Saturday, November 17, 2007

Improvisation and Creativity

Trombone solo by Chad Bernstein of the South Nine Ensemble:

Benson proposes that improvisation offers a clearer model for understanding historical cultural processes than either creation or discovery (The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, Chapter Two). Benson's broad polemic against creativity is both obtuse and contrary to his expressed interest in phenomenology. The message he means to drive home is that an improvisational model of musical compostition is more "phenomnomelogically accurate" than a model of musical creation and (or because) it provides "a more balanced view of the relation between artist and community–one in which it is actually possible to see the artist as an integral part of the community" (p. 52). Benson's ambition is worthy, but he goes about it the wrong way. The critique he means to make should be directed against a certain ideology of the individual rather than against the creativity of individuals, which cannot be denied even if one chooses as examples, as Benson has, Shakespeare and Mozart. All individuals are creative. Likewise all communities are creative, though not in equal measure. One can imagine a community in which integration of its members amounts to stomping the life out of any florescence of individual creativity or any eccentricity, just as one can imagine a community that values and nurtures creative expression by its individual members to the point of disintegration. To understand how a community relates to artistic expressions by its members one must study the community, its values and its modalities of integration and of dialogue.

Eric Dolphy improvising on "God Bless the Child":

Improvisation, as described by Benson, is an admixture of imitiation and variation (p. 48). In my mind improvisation must also contain an element of spontaneous creativity, as Stephen Nachmanovitch argues (Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art, more on which later). Cultural histories consist in more than variations on a handful of forms or themes. After Boas (Primitive Art) we might attend to the creation of meanings apart from and in addition to the creation of forms. Forms are recycled and broadly diffused, acquiring different meanings in different cultural contexts. Nonetheless cultural meanings are sometimes more supple than granite, and new forms are in fact created. It always remains possible for an individual to assign meanings creatively, regardless of convention or the opinions of the community at large. That said, a dialogical improvisational model seems more attuned to the creative process than a model of creation ex nihilo. And it seems evident, as Benson argues, that the emphases on originality and authorship are related to an emphasis on the autonomous work, which is limiting to say the least (p. 62). If we set aside an impoverished view of creation as being solely the creation of autonomous works ex nihilo by solitary figures, then we can see improvisational dialogue as a musically creative process, and perhaps the best model at hand for understanding music making in general.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 8:57 AM.


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