The Jazz Solo; or, What Writers Do When We Compose Intertextual Dialogue

A quick thought to start the (writing) day:

To the unaccustomed listener, a jazz solo, particularly a solo that strays far from an easily recognizable melody, can seem abstract, formless, linear. Yet most jazz performances take place over a repeated sequence of chords, the chords that underlie the piece the group is performing. A composer might write an attractive song, as George Gershwin wrote “Embraceable You,” and a jazz group will begin by playing a loose version of the 32-bar melody together. (Most songs that began in Broadway musicals have an introductory verse which jazz musicians rarely perform. Jazz musicians simply repeat the chorus over and over.) Then a soloist will create his or her own melody while the rhythm section essentially repeats an accompaniment to that 32-bar chorus. Experienced listeners will be able to “hear” the song, even when no one is playing the original melody, by following the chord progression. In fact, the procedure of most jazz is based on one main principle – that a nearly infinite number of melodies may fit any song’s chord progression. The jazz musician’s traditional task is spontaneously to compose new melodies that fit the chord progression, which is repeated over and over as each soloist is featured, for as many choruses as desired.” – Jazz, From Its Origins to the Present, Porter, Ullman, Hazel

In music we call that an “improvisation”. In writing, it’s an “homage”. Sometimes we admit outright that’s what we’re doing, sometimes it’s “inspired by” or a “retelling of.” Umberto Eco calls it “inter-textual dialogue” and I think that’s the most accurate term. A piece of writing quotes another piece of writing in a stylistic or thematic way, and the impact of a story on the reader is heightened when the reader understands what’s being quoted.

The key to understanding the similarity is this line:

Experienced listeners will be able to “hear” the song, even when no one is playing the original melody

How often do you read a story and think, “Oh, I recognize this fairy tale!” even when it isn’t the original telling of the story? Revamped and reconstructed fairy tales are quite popular at the moment, and range from subtle barely-there mentions to stories which wrap themselves in the original tale like a cape, only differing in setting or dialogue. (Read Kelly Link’s “Swans” for an example of this.) You’re supposed to have enough knowledge of the first version of that story to recognize all of the elements in the modernized tale. In fact, a good author can remove the details which are commonly known so that you don’t see them, but you recognize their absence and your mind fills in all of the missing pieces anyway.

Just like in jazz.


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