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Can Improvisation be Taught?


Gary Peters

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Abstract

The aim of this article is to reconsider the (age old) problem of relating theory to practice in art education by placing it within the largely ignored context of improvisation. In so doing it is hoped that some of the well-known difficulties art practitioners have when confronted with the (usually mandatory) history and theory components of their programmes of study might be better understood and, perhaps, managed rather differently.

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At the centre of the debate between theorists and practitioners in the arts is the question of relevance: which histories, theories, methodologies are relevant to the artist in the studio, video maker on location or designer confronted by a brief? Within art education however, the question of relevance has been understood in a specific way, casting history and theory in the role of providing contextual and analytical support for practice, thus complementing and supplementing that practice rather than directly engaging with it. At best, within such an educational model, the theoretically orientated art student develops a more sophisticated understanding of the history of their practice and the conceptual concerns and practical solutions of other practitioners, they become more knowledgeable and, often, more self-reflexive: excellent. At worst, such an approach seems irrelevant to the day-today productive concerns of the artist faced with the reality of making aesthetic judgements (often on the hoof), solving problems, taking chances and capitalising on the unforeseen. From within this, the predicament of the artist as producer, historical and theoretical models can appear hopelessly rigid, formularised and cumbersome, quite apart from their difficulty in other respects: their intellectualism. As a response to this rather familiar picture, this article will propose, albeit schematically, an alternative approach, one intended to augment rather than negate the current provision briefly sketched above. In particular, it will be suggested that history and theory teaching within art education needs to widen its focus, drawing into its remit a more direct engagement with the creative process itself, an approach traditionally reserved for practitioner/teachers working in the studio. The central, albeit implicit, claim here will be that in order to be effective the theorisation of creativity must liberate itself from a whole set of assumptions inherited from romantic and post-romantic art and recognise instead the particular structure of improvisation within which the artist works.

At present there is very little writing on improvisation and most of that has emerged within music practice, usually written by musicians, as well as within the area of dance where improvisatory techniques are central. By placing an emphasis on self-expression and collective interaction, the musical account of improvisation, while important, has proved less engaged with the particular structure of improvisation. One of the intended aims of the current research is to both broaden this perspective while offering a more theoretically sophisticated model of improvisation that reflects more accurately the particularity of aesthetic production across the disciplines and which draws upon primary, although often ignored, aspects of contemporary theory. Although, as said, there is relatively little written on improvisation, it does quite frequently appear in course documentation across a range of disciplines in the arts. Within this context, it is evident that a particular model of improvisation is often assumed, one that connotes a set of positive values that can take on, and often do take on, an emancipatory force that is politically empowering and emotionally alluring. The teacher and improviser LaDonna Smith, who has written extensively on improvisation and education, will be allowed to set the tone here: The act of engaging in free improvisation will become a liberator, and emancipator, for many people to touch into their emotional lives in a nonverbal and non-judgemental way. We must introduce this healthy way of life [1]. This is stirring stuff, pitched as it is against everything that is negative in our experience as teachers, the curricula and bureaucracy that too often constrain us, the institutions and their mission statements that deflect or frustrate us, the hoops to jump through and so on, who wouldnt want more improvisation? So let us take a more detailed look, then, at the most familiar components of this model of improvisation before considering an alternative that, although

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somewhat less inspirational might, perhaps, be more valuable pedagogically: a suggestion that will be left open for debate at the conclusion of these current remarks. In the meantime, here are some key assumptions of what I will call Improvisation model A. Model A Autonomy Making use of Isaiah Berlins famous distinction [2] between negative and positive freedom freedom-from and freedom-to, this model of improvisation promotes both, albeit with mixed success. It is easy enough to imagine the different boxes we might want to escape from, and certainly the role of teacher-as-emancipator is an attractive one for those who are seeking change. For LaDonna Smith, speaking from within the context of music education, the negativity of improvisation is needed to challenge the hegemony of rote learning, sterile instrumental technique and rigid modes of interpretation. She writes: Sadly, as I look into University curriculums, it is apparent that nothing much has changed in the last 30 years There are many advances in the art of composition, in the technology of music, and in the return to improvisation as the direct route to selfexpression. The need for music departments to change priorities and create a curriculum to reflect the present tendencies is imminent [3]. Many of us would agree with that, but, shifting these thoughts into the positive register of freedom-to, if, as LaDonna Smith goes on to claim, Improvisation is clearly a key to unlock the doors of music making in the future, what does this door, locked until now, open out onto? Students are free-to do what exactly? Giving them permission to feel, or invent is not enough. Encouraging them to touch into their emotional lives in a non-judgemental and non-verbal way, might sound great to the teacher/improviser, but it will most likely be either terrifying or derisory for the student, either a Roussea-esque forced

autonomy or an embarrassing farce (and neither force nor embarrassment have ever been very productive pedagogical methods!). Development, linearity With this pair of concepts we come upon the model A improvisers mode of aesthetic and intellectual movement. The primary concern with self-development is here allowed to hang on the parallel development of a dynamic pedagogy that, through the introduction of improvisatory techniques, aims to ensure that the student is not tempted to seek security and reassurance in the given tradition, the canon, ideology, prejudice but develops to his or her full potential through endless self-transcendence. Here improvisation is made dependent on a restless curiosity that is even prepared to risk the work for the sake of that which is beyond the work and then beyond that beyond. But, in spite of the apparent radicalism and progressiveness of the above which, on the face of it, might appear to challenge many fundamental aspects of current educational theory and practice, it does, nevertheless share with the former the same developmental, progressive, linear, dynamic, future-orientated structure, albeit in a rather different guise. Both seek the same goals, more or less, but only differ as to the most effective ways of achieving them. A different model of improvisation might challenge these goals: but more on that later. Innovation, the new, the question Linked to the above prioritisation of movement above stasis, and the future above the present and the past, the interpenetration of improvisation and innovation is commonly taken for granted in this model. To improvise is to progressively shed the old and enter the new, to throw off what Nietzsche famously called historys spirit of gravity, and actively forget that past, thus creating the future. This perennial avant-gardism, that seeks rather than finds (to echo Picasso) and questions rather than answers is clearly an exciting way to think educationally, and it has certainly excited many

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artists throughout the modernist period (one that still dominates arts education), but, again, the futurity of the future, its absence and otherness can, as Kierkegaard recognised long ago, create a profound anxiety which may or may not have educational benefits (not that I am against anxiety myself! In small doses of course). But seriously, it is precisely this familiar interlocking of improvisation and avant-gardism that, exhilarating though it may be, obstructs the thinking and formation of another model of improvisation, one that, although less exciting, might, perhaps, make a more substantial contribution to arts education. Self-expression It is more than 30 years now since Michel Foucault declared the subject dead, and, since his own actual death many poststructuralist thinkers have continued to explain to us why the humanist affirmation of the self can no longer be embraced with the same fervour as in days of old. But, on the whole, such ideas have had as little impact on model A improvisers as they have on arts educators. As Ben Watson, in a recent book, confidently declares: To get a grip on Free Improvisation [why the capitals?] anything tainted by existentialism, structuralism or poststructuralism will not suffice. All that Parisian nonsense was a product of the failure of 1968: neo Kantian despair, pseudo-radical Nietzschean sentimentality [4]. This desperately butch dismissal of everything pseudo and the (equally sentimental) defence of the improviser as one who is securely situated within the movement of living speech rather than the stasis of petrified forms and dead languages [5], resonates through much of the anti-intellectualism of arts education which continues (theoretical lip-service notwithstanding) to assume a pre-structuralist concept of the self, coupled with a romantic or early modernist notion of expression. Inevitably situated within objective structures, both aesthetic and extra-

aesthetic, student improvisation is here promoted as a means of introducing the subjective into the objective, the singular into the collective, the self into otherness, the idiosyncratic into the formulaic. In particular, it is the perceived directness of improvisation, the immediacy that speaks straight from the heart, that is championed as the royal road to self-development and self-expression and emotional fulfilment. As always, it is difficult to argue with this without coming over as a Parisian killjoy and post-structuralist pseud. Surely everyone is striving for these goals? Well, yes, but maybe a slightly more circumspect consideration of the ways in which notions of expression and, indeed, expressive feelings themselves are mediated by given forms (is any form dead?) might result in a concept of improvisation that more closely matches the predicament of the student trying to get a decent education. Before turning to an alternative model of improvisation, I would like to make one, more general, point about model A improvisation and its accompanying pedagogy, a point which links back to Berlins two concepts of freedom. The argument, as presented above, encourages teachers and educationalists to introduce improvisation into the curriculum for two linked but rather different reasons. On the one hand, thought negatively, improvisation is a means to an end, a way of loosening up or, indeed, challenging educational structures with a view to arriving at educational strategies that are more responsive to current needs and current technologies, actually more about education than improvisation per se. On the other, improvisation is promoted, positively, as a valuable end in itself, as something to be taught. And this is the problem, whether it be as a way of teaching or the subject of teaching, improvisation, as described above, is, if not unteachable, then excruciatingly difficult to teach. As Kant recognised long ago in the Critique of Judgement, any human activity so thoroughly immersed in the concepts of autonomy, singularity and independence (even without the addition of creativitys

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inscrutable dynamism witnessed above) will find no adequate method of instruction, only a pedagogical manner, the discussion of which will, unfortunately, take us too far off of our path here [6]. Suffice it to say that the model of improvisation presented above is itself too problematical to function as the solution to our existing pedagogical problems, rigidities or insensitivities. Too many questions are begged and too many assumptions made. In itself, making a space for improvisation, encouraging it, permitting it, while laudable, will remain idealistic (and thus largely ineffective) as long as it adheres to a model that ties it to a movement that incessantly goes beyond, transcends and breaches the given in the name of the new, the unexpected, the unheard-of and the freedom that is assumed to accompany eternal novelty. Without wishing in any way to counter, critique or negate this model I will, as promised, turn now to another way of conceiving improvisation, not better or worse, just different. Model B Heteronomy Understood here as obedience to an external authority (one, be it noted, that can be interiorised), heteronomy and improvisation are by no means opposed. Students improvise all of the time, but if you ask them to improvise they will most likely freeze, they wont know what to do. They will assume that the expectation is that they make something up, do something new, act out a certain autonomy: this is not easy (and I dont think its very easy to teach them either). But there is a confusion here, a confusion of model A and model B. The improvisation that passes unnoticed, the ongoing work of the art work, the trial and error, the problem solving, the simple and not so simple pleasures of distraction (doodling, twiddling, twirling and whirling Im not a choreographer! taking a line for a walk as Paul Klee famously put it), this takes place within given structures that over-determine the play of the familiar and the unfamiliar, the expected and the unexpected, the intention and the accident. Every

time a student picks up a brush or a pen, looks through a camera or sits behind an instrument, each time a dancer steps onto the floor or a drama student onto a stage they step into a profoundly heteronomous space where infinite possibility is entangled in a dense web of impossibility. Niklas Luhmann, in his Art as a Social System, speaks of art as the marking of an unmarked space [7], but this is A team avantgardist thinking, promoting an aesthetic that must constantly erase the past the given in order to preserve the autonomous act of creation. One might suggest that, in fact, no space is unmarked, there is no virgin soil awaiting the pure improvisatory gesture. The given, or what Hegel called the there [8] is always already there, and it is marked. The artwork does not so much mark an unmarked space as re-mark a marked space. This does not rule out improvisation, it circumscribes and, thus, transforms it. Just how will be dealt with as we continue. Repetition, circularity Familiarity does not have to breed contempt, much of the pleasure of improvisation can be related to the improvisers attention to moments of re-cognition and re-presentation (re-marking) that resist times passage. Thought outside of the model of incessant self-transcendence, the moment becomes not an insignificant and insubstantial point on a line, but, rather, what might be called a space of retention where familiar patterns and figures are re-hearsed, re-vised and re-configured with varying degrees of obsessiveness. I think of Giacomettis paintings where the work does not develop in a linear fashion, but proceeds through a cycle of marking, erasing and re-marking that, to be sure, stops at a certain point, but is never finished. Or his obsessive moulding of little clay figures until they disintegrated in his hands, only to start again on another cycle of improvised repetition: always the same, always different. To read Kafkas Diaries is to witness something similar, experimentation rooted in the repetition of the given passages

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starting, re-starting and re-starting again and again where, as in his novels, it is the endless detours of writing that trap him in the eternal recurrence of the same, where an ultimate goal (the Castle) becomes increasingly meaningless. Thought thus, within an educational context, improvisation becomes, perhaps, a little less intimidating for the student, less of a mystery or a gift and more to do with what Walter Benjamin would call the illumination of the known. Such a de-mystification also allows improvisation to be, if not taught directly, at least presented in such a way that the student begins to identify and hopefully capitalise on the improvisational dimension of their own work, a dimension which may have gone unrecognised or have been obscured by the more daunting otherness of model A. If nothing else, students need to become aware of the fact that repetition and difference are not opposites. As Gilles Deleuze has argued, we can distinguish two forms of repetition, the first being the repetition of the same, the second containing difference; the first negative, the second positive or affirmative; the first static, the second dynamic [9]. This shift of polarity is something that can be taught. Without needing to worry about the preservation of the students autonomy or the astonishing novelty of their work, the teacher can become involved instead in defamiliarising the familiar and drawing out the difference in the repetition that characterises most art work. Instead of trying to propel the student beyond him or herself, the teacher can become more concerned with assisting the student to come to a more sophisticated and more intense understanding of their given situation Interestingly, and in spite of appearances to the contrary, such a pedagogical strategy, by eschewing a developmental linearity, represents a more radical challenge to the existing structure of arts education than does the more openly polemical model of improvisation introduced at the outset: model A. Perhaps we might say, model A cant be taught; model B wont be taught.

Conservation, the old, the answer We must distinguish conservation from conservatism. Conservation, understood here as the production of difference through repetition, protects the old by retaining it as the necessary horizon for the new. By absolutising the new, the avant-gardism of model A improvisation renders it not only abstract (hence its unteachability) but, more importantly, undifferentiated: difference driven into sameness. The enemy of absolute novelty is the clich, clichd improvisation would, on the face of it, be a contradiction in terms. The unmarked space already encountered would be a space cleared of clichs prior to the pure improvisory gesture. As Deleuze, speaking of Cezanne and Francis Bacon expresses it: Clichs, clichs! The situation has hardly improved since Cezanne. Not only has there been a multiplication of images of every kind. Around us and in our heads, but even the reactions against clichs are creating clichs. Even abstract painting has not been the last to produce its own clichs Every imitator has always made the clich rise up again, even from what had been freed from the clich. The fight against the clich is a terrible thing [10]. Well, maybe it is, and perhaps the role of the teacher is to help the student identify clichs and encourage them to remove them. This will, in turn, depend upon establishing an educational regime of critical questioning, where one has to learn to be suspicious of given answers, ensuring that they are only allowed to come after the question and not before. But, then again, maybe we do not have to devote so much time to fighting clichs, indeed maybe clichs arent so terrible. Is it not possible to think of an education that begins with the given, with the answer, and works with that? Maurice Blanchot, in a discussion of Simone Weil, suggests just such an intriguing reversal. He writes: We enter into thought only by questioning. We go from question to question to the point where the

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question, pushed toward a limit, becomes response Such a way of proceeding is foreign to Simone Weil it would seem that she first responds to herself, as though for her the answer always comes first, preceding every question and even every possibility of questioning: there is an answer, then another, and then again another answer Affirming is often for Simone Weil a way of questioning or a way of testing [11]. This is not unique to Simone Weil; in truth, and in spite of the critical discourses that have been spun around it, art practice is more often than not affirmative in nature. Artists do not devote the bulk of their time to negating the work of other artists, they affirm their own. This affirmation is rather different to self-expression, as will be indicated in a moment, but is better understood as the representation and re-vivification of the given, of clichs. Improvisation here does not avoid or destroy clichs, it keeps them alive, indeed it is precisely the life compacted into clichs (an unspoken history or archaeology of joy, longing and regret) that gives such improvisation its intensity. Thomas Mann captures this both beautifully and poignantly in his novel Joseph and his Brothers, here he describes Jacobs grief at the apparent death of his son Joseph: Crimson and swollen, he said, his voice trembling, is my countenance weeping. For deep-bowed in my affliction I sit down to weep, and my face is wet with the tears that flow down it. The words, as one could tell, were not original with him. For Noah, according to the legend, was supposed to have said some such thing, and Jacob made it his own. And indeed it is good, it is convenient and consoling, that from the suffering of our ancestors we inherit right and suitable words in which to clothe our own, which then fit it as though they were made for it Certainly, Jacob could do his grief no greater honour than to set it on a level with the great flood and apply to it words which were coined for that catastrophe [12].

Once again, then, improvisation is here working with the known, rather than feeling compelled to probe the unknown, marking the unmarked; and it is this that suggests a manner of teaching something to the improviser. The task of the teacher here is to de-familiarise the familiar not in order to negate it, as with Brechts alienation effect (admittedly, an important pedagogical strategy) but to embrace it anew, the integration of the new and the old perhaps the new in the old / the old in the new. Like a ball-bearing in a pinball machine, it is the movement within and the contact with the given that allows the student to illuminate their world and their work. But merely permitting a space for improvisation is not sufficient, the teacher needs to carve out this space, needs to produce it, through an exemplary engagement with the given, one that can be repeated and re-produced by the student. While this might not amount to the teaching of improvisation per se, nevertheless teaching with and within the known rather than the unknown, with and within the marked and the remarked rather than the unmarked is clearly a more substantial pedagogical enterprise than is the case within the abstract idealism of Model A improvisation: inspirational but dark. Expression and otherness Just as a reminder, LaDonna Smiths promotion of improvisation is as the direct route to selfexpression. This image of the improviser as the self at play, one that can be traced back at least as far as Friedrich Schillers notion of the aesthetic education of man, assumes a humanism that is not only at odds with the model of improvisation now being mooted, but also (for what its worth) with the mainstream of contemporary theory. Clearly, improvisation can be expressive, but does it have to be? Indeed, does art have to be expressive at all? I think of Becketts famous lament: The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express [13].

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Yes, expression is an obligation, it is unavoidable anyway (who could be more expressive than Beckett?), but expression and self-expression are by no means synonymous. It could be argued that the real pedagogical value of improvisation is not to enable the student (as self) to express him or herself (if they can do it they dont need teaching!), but precisely the Other to express him or herself. And yes, the Other is gendered, the given, the clichs all around us, already there are not merely dead structures to be given the slip by the everagile improviser, but the congealed expressivity of real men and women, silent but present sotto voce in what is there and available: the all-toofamiliar. To the extent that improvisation puts this otherness back into play, not as a presence that an be grasped and owned, but as a fugitive exteriority that brings a collective and objective intensity to this re-vivification of the dead, of dead forms that are never really dead, to this extent the teacher has much to offer the improviser, not in teaching them what to do with this material, but to bringing them to a proper awareness of what it is, of exactly what is there, of what they have at their fingertips. To understand this is to learn both the possibility and the impossibility of improvisation, a paradoxical knowledge perfectly captured here by Jacques Derrida: Its not easy to improvise, its the most difficult thing to do. Even when one improvises in front of a camera or a microphone, one ventriloquises or leaves another to speak in ones place. The schemas and languages that are already there, there are already a great number of prescriptions, that are prescribed in our memory and our culture. All the names are already preprogrammed. Its already the names that inhibit our ability to ever really improvise. One cant say whatever one wants, one is obliged, more or less, to reproduce the stereotypical discourse. And so I believe in improvisation, and I fight for improvisation, but with the belief that it is impossible. But there, where there is improvisation, I am not able to see myself, I am blind to myself. And it is what I will see, no, I wont see it, it is for others to

see. The one who has improvised here, no I wont ever see him [14]. Can improvisation be taught? No. Can the improviser be taught? Yes, but not how to improvise, rather, to be made better aware of what improvisation might be, what it might consist of and where it might be found. And, Derrida is right, we may well not find ourselves there at the event of improvisation or if we are there, bearing down on the moment enraptured by a dubious autonomy, perhaps it will be necessary to absent ourselves in order for improvisation to be itself: the peculiar resonance of a silent oblivion stretched-out across the persistent formulas and clichs of human longing.

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Notes and References 1. Smith, LaDonna: Improvisation as a Form of Cultural Recreation, The Improvisor: the international journal on free improvisation (online). Available from URL www.the-improvisor.com 2. Berlin, Isaiah (1958) Two Concepts of Liberty. London: Oxford University Press. 3. Smith, LaDonna: Improvisation in Childhood Music Training and Techniques for Creative Music Making, The Improvisor (online). Available from URL www.the-improvisor.com 4. Watson, Ben (2004) Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation. London: Verso, p. 9. 5. Ibid. 6. For a discussion of method and manner see my (2004) Means Without End: Production, Reception and Teaching in Kants Aesthetics, Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol 38, No. 1. 7. Luhmann, Niklas (2000) Art as a Social System, trans. Eva Knodt. Stanford: Stanford University Press, p. 24. 8. Hegel, G. W. F . (1975) Aesthetics, trans. T. M. Knox. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 6167. 9. Deleuze, Gilles (1994) Repetition and Difference, trans. Paul Patton. New York: Continuum, pp. 234. 10. Deleuze, Gilles (2003) Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, trans. Daniel Smith, London: Continuum, p. 89. 11. Blanchot, Maurice (1993) The Infinite Conversation, trans. Susan Hanson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p. 108. 12. Mann, Thomas (1956) Joseph and his Brother, trans. Helen Lowe-Porter. London: Secker & Warburg, p. 426. 13. Beckett, Samuel (1983) Three Dialogues, in Disjecta. London: John Calder, p. 139.

14. This is an unpublished passage quoted in the film Derrida, directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Hofman, Jane Doe Films, 2002.

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