Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Capturing the Ineffable: Three Transcriptions of a Jazz Solo by Sonny Rollins

Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Capturing the Ineffable: Three Transcriptions of a Jazz Solo by Sonny Rollins

Article excerpt

[1.1] Despite the important role that transcription plays in jazz theory, analysis, and pedagogy, very little has been written on the subject by music theorists.(1) In part, this is because the details of the transcription process tend to be private and idiosyncratic. One source notes that "transcription as practiced by jazz musicians is usually a self-taught skill. There are no fixed rules for transcribing jazz, nor is there a standard set of symbols used to indicate pitch inflection, articulation, rhythmic deviation, and other expressive devices" (Tucker and Kernfeld [2002] 2016). There are no clear conventions about what counts as a "reasonably complete" transcription, nor a set of best (or even suggested) practices for accurately capturing the nuances of performed music in written notation. This paper begins to fill some of these lacunae. It reconsiders Charles Seeger's (1958) distinction between descriptive and prescriptive notation alongside other key methodological and epistemological considerations, including Benjamin Boretz's descriptive-ascriptive binary, and then responds to a series of questions put forth by Jason Stanyek (2014), addressing what he calls some "axiomatic principles" that have arisen around the practice of transcription. After this contextual introduction, we present three different transcriptions of Sonny Rollins's tenor saxophone solo on "All The Things You Are" from the 1963 album Sonny Meets Hawk!.(2) Each transcription is accompanied by a narrative that explains the transcriber's approach and the rationale behind certain notational decisions. A comparison of several representative passages follows the individual presentations, through which we hope to shed light not only on the issues that are at stake in the act of transcribing, but also on the analytic objects (the transcriptions as "scores") that result from such acts.

[1.2] Transcriptions in jazz tend to serve two purposes. One is to document a jazz performance. To that end, a transcription represents sonic information (usually from a sound recording) visually in order to facilitate analytic acts or inter-corpus comparison. A second purpose is more practical. Musicians typically make transcriptions of jazz performances to learn things about those performances and to understand a soloist's "language," which can, in turn, invite others to participate in these processes of discovery. They frequently apply what they learned in the process to their own improvisations or compositions. A long history of published transcriptions in trade journals like Downbeat and Jazztimes, as well as published volumes like the Charlie Parker Omnibook and numerous series produced by Advance Music and other publishers, speaks to the degree to which jazz musicians value transcriptions.(3)

[1.3] A somewhat simplistic account would align the first of these purposes with what Charles Seeger refers to as descriptive music-writing, and the second with prescriptive music-writing. For Seeger, the former is "a report of how a specific performance of any music actually did sound," while the latter functions as "a blueprint of how a specific piece of music shall be made to sound" (Seeger 1958, 184).(4) Seeger made this distinction while discussing the incongruity of using what he felt to be predominantly prescriptive Western musical terminology and notation for the descriptive purposes of documenting non-Western music. This is now such an established concern of ethnomusicology that scholars in that field generally reserve the term "descriptive" for transcriptions and "prescriptive" for notations (Ellingson 1992, 111).

[1.4] It is our contention, however, that transcriptions of jazz performances serve both purposes simultaneously. The vast majority of transcriptions are made by jazz musicians. These transcriptions exist primarily for the purposes described in the paragraph above--learning aspects of a performance and applying those ideas in one's own performance--although they certainly fulfill the role of historical documents as well. …

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