R1: Reading Response: Improvisation, Composition, Music & Sound

These three papers have their own interesting take on the art of improvisation and classical composition and the differences and similarities between them. Each writer had a different approach to it but I feel like they all had good points but they were clouded in a lot of jargon and tangents

Cornelius Cardew’s “Toward an Ethic of Improvisation” is actually the one I thought had the most content. I believe the main reason I am fishing out the fluff is because I’ve gotten used to writing things straight to the point where this is still an essay written as a story at some points. His view on “informal ‘sound” is that  is that it has a “power over our emotional responses that formal ‘music’ does not” and that “we are searching for sounds and for the responses that attach to them, rather than thinking them up, preparing them and producing them.” Which is a bit of a paradox for him. Since he also mentions that it took practice to get good at improvisation. I also don’t particularly like how he categorizes improvisation as ‘sound’. It is more than sound. If it evokes an emotional response, it is music. He also brought up an interesting point on musical education. He states that “To abandon notation [as it pertains to music] is therefore a sacrifice; it deprives one of any system of formal guidelines leading you on into uncharted regions…. The disadvantage of traditional notation lies in its formality” which I could see a point made that way but it doesn’t hold much weight with me for a couple of reasons. The main reason I disagree is because there can’t be harmony without chaos and vice-versa. In a similar parallel, it sounds like he would also make these comparisons to engineering and art. They aren’t without each other and they both fall under the field of design, in my opinion. Engineering being “structured” design and art being “aesthetic” design. But it does not make them separate, they are important to each other.

In Pauline Oliveros’ “Quantum Improvisation: The Cybernetic Presence” has many good points in it but it’s covered by this idea of a complex understanding of technology and physics. I get what the paper is going for but it comes short in the sense that some parallels are just a bit ridiculous. Quantum computing/states/physics and what she considers quantum improvisation have very little to do with each other. Yes, she understands the idea that quantum is a fluctuation of states but it’s much more complex than that and to compare it to different points of view and opening your mind up to what music could be and how we could produce music in different ways is far-fetched. Like I said before, my brain has been programmed to read technical papers and such so I’m used to picking out these details, but the things we should focus on is what we can learn about the topic. Oliveros points out that “the denial of the validity of improvisation has a racist tinge and origin. In America in the first half of this century, improvisation grew mostly from Jazz and Blues – heart music of Americans of African descent – the disenfranchised. After 1950, improvisation appears in white avant garde music through the influence of marginalized indeterminate or aleatoric procedures, exposure to Jazz and Blues and to recordings and live imports of non-Western music – also the disenfranchised”. This point is so key because it also made me realize that these articles have only focused really on the influence of Jazz and Blues when it comes to the concept of improvisation and that “structured music” tends to be very American and European.  However, I will hand it to  Cardew for mentioning the erotic nature of “much near-Eastern music”.

While on the topic of music on this half of the century and the marginalized, George Lewis’ “Improvised Music ater 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives” ties it all together pretty well. The cultural bias and focus has always been pretty skewed. Partially because of regional reasons but also a blend of music arrogance and/or ignorance to the other part. John Cage is his primary example of his concept of improvised music that is still composed (even if it is not exactly composed in the classical sense). It bridges the rule and is at some points seen as the exception. However, physical composition should not be the standard of music, it should be the standard of composed music only.

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