Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Jazz Standard Interpretation: A Philosophical Analysis

This is what I am going to tell on the 30th of May as an introductory note to the discussion of Jerrold Levinson's paper Jazz Vocal Interpretation: A Philosophical Analysis. This is part of the workshop Aesthetics and Ethics in Music at the Department of Philosophy at Tübingen University, where Levinson (one of the world's leading philosophers of aesthetics who teaches at the University of Maryland) is discussing with Tübingen staff and students for three days. It is easily possible to comprehend my text without any knowledge of Levinson's paper. Since it is not published I do not put it online. But drop me an email (mail(at)fritzfeger.de), and I'll send you a copy!


In order to fuel discussion I shall make two points against Levinson, one of them minor and a bit technical, and one contradicting his framework of philosophically assessing jazz vocal interpretation. I shall attack his claim that the parameters or dimensions of song interpretation are, first, what the interpretation conveys about the song, and, secondly, what the interpretation conveys about the performer's personality, or rather about his performing persona, i.e. the implicit fictional figure performing the song. Instead I shall spotlight another aspect: music, and thus song interpretation, is about the world.

What is the original version of a jazz standard?

Levinson's paper deals with the question of how to analyse the vocal interpretation of a jazz standard in aesthetical terms. In order to pin down the parameters or dimensions of jazz song interpretation he distinguishes an interpretation from what he calls the "original composition" or the "song as written or standardly taken". Leaving aside the special case of a homage or parody where (in most cases) another interpretation of the song serves as reference, the singer is, according to Levinson, "adding to, subtracting from, or altering in" the original song and thus creating an interpretation.

However obvious the idea of an original of a song, it is not straightforward to tell what the original of a song is. Think of the so called Historically Informed Performance movement in classical music where the idea is not only to recover old ways of interpreting classical compositions to make them sound just better. This movement is also called Authentic Performance which reveals that at the same time there is an ongoing dispute on which interpretation comes closest to the original composition.

But I would like to go one step further: the substance or essence of a song, that is its melody and chords, to keep it simple, is no original version. Not even the composer herself has the privilege to define the original version: if she puts her musical thoughts into sound, if she performs her own composition, she produces an interpretation. If you ask me if I know My One and Only Love it is of no significance if I have the Hartman/Coltrane version in mind or Doris Day or Sinatra or Nancy Wilson or Sting or Rickie Lee Jones, or the non-existent "original" performance of the  composer/lyricist team, or if I have only read the Real Book chart. If I whistle the first two bars, however neglectfully, you know that I know this song. The song, at least this is true for jazz standards, is melody and chords stripped from any tempo, transposition, sound, phrasing, articulation or whatever interpreational means.

Now, what follows from this? At first, only a slight rearrangement of the conceptual framework. Instead of an original we have perhaps a canonical interpretation which might at the same time be the first one published and authorised by the composer, but this need not be the case. Most jazz musicians and jazz listeners do not know the "original" broadway musical versions of now jazz standards, and in many cases they do not miss much. In most cases the canonical interpretations of jazz standards which provide the reference for new interpretations are a handfull of recorded versions by jazz heroines and heroes from the thirties to the fifties. But it is perfectly possible and absolutely common that someone sings a remarkable interpretation of a jazz standard without ever having heard any other version of it before, just by reading the chart or by some band member teaching her the song by humming the melody and scribbling the lyrics down.

But this rearrangement is also linked to the other, more substantial point I am going to make, namely that an interpretation of a jazz standard, in the first place, does not convey something about the song nor something about the singer's personality. These aspects are derivative to the interpretation's genuinely being about the world.

Interpretation is not about a song, it's about the world

The question that is of most interest to Levinson is the following: "How can one distinguish between what a singer, in interpreting a given song, is conveying about the song, and what the singer is conveying about herself?" (p. 9). I am inclined to counter that the connaisseur, the collector, the musicologist and the eager musician might be interested in what is conveyed about the song, and that the singer's friends, family and fan club and lovers of celebrity culture or biographies of "interesting" people might be curious to find out something about the singer. But the listener who belongs to none of the above special interest groups is likely to find all this boring. She would probably like to hear something about the world, about life, about people, about herself. To be more specific, as the vast majority of jazz standards (and pop songs) lyrics is about matters of love, she would probably like to hear something about love, solitude, jealousy, lust, alienation, faith, conciliation and so on. 

In contrast to a novel where, on hundreds of pages, a detailed picture of the surroundings, the protagonist's characters, the plot and so on is elaborated, song lyrics usually invoke a typical love scenario, say seeing someone for the first time and being electrified, or confessing one's love, or finding out that your lover is unfaithful or that it is over. Everyone has been in any of these situations, or at least longed for or feared of it, so that it is easy to empathise, to relate to own experiences or longings or fears. When a singer has "beliefs about the song" (p. 10), implying that she thinks that the song must be performed this way or that way, I figure this is because she thinks that it is the right way to express her view on the world, life, people, herself, and love, given the song.

Is a good song more than a vehicle to create such a scenario and its complex and yet focused emotional evaluation in the minds of the singer and the listeners by performing it? I don't think so. This is particularly plausible with jazz standards since the practice of producing ever more and more interpretations of the same canon of songs entails a selection process driven by the song's quality of giving rise to inspiring performances. That's why some songs have been recorded more than a thousand times and sold millions of times, whilst other songs from the same musicals or by the same songwriters are buried in oblivion.

Interpretation is not about a persona, it's about the world

It is less obvious that the listener might not be interested in the singer, or rather in the singer's performing persona. Of course it can be rewarding to gain insights into the thoughts and emotions of a charismatic personality. But is listening to a jazz singer another way to learn about and empathise with her, or her performance persona, just like watching her being interviewed on TV, like reading her biography, or like asking her personal questions after the show at the jazzclub bar? Even if a singer deliberately builds and explicitly relies on her persona for song interpretation I hold that this is more a means than an end in itself.

For the reception of the music as such, it does not make a difference whether the intoxicating interpretation of My One and Only Love I have just listened to on the radio turns out to be sung by a black drug addicted matron from Chicago South Side in the early sixties or only recently by a posh twentysomething from Norway educated at Hilversum conservatory. In fact, I've been wallowing in the poignant ballads of Little Jimmy Scott several times before I learned that this is no female voice but a man suffering from Kallman syndrome and thus being only five feet / 1,50 m tall and equipped with a pre-pubertal high voice. This knowledge certainly adds on to the overall impression from an interpretation, and as soon as something about the singer's personality is coming out it melts into the idea of the music. Yet, at least in my experience, this usually does not do too much to what a particular song interpretation means. In any case it is, in theorising about jazz vocal interpretation, possible to discriminate between what is conveyed by the music and what is conveyed by reference to the performance persona. With respect to the music itself, the singer's personality traits, appearance, voice etc. merely restrict the range of possible interpretations. Though not in a serious manner, as I shall now elaborate.

Certainly a performing persona, be it conscious or not, is an important element of artistic expression for a jazz singer, and a dimension of reception. If, as I have claimed above, the interpretation is about the world, life, people, love etc., this implies that something is conveyed about the singer's persona too -- but only through conveying something about the world. On the one hand, the performer's perspective on love, solitude, jealousy, and so on is an inextricable part of what the music conveys about the world. It is her view of things. This is why a good interpretation, i.e. an emotionally deep, insightful and truthful view of a typical scenario in matters of love, produces a feeling of authenticity in both the performer and the listener. On the other hand, the performer is of course free to pour his contingent mental states into the music. After all, the performer himself is also part of the world. But, at least to my lights, this is likely to be at the expense of the music's exemplary character, and that is at the expense of it's quality.

Evidence for this view is provided by the observation that it is not the most promising road to becoming a good singer to "search one's own voice", to try to match music and personality, to look inwards in order to find one's genuine self and then find or develop a style and song interpretations expressing one's genuine self. This is frustrating for the performer and wearisome for the audience. A good performer, so it seems to me, is more concerned about whether her musical output meets some imagination of "how it ought to sound". This genuinely musical ideal, as I would put it, is identical with a successful expression of the performer's view of a typical scenario (here: in matters of love). The music ought to sound exactly like how it feels to be loved or left or cheated at. The performance is the better the more musical mastership is incorporated in making the expression successful, and it is the better the more exemplary the expressed view is. Now this is why it is no serious a restriction to be, say, a middle aged slender white bourgeois from Germany with a clean, metallic bass bariton rather than a wild black hipster from Chicago South Side with a timbre between James Brown and Marvin Gaye. This definitely restricts the performing personae available to the singer. But it does not prevent him from developing an emotionally deep, insightful and truthful view, an exemplary view of any typical scenario, and it does not prevent him from acquiring the musical means which enable him to produce a successful expression of that view. There are so many ways to excellence.

Unlike e.g. the novel or representative painting which can contain very explicit references to things in the real world, music is more abstract by construction, as one might say. What music conveys about the world is more like a general emotional world outlook, the mood which a typical scenario puts me into. It conveys an exemplary way to feel about the world, about life, about people, about myself. In a song interpretation this is focused on a specific scenario by the lyrics. (The lyrics, of course, function at the same time as an artistic expression which is inextricably entagled with the music).

While up to here I have merely appealed to intuition, I shall now conclude by giving an argument for the view that the interpretation of a jazz standard, or rather music in general, is mainly conveying something about the world, and not about the performing persona or the composition. "Intrinsic musical thinking", as Jerrold Levinson has put it elsewhere, need not entail "any suggestion of recognizable extramusical action" (Musical Thinking, JMM 1, Fall 2003, 2.11.). Nevertheless, so he states in the same paper, "music is rather inextricably embedded in our form of life, a form of life that is, as it happens, essentially linguistic" (ibid, 2.4). It is a means of communication.

Granted that music is essentially linguistic: is it really the most obvious consequence that "one cannot fail to be struck by the mind manifested" (ibid, 2.12.) in a brilliant piece of music? The analogy to verbal communication points into a different direction. Verbal communication mainly serves the purpose to communicate about the world. It at least requires an extra argument to establish that each communicative act conveys something about the speaker. Yet even advocators of this claim would not credit the implicit manifestiation of the speaker's mind with general priority over the explicit predication about the world. Intrinsic musical thinking is explicitly about the world, and only implicitly about the composition and the performer's persona. Intrinsic musical thinking is about exemplary views of the world, life, people, myself. To say it with Jerrold Levinson's words about Stan Getz's famous solo on The Girl from Ipanema: "music that in the span of a mere 40 bars manages to suggest a whole way of being - for my part, I have often wished to live some of the time as that solo sounds."
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