Archive for June, 2009

Jazz & Psychoanalysis

June 17, 2009


I do not know which to prefer,

The beauty of inflections

Or the beauty of innuendoes,

The blackbird whistling

Or just after.

Wallace Stevens – ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’


I have dedicated this book to the two people who changed my life by the way they taught me literature at school and university; and who taught me more about psychoanalysis, without mentioning it, than many of my psychoanalytic teachers did by mentioning nothing else. By teaching me how to read they taught me how to listen.

Adam Phillips – Preface to ‘Promises Promises’


I became interested in psychoanalysis and seriously interested in jazz about the same time. Freud’s world view doesn’t really allow for anything more fatalistic than random coincidence, but the extent to which they have remained linked in my life has been, to coin a phrase, uncanny. I got a place to study for a Masters in Psychoanalytic Studies at UCL, but decided at the last minute not to take it up in order to pursue becoming a serious musician. Origins get talked about a lot in both jazz and psychoanalysis, and it interests me that my beginnings as a jazz musician were so contingent on the decision I made about psychoanalysis. Although eventually opting for jazz, I wonder if the impulse that drew me to both subjects was the same and that continuing with jazz was a way of continuing with psychoanalysis by doing something else, what psychoanalysts might call a displacement activity.

Both jazz and psychoanalysis are done by listening (and done badly by not listening) and both have at their heart an enduring paradox between material that is utterly recalcitrant to description and attempts to describe it in useful or inspiring ways. In psychoanalysis, the analyst attempts to describe the inchoate and unruly unconscious of the patient. In jazz, particularly in jazz education, we try to find ways of describing swing and improvisation, things by nature fleeting and ephemeral, either to get better at them ourselves or the better to talk about them with others. In both instances, we try to improve ourselves (or do things to ourselves that are thought to be improving), by trying to enter the heart, as it were, of the mystery, by trying to describe the indescribable. Freud’s perceptive comment that our unconsciouses are always in excess of our attempts to describe them, finds a lovely echo in Duke Ellington’s remark that, if you have to ask what swing is, you aren’t ever going to know. What both men are saying is that the attempt to describe the essentials of their respective arts is doomed to failure, that in doing so we are locked into a perpetual pursuance of that which is always receding, or, put simply, in a perpetual state of desire. Why then are both jazz education and psychoanalysis seen to be good things by so many people? (For activities that rest upon failure, they are both doing pretty well). Or, to ask a more interesting question, how, given the essential failure engendered in both psychoanalysis and jazz education, can we make the activities more useful for the people doing them?

What both Adam Phillips and Wallace Stevens are saying (amongst other things) in the above quotations is that a good way of reaching understanding is by describing or listening to that which is close to, but not quite, the thing. That somehow by describing the boundaries, opposites or effects of something, we might be able infer something about the thing itself. Metaphor is odd in being more explicit, more incisive, than its signified – a way of returning us to the original more vividly by not starting with the original. Realising that to get somewhere we might need to start somewhere else might be something we could do more often in jazz education. That trying too directly to describe what we want to know might mean that we end up knowing it less fully or, importantly, enjoyably. Even if we do end up with an adequate description, we may find it devoid of pleasure or resonance. Freud identified something both profound and obvious in showing us that our sexuality often depended on a lack of direct description, on, literally, innuendo, and that the point at which our sexuality broke down was when we tried too literally to describe to ourselves what we desired. That enjoyment depended on not pursuing enjoyment directly. Neurotic illness might seem a little farfetched as a comparison for the situation of the jazz student, but, to return to the question above, it might be interesting to compare psychoanalytic attempts to keep the enjoyment of sexuality open with jazz students’ and teachers’ attempts to keep the inspiration of their activity alive to themselves. Might we better start to inspire and develop ourselves as musicians when we acknowledge more fully that we are dealing with that which is essentially indescribable, but that finding ways of hinting at its edges might allow the mystery at the heart of the music more fully to influence, teach and inspire us? That trying to describe the music too far is, from a psychoanalytic point of view, hysterical. That there will be points in our playing, practising and listening where trying to describe what we desire or hear might make us worse at it (or it worse to us) and that either direct experience, or indirect words, is the best we might do.

I quoted Adam Phillip’s tribute to two of his teachers at the beginning of this post and would like to pay the same  to him here. Many of my ideas and passions about music (and other things) have been inspired by or modelled on his work. I am definitely a better musician and happier person because of his writing.