Tag Archives: improvisation

Answering ‘The Ask’ with a ‘Huh?’

I’ve written a number of posts about “the ask” and why we should insist that ask is a verb, but I haven’t said much about the provenance of the ungainly nominative “ask” or taken its origins into account.

“The ask” is not the revival or survival of an archaic or medieval form, as one writer in the New York Times suggested. Far from it: it’s a piece of stock trader’s jargon that crept from the trading floor into bureaucratic conversation. On Wall Street, “the ask” is shorthand for the minimum price a seller sets for a security. The difference between the ask and the bid, or what a buyer is willing to pay, is known as the spread; and the spread is one pretty reliable measure of market liquidity. 

Presumably, when someone uses the term “the ask” or “my ask” to direct work or coordinate action, he expects (or pretends to expect) the second person, his interlocutor, to counter with a bid, as if conversations produced a workable measure of practical liquidity — or a measure of what’s practically possible — in the difference between what one person wants to do and what another wants or is willing to do, or what each thinks ought to be done.

We can sketch a model: the ask would invite the bid and the bid would meet that invitation with an offer. And we can develop this rudimentary model of conversation a little more by exploring the etymology of the word “bid” — itself the substantive form of a verb with roots in Old Teutonic, where *beudan means to stretch out, reach out, offer or present; and by extension beodan or boden in Old English and bede in Middle English come to mean to announce, proclaim or command. So here, again, an ask-bid model might confer some power on the bidder, or help create the appearance of parity, a sharing of command between petitioner and respondent, asker and bidder. What we are going to do is what we together command, or what will fall within the spread, span or scope of our shared command.

That doesn’t seem so bad, on the face of it: at the very least it sounds as if people on both sides can give and get in return. “The ask” holds out the promise of some share in power, or at least more flexibility than command-obedience would seem to allow. That might help account for its widespread use in the first decade or so of the twenty-first century. Ideas about organizational hierarchy are changing, and people have begun to pay outward homage, at least, to the idea that command and control is not necessarily the most effective way to run an organization. In bureaucratic settings, the imperative of command is taking on interrogative affects: the ask makes an order sound more like a request, softening the power one person actually wields over others.

The model has lots of shortcomings: for one, it reduces human relationships to market transactions — and that’s a serious and thorny problem, one I hope to say more about in a future post. But the main trouble with the ask-bid model is simply that it tells us very little about how conversation actually works. Conversations are never so neatly regimented and sequenced as this bureaucratic model makes them out to be, and as I wrote in another post, much of which we might regard as background noise or “beside the point” in a conversation is just as important, if not more important, than the putative point. There’s never just “an ask”; all parties to the conversation are continuously asking and offering, requesting clarification or confirmation, making representations of the other, shifting attention to and from the matter of joint interest, situating, interrupting and re-connecting with each other.

Generally, we’re making it up as we go along, together, and all of that joint effort counts much more than we ordinarily acknowledge. We don’t merely counter asks with bids or requests with offers; we also work together to organize, represent and sustain the conversation as a social act.

A paper published last week by Mark Dingemanse and others at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics stresses this theme. In ordinary conversation, the authors observe, interlocutors ask for clarification and correction about once every 1.4 minutes. This “other-initiated repair” is a central feature of all human conversation; and the cues one uses to initiate repair demonstrate care for the interlocutor and for the “social unit” of the conversation.

There are three main ways interlocutors initiate repair. Interjections like “huh?” are “open requests” for clarification. Asking speakers to repeat what they said (“who”?) are “restricted requests.” Repeating back what the speaker said (“he hit a homerun?”) are described as “restricted offers.” All three are regularly used with the same frequency no matter what language we happen to be speaking and despite differences in grammar and syntax. (For the paper’s authors, this lends support to the hypothesis that there are universals at work in all human language; but rather than get hung up on that point, I prefer simply to appreciate their observation that interlocutors are working constantly together, making repairs on the fly.)

Abbot and Costello's 'Who's on First?' routine is a brilliant send up of other-initiated repair.

So instead of a simple ask-bid or request-offer model, we need a much looser and less linear model in which all parties to a conversation are constantly running requests and offers and making interjections in no particular order or sequence, and so frequently and effortlessly that we don’t even notice we are making them. Requests, offers and interjections might even go unanswered; but they are no less effective for all that. These are cooperative cues and gestures, markers of the conversation as a social act.

(This is, by the way, why,so-called “conversational” interfaces built for digital assistants like Siri are still nowhere near conversational. What the manufacturers of these devices really mean is that you can address your digital assistant — give an order or make a request — in ordinary language, and it will follow. But even if the assistant is designed to say “I did not understand your request, please repeat it” or something along those lines, it’s not producing anything like the steady stream of other-initiated repairs involved actual conversation, where interlocutors are reading each other’s minds and correcting misreadings as they go.)

Conversation recreates and demonstrates joint commitment. That’s what’s really missing from the ask-bid model: human relationship. Asker and bidder, seller and buyer, don’t have a shared project beyond the exchange they are negotiating; their contact with each other can end once the transaction is made, and one or both can just walk away if they don’t agree on price. After all, both the asker and the bidder seek advantage over the other, rather than mutual gain or shared advantage that is the spur, aim and outcome of serious conversation. After the deal is done or abandoned, the bidder is free to pursue his ends and the seller is, too, even if they will be working at cross purposes.

On the other hand, people who are in a conversation about what to do have already committed to doing something together. They’ve committed to acting together, to social action and to a social subject: a “we.” We keep our commitment by repairing as we go. We act together even when we have irreconcilable differences about the way things are or what to do.

Serious Conversations, 4

The sculptor Richard Serra tells the following story about a Charles Mingus session at San Francisco’s Jazz Workshop, sometime around 1956.

The performance was in the afternoon and there was a fan on. It was really loud and Mingus was going through his set and they were recording, and the bartender turned off the fan. Mingus had an apoplectic fit. He jumped over the bar and practically throttled the guy. ‘That fan was one of my instruments,’ he said. And it made me think, as someone who wanted to be an artist, that you had to pay attention all the time to everything that was going on, because everything was of potential use, if you could see the potential.

Place matters, whether you are playing music, making a sculpture or — as I like to remind people — simply having a conversation. From Mingus, Serra learned “to pay attention to everything that was going on,” and that ambient attention or awareness of place has figured prominently in Serra’s own art, which frequently involves creating site-specific, large-scale sculptures that both fit with and alter their surroundings. Place furnishes the sculptor with context, material and ideas: everything is of “potential use, if you..see the potential”. Place can be both potent and useful, a power and a utility. For Serra, it’s all a matter of paying attention.

Serrasculpture

Richard Serra creates large-scale, site-specific sculptures that draw on and amplify the power of place.

How, then, might we tap the power of place and put it to use when it comes to serious conversations? How do we pay attention to the place we are and how does that attention get repaid?

This is a vast topic, so for now I want to set out a few markers, just to get the discussion started.

First and most obviously, place situates the participants. We can talk about place in this basic sense as the setting of a conversation — not merely a location, site or spot; the setting is more like a scene in which we are the actors. I am not entirely sure about the theatrical metaphor (which is inescapable when we talk about place as a scene or setting): I don’t mean to imply that conversations are performances for the benefit of anyone other than the interlocutors, that they require an audience, or that the place has the temporary and artificial qualities of a stage or set, put up or constructed for the sake of staging a conversation. That all sounds too contrived, and it implies a grand designer or author behind the scenes. Of course every conversation involves some element of make believe and there is a performative aspect to all conversation, but we ought to imagine an unscripted play, spontaneous or at least unplanned, in which the actors themselves are sole authors and creators — an improvisation.

Place sets conditions and defines limits: this is where we are, not over there, not elsewhere, maybe not even where we most want to be, but here. Limits imply presence, a here and now, and it’s up to us to recognize and attend to that. Our attention registers the basic obligation we have to one another, which is simply to be in this place (and in this conversation). The word ‘obligation’ here shouldn’t be misleading or mistaken for mandate or coercion: when a conversation is serious, we are not under any compulsion. We claim each other’s attention. It makes sense, then, to talk about place as a space of commitment, a setting to which we can both lay claim and which permits us to make some simple claims: stay and talk awhile; listen to me; help me understand what you are saying.  As I’ve said before, you can’t just walk away or start playing hula hoops and I can’t take part if I am whistling Dixie or daydreaming of someplace far away. This place is not just incidentally a backdrop for our conversation and our conversation is not a backdrop for some other action that will define or disrupt the place; our mutual presence here commits us jointly to the conversation. Attending to place helps us respect and keep that commitment.

Place creates new possibilities in the conversation, as participants discover and avail themselves of their situation in all sorts of ways. This is close to what Richard Serra is getting at when he talks about paying attention to everything that’s going on — a noisy fan, the voices of children playing nearby, the smell and feel of the lush green grass, the roar of traffic or the flow of a nearby stream, a tweeting bird or a passing cyclist, the wail of sirens or the approach of the police, the patter of the rain, the creak of the wood as we settle on a rough-hewn bench. The important point here is that in conversation we experience a place from the inside and in company with others. To keep company is to be a participant, not merely an observer of the place, looking in or looking on from the outside. Our conversation is what’s going on there — or at least one of the most important things going on.

Place is intrinsic to the unfolding of conversation, the warp to its woof; and to an appreciable extent, place and conversation may be indistinguishable — especially once things get going. Or it might be easier just to say conversation is the place we create between us. It’s not a question of your place or mine. It’s ours.

“For me, music has no leader”

In 1997, Ornette Coleman was in Paris to play at La Villette, and sat down for an interview with French philosopher Jacques Derrida.  The interview was the subject of a thoughtful piece by Richard Brody in the New Yorker a few years ago, but I came across it only this morning. This part of the exchange especially resonates with me, as it has to do with conversations without a leader (an idea I’ve been exploring in some of my posts on the power of asking).

On the one hand, Coleman has throughout his career had to dispel the notion that in playing free jazz, “I just picked up my saxophone and played whatever was going through my head, without following any rule, but that wasn’t true.”  He struggled, on the other hand, with the hierarchical, bureaucratic rigidity of the New York Philharmonic, where he had to submit a composition “to the person in charge of scores…to be sure the Philharmonic wouldn’t be disturbed.”  He works according to another model — a conversation in which no one is “in charge,” but in which the participants can rely on  a “framework” (usually, but not always, provided by the piano).

Here is Timothy S. Murphy’s translation:

OC: For the Philharmonic I had to write out parts for each instrument, photocopy them, then go see the person in charge of scores. But with jazz groups, I compose and I give the parts to the musicians in rehearsal. What’s really shocking in improvised music is that despite its name, most musicians use a framework [trame] as a basis for improvising. I’ve just a recorded a CD with a European musician, Joachim Kuhn, and the music I wrote to play with him, that we recorded in August 1996, has two characteristics: it’s totally improvised, but at the same time it follows the laws and rules of European structure. And yet, when you hear it, it has a completely improvised feel [air].

JD: First the musician reads the framework, then brings his own touch to it.

OC: Yes, the idea is that two or three people can have a conversation with sounds, without trying to dominate it or lead it. What I mean is that you have to be…intelligent, I suppose that’s the word. In improvised music, I think the musicians are trying to reassemble an emotional or intellectual puzzle, in any case a puzzle in which the instruments give the tone. It’s primarily the piano that has served at all times as the framework in music, but it’s no longer indispensable and, in fact, the commercial aspect of music is very uncertain. Commercial music is not necessarily more accessible, but it is limited.

JD: When you begin to rehearse, is everything ready, written, or do you leave space for the unforeseen?

OC: Let’s suppose that we’re in the process of playing and you hear something that you think could be improved: you could tell me, “You should try this.” For me, music has no leader.

JD: What do you think of the relationship between the precise event that constitutes the concert and pre-written music or improvised music? Do you think that pre-written music prevents the event from taking place?

OC: No, I don’t know if it’s true for language, but in jazz you can take a very old piece and do another version of it. What’s exciting is the memory that you bring to the present. What you’re talking about, the form that metamorphoses into other forms, I think it’s something healthy, but very rare.

JD: Perhaps you will agree with me on the fact that the very concept of improvisation verges upon reading, since what we understand by improvisation is the creation of something new, yet something which doesn’t exclude the pre-written framework that makes it possible.

OC: That’s true.