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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.”

[originally published in Das Land Goethes]

Plato. Phaedrus (excerpt). Editor's Introduction, §274b - 277a


Bailey, Derek. Musical Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music PART IV

Earle Brown: Folio and 4 Systems, Calder Piece

Viewing: On the Edge (Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice), 1992

Week 3 On Spontaneity and Flow

selections from:

Caines, R., & Heble, Ajay. The improvisation studies reader : Spontaneous acts. (2015). Abingdon, Oxon ; New York, NY: Routledge.

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


Dreyfus, Hubert L. "Heidegger's Ontology of Art" in A Companion to Heidegger (2005), Hubert L. Dreyfus, Mark A. Wrathall (ed.) 

Thomson, Iain. "Heidegger's Aesthetics", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

Sec. 1-2.8 only

optional (source reading): Heidegger, Martin. "The Origin of the Work of Art" 

Weeks 5-7 The Problem of the Work-Concept

Goehr, Lydia. The imaginary museum of musical works : An essay in the philosophy of music. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2007).

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

Cobussen, Marcel. "Interaction" in Cobussen, M., & Nielsen, Nanette. (2012). Music and ethics. Burlington: Ashgate.

Hagberg, Garry L. "Ensemble Improvisation, Collective Intention, and Group Attention." In The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, Volume 1. : Oxford University Press, 2016-09-29. 

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. 

John Zorn: Cobra


Keith Rowe, John Tilbury: Duos for Doris, Cathnor,  Olaf (excerpt),  Oxelay

Miles Davis Quintet: Winter in Europe, #8 Footprints (2) begins at 42:21

John Coltrane: Chasin' the Trane

Sonny Rollins: I'm an Old Cowhand / Way out West,  Sonny Meets Hawk,

Week 9  Embodiment in Diverse Media


Viera, Maria. “The work of John Cassavetes: script, performance style, and improvisation,” Journal of Film and Video Vol. 42, No. 3, Problems in Screenwriting (Fall 1990), pp. 34-40

Artaud, Antonin. “Mise en Scene and Metaphysics” in Selected Writings, ed. Susan Sontag, pp. 227-239

Artaud, Antonin. “The Theater of Cruelty: First Manifesto” in Selected Writings, ed. Susan Sontag, pp. 242-252



Pina, directed by Wim Wenders (rent for $2.99),

optional: Coffee with Pina (documentary)

John Cassavetes


Encyclopedia of Improv Games (Theater)

Steve Tressler, Creativity Triggers for Musicians, 10 Improvisation Games for Ensembles

Week 10 Visiting Scholar: Jane Taylor

please go to her talk on Tuesday, 3/6/18 at 6:00 pm


William Kentridge: Anything Is Possible

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