How do you tell a story with music? What does it mean to say that jazz improvisation is storytelling? Jazz pianist Sven Bjerstedt has investigated this in his doctoral dissertation in music education at Malmö Academy of Music.
The concept storytelling in jazz is an old one. Bjerstedt’s investigation is based on interviews with fifteen Swedish jazz musicians of national and international renown, from Bengt Hallberg to Lena Willemark.
Music as an emotional expression.
They don’t necessarily perceive this concept literally, that the improvisation should be narrative in structure. They rather interpret in a non-literal, non-narrative way: that the solo is an expression of the musician’s own emotional experience. Many of them think that the jazz soloist ought to mediate such an expression in a direct and truthful manner, with authenticity.
– Even if listeners perceive a jazz solo as a story, it is not necessarily the case that the soloist had a conscious intention to tell a story. The musicians also think of this ‘storytelling’ as an activity shared by several people: not only the soloist but the fellow musicians and the audience as well may be of importance, says Sven Bjerstedt.
The musician’s personal voice.
Musical storytelling differs in several respects from stories expressed with linguistic means.
– Music has a greater expressivity and cannot be completely translated into words. When telling a story in music, striving for perfection has no intrinsic value, the musicians hold. It is more important that the musician come forward as a human being through the improvisation. In this context, the personal instrumental ‘voice’ is crucial. Saxophones and pianos have no words, says Sven Bjerstedt.
To speak of ‘storytelling’ in jazz improvisation, then, may seem paradoxical. The thesis sheds light on the phenomenon of conceptual loans between art forms: a concept borrowed from another art form may function as a key to a number of important phenomena in music, with important artistic and educational implications.
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