Imitation and Improvisation

I’ve been listening lately to the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s recording of “How High the Moon” from Jazz at Oberlin. Paradise, as Dante imagines it, is full of music—mostly, I think, because music is our best metaphor for the harmony across difference that David Bentley Hart, in The Beauty of the Infinite, calls the aesthetic of Christian truth. Hart considers Johann Sebastian Bach the greatest Christian theologian because of his genius for harmony.

Romare Bearden, "Stomp Time"
Romare Bearden, “Stomp Time”

Bach is one idea of the sound of heaven. But Brubeck gives me a better idea what it will be like to be part of it. On “How High the Moon,” Dave and his rhythm section start a familiar tune. Then Paul Desmond comes in on the sax, and it becomes something new and wonderful, yet still woven around the same song. And then it’s Dave’s turn, and he’s clearly moved by what he has heard from Paul—moved to compete, perhaps, but also to create. I’m not a musician, but I know both were classically trained, and it seems like you hear all of their classical training and all of their jazz chops coming together in two wildly transcendent, romping solos. And then they come together, and Paul is cool. They take each other in. They wind it together, knit it up, play it out, and we are all lucky it’s on a record (and on Youtube).

In heaven, I hope I’ll be like Dave and Paul, able to pick up one of the old songs and improvise like they do. Marilynne Robinson suggests, through her narrator in Gilead, that the events of this life will be the stuff of the epics sung in heaven. Yes, and we’ll all improvise the telling together in ways that forever bring out more and more meaning and wonder from the stories we lived and are living.

Robert O’Meally, director of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University, spoke at Hope College’s Arts & Humanities Symposium this semester about the aesthetics of collage in the art of Romare Bearden and its analogues in the music of Duke Ellington and the work of Toni Morrison. “We Are All Collages” was the title, and the aesthetic involves recognizing how we all have many layers and are many selves over time. Creating in this aesthetic leads to improvisational collaboration, receiving the work of others into myself and making something with it that becomes both theirs and mine—ours.

Romare Bearden, "The Train"
Romare Bearden, “The Train”

Looking at all of this from the standpoint of mimetic theory, it seems like improvisation is an extension of what René Girard (who died yesterday at 91) sees as the enormous and deep-seated capacity for imitation that is fundamental to being human. Good improvisation requires suspending or renouncing the unconscious imitation of acquisitive desires—the most basic sort of mimetic desire, shared with other animals and necessary for survival but also prone to rivalry and violence. Humans direct acquisitive mimesis toward intangibles like honor, fame, and the very being of the rival. You can’t improvise well if you are trying to one-up your partner.

One the other hand, good improvisation could be a remedy for acquisitive mimesis and rivalry. It holds out a different goal for imitation, choosing to receive from your partners and adding something of your own to offer back to a larger creative process. My colleague Matt Farmer, who teaches dance improvisation, calls this “Yes and….” Scott Cowdell, in my favorite talk from this summer’s meeting of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion, drew from Sam Wells’s excellent book Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics the idea of over-accepting as a technique for positive mimesis. Prior even to the tactics of good improvisation is a vision of shared, community-making activity—I was about to say work, but work in this vision becomes play.

Tolkien’s primary representation of positive, creative mimesis is his elves. They use their magic for what he calls enchantment rather than domination. What they imitate is not just each other but the whole created world, to which their lives are immortally tied. Their contemplative artistry says to the creating work of Iluvatar, “Yes and….” The movies of Tolkien’s works add to this the virtuoso improvisation of Legolas (and others) in battle. It’s too bad this is about killing—until one considers, as Rebecca Fox suggested to me, the movie-making artistry and collaboration behind these scenes.

Still, I like to place beside Tolkien’s vision of elvish artistry the improvisational enchantment of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, of Duke Ellington and his band, of Romare Bearden and the collaborators represented in his collages. It was wonderful to hear O’Meally humbly and masterfully sharing the riches of art he loves and the vision of community he finds in it, letting it inspire him as he spoke. He touched on a notion of improvisational listening (credited to his friend the composer George Lewis). This, I think I know, is what happens in good discussion and teaching about literature. What would it look like as a practice of literary criticism?


2 thoughts on “Imitation and Improvisation

  1. Phil DiCicco just popped into my office to say that this post made him think of Tolkien’s creation story, the “Ainulindalë.” There he uses the metaphor of music for harmony just as Dante does, but also makes room for improvisation. Iluvatar starts the music and then invites the Ainur to improvise with him in making the world of Arda. And there is an example of rivalrous improvisation when Melkor makes discord.


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