Book review

Eric Lewis – Intents and Purposes: Philosophy and the Aesthetics of Improvisation

Eric Lewis – Intents and Purposes: Philosophy and the Aesthetics of Improvisation
(Michigan University Press Hbk 265pp. Book review by Andy Hamilton)

Intents and Purposes is named after a 1966 album by Bill Dixon’s Orchestra – the great free jazz trumpeter died while the book was being written, and it’s dedicated to him. Eric Lewis is a Canadian philosophy professor, and his excellent book focuses on how we define improvised music, and how it relates to classical composition – can we talk about “improvised musical works”? He critiques the classical bias of philosophy of music in Britain and North America, foregrounding jazz aesthetics with case-studies including John Coltrane’s “My Favourite Things”, Archie Shepp’s Blasé, AACM, and James Newton’s legal dispute with the Beastie Boys – intellectual property law is a “fertile site” for investigating these issues, as the author puts it. Lewis argues against the polarisation of composition and improvisation, re-defining the live performance in relation to scores and recordings. Unlike the area’s more austere philosophers, he draws on critical race theory, feminist theory, sociology and genre theory, locating improvised musical performance in its cultural context.

Lewis’s overall arguments are persuasive, and his book is clearly and accessibly-written – but it does assume some acquaintance with Philosophy, as well as jazz and improvised music. It’s a philosophical exploration of the concepts and practices surrounding improvised music – and for Lewis, that means that its questions “[are] ontological, for they concern the nature of musical works and performances…”. “Ontology”, for its proponents, is part of metaphysics, the most abstract core of Philosophy. But Lewis rejects Plato’s still-influential abstraction, regarded as neglecting the empirical – and I think he could drop talk of “ontology”. 

Lewis is more concerned about the term “jazz”, and rightly cites the unhappiness that musicians have felt about it, going back to early Ellington. He still uses the term, but influenced by George Lewis’s contrast between Eurological and Afrological, believes that it’s rightly called “Great Black Music”. This is a cultural minefield, but at the risk of stepping on one, I’d argue that “jazz” is the best term here. Lewis’s main concern is improvisation, but much great African-American music – whether popular, or more conservative classical, by composers like William Grant Still – is not really focused on improvisation in the way that jazz is. Indeed, some writers dispute the centrality of improvisation to jazz – for instance, Thomas Brothers’s magisterial biographies of Louis Armstrong argue convincingly that its importance, pre-bebop, is exaggerated.

These aren’t major criticisms – this is a writer with his heart in the right place, and there’s much to commend here. Lewis rightly describes Adorno as “the most read and influential philosopher of music” – many English-speaking philosophers demur. He describes his own work as in the spirit of Lydia Goehr’s The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works, which is indebted to Adorno. Lewis rightly questions the common assumption that music is essentially a sonic experience – if music is essentially connected with dance and movement, this narrow view can’t be correct. But I wouldn’t conclude, with Lewis, that music is a “hybrid artform” – that looks like a static view, that contrasts with Adorno’s dynamic, historical analysis of concepts. 

Lewis imagines a listener to Coltrane wondering, “Was that a performance of ‘My Favourite Things’?” Maybe a novice listener would wonder this. But jazz players don’t perform works, they improvise on their own or others’ compositions – more traditionally, a canon of mostly high-quality pop songs, which are compositions but (maybe) not works. (I don’t intend any value-judgment here.) It’s so hard to escape the classical-think that Lewis rejects, and maybe there’s still a residue in his discussion. For instance, his comment that, “The vast majority of music-making ever undertaken has been essentially improvisational”. Is this is right? The vast majority of music-making hasn’t used a modern Western work-concept, true – but does that imply it’s “improvisational”? In an influential critique, Laudan Nooshin has pointed out this claim’s Eurocentric bias.

But then, what is improvisation – and composition? These aren’t easy questions. I’d contrast two senses of “composition” – notated works, usually by composers at their desk, or more generally, “putting things together in a pleasing form”. Thus Tony Buck and Steve Beresford describe improvisation as a compositional method – there’s no (worthwhile) music that isn’t composed in this broader sense. Improvisation is contrasted with performance of notated works, but also more generally, with using an established method: “We didn’t have the proper tools/ingredients/ instruments, so we improvised”. Lewis thinks that all compositions are works – but an improvisation can be a composition without being a work, as Buck and Beresford should agree. He also assumes that a performance can sound improvised. I guess that’s right, and certainly listeners can’t always tell whether it is or not. Jeremy Vine’s recent Spectator article describes Boris Johnson’s last-minute “spontaneous” speeches at awards ceremonies – apparently made up on the spur of the moment, they turn out, incredibly, to be absolutely identical. 

The book has two “practical guiding principles”. The first I’d applaud, because in philosophy it’s neglected: “the thoughts of musicians concerning their own creative activities must be taken very seriously”. The second I’m not so sure about: “one must be an improviser to interrogate the performative, phenomenological and social aspects of improvisation”. Don’t we need contributions from all areas? But there’s much food for thought here, for those prepared to make the philosophical effort.

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