Trading fours: Creativity, analogy, and exchange



In commenting on Eitan Wilf's “Sociable robots, jazz music, and divination,” I consider contemporary practices of spontaneous algorithmic composition designed to help produce new, unpredictable, and “interesting” jazz music. I focus, in particular, on five themes that emerge in Wilf's article: emotion, grooves and grooving, routinization, affordances and constraints, and analogy as both cultural practice and theory-making strategy. I also draw on a comparison between the emergent compositional practices Wilf documents and ethnographic accounts of other improvisatory practices in jazz.

Here are deliberate extensions of the facility for making analogies that is central to cultural life anywhere. Indeed, what constitutes a natural or logical domain gives an image its cultural stamp. This is equally true in terms of combinations and syntheses—you can tell a culture by what it can and cannot bring together.

—Marilyn Strathern, Reproducing the Future

In “Sociable robots, jazz music, and divination,” Eitan Wilf provides us with innovative, surprising, and provocative ways of extending our own analogical ambit, for thinking through music, technology, institutional practice, and individual aspirations toward new perspectives on key tenets of social theory and the contemporary scene, both within and well beyond jazz. In this necessarily brief commentary, I borrow a generative strategy from jazz, improvising on several of Wilf's key motifs and suggesting some of their further resonances. A key practice in learning, performing, and improvising jazz is “trading fours,” an exchange in which participants “musically interact with one another by trading four-bar phrases” (Wilf this issue; see also Berliner 1994:111). “Trading fours” affords students the chance both to master repertoire—and those constituent phrases that constitute its building blocks—and to explore and develop improvisatory skills and strategies. For practicing musicians, such exchanges figure as invaluable opportunities for invention, commentary, and intense collaborative, if, at times, competitive, engagement. And for several of Wilf's interlocutors, musicians and scientists seeking new trading partners who can offer them more innovative and interesting ideas against and with which to play, “trading fours” is the nexus of both disappointment and aspiration.

If jazz performance can be thought of, as it is in the frequently used analogy, as a particularly intensive, generative, and aesthetically resonant kind of conversation, both musical and otherwise (cf. Monson 1996), “trading fours” plays a significant role in organizing performative interaction. A few points are worth noting: First, trading foregrounds the sociability of exchange here, its realization in ongoing and emergent social relations—and the importance of the value of what is being offered and reciprocated. Second, especially given the emphasis on creativity through spontaneous improvisation in jazz, unpredictability is central to judgments of value; at the same time, contributions need to be recognizable. Finding the “sweet spot” (Wilf this issue) is crucial and challenging. Third, such back and forth is not limited to a single exchange but usually continues through multiple iterations. And, finally, more than two foregrounded parties usually are in consequential play here; in Ingrid Monson's words, “soloists who can play, accompanists who can respond, and audiences who can hear” (1996:2) all figure significantly.

Wilf's article is a remarkable contribution in itself and a textured and thought-provoking part of his more comprehensive ethnographic exploration of contemporary jazz training and performance. Central to this project is his detailed account of postsecondary jazz education (Wilf 2010), a nexus of bodily discipline, routinization, improvisation, and the socialization of young jazz performers simultaneously into canon and creativity. More recent research reflected in both his current article and a forthcoming article on “algorithmic forms of sociality” (in press) focuses on a particularly interesting kind of response to what some see as the negative results of such socialization, that is, the perceived incapacity of younger musicians to convert their new musical ideas, if, indeed, they have them, into spontaneous and unpredictable practice. What strategies for producing “contingent but contextually meaningful outcomes” are possible, given “jazz's changing conditions of existence” (Wilf this issue)?

Wilf himself is trading fours with a diverse range of interlocutors here, among them, educators, musicians, and scientists central to his account and, explicitly or implicitly, a range of scholars bringing ethnographic sensibilities to bear on jazz (see, e.g., Berliner 1994, Keil and Feld 1994, and Monson 1996 on improvisation and performance and Black 2008 and Duranti and Burrell 2009 specifically on socialization practices). He also shapes an ongoing conversation between emergent forms of jazz practice and broader social theory, arguing that the contemporary compositional practices he documents constitute a telling instance of desiring less rather than more predictability. These broader exchanges raise very interesting questions about contingency and intentionality, at times in some detail, at times somewhat obliquely.

There are many motifs and several different case studies here deserving further exploration and response. My strategy is relatively modest. I focus primarily on his case study of the two computer science–music collaborative projects. In thinking about these fascinating examples, I highlight five somewhat suggestive and loose themes: emotion, grooves and grooving, routinization, affordances and constraints, and analogy. In responding to Wilf's call on these topics, I also put his work into occasional conversation with Monson's 1996 classic Saying Something. I do this for several reasons. First, Wilf contextualizes his research vis-à-vis “jazz's changing conditions of existence.” Monson presents a rich account of jazz performance and performers in the 1980s and early 1990s, when the “conditions of existence” were strikingly different. One crucial difference is that Monson's consultants are primarily African American professional musicians performing in a range of venues. Wilf, by contrast, is focused on jazz as “practiced by an increasing number of white middle-class individuals in educational institutions heavily predicated on standardized, abstract, and rationalized curricula” (this issue). Second, Wilf focuses primarily on soloists, while Monson's ethnographic interest is concentrated on often taken-for-granted rhythm sections (primarily drums, guitar, bass, piano) and their complex interactional and improvisatory practices. Finally, Wilf and Monson both are concerned with “what the perspectives of musicians can contribute to the reshaping of social analysis” (Monson 1996:5).

In reading Wilf's account of his computer scientist–musician consultants, I was repeatedly struck by the emotional intensity of their comments. Most salient was a sense of disappointment, a pervasive “discontent with the music played by the majority of jazz musicians in terms of its lack of variety, open-endedness, and creative intentionality” (Wilf this issue). David, the creator of an algorithmically driven digital sound generator, characterized his recurrent experiences this way: “There's often no [musical] conversation [between players]. Everyone is just playing the licks they learned” (Wilf this issue). Noting that he “[got] a bigger kick out of how it [the digital sound generator that he developed and programmed] responds” when trading fours, David further claimed that “I get much better ideas listening to it formulating a response than I do by listening to most people” (Wilf this issue). James, who developed Syrus (the marimba-playing, jazz-improvising robot), similarly described his disappointment with fellow human musicians, noting that “I wanted to be inspired … There was nothing that really caught my interest, a new sound, new ideas. I wanted to develop a device or a tool that would generate new musical ideas that I could not come up with by myself, nor could other people” (Wilf this issue). Disappointment and its complement, hope, figure signally in their commentary. Innovation, new musical ideas, and inspiration are the chief values at stake; the best responses were the most “interesting.”

Emotion also figured centrally among Monson's musician consultants but with a quite different valence and flavor. Certainly they registered considerable disappointment with unsatisfying collaborative performances: “To say that a player ‘doesn't listen’ or sounds like he or she is playing something ‘he or she practiced’ is a grave insult. Such a musician may play ideas that fulfill the minimal demands of the harmony or chorus structure but fail to respond well to other players in the band … Good jazz improvisation is sociable and interactive, just like a conversation” (Monson 1996:84). Salient here, however, is the failure to respond, to reply appropriately (albeit imaginatively), that is, a failure in performative reciprocity rather than of innovation per se. Similarly, Monson argues that “the often cited soul, warmth, and emotional expressivity of jazz improvisation have much to do with the ineffable and unpredictable musical chemistry among players … The unpredictable may be euphoric or anxiety-producing … but the mixture of expectations and willful departure traded around the bandstand is something the music absolutely thrives upon” (1996:26–27).

If the locus of pleasure for James and David seems primarily to lie in some ways within the musical material produced and the ideas it provides them, Monson's interlocutors consistently stress the intensity of both musical and interpersonal exchange and creativity. Context is critical here, both the events within which jazz performance takes place and the more specific acoustic context of the music being performed. For Wilf's interlocutors, trading fours appears primarily as a back and forth between two soloists. Rhythm clearly figures in, both as a temporal framework and as a locus for possible innovation, but melody seems particularly salient. In the ensembles Monson describes, by contrast, the related notions of “groove” and “grooving” are key components of the musical action. As a noun, “groove [refers to] rhythmic feels—those particular sets of rhythm-section parts that combine to produce particular rhythmic patterns,” while “most [musicians] described grooving as a rhythmic relation or feeling existing between two or more musical parts or individuals” (Monson 1996:67). “Grooving” is more than a structural description of rhythmic organization. It also carries considerable positive aesthetic and emotional weight, as in clarinetist Don Byron's definition of it as “the euphoria that comes from playing good time with somebody” (Monson 1996:68).

The third motif I consider in Wilf's discussion, and one that figures centrally in his account of the disappointments of the contemporary jazz scene, is routinization. Kenneth Burke (1964:76) has written of the “bureaucraticization of the imaginative,” a process actually central to cultural production, both in Burke's heyday and, perhaps even more, in the contemporary world, whether within imperiled funding agencies or in the educational institutions within which jazz performance is taught. Wilf's extraordinary exploration of contemporary jazz teaching tracks a historical shift in which apprentice-style learning in a range of venues and bands has been replaced by “rationalized schooling” (2010:563) in institutions combining formal classroom instruction, intensive emphasis on rote mastery, and a reliance on printed materials rather than aural transmission and experiment. A key failure of such programs is, in Wilf's view, that they fail to socialize students into the capacity to “play editorially … to execute the ideas they want to execute on the spur of the moment and in a way that would make sense given the unfolding situation” (this issue). In his elegant analysis, they “fail to cultivate the embodied indexicality between auditory representations and how it feels to execute them with their instruments” (this issue). They learn, rather, how to connect what they read, often from method books, with how they play. This style of training and the embodied habits it engenders, in Wilf's argument, lead to an avoidance of risk taking, predictability in musical production, and, perhaps most striking, a dramatic contrast to the central role of reciprocal acoustic attentiveness characteristic of earlier jazz performance. This routinization of response is a key pivot point connecting jazz with Wilf's broader argument concerning contingency. He views jazz as a case in which unpredictability (or at least unpredictability within certain broad confines) is highly desirable.

Wilf sees the creative response of computer scientists James, David, and their colleagues to the routinization of jazz performance as developing strategies for producing “contingent yet contextually meaningful outcomes” (this issue). This formulation raises several questions: How novel can a new production be without being perceived as something else altogether, whether as incoherent or as unrelated to the sounds to which it is a response? What potential constraints on novelty more or less come with the territory, that is, constitute the assumed outer limits? And what acoustic dimensions have been taken into account in developing the relevant algorithms—how is the musical language that it acts on configured? What is included and what might be occluded?

In Wilf's account, “the music Syrus produces makes sense because it is generated in the context of specific tunes and their harmonic progressions as well as in response to the musical ideas of the people playing with Syrus” (this issue). David's device, similarly, is constrained by a combination of David's four-bar input and the harmonic context of the tune. Although not fully spelled out, tune, pitch, and “harmonic context” seem particularly salient here. Helpful detail is evident in Wilf's discussion of what musical “dimensions” were taken into account in programming Syrus. Wilf notes that “the algorithms processed mainly note pitch and duration (and, to a lesser degree, volume). The research team was in the process of designing the system to perceive harmonic tension—the relation of notes to the harmonic context in which they were played. The algorithms were indifferent to timbre” (this issue). The innovative accomplishments of Syrus, then, are encoded primarily in terms of pitch and rhythm, elements that have also figured centrally in musical transcription. By contrast, as Monson comments concerning jazz transcription, such “relatively non-notable aspects of music (sonic signaling of timbre, dynamics, and offbeat phrasing)” (1996:189), aspects that figure centrally in her analyses of the complex interplay of grooving and improvisation, rarely appear on the page—or among those variables encoded to shape Syrus's capacities. This is not to say that focusing on tonal and rhythmic relationships as proxies for innovation is necessarily wrong; it is, however, necessarily partial. Such practice reflects assumptions about where the creative action is and might be—and rules out other features. Thinking in terms of such complementary dimensions may also suggest ways in which the contingent character of Syrus's productions may be more constrained than it at first appears.

Clearly, such projects as Syrus and David's device have remarkable affordances for creating new musical material. As Conlon Nancarrow's player piano rolls once did, they can “transcend the impasse in which humans have found themselves” and, in David's words, accomplish things musically that “no human alive … can do” (Wilf this issue). At the same time, they also imply constraints, limitations that may easily become normalized; material infrastructure, whether software, hardware, or mechanical, can limit as well as make possible.

Finally, I return to the quotation from Marilyn Strathern with which I began, one that suggests that culture might productively be thought of in terms of the range of analogies that members of particular communities might be willing or likely to make and that analogical thinking plays a key role in extending and transforming that range. Strathern further suggests that “if culture consists in established ways of bringing ideas from different domains together, then new combinations—deliberate or not—will not just extend the meanings of the domains so juxtaposed; one may anticipate a ricochet effect” (1992:3). These comments originally appeared, appropriately enough, in her introduction to a 1992 volume of essays on new reproductive technologies. I would suggest that they also are helpful for thinking about the new productive technologies at the heart of Wilf's account—and about the broader questions of contingency and indeterminacy with which he so productively entangles them. Certainly, analogy is a key tool for transforming our sense of the contextually meaningful. And, as with four-bar phrases, analogies provide the stuff of exchange, evidence of shared assumptions, and nudges toward new connections.

Both Monson and Wilf, indeed, explicitly address parallels between the musical milieus they portray and the broader social worlds within which those scenes figure and that they index. As Wilf notes concerning his interlocutors, “Their response, then, points to a host of concerns that have long stood at the center of anthropological and sociological research, namely, the shifting conditions of possibility for cultural reproduction … the politics of race and class, the rationalization of life-forms, and the availability of new technologies of mediation of sociality” (this issue). Monson argues that a “musical image—that of a multilayered, grooving band—may be … useful to social analysis” (1996:9–10) but later warns that “improvisation is an apt metaphor for more flexible social thinking, but we'd better keep a basic music lesson in mind: you've got to listen to the whole band if you ever expect to say something” (1996:215). When read together, these two acute and open-eared ethnographies suggest several dimensions of contrast, for example, multiparty versus dyadic coperformances, collective versus primarily dyadic exchanges, the emergence of relatively restricted, transcribable indicators of innovation (and the accompanying erasure of other constituent elements of creativity), and a shift from jointly achieved euphoria to personally satisfying and interesting musical ideas as core goals. The “fours” that are traded, the criteria for establishing their value, and the personnel—human and robotic—who trade them (Monson's “whole band”) are strikingly different. These contrasts suggest a perhaps overdetermined analogy between the conditions of contemporary composition that Wilf outlines and neoliberal theories of imaginative agency shaped by human–machine interaction and nurtured by mediated instruction. More broadly, the works we produce—musical and otherwise—are always deeply grounded in and constitutive of sociality; Wilf guides us into new ways of hearing the contemporary world.


 I would like to thank Eitan Wilf for writing this stimulating piece and for the broader corpus of his related work in which it is rooted. Thanks also to Angelique Haugerud for inviting me to trade fours with Wilf (and with other thought-provoking ethnographers of jazz). Angelique Haugerud, Steve Feld, and an anonymous AE reviewer provided perceptive and encouraging advice for revision, for which many thanks. I am also grateful to Sandro Duranti and Steve Black for stimulating feedback on these comments and for ongoing conversation.