Process Ontology and Jazz Music

(I know it’s super late in the semester to be posting my first entry, but here goes…)

One of the more difficult concepts (at least for me) introduced in the opening weeks of the course was the notion of subjectivity in a process ontology. Of course I have only begun to delve into Deleuze’s mode of philosophy, so I obviously won’t be able to give a full explication of this idea; however, a pathway to understanding opened for me in the context of music, specifically jazz music – my area of expertise.

To my understanding, Deleuze posits that in a process ontology, subjectivity is born from the ceaseless flow of time itself: we are not beings which experience changes but retain essential qualities which define our stable forms; rather, according to Deleuze we are always invariably in the process of becoming. It is our relations in time (which has not a beginning nor end: we enter in the midst) that individuate our existence, which is not then stable but perpetually in a state of shift, ephemera, metamorphosis, development. In contrast to a substance ontology, there are no apriori essences (Universals, Ideas or Forms) which exist before us and to which we might adhere to as somehow essential components of our being, serving to anchor our existence against the flow of change.

To reiterate a point Sam made during one of the first lectures, a musical composition does not preexist itself: it is in the process/unfolding of a piece that a stable identity emerges and exists. Through the repetition and difference (I am not intentionally referring to Deleuze’s text here, as I haven’t read it but the phrase certainly applies!) of rhythm, melody, harmony and other variables, a musical piece individuates its existence through time. Though we may refer to compositions we know or have heard, this reference does not constitute the existence of a piece of music unto itself – it is only a signifier for an existence which can become such only through it’s performance in time, either live or recorded.

For me this application takes on a very interesting relevance in relation to jazz music. Although all music comes into being in the process of its unfolding, jazz music (and other improvisatory music, of course) is unique in that its character may wildly vary, as opposed to having set coordinates (i.e., a score which must be read). A jazz recording is a record of the process of becoming, of individuation in real time. Even more so, we can differentiate between the becoming-sound of the entire piece, but also more specifically to the emergent identities which constitute themselves in the unfolding of their improvisation through the duration of the piece.

In a previous blog for Sam’s Godard class last semester, I wrote a brief overview of the basics of jazz improvisation in terms of its basic mechanics which hopefully will clarify the core concepts of how a typical jazz composition is played. This method undergoes radical changes in the early 1960s, but to this day it is still the standard operating procedure of most jazz musicians.

[On Godard and Jazz Improvisation]

I would like to give an example of a standard composition in jazz lexicon, “My Funny Valentine.” Below are three recordings made by Miles Davis, with three different ensembles. What is interesting for me is that jazz music when recorded is a document of individuation at a respective time – this is how the world and the experiences of the musicians has come to form their personality at this time, which inevitably is completely different for each performance. Conversely, this is the event which changed those who experienced the recording or live concert. Of course, the variation in the band members changes the music drastically, but it’s important that Davis was a bandleader par exellance, carefully selecting his bandmates in an effort to pursue a specific musical character.

Miles Davis is an interesting example as his work in the later 1960s switches gears and focuses on what could be described as foregrounding to the aesthetics of minimal/electronic music. The compositions more and more frequently focus on repetition and development over long stretches of time, notably being assembled after Davis and his band had recorded numerous takes. Perhaps for one of my next posts, I will investigate Davis’ electric period.

– Ian

3 Responses to “Process Ontology and Jazz Music”

  1. immanentterrainsp11 Says:

    Additionally, within these performances it’s worth noting the staggering changes Davis’ conception of the standard undergoes. By the time we arrive at the 1964 version, the standard is now conceived as a mobile, changing, shifting entity rather than retaining a stylistic unity as per the previous performances. One could say that the version from 64 is the standard being deterritorialized of any one character or a priori quality: it is no longer a ballad but a medium tempo, a pseudo latin straight feel (The rhythm section of this band Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams recorded “Cantaloup Island this same year, which was later sampled by US3-there are elements of this rhythmic style here..) ballad etc.. Thanks to the hypersensitive members of the band, the character of any given conception may shift at any time in kind of collective intuition-like a flock of birds all seemingly changing course instantaneously.

    Due in no small part to Davis selection of young virtuoso musicians, the music in the last great quintet can be qualitatively categorized as that of change, of development, of instability, yet still retaining some of the characteristics of form (as per classic jazz). This group made jazz a music of quasi-crystal.

  2. Ian,
    Unfortunately, the second and third versions of “MFV” are not operable. Bummer. Otherwise, a useful explication of jazz and the ways it intersects with Deleuze’s ideas on process and time. A discussion of jazz recordings also seems relevant to our discussion of cinema since we are talking about the preservation of a temporal unfolding. One question we might ask is to what extent this preservation allows for a new way of engaging with the ideas of difference and repetition (since there is more than one level at work here: there is the difference/repetition which is the musical performance itself, but there is also the difference/repetition that is now made possible by technological reproduction). A similar thing occurs with film, expect that the temporal unfolding is not purely or primarily abstract, as in music (blocks of sound), but also includes images of the world “caught” in movement or flight. In regards Davis, I’m also fascinated (as I’ve said to you before, I think) by the way such masterworks as IN A SILENT WAY were re-assembled in the studio in collage-like fashion which, again, has resonance for cinema, particularly a filmmaker like Tarkovsky who sees each image as a block of time.


  3. Ian Johnson Says:

    Really-Damn. they were working on my computer.. I know Youtube picked up on the sound being copyrighted so it might have blocked them.. It might be worth trying the “Watch On Youtube” button, as embedding might have been disabled.

    As far as the 1964 recording, I found another video which suffices for what I was describing in my supplementary paragraph. It is the same group and the same year.. with the same staggering rhythm section telepathy. The exception being the replacement of George Coleman with Wayne Shorter, which cemented the line up of the 60s quintet. It’s worth noting that Shorter went on to explore the electric side of jazz both on “In A Silent Way” and with the band he co-led with Joe Zawinul, Weather Report. Their early recordings especially contain a lot of similar elements as the early Miles Davis electric recordings. Miles Davis was truly a seminal figure in every one of his stylistic periods.

    As far as the 1958 version, I’ll try to find a replacement if watching them directly on the site doesn’t work. Shame though, as precisely what I was trying to illustrate was the radical changes the tune’s conception undergoes. Let me know if these work for anyone else!

    That’s a very interesting point about blocks of time, and indeed it seems like Tarkovsky is a perfect analogue to the aesthetic of “In A Silent Way” and “Bitches Brew” especially. I don’t know if you’ve heard it, but another classic though under appreciated record from around that time was “Tribute To Jack Johnson,” on which the edits between long sections function in a very interesting, colliding and generative way. Also quite interesting to consider the idea of repetition itself in regards to our conception of a record, with our familiarity being able to develop to an intimacy not possible with a single experience of an event. I suppose one could argue that any provisionally stable forms we encounter are only so through their repetition..

    If anyone else is curious about this period in Davis’ oeuvre, there are a number of excellent box sets (easily found via less-than-legal outlets) which chronicle the entire recording sessions for each album, which sometimes overlap each other. In my last two years in my undergrad, I was able to study with Adam Holzman who played with Davis’ last group for four years, which was a return of sorts to the aesthetics of the early electric period albeit with stylistic changes (Davis famously feared sounding “behind the times”). He has great insight into the aesthetics of the music, so perhaps I can try to delve into that in relation to cinema in one my next blogs..

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