CRITICAL THEORY OF IMPROVISATION
Critical Theory of Improvisation
Despite, or perhaps entirely because of its pervasiveness in the sphere of human activity, improvisation has a rather slippery identity, at once mysterious and intimately familiar. Depending on cultural and aesthetic attitudes, improvisation tends to be described alternately as a source of unmediated creative power or as merely derivative, as directly spiritual or purely physical, as the epitome or the absence of freedom. Often understood today as a vehicle for individual expression, improvisation experiences a curious decline in the history of Western classical music precisely at the moment when the notion of the autonomous artwork and artist gains momentum. It should come as no surprise, then, that much of the conflict between competing 20th-century ideologies plays out in the conversation concerning what is and is not improvisation. Questions of societal inclusion and exclusion are at the heart of originary narratives surrounding improvisatory practices in contemporary dance, theater, film, jazz and other improvised music. Similarly, the transience and ephemerality inherent in improvisation complicate the discourse on the ontological status of art and artworks.
Critical Responses [40%]
Two students will be called on at random (using a random number generator) each session to provide a response to the weekly reading as a means of facilitating discussion. The response should comprise a set of questions that draw on the reading, but it can be somewhat open-ended and raise generally applicable questions as well.
Final Paper/Project [60%]
There will be two options for the final: a 15-page research paper OR an artwork that responds to the concepts we cover in the class together with a shorter theoretical statement (5-6 pages). Students must meet with the instructor by the end of the 5th week of the quarter to discuss plans for the final paper/project. Projects to be performed in a concert on March 10, 2018 at 7:30 pm in Brechemin Auditorium.
Reading/Viewing List (subject to improvisatory revision)
Weeks 1-2 On Transience and Ephemerality
Freud, S. 1915. “On Transience.” http://www.freuds-requiem.com/transience.html
[originally published in Das Land Goethes]
Viewing: On the Edge (Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice), 1992
Week 3 On Spontaneity and Flow
Foster, Susan Leigh. Improvised Flow: Opening Statements, p. 147
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. A Theoretical Model for Enjoyment, p. 150
Cunningham, Merce. The Impermanent Art, p. 165
Kerouac, Jack. Essentials of Spontaneous Prose, p. 207
Week 4 TBA (I will be out of town this week)
Update: guest presentation by Daniel Webbon on phenomenological theories of
Weeks 5-7 The Problem of the Work-Concept
Week 5, Goehr: Introduction, Chapters 5 - 6
optional: Moore, Robin. “The Decline of Improvisation in Western Art Music: An Interpretation of Change.” International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Jun., 1992), pp. 61-84 Available on JSTOR
Viewing: Robert Levin: Improvising Mozart
Week 6, Goehr: Chapters 7 - 8
Week 7, Goehr: Chapters 4, 9
Week 8 Individuality, Interaction, and Ethics
optional: Davidson, Arnold. "Spiritual Exercises, Improvisation, and Moral Perfectionism: With Special Reference to Sonny Rollins." In The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, Volume 1. : Oxford University Press, 2016-09-29.
Week 9 Embodiment in Diverse Media
Week 10 Visiting Scholar: Jane Taylor
please go to her talk on Tuesday, 3/6/18 at 6:00 pm