R1: Reading Response

The most striking part of the readings for this week, in my opinion, was the breadth of styles and practices that could arguably be called improvisation. We get to see that improvisation isn’t really a single concept. Rather, it is a tangled web of history, tradition, race politics, biases and competing ideologies.

The most general (and least illuminating) conception of improvisation was put forward in Pauline Oliveros’ keynote address titled ‘Quantum Improvisation: The Cybernetic Presence’. This speech was a hodgepodge of speculation and opinion. Oliveros’ conception of free improvisation is merely when “nothing is known about the music before it happens”. This makes sense when we consider her overall aim, which was to speculate about the future role of technology and artificial intelligence in music performance, especially improvisation. She contrasts free improvisation with historical improvisation in which “the course is charted or set by the conventions and codifications of the style”. This is similar to the “motif” theory discussed by George Lewis (in that both assume that the improvisation is following some common practice that is essentially cultural), however, while Lewis’ aims tended more towards ethnomusicology, Oliveros’ final goal was a discussion of pedagogy. She seems to believe that historical improvisation is something that doesn’t need the creativity and active participation of the musician. She cites the software Improvisor, which can create original music in idioms ranging from Bach to Charlie Parker. It is in free improvisation that the originality and personality of the musician actually emerges. She concludes by calling for a revolution in music pedagogy which fosters innovation and creative problem solving (Improvatories as opposed to Conservatories). None of this was either particularly coherent or revolutionary.

The main interest derived from Oliveros’ address is its use as a foil to the essay by Cornelius Cardew titled “Towards an Ethic of Improvisation”. Already we are intrigued by the choice of the word ‘ethic’. His seemingly contradictory assertions that “when you play music, you are the music”, and that it is “the natural environment itself giving birth to something, which you then carry as a burden; you are the medium of the music” explains his two assertions that improvisation requires “moral discipline” and that it is “impossible to record” (vastly different from Oliveros’ opinions on the subject). Improvisation for Cardew is this intimate relationship between a musician and his or her environment (therefore, inevitably, the audience), embodied in his metaphor of a person discovering a city, and slowly becoming a native. At this point, Cardew also specifies that the improvisation he is referring to is that without any formal boundaries, therefore the removal of a formal notation system is the first step in this direction. This leads to him giving up on a formal musical education altogether, rather than seeking to reform the system, like Oliveros.

Finally, the paper by George Lewis titled “Improvised Music after 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives” puts the opinions of Cardew in cultural perspective. Cardew’s push towards free improvisation with no formal boundaries and a lack of personal narrative in the performance is part of a general cultural climate in the Eurological musical tradition, initiated by John Cage with his ideas of indeterminacy and aleatoric music. Lewis then compares these ideas of improvisation with, and charts their evolution from the Afrological tradition of jazz improvisation.

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