Fragment of a Theory of Musical Improvisation

Philosopher Gareth Evans (1946 – 1980), obviously a man of the 1970s 😉

The following reflections were inspired by José Bermúdez‘ and Arnon Cahen’s article Nonconceptual Mental Content for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Version 2015-08-07. That’s why I’m writing in English here. The idea of „Nonconceptual Mental Content“ was brought up in the 1970s by the largely unknown British philosopher Gareth Evans, who died in 1980 at the age of 34. He also remarkably discussed the impossibility of „ontological vagueness“.

Improvising music is a conscious outlet of states of mind that are nonconceptual. This is not to confuse with „unconscious“ contents of mind that „want to be“ expressed or „are looking for“ expression, like psychodynamic or psychoanalytic models would name it.

All one can express in a musical improvisation is based on past and processed perceptions of the mind. But these varied perceptions were experienced completely independent of „having“ any concept for them. They were qualia, „individual instances of subjective, conscious experience.“ (Wikipedia). So – for me – qualia are the universal basis of musical improvisation, hence for my compositions.

Qualia are neither simple nor complex, they can’t be quantized. But they are also not mystic or metaphysical or a hint to some otherwordly entity. They just occur or emerge when a contingent embodied mind (mine e. g.) sees / feels / hears / tastes / smells etc. something that he believes to be not a part of his own system (a thought is not a quale).

Nonconceptualists argue that, while propositional attitudes represent the world in digital form, perceptual states represent the world in analog form. If this and the above said is true, producing a piano improvisation is literally a process of „qualia digitalization“.

Fragment of a Theory of Musical Improvisation

4 Gedanken zu “Fragment of a Theory of Musical Improvisation

  1. Gerhard schreibt:

    First of all: Why is such a thing like „Nonconceptual Mental Content“ called a new idea? I mean this can hardly be called a new way of looking at mental processes.
    Secondly: What is meant by „He also remarkably discussed the impossibility of „ontological vagueness“. I mean these are not substantial questions here because you reflect on something different. But why stating this?

    „Something that he believes to be not a part of his own system“
    Again, what exactly is meant by this? I have a clue, but just would like to hear it from you.

    The last sentence is also mysterious to me. Maybe to others too?

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  2. Interesting, but I immediately find some problems for me:

    You don’t need qualia for perception-memories. That is kind of the thing Google DeepDream Algorithms do, they collect perceptions as input and reproduce it. I am still of the opinion that creativity isn’t a particularly „human“ thing to do – we already have some pretty good creative algorithms, and there will be much more happening in that field in the next decades.

    I’d say that the fact that we don’t perceive anything without a context is the reason why it get’s interesting – not qualia, but an endless stream of related concepts – like how a single word in a language can be viewed as connected to all other words by having been used together.

    Maybe I misunderstood your idea. I don’t have the time right now to read up on nonconceptual mental content… maybe later.

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  3. @knopfspiel: Thanks for your input, I appreciate it very much. The project of a philosophical theory of musical improvisation is indeed immensely challenging, but I think it’s worth the effort. Right now, I am just collecting thoughts and material und I don’t yet know exactly in which direction this will go.

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