Are John Coltrane’s out versions of “My Favorite Things” valid representations of the original Rodgers and Hammerstein song from The Sound of Music? What are the similarities and differences between fully scored and freely improvised music? More generally, how best conceive of musical works vis à vis musical performances, and why are these concepts important to pin down and modernize, in terms of the political, legal, and ethical consequences arising from how they are defined?
Eric Lewis is a professor of philosophy at McGill University who also plays improvised music. In Intents & Purposes he investigates the nature of musical works, revealing the complex and sometimes troublesome undercurrents underlying this seemingly straightforward concept. Lewis critically examines and, when necessary, adjusts, combines, and extends previous thought in the field in order to derive an ontology of music that resolves issues caused by older conceptions.
Following its introduction, the book proceeds through a series of case studies. Chapter 1 reviews the copyright case of James Newton versus the Beastie Boys, who sampled from Newton’s “Choir” in their song “Pass the Mic.” Lewis discusses how the court decision in favour of the Beastie Boys rested heavily on the notated score, thus omitting crucial non-notated aspects of the work that were embedded in the sample. Lewis argues that a different definition more sensitive to the traditions within which Newton works may have led to a different decision, and suggests ways to reform future copyright law.
Chapter 2 compares improvised and scored works, contrasting performer intentions behind each of these paradigms. For example, someone playing a score will concentrate mostly on their part, while an improvising musician needs to react to other players to a higher degree. The discussion is further informed by the role played by an improvising computer algorithm such as George Lewis’s Voyager system. Computers may not have intentions, but their output can be construed as if they had intentions, similarly to how one imagines the intentions of fictional characters.
Chapters 3 and 4 form a set, investigating how largely improvised works can be approached. Focusing on differences between Western art music (emphasizing the score) and Afrological (emphasizing performance) traditions, Lewis shows how the latter suggests that works are never completed but rather evolve over time. Paris recordings from 1969 by artists such as Jeanne Lee and the Art Ensemble of Chicago are analyzed in detail. The deliberate mixing of genres to escape easy labelling also leads to aesthetic thickening, wherein a work is viewable from several angles, thus increasing overall appreciation. The musicians’ motivations are tied to feminist issues and racial discrimination.
Chapter 5 turns to the idea of representation of a work. In it Lewis notes that improvised music represents a work in a manner that did not previously exist, which is different from a performance of a scored work that already exists. It returns to Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things,” which can be viewed as paraphrasing and extending the original work, thus remaining a valid representation.
The above summary merely hints at the depth of this highly original and thought-provoking book. Ideas accumulate rapidly, and one concludes, following the logic employed, that an ontology of music must include history and culture, not just sound. From there, one discovers how this can simultaneously resolve conundrums within the philosophy of music while addressing more practical problems.