Of the Digital Humanities considered as a Jazz ensemble


From the William P. Gottlieb Collection, see: http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.music/gottlieb.06851.

We frequently speak of Digital Humanities projects – in which people from one or several disciplines such as literary studies, musicology and/or art history work together with colleagues from computer science and/or statistics – using concepts like inter- or transdisciplinarity or like collaboration.[1] The danger, we quickly notice, lies in the “divison of labor” such arrangements imply. Such division of labor tends to imply a hierarchy of nobler and less noble contributions to the task at hand; depending on how exchangeable contributors become through division of labor, this may involve asymmetric dependency relations; finally, this is a framing in terms of economic efficiency which, to make matters worse, is also reminiscent of Karl Marx’ concept of alienation. If we don’t fully control and understand the entire research process ourselves, the research results won’t be fully our own.

In light of this, it appears useful to frame projects in the Digital Humanities as a Jazz ensemble, instead.[2] Of course, there are many different ways in which a jazz ensemble may operate, but a few things are likely to be similar in many cases. And there appear to be many similarities and analogies between how Jazz ensembles work and how Digital Humanities projects may be considered to function. So let’s see how this works out.[3]

First of all, different types of talent are necessary in the members of a Jazz band. You need someone to come up with a musical idea, whether that is just some simple motive or chord progression, or a fullly arranged score. You need someone for the rhythm section, providing harmonic foundation as well as timing for your music, although they may break out of that mold and play a solo. You need someone for the horn section, maybe a saxophone or a trumpet, who will take care of the melodic elements of your piece on top of the rhythm section. In some cases, you need a vocalist who will mingle their voice into the music. In any case, they all fulfil noble and essential functions in the ensemble. Admittedly, some type of band leader is usually necessary.

Also, for jazz to happen, careful planning, some sort of budget, hard work and mastery of the instruments are certainly necessary. However, just as certainly, they are insufficient. Jazz happens, it appears, when these preconditions create a space for intuition, creativity and improvisation, and when the members of the ensemble know and trust each other well enough to be able to anticipate what the others will do and need from one another in a given situation. When that happens, the sounds each band member produces individually add up to something more than the sum of their parts, they get in sync and create swing and beauty.

Apart from such lofty musical concerns, there are more things the members of a Jazz ensemble have to worry about. For example, Jazz musicians build their reputation and their curriculum vitae by being earning stipends and prizes, learning from recognized teachers, performing with more established colleagues or by being offered to play at prestigious venues. They document their skills by recording albums which they hope will circulate widely, get due attention and sell many copies. Again, recording with more established colleagues helps your career because it signals recognition of your skills and gives you increased visibility. Finally, securing a contract with a large and important record company for releasing recordings on a famous label is what many Jazz musicians aspire to.

Of course, the real honor does not lie in those contracts signed and those copies sold. The real honor resides in fellow musicians taking up a musical phrase, copying an arrangement or doing a cover version of your piece (hopefully, doing so with acknowledgement in the liner notes). More generally and more importantly, others may honor you by taking up some elements of your style or associating themselves with the musical direction you stand for. Once you are an established musician with a voice of your own, or once you run your own ensemble, you will become the mentor of those younger musicians who will join your ensemble and strive to learn from you.

Like any metaphor or analogy, the one suggested here also breaks down in some places or can be misleading in others. The higher goal of jazz music is an artistic elevation of those who practice it and those who listen to it, while the higher goal of (digital) humanities research is the advancement of science and the enlightenment of our human condition. Even here, though, I still see an analogy.

So, let’s play!

[Postscriptum, May 16, 2014:] Two pieces have recently appeared which resonate, each in a different way, with the present piece: “The best teachers are like the best jazz artists” , and interview with Steve Fuller and, on a very different note, “How Academia Resembles a Drug Gang”, by Alexandre Alfonso. ;-)

  1. The follwing remarks are inspired by the wonderful DHd Conference which has taken place in late March in the city of Passau in southeast Germany, where the scope, nature and links of DH to related disciplines were hotly debated. []
  2. Image credit: William P Gottlieb, “Portrait of Tommy Potter, Charlie Parker, Max Roach (almost hidden by Parker), Miles Davis, and Duke Jordan (from left to right)”. Three Deuces, New York, N.Y., circa August 1947. From the Library of Congress’s William P. Gottlieb Collection. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.music/gottlieb.06851. Please note that an all-male jazz ensemble is pictured here solely due to the fact that it turns out to be really hard to find a nice, appropriately licensed picture featuring a more balanced set of members. []
  3. Disclaimer: Although I am an aficionado of jazz music, preferably from the 1940s and 1950s, I am by no means myself a jazz musician and, academically speaking, don’t know what I’m talking about. []

Christof Schöch

Christof Schöch is a Research Associate at the Department for Literary Computing, Würzburg University, Germany. He leads the junior research group CLiGS (Computational Literary Genre Stylistics). His interests are in French and Spanish Literature, Digital Humanites, and Open Access.

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