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July 11, 2004

Improvisation & interpretation

Upon reading a text by Jean-Jacques Nattiez [Nattiez, 1990] I started thinking about a few things relating to the difference between the performance of composed music and the act of musical improvisation. First of all the article illustrates some of the lack of respect musicology specifically and western classical music in general is, and has been, showing musics of improvised and oral tradition. However I will come back to this in a later post when discussing George Lewis's work. Also, this being an article about musical semiology it may not be relaevant to criticize Nattiez for not showing more interest in improvisation.

What strikes me as interesting in this context is the apparent difficulty in defining where the music is actually created: "since music is an art of 'interpretation', where does the poietic process end and the esthesic process begin?" [p. 72]. As Nattiez points out it all depends on whether we conceive of the score or the performance as the work. And further: "In musics whithout a score, this border is displaced, since the producer and the performer find themselves intermingled" [p. 72].

The fact that the roles are intermingled does not make it uninteresting to explore it. As an improvisor I work with musical material and concepts when practicing, much in the same way I do when composing, in order to become fluent and able to improvise using this material and these concepts. So the terms poietic and esthesic does relate to improvisation to a very high degree. I would even want to go so far as to say that improvisation involves a special case of musical interpretation. However, this interpretation takes place only at the moment of performance, and is the result of the performers interaction with the audience, other musicicans ant the performers level of sensibility to these and other influences.

So, to conclude for tonight, this means that in a certain sense, and assuming we regard the performance, rather than the score, as the work, improvisation, contrary to what Nattiez is saying, is not different from the performance of a score in that "the poietic process extends until the performance is complete. Performance shows itself in this case to be the last stage of the poietic, as well as the first stage of the esthesic." [p. 72].

Posted by henrikfr at July 11, 2004 11:01 PM


Personally I somehow prefer calling improvisation a kind of real time composing, but this is an interesting line of thought, that improvisation is a form of performative interpretation, being an interpretation of musical concepts developed while practising and performing at other times. As mentioned above it seems most reasonable to regard improvisation using pre-prepared electronic treatment as a kind of interpretation but maybe this can be worked as an ontological construction concerning other forms of improvisation as well?

Posted by: stefan_ostersjo [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 12, 2004 11:49 PM

Yes, I think it can. Not any improvisation and definitely not the kind that is usually referred to as aleatoric or indeterminant music such as the work by Cage. Cage would probably disaprove of this entire discussion.

Posted by: henrikfr [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 13, 2004 12:05 AM

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