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Kind of Blue Picture
Why Wright Gets Improvisation Wrong

Part Three

There are several reasons why Wright's improvisation metaphor fails. First, he is remarkably ignorant about improvisation, in at least three respects.

1) He assumes that he and musicians just 'know' what improvisation is. He writes: "As musicians know, improvisation does not at all mean a free-for-all where 'anything goes', but precisely a disciplined and careful listening to all the other voices around us, and a constant attention to the themes, rhythms and harmonies of the complete performance so far, the performance which we are now called to continue" (Scripture and the Authority of God, 127). When Wright published the article (1991) on which his later writing is based, many musicians knew precious little about improvisation. So "as musicians know" was simply incorrect, since many musicians didn't know and often still don't. Perhaps we could amend that to read "as precious few musicians know." Much of my published work has been designed to help people understand improvisation. Considering how many requests I still receive to contribute chapters and articles on the subject, improvisation continues to be studied.

2) Due to his ignorance, Wright provides a conception of improvisation that is incoherent. He is right about listening to all of the other voices, but that quotation from him continues with "at the same time, of course, it invites us, while being fully obedient to the music so far, and fully attentive to the voice around us, to expressionss, provide that will eventualy lead to the ultimate resolution which appears in the New Testament as the goal." This is a classic example of something that sounds lovely--until you look at it more closely. We are supposed to be listening to all the voices and to be 'fully obedient' to the 'ultimate resolution' as found in the New Testament. How is this supposed to work? What if not all of the voices are singing the same tune or are not fully in harmony? Wright does not provide an explicit way of adjudicating such disagreement, except by the vague ideal of the goal of the New Testament. What exactly is this goal? My worry is that here Wright has 'written' his particular part for the musical improvisation, which is that of telling us what that goal is. One cannot help but hear N.T. Wright trying to be the 'voice' of Paul and trying deperately to drown out all of the other voices. When Wright says he wants 'debte', that is correct. Unfortunately, debate is about spectacle, rhetorical tricks, and disingenuity. Argument is something different. Wright chooses debate over argument.

3) Wright has also used the improvisational idea of experienced Shakespearean actors being provided with the script of a play by Shakespeare that is missing the final act. They are called upon to 'faithfully' create that act. But it doesn't take much knowledge of the history of Shakespearean performance of plays that are fully written to realize that those performances vary remarkably. I believe that Wright is right to say that such actors could well improvise a final act. But he seriously underestimates the sheer scope for variation.

A second basic problem is that Wright wants to choose which aspects of improvisation he likes and ignore the rest--something related to ignorance. Establishing what counts as 'fidelity' is remarkably more complicated than it initially sounds. Given what we know about the different ways of defining 'fidelity' to texts that can be found in the history of performance practice of, say, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion or plays of Shakespeare, it is hardly surprising that the definition of 'fidelity' to biblical texts has been construed in various ways over the past two millennia. One can be 'true' to the letter or the spirit of a text. Sometimes they are one and the same, but often choosing letter or spirit is simply a choice, one that may have an exegetical basis but nothing like 'proof'. As I have argued elsewhere, disagreements between those in the 'authenticity movement' and 'mainstream performers have been precisely about the true meaning of fidelity. The problem here is that questions of fidelity can only be answered from within the interpretive community.

I have already written what I view as a rebuke to Wright. Since I was at that time still under the wary gaze of the Evangelical Magisterium, I couldn't put it quite as bluntly as that. Still, my chapter titled "Improvising Texts, Improvising Communities": Jazz, Interpretation, Heterophony, and the Ekklêsia" is designed as a way to subvert Wright's view. I do so by insisting on 'heterophony'. Given that jazz is the fusion of African and European musical traditions, it both accepts and subverts musical conventions. Jazz tends to negate precisely the regularity sought in European music—such aspects as steady pitch, timbre, vibrato, and directness of attack. More important for our concern here, jazz operates musically by way of alterity or heteronomy. Multiple voices in jazz do not necessarily produce a 'polyphony' based on harmonious counterpoint but a 'heterophony'. Although the ancient Greek term 'heterophônia' literally meant the simultaneous performance of differing versions of a melody, in jazz heterophony is used more loosely to describe differing voices, dissonance, cross-rhythms, and multiple versions of melodies.

In jazz, the result is that the very parameters of what counts as a 'faithful' improvsiation have themselves been altered and are constantly being improvised. The kinds of chords I regularly play--that include flat 5s, sharp 11s, 13s, and so much more--go far beyond anything Mozart could have conceived of as 'harmonious'. Wright is, I think, working with a notion of polyphony and he is attempting to be 'open' about its possibilities. But music advances harmonically when we start to hear notes that were once simply 'wrong' as creating new harmonic possibilities. Dixieland jazz is about as close as we get to 'original' jazz (since no one really knows what 'original' jazz sounded like, we can't be sure), but it's really boring. However, jazz gloriously develops over the twentieth-century to include swing, bebop, cool, free, fusion, and many things that don't really have a proper name. A very important aspect of that development involves African-Americans who have used jazz to protest and subvert 'values' that privilege white people socially, economically, religiously, and culturally.

Although Wright has only responded to the voices of LGBTQ+ Christians sporadically, when he does he tends toward the tactic of debate rather than argument. Let me conclude by focusing on two points he makes that seem highly problematic, both in themselves and when put together. On the one hand, he claims that marriage has always been (as in 'everywhere and at all times') heterosexual in nature. The convenience of such a claim should be clear: no one can argue otherwise, since no one knows what all cultures have thought of 'marriage' (or even whether all cultures have had this concept, which is dubious). On the other hand, Wright claims that Paul was remarkably astute regarding sexual relationships and understood all of the possible permutations thereof. Does that mean that Paul would have been able to envision gay marriage? If marriage has always been only conceivable heterosexually, then Paul would not have been able to conceive of same-sex marriage. Which means he cannot be seen as addressing it anywhere in his writings. Or else Paul could have conceived of such marriage, in which case his writings could be read (though not necessarily) as addressing it. But that puts the universal conception of marriage as being by definition heterosexual in question. As I say, both of these claims are highly problematic and unsubstantiated simply in themselves. However, there seems to be no way of putting them together.

As Ira Gershwin memorably puts it, "something's gotta give."

3 Comment(s):
Joshua M said...
Brilliant - thanks a lot!
May 19, 2020 10:22:34
BEB said...
Hey Joshua M, In response to your request, I'm posting a part of that chapter. It provides an account of what I mean by heterophony in both jazz and Christian contexts.
May 19, 2020 03:41:32
Joshua M said...
Hi Professor Benson I found this series of posts really interesting. Could you please elaborate a bit on what you think 'heterophony' is, and how it can be used in interpreting texts? [I've added the book with your chapter in it to my reading list, but I thought I would ask here anyway!] Best wishes, Joshua
May 15, 2020 12:45:43
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