Pedro Blas González

Improvisation as Metaphor

Musicians often talk about there being no wrong notes, only notes that they do not intend to play. This is particularly true in jazz. At least in jazz, this serves as the impetus to structure improvisation.

If we pay attention to the vital energy displayed by improvisers, only then can we appreciate the freedom that music can convey. Said in a different way, improvisation requires vital intensity to flourish. I find it interesting that the “spaces” that inform the nature of the diatonic notes, also allow for the free exploration of what are considered “outside” notes.

Outside notes, which are essentially chromatic—from the Greek chroma, meaning intensity of color—are to the essence of philosophical reflection what improvisation is to jazz musicians. This spirited claim is not difficult to see if one operates from the inside of these two disciplines. It is worth remembering the saying that one can break the rules only when one knows them. Thus, it is not difficult to compare genuine philosophical vocation to musical improvisation.

The desire to improvise, either in philosophy or jazz, does not spring from a quest to break any rules. Instead, improvisation is the result of vocation and vision. When reflecting on vocation in music and philosophy, we ought not to lose sight that vocation serves as the impetus to create in the first place.

Postmodernism can be characterized as an age of incessant and pointless talk. In many respects, jazz musicians play at playing. This is equally true for philosophical vocation. Rather than joining the ranks of the chattering classes, philosophical vocation retracts itself. This is one way to keep philosophical reflection vital. Self-respect and integrity have a prize.

While musical terminology and technique have validity at an academic (not to say perhaps pedantic) level, music affects us at an emotional level, or not at all. Similarly, composing music takes place at an emotional level. What the composer sees in the mind’s eye or hears in the inner ear never becomes the topic of criticism, as this takes the volatile form of public scrutiny. The latter is particularly true in postmodernism; postmodern life is characterized by an excess of rhythm at the expense of lyricism.

Chromatic notes, those intruders from the outside, as they have been referred to, some critics have referenced as inflections of diatonic notes. This may be true in some respects, but is also an admission that music, much as life itself, is an open-ended enterprise that is embraced according to our capacity for individuality.

We cannot deny that there are objective structures that rule over human life. Birth, growth, and death are examples of pertinent truths that can never become theoretical. These structures help guide us through life. When we recognize objective structures and values, as Gabriel Marcel argues, we enable reason to capture the essence of objective truth. This is the function of reason. Improvisation in music is much the same. While improvisation attempts to create, or revamp musical structures, it cannot do so if it does not pay respect to existing structures. Structure serves as the foundation, the root, let us say, that allows us a starting point.

The musician brings to music a personal intensity and characteristic tone color that springs from vocation. Hence, the freedom of musicians to discard playing certain notes does not entail the rejection of structure. This is not a rejection of objectivity and structure.

Improvisation maintains a healthy and mutual respect for structure in music. This relationship is comparable to pilots who may push the performance envelope, but who understand the principles of flight and the capability of a given aircraft. It is not a cliché to say that we only break rules we know well, without painting ourselves into an indiscreet corner. This is a measure of prudence.

Chromaticism in jazz serves as a kind of cement that solidifies the entire range of the music played. When expressed in vital terms, chromaticism is a fundamental aspect of human experience. While chromaticism is a musical term, I do not intend to stretch its literal sense in these pages. Suffice it to say that chromaticism in music is like existential lyricism in personal life. When we strip life of this lyricism, we end up with mere biology, for imagination has much to contribute to the art of living. People compare impressions of life. This is one way to recognize objective structures. The word chromaticism should not intimidate us. It is used here as the catalyst to recognize broader truths. We can transcribe this word to allude to will, intuition, and vital energy. For too long, we have caked the essence of man with colossal, make-work layers of artificial ingredients that obfuscate essence.

Individual existence—what is essentially a lived sense for life—has from time immemorial ruled over differentiated existence. The self-reflecting person possesses an undeniable primacy over life, especially when the latter is felt in concrete, existential terms. Filling the objective spaces that affect our lives with existential meaning is the responsibility of self-respecting persons. This may even be considered as the purpose of human existence.

We guide ourselves by internal principles that—if we are lucky—dictate the rhythm, melody, and tempo of existence by giving each life an undeniable sense of differentiation. Much as we have tried, we cannot establish a science of man. What we possess is science that studies the human body.

Faced with what often appear to be disorganized and cacophonous experiences, we are called to provide a coherent score that conceives human existence as a unified whole. Self-aware, I spar with the world and the passage of time. Man can be defined as a biological being that is capable of self-knowledge. This is the purpose of reflection and understanding: service to life.

To untrained ears, the chromatic nuances of a piece of music may sound disagreeable or haphazard. Needless to say, this is not what the musician hears. Given that our sense for life is a form of existential improvisation, we realize that human existence is an open-ended affair. Lacking a manual for life, we guide ourselves by the objective structures available to us. Yet this is only the beginning of finding our way through human reality, for structure enables us to recognize interaction between objective reality and subjective existence.

Instruments are played by individuals and are incapable of making music. This sounds odd, even paradoxical. However, the sound of an instrument is colored by the essence of the musician. Instructors teach musical notation, melody, harmony, and keeping time. Hence, musical values. The last ingredient discovered is the musicianship of the student.

A Vital Sense for Life

Discovery of the vital structure of life is much the same as vocation for music. This comparison is not a stretch. What we measure in cultural and social-political terms is the interaction of man with objective reality. This essential condition is ignored by many sociologists today.

Postmodern man regards life as static, often as a series of disconnected experiences. These experiences, some people assume, come about randomly and are as quickly forgotten. This signals a form of impotence of the will for many people. But this is like saying that music composes itself or that musical notation is the equivalent of a score. What is missing here is imagination. We solo through life, improvising along the way as best as we are capable. Whether this is noticed depends on the capacity of those who surround us to achieve the same.

We cannot do away with structure and pretend that we are still improvising. Improvisation without structure is merely relativism. This is a condition that improvisers must accept. This is Thoreau’s notion of listening to the drummer within. The sense for life is an intuition that carries us through the essences that inform the objective world. Like musicians straining the limits of a given note, human existence is an example of existential improvisation par excellence.

The absence of sensibility to recognize qualitative nuance sinks man to the level of automata.

Neither solitary nor necessarily lonely, as individuals we are called upon to undertake a unique journey that can only be conveyed to others who possess the same sense for life. Some people fool themselves into believing that the creation of colossal social-political structures forge personhood.

Postmodern life is replete with examples that negate the sense for life. Some of these are tragic, others merely comical. Either way, this negation clouds our view of the objective structures that underpin human reality.

Take, for instance, the rhythm of contemporary life. In some respects, man has never been freer than today. I suppose we can compare the rhythm of human life—what Ortega y Gasset called “the height of the times”—with the degree of danger found in an animal’s environment. The force of this comparison is maintained as an analogous metaphor. While the animal encounters mortal danger, we cannot easily verify that danger is ever internalized as existential concern.

The rhythm and speed at which differentiated life moves can be adjusted depending on individual temperament. Perhaps it is the vacuous values that dictate postmodern man’s temperament that is the culprit of the speed at which life moves today. Without getting into unnecessary sociological wrangling, we can verify that man’s temperament embraces the rhythm of life it is best suited for.

We talk about man’s flexible nature, our resilience, and our ability to deal with difficulties. If we accept this as a fair characterization of man, then we should have little difficulty embracing the reality of primal freedom. A flexible being is also a free being.

However, primal freedom must take into account life as strife. The first principle of existential freedom is that freedom is actually quite costly. While freedom rings loud in popular parlance, a closer look at this basic human quality is not what it appears. Freedom is paradoxical because it enables us to recognize human limitation.

One cannot be free and ignore the inherent difficulties involved in this central aspect of human existence. The greater level of engagement one has with oneself—in the form of self-knowledge—the greater will be our sense for life.

When we connect the rhythm of life to primal freedom, we discover that our understanding of rhythm is two-fold. There is the rhythm of life that is the natural condition of man in the universe: We are born, we live, and our realization that all things naturally move into their dissolution. Physicists refer to this as the law of entropy. This natural rhythm is what best resembles the animal world. At an atomic, vegetative, or unconscious level, this rhythm underlies the processes that inform material reality.

When we fail to recognize the inherent difference between self-aware beings and others that are merely conscious, we end up by muddling the purpose and essence of self-knowledge. Because ours is an age bent on epistemological destruction through radical skepticism, we have devised clever ways to reduce human existence to biology. This is a paradox, because we are willing to dismiss the existential capability that fuels epistemology, in the first place. Postmodern man has substituted axiological reality with epistemological arrogance.

The way that life unfolds for man displays a profound correlation to our ability to perceive the nature of human reality. Let us take into consideration that man’s capacity for self-awareness dislodges man existentially from his material surroundings. We are also capable of converting our lived understanding of passing time into an account of personal mortality. Because of this realization, we are free to choose how best to utilize time, though we cannot adequately describes the existential process by which man comes to the realization of himself as a cosmic being in time

Today, we are in dire danger of losing ourselves existentially, the result of leveling human existence to social-political categories. If we have learned anything from the twentieth century, it is that politicization destroys man’s capacity for self-reflection. Postmodernity’s undermining of human ambition and man’s need for fulfillment has created a dangerous inversion, whereby those who are capable and willing to engage their lives existentially—this includes morally and spiritually—are marginalized by the mongers of radical politicization. This is the aegis of a dysfunctional relativism that proclaims the death of the hierarchy of values. This social experiment ends by destroying civil society.

It is true that people live life in many forms. However, many dominant forms of postmodern life are a self-serving negation of man’s capacity for truth. It is less strenuous to engage the external world than to cultivate and nurture our capacity for self-knowledge. The latter carries little chic appeal today.

Postmodern man’s predicament is paradoxical. Man has the ability for self-reflection, while destroying objective structures that can guide us in this search. This is a question of authenticity. While this topic has been addressed formidably by Heidegger, Ortega y Gasset, Lavelle, and Marcel, to name a few, this vital aspect of human existence must be appropriated by subsequent generations. Today, we embrace forms of lives that take boisterous pride in being disingenuous and inauthentic. This demonstrates how far the pendulum has shifted in postmodern man’s acceptance of nihilism. 

Pedro Blas González is a professor of philosophy at Barry University.