Saturday, April 02, 2011

Lewis on Improvisation

A very good lecture, Improvisation as a Way of Life: Reflections on Human Interaction by George Lewis is online here.

While I was a student and as a journeyman composer, improvisation was an urgent topic, with status in the new music world at some loggerheads over whether one was an improviser or (a) not(ator), with no small amount of macho swagger on either side of the argument.

This argument seems to have lost intensity within a musical community that has become at once more comfortable with diversity and more settled into routines of niche activity with far less acute competition for attention and resources between the niches.

Personally, I started out somewhat combative towards the hard-core improvisers. I improvised myself with bliss in the privacy of my own atelier but was unconvinced by much of what I heard when improvisers went public and, honestly, I saw them as direct competitors for presentation turf and fees. I've long since become considerably more relaxed about the issue, first with greater awareness of the ubiquity of improvisation — ultimately, every piece or performance of music — even the most fixed, systematic, written-down-and/or-out works of a Babbitt, Stockhausen, Cage or Johnson — has components that can only be construed as improvised, carrying a degree of either the arbitrary or the most intimately taste-related that no necessity governs their presence in the work. Moreover, my increase in comfort with improvisation comes with an increased sense that the presence or absence of improvisation is not really all-too-important and certainly neither an ethical nor an aesthetic distinction or value.

Improvisation of one sort or another is ubiquitous in all aspects of life, good bad, or indifferent. The Tokyo Electric Power Company has certainly been improvising big time of late in Fukushima, and although many individual performances by their employees have been heroic, I don't think that we've seen much in the corporate (ensemble) performance of ethical or aesthetic praiseworthiness. The current improvisations in the Arabic world present a similar diversity of results. In neither case are we — from contested distances of physical space, languages, history and culture and through the filters of equally-improvised media — in any position to honestly assess these performances, but some form of response is necessary and, even if that response is itself an improvisation, it has to be done on the basis of some concrete criteria: an accident in a nuclear power plant is very bad, the slaughter of citizens peacefully protesting their government is very bad. While musical performances, and performances of new musics in particular, carry very little that can harm mind or body in the way that event in Japan or Libya certainly can, and musical events have the supremely useful quality that they can be turned off or walked out of when they go badly, our response to music, even our most immediate, from-the-gut, yes Virginia, improvised, response has got to be governed by criteria, ethical and aesthetic, no matter how explicit we ever get about it.

The late music critic Heinz-Klaus Metzger described his work as a "struggle against the absence of criteria" without which music was reduced to only entertainment. While I share Metzger's suspicions about industrialized entertainment, I don't want to disregard entertainment as a value in itself; there are times in the lives of many if not most people when musical forms of entertainment can uniquely provide the comfort, consolation, fantasy or pleasure that makes a life of struggle and work whole. But at the same time, I don't want to deny, through disregard for qualitative criteria, the capacity for music to be more than entertainment.

Lewis clearly hears more inherent value in the improvised component of music-making than I do; I believe that we could at least agree on a minimum, in which the act of making music is more reliably valuable — to whatever degree of improvised content — than a great number of alternative human preoccupations. Lewis's presentation comes tantalizing close to raising these aesthetic and ethical questions without getting specific about criteria under which music becomes valuable. Too bad, methinks, because Lewis is such a good musician that I know damn well that his sense of musical quality is not operating in a criteria-free vacuum.

I do have one material question about the structure of the lecture — a rather formal academic occasion — itself: How much of it was improvised?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


It seems to me that people often tend to underestimate the value a careful balance between the algorithmic and improvisational component of a given music piece.

My recent album "Algorithmic Concepts"

is an honest attempt to try to find the right mix of these two ingredients, in the hope that at least some of the resulting pieces will project a sense of power, unity and confidence, derived from an open and frank dialogue between human and machine.