On Improvisation

‘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

Dan Fairbrother is a PhD student in Sociology at Warwick University.  He is writing a thesis in nineteenth-century intellectual history.

Categories: Higher Education

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4 replies »

  1. Western art music’s notation-only focus is an anomaly, an aberration, when viewed in the perspective of both the history of Western music and of the rest of the world. Music was aural and improvised in both performance and pedagogy until the Middle Ages when notation came into use. Musicians continued to be comfortable improvising and embellishing compositions for another thousand years until the giant orchestras of the Romantic era plus the rise of the conservatory and the method book killed improvisation (except for church organists and jazz musicians) so that by the 20th century, not only had classical players lost the ability to do anything but read notes, they were also ignorant that it had ever been any other way.

    Creative music is the other half of comprehensive musicianship. One half is the Literate Side, where the only value is what is has been notated by a distant expert (= composer). The other half is the Aural side, where the player has a unique voice and is able to “think in music” – understand what others are saying in music, make an instant decision about how to contribute, and join in. Just like a conversation. Improvisation is unpredictable, like conversations. But in the same way, you can get into some very interesting stuff. If you only read aloud something that someone else has written for you, it is entirely predictable and “clean.” But if that is the only model, you are giving up the possibility of enjoying the fun and benefits of thinking for yourself and creating something new with others. You can’t improvise in something you don’t know anything about (try auctioneering in Mandarin); but you can improvise at any level, i.e. make choices that are comfortable and easy. You don’t invent words or say words that you can’t pronounce when you converse. If you are improvising, you can do the same. One thing that keeps classical musicians from trying it (aside from receiving no encouragement or training in it, ever) is the usual definition of improv = jazz = bebop. This is one kind of improvise, one with a very steep learning curve that is going to exclude almost everyone. But there are many ways to improvise. Auctioneer style talk is not the only way to talk. You can improvise a dirge, a fanfare, a lullaby, a children’s song, and so on. There are always rules, even if you haven’t discussed them before you started playing. Improvisation teaches us to really listen, to understand what’s going on, rather than just parrot, or recite by rote. Improvisation is scary to some because it is unpredictable, but in fact it is no more so than a conversation. Mistakes – the terror and stressors of classical players – are now opportunities to discover things that you would have never thought of otherwise, a chance to make lemonade from lemons. Improv is like life itself. We don’t have to give up the literate side of music. But music life is vastly richer, more rewarding, and just plain fun if you get in on the aural/creative side as well. Classical training has silenced generations of voices for the past 150 years. It’s time to get back to the long-time traditions of the past and start releasing those voices, hearing what they have to say. Classical music is strangling on perfection and museum pieces. It’s time for everyone to have a voice again.

    • I can’t quite make out the subtext of your thoughts about music, Jeffrey. I took my little piece to be quite sympathetic with Steve Fuller’s aspiration for more improvisation in the academy. I suspect both Fuller and I would like to encourage high quality academic work in the slightly elitist way you deride in music. Fuller’s thought appears to be that we have to accept a certain amount of bullshit in which the rose we really want (to adopt a well worn image) will grow. But he accepts that it is bullshit and not valuable in the same way as a rose. My response (which I admit remained in the subtext) was that even though the way Fuller makes his suggestions makes it all sound quite radical, the practical ways in which we might encourage good improvisation might in fact be somewhat more conservative. So, despite the mildly satirical way in which I wrote the piece, my point was more that Fuller’s end-goal (which in a more modest way I would claim to share) might imply something slightly different in practice to what he suggests. Indeed (and here I speculate), perhaps Fuller underestimates the extent to which his own ability to do the things he talks about so well is based on his having had the benefit of a thorough and traditional academic education. It’s easy – perhaps deceptively easy – when you know how. Your point though, Jeffrey, seems to be that we’re both wrong, and that we should accept some of what gets called “bullshit” as valuable in itself, like lullabies. But too much in the academy is already apt to send one to sleep.

  2. Hi. Interesting thoughts. I have just been to the BSA conference so what you are discussing was very relevant. Plenaries were all written out but only Steve Fuller could deliver his ideas coherently without sounding as though he was reading from a book.
    The open forum celebrating Stuart Hall’s contribution to sociological thinking was the neeredt any session came to improvisation. Contributors spoke without notes and from the heart. I learned a lot about Sociological practice. Anyone familiar with Hall or his work could have contributed to the discussion.
    The presentations by PhD students were pretty pointless and I wonder what this effort is all about. Maximising delegates and fees for the BSA? None could handle questions which went beyond their ‘area’ and conveners would jump in if they thought questions were too demanding. Sorry to say it but PhDs seem to be getting very narrow and unambitious.
    Improvisation comes with NOT reading written notes and having prompts for oral delivery. Needs to start with lecturing and student seminar work.

    • Personally I couldn’t agree more. I had an interesting debate with Kirsty Liddiard (who writes sometimes for SI) about this though, who pointed out to me that there’s a gendered dimension to this and that it might be equally problematic to cultivate an *expectation* of improvisation. That said, I get frustrated that I sometimes feel as if I’m being rude if I don’t use powerpoint (as if I didn’t care enough to prepare properly?) – it’s a feeling that mystifies me, which I’m sure does at least in part stem from something ‘out there’ in academic culture, as opposed to me just being neurotic.

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