Complexity and all that jazz…

One thing I’ve always liked about Twitter is how it sparks new thoughts and ideas.  It’s fragmented nature lends itself to serendipitous discovery and connection of thoughts, people and ideas.  Not always profound, but often delightful, and interesting enough to explore a bit further.

Like a couple of days ago.

With CALMalpha, which I’m eagerly anticipating, only a few days away now I’ve been thinking about the nature of complexity perhaps more than usually. Now, complexity and complex adaptive systems theory are getting traction as the next Big Thing in management and social business – a thought that quite frankly scares the hell out of me.  Complexity and complex adaptive systems theory, among other disciplines like evolutionary biology and cognitive sciences have real utility in management science (and I use the word science here only illustratively), but they are also easy prey to airport management book authors who get enthralled by the language and references to natural systems, and quickly churn out a new book and a series of keynotes and lectures with complexity slapped on as a superstructure to old thinking and old ideas.  Dave Snowden speaks about this often, and addressed it in a recent blog post, and I agree with him.

So I recognize the folly of trying to see complexity in everything because not all systems, human made or natural, are complex adaptive systems.

But sometimes complexity metaphors – even imperfect ones – have utility, which takes me back to a Twitter exchange earlier between Heimo Laukkanen (@huima) and myself.

It happened to be about jazz.

Heimo tweeted that he’d been searching for jazz playlists on Spotify (an indication that he’d become an old fart nearing retirement age – his words), and being a jazz devotee of sorts myself, I replied with a couple of recommendations of the usual suspects.  Turned out that Joseph Pelrine, another complexity scholar and part of the CALMalpha faculty, had beat me to it with great recommendations so I wrapped up by saying how it occurred to me that jazz and complexity have interesting parallels, and with a few caveats jazz serves as a useful metaphor for a complex adaptive system.

Complex adaptive systems have certain common characteristics, such as self-similarity, emergence, and self-organization (Wikipedia).  They have high degree of adaptive capacity, and they’re resilient to perturbations.  Complex adaptive systems have many independent but interacting agents acting mostly locally but with global, system wide consequences.  The agents and the system co-evolve.  Small changes may have system wide results, interactions in the system have feedback loops, the systems are dynamic and dissipative exchanging energy and never functioning at an equilibrium.  It’s also impossible to determine the system’s behavior by observing individual agents; complex adaptive systems exhibit emergent behaviour, and their dynamics evolve towards a representation of the systems typical behaviour, an expression of the dynamics of the system at some point in time, also known as an attractor. The system’s history defines its future states, the agents and the system co-evolve, and the system’s boundaries may be fuzzy.

Jazz is a mix of musical styles, and it’s probably easier to say what is not jazz than what is, although even then interesting debates would surely follow.  There are certain common characteristics, including improvisation, and group interaction, call-response patterns, use of blue notes, polyrythms, syncopation and swung notes (Wikipedia), but jazz is constantly evolving and seeking new paths, experimenting and breaking form, exploring and stretching its boundaries.  Trombonist J.J. Johnson has said “Jazz is restless. It won’t stay put and it never will”, and according to Pat Metheny, it’s not the music of Kenny G.

It’s not a big stretch to draw parallels and to create a metaphor of complexity from jazz.

Finding self-similarity in a jazz combo is perhaps a bit of a stretch. I suppose we could imagine jazz exhibiting self-similarity with regard to the size of the combo and the dynamics of jazz, in the rhythmic patterns of instruments and so on, but there are better parallels.

Like unpredictability.  As with a complex adaptive system and its agents, a jazz band’s performance and what kind of music they will be playing cannot be determined by listening to the individual players. We’ll only know when the musicians start playing together, and the band starts swinging – when the system starts exploring its phase space, the possible outcomes of the session.  A jazz session doesn’t have a set destination which has to be reached. Instead, to borrow Snowden, the musicians explore the evolutionary potential of the present.

Small changes may have large consequences. Musicians play off of each other, picking up subtle cues and responding to them.  Every new note played, every bar, every modulation is like a probe into the complex adaptive system of a jazz combo, a safe-to-fail experiment, using Cognitive Edge’s Cynefin


The Cynefin framework

terminology.   If the response of the experiment is beneficial and the band picks up on it, it gets amplified.  If it doesn’t get picked up and reciprocated, it gets dampened. It’s a constant feedback loop, where improvisations, cues, notes, melodies, body movements, and even audience reactions affect the future direction of the music.

The history of the system determines its future direction, and history is created every second.  Every note played up until any given time determines the direction that the music will take, and this gets repeated every moment.  It’s a dynamical session.

Jazz sessions are also irreversible.  It is not possible to call “halt”, rewind back time and start over, playing exactly like before.  Everything in the band (the system), including the players (agents) and the band have changed, co-evolved, and what has happened is not perfectly repeatable.  It may be close, but not just like it.

Emergence is an obvious characteristic of a jazz session.  Swinging, improvising, experimenting, interacting, will produce patterns that we perceive as pleasant or exhibiting coherence.  The musicians call it the groove.  Groove is not a pre-decided goal where the jazz session is merely the means of transport towards it; instead it’s an emergent pattern arising from the complex interactions of the jazz band and the session.  Groove is an attractor of the system of a jazz band.

Modulators.  To quote Wikipedia, modulation in music refers to “the act or process of changing from one key to another”.  Modulations “articulate or create the structure or form of many pieces, as well as add interest.”  In complex adaptive systems modulation is a form of perturbance, an intentional or unintentional influence on the system tending to alter its behaviour.  Modulation is an oblique way, as opposed to a direct driver, of trying to influence the behaviour of a system.  In jazz and in music generally, (musical) modulation techniques belong to the fundaments; they are a part of improvisational techniques and constructs of melodic and harmonic progressions.  They’re also system modulators.  They perturb the system by introducing variations, gentle nudges to the rest of the band to keep exploring the possibilities and to avoid an equilibrium.

While jazz can serve as a metaphor for complexity and emergence, obviously grooves and albums like Kind of Blue don’t ‘just happen’ through emergence if you put a bunch of musicians in a room with instruments, and make them play.  Even jazz has constraints, and creative processes can be managed, only not directly; in a complex space you “manage the beneficial coherence within attractors, within boundaries.” (Dave Snowden, Cognitive Edge).

Other parallels could easily be drawn for instance between jazz and Cynefin domain boundaries, but that perhaps goes beyond what my intention was writing this entry.  Mostly, I’m just thinking out loud by writing.

Metaphors are useful because they can have a basis in everyday experience, and therefore have a subjective interpretive layer.  Interpretation introduces variation to the sense-making process between individuals, and helps to avoid early convergence of thoughts and ideas.  In discourse it increases beneficial dissent and as a consequence improves decision making and scanning range of available options. In short, it makes for more interesting conversation.

But when I put on Kind of Blue, there’s no room for analysis.  There’s only music.


4 thoughts on “Complexity and all that jazz…

  1. The self-similarity that come immediately to my mind in jazz would be in melody construction, particularily in solos. From licks and riffs to phrases, modulation building up whole choruses. In a great solo, there’s a melody arch that is evident at all scales.
    See you at CALMalpha, and now excuse me while I put on some jazz on my headphones (Kind of Blue sounds good right now)

    • That’s a good example, thanks for that!

      It was such a great pleasure of meeting you at CALMalpha. I really enjoyed your insights and experience, and the discussion we had over metaphors drawn from natural sciences and in particular from molecular biology were both fascinating and useful in the context of what we were doing. It was precisely the kind of a discussion and exploration of ideas that I hoped to find at CALMalpha.

      I sincerely hope we get a chance to meet again at some future CALMalpha related event so that we can continue from where we left off!

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