Nicholas Swan, “The Natural Merits of Post-WWII Bebop”

For his final project, Nick wrote this thoughtful essay debating the merits of whether Jazz could be considered a “naturalist” art form, especially in contrast to various avant-garde movements of the 1950s and 60s which glommed onto “Nature” as an organizing principle.

Featured first is a “musique concrete”-style composition Nick made earlier in the course, called “Rhythm is Relative,” along with its program notes, followed by Nick’s essay.

While this composition was in its purely conceptual infancy, I had the grand, eloquent idea that its primary exploration would consider the inherent musicality lost in the world’s transition from primitive, analog technology to digital machines. Indeed, of all fifteen sounds I recorded, two resonated in my brain the most often; the clicking of a pen, which I recorded with the condenser microphone, and the internal electric feedback of my iPhone, which I recorded with the contact microphone. The click of the pen was vibrant, crisp, inherently rhythmic. For each click of the pen, there is a quick, equally powerful response. This pattern does not change. Meanwhile, electrical feedback from the phone constitutes a dull, randomized drone with no clearly discernible pattern or rhythmic motif.

However, when I first began to compose this piece in Reaper, my original plan was soon complicated. The first recording I chose to experiment with was the sound of water rushing around a plastic bottle. This seemingly acoustic, non-digital sound was entirely random and possessed no clear rhythmic patterns. Thus, my compositional statement seemed inaccurate and in need of some type of nuance. The electrical drone from the iPhone is still rather non-musical and randomized – this sound can be heard at the end of the composition. Furthermore, the pen clicks, as well as the flicking of a Bic lighter, proved to be crisp and musical, as I imagined. Ironically, after altering the speeds of these two sounds, they began to resemble synthesized, electronic impulses (imagine the beginning of “Blue Monday” by New Order). One newer, more digital sound, that of a dial tone from my iPhone, was also able to be manipulated musically. Furthermore, this specific sound lent itself rather well to pitch manipulation, another prominent element of music. It is also important to note that I played the master track through my impulse response filter. I recorded my impulse response in a small, bright classroom in Goldwin Smith Hall. The reverb it created was rather loud and so this filter in the composition has been used at mild and slight settings, creating a “background” layer of noise.

Upon completing my composition, I think its ultimate statement is that some sounds are more inherently musical – in a traditional sense of that word – than are others. By the practices of musique concrète, many mundane sounds can be stripped of their source and made an object merely through the act of recording and playback. In composing this piece, I learned that the amount of work and manipulation required to render such sounds as musical objects is entirely relative and independent of the original sound’s source – whether acoustic or electronic. Therefore, I titled this composition “Rhythm is Relative,” as a subtle reference to this phenomenon of musique concrète.  

The Natural Merits of Post-WWII Bebop

In the later twentieth century, New York City was not the gentrified and electronic caricature of itself that is now, but rather an ecosystem, a literal concrete jungle, the fermented result of the preceding tumult that occurred closer to the middle of the century. Photographs from this time detail rustic street scenes from Harlem down to the Lower East Side, and of course, the glimmering, seemingly gilded facade of the downtown Manhattan financial district (Cave 2015). Yet, underneath this top aesthetic layer, life teemed, diverse and varied in culture, function, and demographics. Individuals interacted with each other, conversed about family and community happenings, or even politics – maybe the unpredictable actions and policies of the Koch and Carter Administrations. Many neighborhoods, particularly those ones primarily comprising minority households, seemed to have developed their own unique affects and methods of going about life under predominantly caucasian governance. It was a robust setting where one could be overcome in the wake of all of this external stimuli and intensity.

Just as the city possessed a vibrant and sensitive essence underneath a guise of stoic ruggedness, so too did the two musicians who met there, Miles Davis and Karlheinz Stockhausen, in June of 1980 (Bergstein 1992, 502). The Columbia Records recording studio where they convened metaphorically embodied a type of battleground, or at least a deserted spaghetti-western street with a rolling tumbleweed, as these two artists from seemingly opposite backgrounds interacted with each other personally for the first time in their careers (Bergstein 1992, 502). Of course, despite their differing qualifications – one being a prolific African-American jazz artist, one a renowned German avant-garde composer – both Davis and Stockhausen were aware of each other’s work, and there almost certainly existed a mutual inspiration between the artists throughout the 1970s when both composers entered the realm of electronica which defined that decade (Bergstein 1992, 502-503). The similarities do extend back earlier into the twentieth century, such as when both individuals looked to worldly eastern rhythms, like those from India and northern Africa, to incorporate into their own compositions during the 1950s and 1960s (Bergstein 1992, 505-506).

Material from their rendezvous in the Columbia studios was never released, but if it indeed exists, it likely makes aural sense to those who listen. Ultimately, these two composers were rather similar, in their career progressions but especially in their overall intents: two artists, donning affects mysterious to most, who were trying to embody in their music something, some greater idea, but never satisfying this aesthetic desire in full, tangible form. This higher process was, in its broadest sense, nature. As the avant-garde composers of the post-WWII era sought to embody natural processes in their musical works, so too did the African-American jazz musicians of this time, albeit in an altered way due to their subjugated place in societies within the United States.


Following the surreal strife and destruction of World War II, artists sought to develop new modes of approaching their respective crafts that would challenge or erase antebellum creative norms and practices. For western composers, this included a rejection of many significant aspects of tonal systems that were developed in Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The world had just witnessed Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Third Reich appropriate the music of various German composers, perhaps most notably that of Richard Wagner, as an object of vicious nationalism (Sheffi 2013, 36). Despite the war’s victorious outcome for allied nations, the growing influence of and tension between superpower nations like the United States, Soviet Union, and China elicited a type of “Cold War nuclear anxiety,” as Robert Fallon states in his article about European composer Olivier Messiaen (Fallon 2009, 177). Thus, composers still wished to avoid ideas that might inspire any nationalistic connotations.

Around this time in the early 1950s, a school of musical thought developed which has since been categorized as “Eurological,” by George Lewis in his article “Improvised Music after 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives” (Lewis 1996, 93). Many western musical figures –now deemed composers of the avant-garde tradition – in various academic circles began to look for more universal motifs on which to base their creative works, most notably in found “natural” processes (Rogalsky 2010, 133). Such methods were considered as being separate from any Dionysian, romantic feelings of the human imagination and were therefore safe to use. The notable composers of this time, including John Cage, David Tudor, and even Karlheinz Stockhausen, all asserted “quite different” conceptualizations of nature and how to embody it in their music (Rogalsky 2010, 134). Nevertheless, there are two primary commonalities that exist between the various ideas of nature. The first similarity is that all of these conceptualizations of nature assert a degree of “chance,” or indeterminacy in performance; that is, while the composer may predetermine certain confines or perimeters, the actual texture or progression of the piece will be realized in real time (Lewis 1996, 97). Cage’s (in)famous 4’33’’ or Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge serve as apt examples of this methodological phenomenon. The confines are predetermined – a “silent” score, or a resonating electronic tones – but the ultimate sonorities are left to be realized in the performative moment.

The other common element between these embodiments of nature is their assertion of a “great schism between humans and nonhumans,” as Benjamin Piekut discusses in his criticism of Cage’s compositional processes (Piekut 2013, 138). All of these avant-garde composers assumed a Modernist viewpoint, grounded in the beliefs of seventeenth century European philosophers that nature is “indifferent” and contains absolute truths and functions, regardless of one’s setting of observation (Piekut 2013, 138). Essentially, to these composers like Cage or Tudor or Lucier, nature is all that is not human – an ontological other – or in compositional terms, sounds for their own sake.

If the above musical developments belong to Lewis’ Eurological school of musical thought, then the Afrological mode of chance or improvisational process began to embody itself in American jazz music, namely through a “bebop movement” created by black musicians like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis (Lewis 1996, 94). The genre draws influence from a number of origins, but it mostly developed in New York City around predominantly black neighborhoods in Manhattan (Owens 1996, 11). Bebop jazz typically takes an existing melody and harmonic progression, or “head,” and manipulates it in eccentric ways, often rendering these chord progressions much more complex and varied than they previously were (Lewis 1996, 94). These complex progressions can be discerned on bebop tunes like Clifford Brown’s rendition of “Cherokee,” or “Ornithology” by Charlie Parker. It is over these progressions that jazz musicians improvise, playing solos that move with a language similar to the complex ways by which the original harmony moves. Lewis mentions that the Afrological experimental tradition was promulgated by black musicians who generally “lacked access to economic and political resources often taken for granted in high-culture musical circles” such as those of the predominantly white avant-garde communities (Lewis 1996, 92).

The Eurological compositional practice has a stated history of invalidating the merits of Afrological jazz music, in the processing creating an image of jazz as an “epistemological other” (Lewis 1996, 103). John Cage once wrote that the jazz “per se derives from serious music. And when serious music derives from it, the situation becomes rather silly” (Cage 1961, 72). Jazz music of this era is often criticized by Eurological avant-garde composers on the legitimacy of its improvisation; does jazz allow for truly indeterminate performative occurrences, or is it too grounded in the conventions of western tonal theory to be truly spontaneous and unpredictable? Eurological composers view jazz improvisation merely “as an invitation to fall back on habits and conventions” (Rogalsky 2010, 134). While jazz musicians certainly go through different and seemingly less avant-garde processes than do Eurological composers, musicologists defending the Afrological tradition, such as George Lewis, assert the importance of the analytical level used in studying jazz improvisation (Lewis 1996, 108). “Individual passages” of one musician’s solo are directed to a known end, but an improvisation “taken as a whole…maintains its character as unique and spontaneous” (Lewis 1996, 108). Indeed, in listening to a jazz artist perform the same song multiple times, a unique object will always be produced, as small variations in elements like affect, improvisational motif, rhythm, or tempo arise.

This defense of jazz and focus on its improvisatory aspects to prove its spontaneity inadequately addresses the larger issue at stake, that being embodied nature. Afrological music of this time does indeed embody nature just as much as does its Eurological counterpart; in order to prove this point, the concept of nature must again be deconstructed. Returning to Piekut’s criticism, he asserts that, despite these Eurological composers’ belief in the existence of an absolute nature, it is generally not possible to embody, or even observe, the “originary moment” of these natural processes (Piekut 2013, 148). The act of embodying a supposedly natural process in a piece of art or music necessarily renders the process unnatural, as some arbitrary aesthetic decisions must always be made as the process is sonically mapped. Most problematically, this Modernist conceptualization, in assuming one ontological state of nature and its processes, actually works to eliminate the presence of “multiple perspectives and belief systems” (Piekut 2013, 146). Must the boundaries of nature be so fixed and separated from human influence and culture? Katie Soper, in “Discourses of Nature,” states that in asserting a definition of nature “as that which is utterly unaffected by human dealings, we are thinking of a kind of being to which rather little on the planet in reality corresponds” (Soper 1995, 18). Soper provides a lengthy discussion of “human nature,” which generally includes the ability to engage in rational and moral thought (Soper 1995, 26). As humans are “naturally” endowed with this ability, surely human culture and social constructs are essentially products of nature, just as are plants, animals, and other objects more commonly associated with the natural.

Therefore, a more universal definition of nature might include any surrounding environment that can not be strongly influenced by one of its individual occupants. This is crucial to understanding natural embodiment present in post-WWII jazz music. In George Lewis’ article, he quotes Langston Hughes on the origin of bebop in the United States: “the police beating Negroes’ heads…that old club says, ‘BOP! BOP!’… ‘BE-BOP!… That’s where Be-Bop came from, beaten right out of some Negro’s head into them horns” (Lewis 1996, 95). This indeed is the nature in which African-American musicians composed during this time; they did not have access to the exclusive, academic thought processes of natural conceptualization. This quote is rather poignant; to what degree did the oppressed status of African-Americans in the mid-twentieth century affect the musical language by which bebop improvisation progressed? Bebop, as one genre of jazz, necessarily developed from the blues music of the late nineteenth and earlier twentieth century, the sonorities of which echoed notions of “slavery and political oppression” among the African-American diaspora (Murray 1976, 65). Indeed, Lewis describes bebop as possessing an attitude that challenged “the dominant culture” and “traditional notions of intra- and extra-musicality” (Lewis 1996, 95). The bebop movement was a sociopolitical one, but the preceding quote about police violence suggests that even its musical sonorities were specifically affected by the composer’s environment as it existed under “dominant” white society in Jim Crow America and in urban areas similar to the one described in the beginning of this essay – their nature.

Many of bebop’s common musical elements suggest a compositional mindset plagued by extramusical strife or concern. A fine example of bebop jazz can be heard in Miles Davis’ performance of “Ah-Leu-Cha,” a 1948 Charlie Parker composition, at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. The most noticeable initial element is the extreme tempo of the piece and the percussion playing that carries this speed. The drummer strikes the snare drum very loudly on odd, syncopated upbeats – this strikingly resembles a type of physical infliction, such as a gunshot or a swinging club. There is the polyphonous melody played by the horn instruments, saxophone and trumpet, which taken as a whole is possessive of a chaotic connotation. These same saxophone and trumpet players take lengthy solos over a rather varied harmonic progression with chords that change frequently. Davis’ improvisation keeps up with the lightning tempo and uneven rhythmicity of the piece, and it contains many frantic runs that are at times diatonic but also chromatic or existing between established scales. The sonorous jabbing of “Ah-Leu-Cha” ends as quickly as it began, with no cadential resolution that satisfies the listener in any traditional sense.

During those June, 1980 recording sessions, Miles Davis and Karlheinz Stockhausen likely understood each other and the musical ideas they expressed. For most of their musical careers, both had attempted to embody nature in their work, albeit with differing conceptualizations and assumptions. Stockhausen, belonging to the predominantly white and academic “Eurological” school of musical development, composed with now controversial Modernist view of nature which asserted the existence of absolute natural processes. Davis, who composed in the predominantly black “Afrological” camp of bebop jazz embodied in his music the strife and turmoil of the oppressed life that African-Americans were forced to live in the mid-twentieth century. For many years, Eurological composers, perhaps most notably John Cage, attempted to invalidate the natural merits of jazz music and even question its degree of seriousness. This criticism is unfounded, as neither school is “more natural” than the other; it largely depends on the scope of the definition of “nature” that is assumed. The discovery of links between political oppression, art, and pertinent natural environments could be a subject of greater future inquiry.


Cave, James. 2015. “Here’s What New York City Looked Like in 1980.” The Huffington PostAugust 26. Accessed May 13, 2017. < 1980_us_55dc973be4b04ae4970485ca>.

Lewis, George E. 1996. “Improvised Music after 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives.” Black Music Research Journal 16. University of Illinois Press: Chicago. 91-123.

Murray, Albert. 1978 [1976]. “Blues Music as Such.” Stomping the Blues. Quartet Books: London. 55-76

Owens, Thomas. 1996. “Bebop: The Music and Its Players.” Cary, Oxford University Press (US). Accessed May 13, 2017. ProQuest ebrary.

Piekut, Benjamin. 2013. “Chance and Certainty: John Cage’s Politics of Nature.” Cultural Critique 84. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis. 134-163.

Rogalsky, Matthew. 2010. “’Nature’ as an Organising Principle: Approaches to chance and the natural in the work of John Cage, David Tudor and Alvin Lucier.” Organised Sound 15. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. 133-136.

Sheffi, Na’ama. 2013. Ring of Myths : The Israelis, Wagner and the Nazis. Brighton, US: Sussex Academic Press. Accessed May 13, 2017. ProQuest ebrary.

Soper, Kate. 1995. The Discourses of Nature from What is Nature?: Culture, Politics, and the Non-Human. Oxford: Blackwell.

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