‘So what would an improvisation-friendly academia look like? Certainly standards of public performance would shift. We would become more tolerant of people who speak crudely without notes, if they can improve as they take questions from the audience. But we would equally become less tolerant of people who refuse to take questions simply because they stray from their carefully prepared presentation. Instead of ‘sloppy/rigorous’, we would apply the binary ‘expansive/limited’ to describe the respective intellects of these people.’ Thus proclaims sociology’s Icarus.
How “would” all the things that Steve Fuller says “would” happen actually come to pass? What “would” stop the loosening required for improvisation becoming – or, in some cases, remaining – a low-quality free-for-all? We need to pin down the reality of this excellent sounding “more improvisation” ideal, less for fear our wings will melt but more because we might never leave the ground. Even worse, we could end up thinking we’ve taken off while all the time we’re just running around with our arms out shouting “zoooooom”.
What kind of education would encourage high-quality improvisation? Perhaps we can draw some comparisons with music. What gets derided as (ahem) ‘instrumentalist planning’ in our context is called ‘composition’ in music. Classical music honours composers more than any other single individual in its production and finds little room for improvisation. It would be a perverse critic who claimed that Wagner’s Ring Cycle is too fully orchestrated. There is still room for creativity from musicians because the same piece of music can be played in different ways. Radio 3’s CD Review – Building a Library is a wonderful testament to this. The way these musicians innovate is by difficult, repetitive practice based on a mastery of the repertoire first and the more progressive reaches second, but even this is honed and (excuse me) fine-tuned. And yet, perhaps this is too conservative a comparison for some tastes, and it doesn’t tell us much about improvisation.
However, when we turn to jazz and folk, two genres that value improvising musicians very highly, we find a similar reliance on familiarity with the standards and the repetitive honing of skills. When they improvise (well), it’s the cream off the top of an astonishing body of received knowledge.They can cope with the lack of regimentation because they are so well practiced and, as Wittgenstein said, ‘know how to go on’. (Despite what Bruno Latour says, Wittgenstein was the most important twentieth century philosopher – certainly whose name began with a ‘W’.) Freedom, to put it differently, is earned, because otherwise it really would just be bullshit. I think it was either Dizzy Gillespie or Charlie Parker who said you get your own style by following others who impress you and only emerging as your own butterfly later – but you’ve got to be good. The lesson from the folk world, of course, might simply be more real ale in seminars, but even that needs to ferment.
There’s a massive difference between my early cow-horn-esque efforts on the saxophone – complete bullshit – and John Ogden’s avant garde piano pieces, which would be “bullshit” to someone whose sensibilities couldn’t stretch beyond Bach. If we want improv in the academy we might in fact need a pretty conservative educational structure for students and a continuing requirement on academics to know and teach our own classical repertoire. And we might do well to remember that it’s not the only form of creativity. Think composition. Making stuff up can’t be the general rule. The difference between me and Ogden or Parker is that they knew what they were doing musically and I didn’t. We in the academy too need to learn our scales.
Hastily flung together by Dan Fairbrother
Categories: Higher Education