphony. How could it be any less great than the Ninth symphony since it is the Ninth Symphony done as a jazz version?
What reasons are there to conclude the jazz version of the Ninth is not as great a musical work as Beethoven's original composition? One could claim that the degree of greatness being compared is not between two performances of the Ninth Symphony, but rather what we must be comparing is between the musical characteristics of different compositions, but not performances of those compositions. The comparisons of greatness must be between compositions (a musical work) where one is jazz and one is classical music.
We already know that two different performances of the same classical music work by two different orchestras (or even the same orchestra on different occasions) could be unequal in ther musical values. For ease of reference, call the two occasions of classical musical performance of the same composition, and for our purposes, let us keep it performances of Beethoven' Ninth Symphony, the A version and the B version. What possible differences in musical excellences might differ between A and B?
In the A performance, one of the musicians could possibly play a bad or wrong note by mistake. This is acknowledged as a flaw. However, even though there were no wrong notes played in the B version, critics could still claim the A version with its one wrong note is an overall superior performance of the Ninth symphony because of many factors such as the use of better dynamics found in A. The soft sections are softer and the loud sections are louder and these contrasts some critics might find enhances their overall enjoyment of the A performance over the B version.
(Photo by Giuseppe Cacace/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)
(Musical instruments and PoJ.fm logos added)
Is jazz necessarily little music?
Hobsbaum claims “Jazz is little music and not big music, in the same sense as lyrics are little poetry and epics big poetry. . . . Limitation of scope and relative smallness of scale do not make an art less good or true or beautiful. They do, however, put certain artistic achievements out of its reach.”
Lets consider these points in turn. First, calling anything little tends to belittle it. Any negative characterization of jazz is potentially prejudicial when making evaluations. Are lyrics little poetry and epics big poetry? Not if you write lyrics for a really long song, or you find a short epic poem.
The Iliad and the Odyssey are both considered epic poetry because of their length and also because the lines of the poem have been written down so that they can be read as literature. Bob Dylan's lyrics won the Nobel Prize for literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” It has been established by scholars that the Iliad and Odyssey were originally oral recitations and often done by an aoidos, who in ancient times was a singer. If a singer was singing the stanzas from the Iliad and the Odyssey, then these can be considered to be lyrics. Therefore, lyrics can be considered as epic as epic poetry since it was epic poetry.
Let's analyze what Hobsbawm's reasons are for believing that jazz is 'little music.' He gives as his reasons that jazz has "limitation of scope and relative smallness of scale." It is these two factors of limited scope and scale that prevents jazz from ever equaling the greatness of Beethoven's 9th symphony. But us this true that jazz inherently has these limitations?
No, it is not true! Jazz has the same potential in scope and scale as orchestral classical music since jazz can have an orchestral size orchestra equaling or even surpassing any given actual size orchestra.
How big are typical size orchestra's?
What musical features make Beethoven's Ninth symphony great music?
There is a general consensus rating the Ninth symphony either a great, or possibly, the greatest musical work, in the Western canon of music.
“Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony” is arguably the best symphony ever written, bringing us the well-loved final movement of "An die Freude" or "Ode to Joy" (a poem by Friedrich Schiller). The first three movements featured the Piedmont Symphony Orchestra masterfully led by Conductor Glenn Quader. Quader’s animated conducting displayed the strength of the piece. Beethoven’s dramatic vision for his ninth symphony remains as powerful today as when it was originally created. The final fourth movement, featuring four soloists, chorale and orchestra, was an exciting finish to the performance.” (bold not in original)
“Ludwig van Beethoven’s revolutionary Ninth Symphony is, without question, one of the greatest works in the classical repertoire.
“The Ninth is the culmination of Beethoven’s genius,” says Classic FM composer and Beethoven expert, John Suchet.
“He uses solo voices in a symphony for the first time, setting the words of Schiller’s poem "An die Freude." It is the longest and most complex of all his symphonies, which we may regard it as the pinnacle of his achievement, because it is his last symphony—but he was working on his Tenth when he died.”
For almost 200 years, the famous hymnal theme to this symphony’s finale—the ‘Ode to Joy’—has symbolised hope, unity and fellowship—across borders and through conflicts.” (bold not in original)
Yet the Ninth, while generally acknowledged as one of the greatest achievements in Western (classical) music, has not been without its detractors.
Tom Service’s symphony guide, "Symphony guide: Beethoven's Ninth ('Choral')," is subtitled "what is arguably the central artwork of Western music, the symphony to end all symphonies."
“ .” (bold not in original)
Another innovative thing that Beethoven did is expand the size and scope of an orchestra.
“Later, two clarinets were added, and the advent of Beethoven initiated an ongoing extension of the orchestra. Until then, trombones had been used almost exclusively in church music and for special dramatic effects in operatic works, but Beethoven prescribed one or more trombones in his 5th, 6th and 9th symphonies (in addition to a number of percussion instruments in the latter). The 5th symphony also requires an early form of double bassoon, the 5th and 6th a piccolo flute, and eventually the number of horns was increased from two to three or four. At times Beethoven wrote individual parts for the double basses (which until then almost without exception had doubled the cellos), a practice that soon became more common. (bold not in original)
Could any possible jazz composition or performance have the equivalent of the musical factors that makes Beethoven's Ninth symphony great?
Sure, why not? .
We saw in the preceding section that Beethoven's Ninth symphony has several outstanding musical features. It was Beethoven's last completed symphony since he died while still working on his Tenth symphony, that has now been completed using artificial intelligence. He added a chorale in the fourth and final movement and used solo vocalists that had never been done before in classical symphonies. Apparently, when comparing the Ni th to all of his earlier symphonies, it is the most complex.
What is musical complexity and how can it be measured?
How should one determine musical complexity?
“Is there an objective measure for musical complexity? How would one measure it? Has anyone provided a definition for what it is?
“You could probably come up with some decent ways to estimate the complexity of individual components of music. An orchestra has a more complex possibility for timbre than a single violin, for example. Harmonically, you could come up with a number of ways to say that jazz is more complex than pop. But to categorically state that "X is more complex than Y" is always a value judgment, because implicit in that statement is a judgment of some parameters as more important than others. If I said "classical piano music is more harmonically complex than Katy Perry's music," is probably right. If I said that Katy Perry's music is more timbrally (is that a word?) complex than piano music, I think you'd also be right, simply by virtue of changing instrumentation, use of electronics, etc. These are all (relatively) neutral comparisons. But if I said that classical piano music is more complex than Katy Perry's music, that's a value judgment. That's saying that "to me, harmony, formal structure, etc. are more important than timbre, lyrics, beat, etc.", but it's dressed up as an objective assessment. So for your purposes, no, I don't think there's any feasible way to define "musical complexity," practically or philosophically. You'll have to specify the domain first.
“Yeah. That's actually the first thing we considered. I have a couple of music people working in my lab (I'm a cog/neuro guy) and we came up with the idea to measure rhythmic and harmonic complexity of our participants' preferred/favorite tunes. Unfortunately, we haven't been able to find any literature that addresses complexity of rhythm (beyond saying things like "Polyrhythms are more complex than not-polyrhythms") in a way that would allow us to measure it on a song-by-song basis. Although, as I type this out, it's more clear to me how difficult and . . . Obtuse, I suppose . . . this endeavor actually is. I appreciate the input, anyhow.
To categorically state that "X is more complex than Y" is always a value judgment, because implicit in that statement is a judgment of some parameters as more important than others. Importance doesn't enter into it. "Complex" is not another way of saying "better"; it simply indicates the presence of more stuff, or of more-involved structure.
Complexity is very subjective, but there are maybe some ways we can assess complexity into a work or genre. The statement "jazz is more complex than pop" probably hinges on a few ideas. Improvisation (which takes extreme skill to master) is integral to jazz. Often jazz will hint to other works in their "licks" too as a way of ear-play. On the other hand, pop is usually described as manufactured, cookie-cutter progressions, etc. (I mean, how many I-V-vi-IV songs are there in the world?!) People who assign complexity usually focus on technical skill and musical skill. But there could be a wide variety of other things that people use too. Honestly, I don't try to listen to these types of arguments because they usually are biased and close-minded. Try to pry out what reasons make X band more complex than Y band or X genre vs. Y genre. You can make your own judgment if this is worthy or not of your time.
The reason why I was asking is because there's a bevy of research out there that shows that musicians tend to do better on a lot of different acoustic tasks. Things like segregating sounds within noise and identifying non-native speech contrasts where their non-musician counterparts fail. The idea is that training in music enhances perceptual space. I was wondering if, in non-musicians, simply listening to "more complex" music might have the same effect. But I haven't had much luck finding a measure of "musical complexity." I've found some stuff on artificial intelligence systems and measuring structure of music, but it's not something I'm prepared to use myself.
It would help to deal with specific works, not a meaningless statement like "jazz is more complex than pop." But yes, of course there's an objective measure for musical complexity, and a fairly precise one if you were interested enough to pursue it as far as compiling a lot of statistical data about a work, and analyzing and comparing waveforms, frequency ratios of harmonies, interaction of rhythm, and any other quantifiable elements you can think of. Or you can just apply the ordinary meaning of the word and use your ears and your musical education. Do we need to start listing the ways that any Sun Ra Arkestra recording of your choice is evidently more complex than a sequenced sine wave performance of Taps?
But yes, of course there's an objective measure for musical complexity, and a fairly precise one if you were interested enough to pursue it a far as compiling a lot of statistical data about a work, and analyzing and comparing waveforms, frequency ratios of harmonies, interaction of rhythm, and any other quantifiable elements you can think of. Technological/mathematical methods can't even reliably separate the different instruments of an ensemble, what makes you think they could do anything meaningful about the complexity of a piece of music? Technology can't listen to music with the wealth of background experience and listening ability that any human has.
There is literally more musical information in more complex music. That's all. The problem comes in quantifying the amount of "musical information" in a piece of music. (bold not in original)
In his 2006 Ph.D. dissertation, Sebastian Streich, investigates computer algorithms for judging musical complexity.
“The complexity of music is one of the less intensively researched areas in music information retrieval so far. Although very interesting findings have been reported over the years, there is a lack of a unified approach to the matter. Relevant publications mostly concentrate on single aspects only and are scattered across different disciplines. Especially an automated estimation based on the audio material itself has hardly been addressed in the past. However, it is not only an interesting and challenging topic, it also allows for very practical applications.
This thesis proposes 'a set of algorithms that can be used to compute estimates of music complexity facets from musical audio signals. They focus on aspects of acoustics, rhythm, timbre, and tonality. Music complexity is thereby considered on the coarse level of common agreement among human listeners. The target is to obtain complexity judgements through automatic computation that resemble a naive listener’s point of view. Expert knowledge of specialists in particular musical domains is therefore out of the scope of the proposed algorithms.” (bold not in original)
- Terry Teachout, "Jazz Masterpieces: A Finale," "AfterThoughts," Commentary, January 2000.
- “Milman Parry and Albert Lord have argued that the Homeric epics, the earliest works of Western literature, were fundamentally an oral poetic form.”Wikipedia: Epic poetry, "Oral Epics," second paragraph.
- Jacqueline Melendezon, "Concert Review: ‘Beethoven’s 9th Symphony’ by Piedmont Symphony Orchestra and The Reston Chorale at Hylton Performing Arts Center," MD Theatre Guide, March 29, 2017.
- "The remarkable story of Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ Symphony No. 9 and the ‘Ode to Joy’," ClassicFM, March 12, 2020; updated August 29, 2022.
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- Karl Aage Rasmussen and Lasse Laursen, "14. Orchestra Size and Setting," [http://theidiomaticorchestra.net/ The Idiomatic Orchestra, translated by Thilo Reinhard, October 6, 2014.
- "What is musical complexity?," Music Theory, Reddit.
- Sebastian Streich, "Musical Complexity: A Multi-faceted description of audio content," Ph.D. dissertation for the Department of Technology of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra for the Program in Computer Science and Digital Communication, 2006.