R2 – Improvisation and Experience

In “Contemplating the Concept of Improvisation and its History in Scholarship”, Nettl questions whether the sphere of things considered “improvisation” is too diverse to justify the word’s use. Though the lines between composition and improvisation are blurry, referring to a performance, or to an aspect of a performance, as having been improvised sends a clear bit of information: it wasn’t planned out exhaustively beforehand. Part of Iyer’s take on improvisation, that humans experiencing life in real-time is an improvisation, lines up with this broad definition for the term. The term is still useful in the sense of distinguishing composed material from material generated on the spot. However, Nettl’s point about there being an ocean of things deemed “improvisation” still stands. Thus, perhaps in analyses of music, improvisation should be replaced with the most specific applicable form, e.g. reharmonization, ornamentation, voice-leading, etc. As he says, improvisation is just beginning to be written about seriously in the literature, so this specificity may emerge as improvisation shifts from being a musicology buzzword to being ubiquitous.

Expanding on Iyer’s view of improvisation – his notion of experience being connected intimately with improvisation resonated with me, but some issues come to mind, so I will attempt to reconcile them here. Intuitively, I wouldn’t call a “wooden” performance of a written-out piece an improvisation. Yet, isn’t the performer still experiencing life as they go through this performance, and by Iyer’s definition, isn’t this then an improvisation? This can be reconciled by considering that there are different contexts for improvisation. The performer is improvising in the context of their life, in that they may in the future remember the moment of performance as a life event, with a memory of the physical feeling of the room, anxiety towards the audience, pride in results of practice, etc., all extra-musical and personal considerations that the audience can’t experience. In a musical context, it can then remain a composition, and not an improvisation. Still, however – they are experiencing their life in that moment, and it becomes a “life” improvisation; are they not experiencing the music in that moment? I would argue that the very definition of “wooden”, for me, is exactly that – a sense of the performer not experiencing the music in that moment, but rather experiencing, say, a series of physical tasks to be performed. Of course, given a performance I perceive as “musical” and not “wooden”, it’s quite possible the performer was operating completely on a physical-task level and not thinking musically (as is the case with any record player); in this case, the composition* was sufficiently expressive to capture a musical experience on its own. Perhaps, then, the ultimate goal of any composition aiming to be musical is to appear as improvisation, and thus to convey a specific musical experience.

The Wessel and Wright article details some new ways of capturing gesture. These nuanced interfaces allow for a larger possibility space to improvise through. The Lewis piece reads as another angle on the cultural divide over improvisation, this time focusing specifically on European jazz from the Eurological perspective and free jazz in the AACM from the Afrological perspective.

* by “composition” or written-out, I don’t mean a literal score, but rather any part of the performance that has been “hard-coded” into the performer before hand; for example, the dynamic contrasts chosen by the performer could be a part of the “composition” while the exact loudness of a single bowing within the dynamic phrase remains as improvisation

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