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Collective intentionality and the further challenge of collective free improvisation

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The kind of collective improvisation attained by free jazz at the beginning of the sixties appears interesting from the perspective of contemporary debates on collective intentionality for several reasons. The most notable of these, is that it holds a mirror up to what analytical philosophers of action identify as “the complexly interwoven sets of collective intentions” that make a group more than the sum of its parts. But at the same time, free jazz poses a challenge to these philosophical theories of collective intentionality, because what happens is not planned in advance but arises from spontaneous interactions in the group. The second and no less decisive reason is that jazz musicians act together in a very distinctive way, which casts into clear relief the interplay between togetherness and agonism, individual freedom and group commitment, which is contained in every human interaction. In other words, in free jazz we find what Hannah Arendt calls the “paradoxical” or “twofold” character of “human plurality.” Starting with the analysis of two paradigmatic case studies—Charles Mingus’s Folk Forms No. 1 and Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation—my main concern in this paper is to provide a phenomenological account of the individual-yet-plural intentionality that emerges and runs through the improvisatory process in the free jazz case. After having made the negative point that this phenomenon represents a challenge to the analytical theories of collective intentionality, I shall argue that it can be accounted for from a phenomenological perspective. My basic thesis is that the overall cohesiveness of the improvisatory process must be regarded as a meaningful realization of an overall feeling, shared and shaped together by musicians over time—and not as the execution of an advanced plan.

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  1. Around 1960 when free jazz appeared, the evolution of jazz took a sudden turn. This article is concerned with these developments, and specifically with the development of collective improvisation in free jazz. In this turn, the main novelty lies in the emancipation from traditional jazz laws and conventions as well as from the general framework which had established itself soon after the birth of jazz as a more or less incontestable norm. This framework consisted of a code of agreements—related to theme, chordal and time patterns, chorus lengths, and rhythmic and harmonic structures — which made up the basis of improvisation.

  2. Hagberg (2016, p. 484).

  3. I have started to develop the critical argument by drawing on the paradigmatic case of Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz. A Collective Improvisation in a previous article entitled “A frame of analysis for collective free improvisation on the bridge between Husserl’s phenomenology of time and some recent readings of the predictive coding model,” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 2019. Here I wish to focus on the conditions of emergence of an individual-yet-plural collective intentionality. My main concern in this paper is to provide a phenomenological account of the interplay between togetherness and agonism, individual freedom and group commitment that free jazz reveals so clearly and to propose an alternative model for group interaction, drawing on the phenomenological tradition.

  4. According to an expression that intentionally echoes intentionally the title of a book by Adriana Cavarero, For More than One Voice. Toward a Philosophy of Vocal Expression (2005).

  5. Barthes (1975 p. 20).

  6. According to an expression introduced by Ornette Coleman (1959).

  7. Coleman (1959).

  8. Coleman (1959).

  9. The musical analysis in this section is based mainly on a book by Jost (1994). And particularly on chapters 2: “Charles Mingus” and 3: “Ornette Coleman.”

  10. The musical piece entitled Folk Forms No. 1 was first recorded live at the Antibes Jazz Festival on July 13, 1960 and later recorded in studio on October 20, 1960. Consequently, there are two slightly different versions of the same musical piece: the first one (from the concert) is included in the album entitled Mingus at Antibes, and the second one recorded in the studio in October 1960 and released in 1961 is included in the album entitled Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus.

  11. Jost (1994, p. 35).

  12. The musical piece entitled Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation was recorded in December 1960 in the studio of Atlantic Records and released in 1961. It presents strong similarities but also important differences in relation to Folk Forms No.1.

  13. Jost (1994, p. 59).

  14. Jost (1994, p. 60).

  15. Jost (1994, p. 61).

  16. Charles Mingus (a bassist and composer) is regarded as a pioneer of free jazz, whose most significant achievements are his approach to collective improvisation, and his treatment of form and tempo. This comes about not so much by departing from prevailing bar patterns, but by breaking away from the conventional formula of “theme – improvisation – theme.” See Jost (1994, pp. 35–44).

  17. Jost (1994, pp. 42-43).

  18. Jost (1994, p. 43).

  19. Jost (1994, p. 43).

  20. Quoted by Jost (1994, p. 43).

  21. Jost (1994, p. 43).

  22. Jost (1994, p. 40).

  23. Jost (1994, p. 40).

  24. Coleman (1959).

  25. Coleman (1959).

  26. For a more detailed overview of contemporary approaches to collective intentionality, the so-called “Big Four of collective intentionality” see the excellent article by Tollefsen (2002 pp. 25-50), also published online at the following address: Accessed 07 October 2019. See also Preston (2013 pp. 74-89).

  27. Hagberg (2016, p. 481).

  28. Gilbert (1989; 1996; 2003; 1990, pp. 1–14).

  29. Bratman (2009, pp. 42–59).

  30. Bratman (1999, pp. 130–141).

  31. For a more recent synthesis of the building blocks of shared intentions and shared cooperative action, see Bratman (2014, pp. 151–157).

  32. Bratman (1999, p. 43). This point has been clearly made and discussed by Preston (2013) in chapter 2 entitled “Taking Improvisation Seriously.”

  33. The only “plan” agreed upon in advance among musicians is to play together for a certain duration of time.

  34. Quoted by Jost (1994, p. 43) from Hentoff (1960).

  35. Coleman (1959).

  36. Coleman (1959).

  37. Jost (1994, p. 38); Hentoff (1961, p. 166): “I play them the ‘framework’ on the piano so that they are all familiar with my interpretation and feeling […] Each man’s particular style is taken into consideration.”

  38. It should be stressed that this kind of framework – usually played on the piano – is different from a head arrangement, such as those used in a jam session or at informal recording sessions, where the order of solos, riffs, endings, etc. is given. Here what is given is closer to a musical and emotional atmosphere.

  39. Berliner (1994, pp. 150–51).

  40. Berliner (1994, p. 68).

  41. Jost (1994, p. 38).

  42. Quoted by Hentoff (1961).

  43. The term “motivic chain associations” could evoke the “semantic relations” that Bratman mention explicitly in his work. However, in spite of this linguistic similarity, there is a clear and substantial difference between these two notions. Indeed, as Bratman conceives them, semantic interconnections are relations between intentions in that the content of my intention refers to the role of your intention, and vice versa. In his own terms, “it is part of what each intends that the other’s intention be realized in the right way, according to the rational pressure specified in the plan we are pursuing together.” See for instance, Bratman (1999, p. 48).

  44. Jost (1994, p. 50).

  45. There is an important distinction to be made between the motivic improvisation as worked out in modern jazz by Sonny Rollins who is the recognized father of this procedure and the motivic chain associations created by Coleman. As E. Jost clearly pointed out, “while Rollins derives his motivic material as a rule from the themes he uses, thus making recognition easier for his listener (the so-called “aha effect”), Coleman invents, as he goes along, motives independent of the theme. […].” Jost (1994, p. 50). In other words, while Sonny Rollins’ approach to motivic improvisation consists of simply extending and developing all the motifs that a given theme implies in such a way that the associations reveal many subtle relationships to the main theme, Coleman’s approach consists of developing and varying any motif or phrase which a player happens to hit upon in the course of his improvisation and which in itself could be unrelated to the head of the musical piece. As a result, it might create elements of surprise, crossing and contrasting ideas that run counter to expectations.

  46. There have been multiple applications of Husserl’s phenomenology of time and his notion of time-consciousness to music performance, including: Ed Sarath (1996, pp. 1-38); D. Clarke (2011, pp. 1–28); Montague (2011, pp. 29–46), among others. Moreover, some form of protention and retention seems to underlie the account of music, emotion and expectation present in Meyer (1956) and in Narmour (1990). However, none of these accounts have addressed the issue of how the Husserlian overall theoretical architecture—namely the co-constitutive interplay between backward-looking retention and forward-looking protention—can be transposed into a relational, transindividual framework in order to account for the collective dynamics that take place in parallel among players. Nor have they addressed/explored the links between this phenomenological perspective and some recent philosophical readings of the predictive coding model in order to make visible the dynamics of group synchronization at play not only in improvising ensembles but also in many everyday scenes of social interaction. One important motivation for the present endeavor lies precisely here: to analyze and make visible the nature and role of temporal affordances in these low-level, often unconscious, interactive mechanisms.

  47. Husserl (1964).

  48. For an in-depth and very clear analysis of this structure see Zahavi (2010, pp. 319–339).

  49. In this respect, as Derrida strongly emphasizes, there is a radical difference between retention and secondary memory or memory in the usual sense, in which there is the mediation of a recalled image. Derrida (2011).

  50. Husserl (1964, p. 106).

  51. Merleau-Ponty (2013, p. 484).

  52. Merleau-Ponty (2013, p. 488).

  53. Merleau-Ponty (2013, p. 486).

  54. As D. Zahavi clearly points out: “Rather than entailing metaphysical fusion, what Schutz has in mind here is the fact that our respective streams of consciousness in such situations are interlocked to such an extent that each of our respective experiences are colored by our mutual involvement,” Zahavi (2014, p. 245).


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This paper has received funding from the AIAS-COFUND II fellowship programme that is supported by the Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 (Grant agreement no 754513) and the Aarhus University Research Foundation.

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Correspondence to Lucia Angelino.

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Angelino, L. Collective intentionality and the further challenge of collective free improvisation. Cont Philos Rev 53, 49–65 (2020).

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