One of the possible aims of artistic research in musical improvisation is to make explicit how improvisation can teach us about coping with uncertainty, with the unknown, with acceptance and rejection, and how to collaborate with others in a nonverbal way. Even though all musical improvisation can be regarded as a performance that at the same time is a form of research, of exploration, the investigative aspect of this activity might not always be clear to the audience, or even to the performers themselves. This is where artistic research comes in: Artistic research foregrounds the fact that musical improvisation can be research, experimenting, exploration; research that is not only restricted to music, but one that extends to important aspects of human life. In this presentation I will demonstrate how artistic research might be able to do this, by focusing on the concept of embodied narrative. By taking a recorded performance of my free improvisation trio as a case study, I will argue that musical improvisation can teach us about the function of embodiment in storytelling. Referring to Daniel Punday’s notion of corporeal narrativity I will show that engaging in a musical improvisation is not only a matter of listening to each other, but also of feeling the movements of all participants, participating in an activity that ultimately can lead to a narrative that is created by, and becomes expressive because of, embodiment.
Musical Improvisation as Research
Musical improvisation is an experiment, an investigation into phenomena that are not only pertinent to music and musical performance itself, but to life in general as well. It is an investigation into coping with uncertainty, with the unknown, an exploration of how to collaborate with others in a nonverbal way, of acceptance and rejection. In short, musical improvisation addresses issues that are vital to human existence.(1)See for instance Nachmanovitch, 1990 for a discussion on the importance of improvisation in everyday life.
One of the possible aims of artistic research in musical improvisation is to make explicit how this activity has the potentiality to convey knowledge. In other words: to show the relevance and importance of musical improvisation through the practice of improvisation itself. Even though musical improvisation can be regarded as a performance that at the same time is a form of research, the investigative aspect of this activity might not always be clear to the audience, or even to the performers themselves. This is where artistic research comes in: Artistic research foregrounds the fact that musical improvisation can be research, experiment, exploration; research that is not only restricted to music, but one that extends to important aspects of human life. Consequently, artistic research in musical improvisation faces the following challenge: To turn subjective, intimate experiences into intersubjective accounts. Artistic research is supposed to enable the articulation of what remains implicit in musical improvisation, which is the tacit, embodied knowledge that is at play during musical improvisation. Artistic research is a move from subjectivity to intersubjectivity.
In this essay I will discuss how artistic research might be able to do this, by focusing on the concept of embodied narrative. By taking a recorded performance of my free improvisation trio as a case study, I will argue that musical improvisation can teach us about the function of embodiment in storytelling. Drawing on theories on narrativity and embodied perception, I will suggest that engaging in a musical improvisation is not only a matter of listening to each other, but also of feeling the movements of all participants, participating in an activity that ultimately can lead to a narrative that is created by, and becomes expressive because of, embodiment.
Narrativization as Cognitive and Embodied Activity
In jazz and other styles of improvised music, a well-known cliché is that a good improviser is an excellent storyteller. A good improviser is able to tell stories through his or her improvisation. Yet, it remains unclear what this exactly means. What does such an improviser narrate? Emotions? Events? Something more abstract? Or should we not take this expression so literally?
In order to find an answer to this question, we need to first make clear what narrative is, or can be. According to David Herman, narratives are an effective means by which knowledge, experience, beliefs, desires, and fantasies can be represented. They are one of the most important means by which human beings communicate. Narrative is an instrument for distributing and elaborating the perspectives that can be adopted on a given set of events. Moreover, stories aid in enriching the whole compound of past, present, and possible future events that constitutes the foundation of human knowledge. Narrative is the manner in which the individual subject has access to other people’s experiences; it is a way to distribute experience and knowledge.(Herman 2003.)
Language is a very effective means to tell stories, but is it not the only way to convey a narrative. Cinema, for instance, has shown that series of images also have the capacity to tell a story, with or without the aid of language. The question is whether stories can also be told through music, without the aid of words, or through wordless performance alone. Whether or not this is possible depends at least in part on the way narrative is defined. I propose the following working definition of narrative, which is derived from Mieke Bal’s narratology: A narrative is the representation of a temporal development. (Bal 1997.) It is the representation of a sequence of events in time, a sequence that can be regarded as displaying some kind of development.
Temporal developments can indeed be noticed in music; in many musical pieces the listener can perceive expectations and resolutions. Music elicits expectations by giving the impression that musical events lead to or cause other events. This in turn results in the suggestion of forward motion and of a temporal development. The question is whether these tensions and resolutions are actually caused by the music itself, or represented by it. If it is the former, then music can be considered a process, but not a narrative. In order to be a narrative, developments created by tension and resolution should be represented by music, rather than actually being located in the musical sounds themselves.
Indeed, an actual interplay of tension and resolution does not take place in music. A dominant seventh chord, say, does not necessarily have to resolve to the tonic. There is no physical necessity for this chord to resolve. Rather, listeners expect it to resolve accordingly, as a result of the musical conventions and precedents they are familiar with. In other words, listeners interpret a dominant seventh chord as wanting to resolve to the tonic. This chord is a musical representation of tension, rather than actually being unstable or tense; indeed, the physical makeup of the chord is as stable as any other sound. Thus tension and resolution, which can lead to temporal development, are not physically present in the music, but instead are represented by it.(2)For an elaboration of the notion of musical narrative see Meelberg, 2006.
Music thus has the potentiality to be narrativized by listeners, that is, to be interpreted as a narrative. Narrativization is the process during which human subjects transform a series of events into a narrative. The narrativization of events amounts to the creation of a construction, a structure in which (causal and other) temporal relations between events are identified. Some sequences of events can more easily be regarded as narrative than others. Narrative depends on both the narrative potentiality of these sequences and the act of narrativization of these sequences by a human subject. By narrativizing a sequence of events, human subjects might comprehend these events in a better, or different, way. Turning events into a story means establishing some other, maybe wider kind of grasp of these events.
In music, coherence – and, by extension, a certain degree of comprehension – can be created by focusing on the interplay of tension and resolution, which might result in the representation of a temporal development. Musical tension and resolution, however, is not only recognized at a cognitive level, but also physically felt. David Huron observes that music can evoke frisson with listeners, which are “[…] chills running up and down your spine.”(Huron 2006, 34.) These chills are autonomous reactions of the listeners’ bodies when confronted with musical sounds. According to Huron, these reactions are correlated with two conditions: loud passages and passages that contain some kind of violation of expectation.
Consequently, sounds, particularly those that play with expectation and resolution, can create autonomous reactions of the listeners’ bodies. They can induce frisson, a bodily reaction that happens at an unconscious level. Sounds can move the listeners’ bodies – generate chills up and down the listeners’ spines – that motivate listeners to reflect on the sensations they are experiencing.(3)See Meelberg, 2009 for a more in-depth discussion of the ways sounds can affect listeners. This reflection can lead to labeling certain sounds as being the cause of other sounds, and in this way listeners can distil some kind of temporal development from the sounds they are listening to. The awareness of this development thus starts with the embodied perception of musical surprise, and, through narrativization, ultimately might lead to the construction of a musical temporal development, and thus to a musical narrative.
The importance of embodiment for narrativization is also acknowledged by Richard Menary, who asserts that “[n]arratives arise directly from the lived experience of the embodied subject and these narratives can be embellished and reflected upon if we need to find a meaningful form or structure in that sequence of experiences.” (Menary 2008, 76.) Narrative is cognitive and embodied, in the sense that narrative begins with bodily sensations and ends with a cognitive interpretation of these sequences of bodily sensations. Therefore, a good musical storyteller can be characterized as an improviser who has the ability to physically arouse, through the production of sounds, listeners in such a way that they are provoked to interpret these physical sensations as leading to a temporal development.
Improvisation as the Performance of Telling a Story
Improvisation is the creation of sonic events in real-time, often as a result of a collaborative effort between several improvisers. These events can be interpreted by listeners (and performers) as being expressive, as being more than mere sounds, perhaps even as a narrative, that is, as a representation of a temporal development created by sonic and physical movements created during the performance. But can improvisation also teach us about narrativity? Can it make explicit the fact that narrative is not only the result of a cognitive interpretation of sounds, but also of feeling the physical sensations evoked by this performance?
In order to explore this question I would like to refer to a collective improvisation of my trio Molloy that I recorded on 24 January 2013. The recording can be listened at https://soundcloud.com/vincent-meelberg/molloy-collective. During this improvisation the participants focused on how musical interaction took place. In particular, we concentrated on how to “further” the improvisation, on how to develop collective musical ideas. During this performance, we became aware of the fact that engaging in a collective musical improvisation requires more than just listening to each other. A focus on the feeling of both sonic and physical movements of all participants was necessary, too, in order to arrive at a musical improvisation that has the potentiality to be successfully narrativized by performers and listeners.
Elsewhere, I have explained that physical attuning is a necessary precondition for being able to play together with one or more other musicians. (Meelberg 2011.) Musical improvisation, in particular, necessitates the proper perception of the bodily movements of the other improvisers. Rolf Pfeifer and Josh Bongard show that musicians are indeed literally moved by the movements of their fellow musicians. They remark that human subjects have so-called mirror neurons that fire when a subject performs a movement or observes a movement in another subject. Performing actions and observing actions activate the same brain areas. Watching movement thus can lead to sensing this movement within a subject’s own body, as if the subject is actually performing this movement. (Pfeifer and Bongard 2007.) This is also the case concerning musical performance. When musicians are watching their fellow musicians perform, they are able to sense these musicians’ movements within their own bodies, because of the way their mirror neurons function. The physical movements of their fellow musicians are literally felt within their own bodies.
Moreover, the body is also included in musical performance because it kinesthetically senses the gestures produced by the musical sounds. It feels the music by sensing its dynamic and temporal flow. The body mirrors the movement of the music. Sonic vibrations are transformed into bodily movements that can be felt. This is corroborated by Marc Leman, who suggests that sound literally does something with the listeners’ bodies. These bodies kinesthetically sense, and subsequently process, the dynamics and the physical properties of sound and music.(Leman 2007.) Thus, these bodies are literally moved by musical vibrations; they kinesthetically move along with the movement of sound.
All these movements are literally incorporated by participants as physical sensations, which was something that we, the musicians of the trio Molly, were fully aware of during the improvisation we recorded on 24 January 2013. We learned that we have to concentrate on all these sensations in order to create a coherent performance. Only then the sequence of these sensations may be interpreted as a story. Only then they have the potentiality to be narrativized by performers and listeners alike in order to get a grasp on them, to give order to these sonic and physical events, as Menary calls it. Consequently, the performance of musical improvisation can be considered as an account of how embodiment is incorporated in narrative.
Daniel Punday also acknowledges the importance of embodiment in narrative:
Narrative is corporeal not simply because it needs to use character bodies as a natural part of the stories that it tells, but also because the very ways in which we think about narrative reflect the paradoxes of the body – its ability to give rise to and resist pattern, its position in the world and outside of it, and so on. Narrative, then, always first and foremost depends upon a corporeal hermeneutics – a theory of how the text can be meaningfully articulated through the body. (Punday 2003, 15.)
Although Punday is referring to verbal narrative, the principle he discusses also holds for other kinds of narrative, including musical narrative; all narratives are constituted through tension and resolution felt in the body. In musical performance the tension between sonic events and human bodies are necessary to create the potential for narrative to arise.
The performance of musical improvisation makes this process explicit, at least for the performers themselves. The performers become conscious, through performance, of the fact that the narrativization of bodily sensations is crucial for the creation of a musical improvisation that shows some degree of coherence, to arrive at an improvisation in which collective musical ideas are developed. This awareness, however, is highly subjective and remains unnoticeable to the audience during the performance. Artistic research on musical improvisation may turn this subjective experience into an intersubjective account, so that others can learn from the experience of improvising music as well.
Vincent Meelberg is senior lecturer and researcher at Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands, Department of Cultural Studies, and at the Academy for Creative and Performing Arts in Leiden and The Hague. He is founding editor of the online Journal of Sonic Studies and editor-in-chief of the Dutch Journal of Music Theory. His current research focuses on the relation between musical listening, playing, embodiment, and affect. Beside his academic activities he is active as a double bassist in several jazz groups, as well as a composer.
1) See for instance Nachmanovitch 1990 for a discussion on the importance of improvisation in everyday life.
2) For an elaboration of the notion of musical narrative see Meelberg 2006.
3) See Meelberg 2009 for a more in-depth discussion of the ways sounds can affect listeners.
Bal, Mieke 1997. Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. Second edition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Herman, David 2003. Introduction. In David Herman (ed.) Narrative Theory and the Cognitive Sciences. Stanford: CSLI Publications. pp. 1–30.
Huron, David 2006. Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Leman, Marc 2007. Embodied Music Cognition and Mediation in Music. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Meelberg, Vincent 2006. New Sounds, New Stories: Narrativity in Contemporary Music. Leiden: Leiden University Press.
Meelberg, Vincent 2009. Sonic Strokes and Musical Gestures: The Difference between Musical Affect and Musical Emotion. In Jukka Louhivuori, Tuomas Eerola, Suvi Saarikallio, Tommi Himberg and Päivi-Sisko Eerola (eds.) Proceedings of the 7th Triennial Conference of European Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music (ESCOM 2009). Jyväskylä: University of Jyväskylä, pp. 324–327.
Meelberg, Vincent 2011. Moving to Become Better: The Embodied Performance of Musical Groove. Journal for Artistic Research 1. Available at http://www.researchcatalogue.net/view/?weave=16068&x=0&y=0
Menary, Richard 2008. Embodied Narratives. Journal of Consciousness Studies 15: 63–84.
Nachmanovitch, Stephen 1990. Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam.
Pfeifer, Rolf and Josh C. Bongard 2007. How the Body Shapes the Way We Think: A New View of Intelligence. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Punday, Daniel 2003. Narrative Bodies: Towards a Corporeal Narratology. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.