Unreal Nature

February 21, 2013


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:39 am

… Its primary aim is to produce beginnings.

… Instead of art simply being there, improvisation renders it questionable, insecure, contingent, and endangered. … [T]he audience is here denied the all-too-familiar pleasures of the known and forced instead to witness close up not only the contingency of the artwork’s occurrences but also the uncertainty of its continuance, the contestation of its identity, and its eventual destruction at the hands of the improvisors.

This is from The Philosophy of Improvisation by Gary Peters (2009):

… The dramatization of the instant prior to making the first sound, indeed, the dramatization of risk and contingency as associated with the transition from the unmarked to the marked, articulates a freedom that is, in fact, doubly negative. The art of improvisation is the art of making something happen and, as such, a liberation-from the absence of the work. Silence, stillness, blankness are all valorized as originary aesthetic essences only to be cancelled by sound, movement, or figuration. The problem, however, is that once at play within the marked space, the improvisor or improvisors risk being enticed or indeed forced into the given structures of gameplay, thus posing a threat to the positive freedom desired and demanding, in turn, a liberation from the game. Squeezed from both sides, from the unmarked and the marked respectively, free-improvisation must either compromise and fall back on certain identifiable rules of gameplay or, conversely, devise strategies that allow a vestigial productivity on the very edge of self-negation.

[ … ] This practice [within which the improvisor works] has to begin and the dramatization of this beginning is achieved by introducing freedom into the silence prior to the work — will or won’t it begin? But this is disingenuous: nothing could be more certain than that such work will begin. An infinite multitude of artworks never manage to mark the unmarked space from which they are intended to be liberated-from, but freely improvised performances have to begin precisely because that is their primary role within the aesthetic: to make the distinction between nothing and something. The aesthetic discourses underpinning improvisatory practice will tell us that the absence prior to the work, so important for the self-understanding and self-dramatization of the improvisor, concerns the absence of planning, the risk taking associated with an unguided journey into the unknown where “anything can happen.” Future plans are of course based on past successes, so the removal of all planning does raise the specter of failure, which is always entertaining.

… Clearly, all spaces are in reality marked by the presence of other works, not least the artist’s own, which implies that the ingenuity of origination must find ways to erase or forget the presence of the given in order to both avoid imitation (including self-imitation, perhaps the most common form) and open up the path to be followed, the “Open” that Heidegger believes is created and preserved by art. As an ideal-type in this regard free-improvisation is able to achieve, or at least to strive to achieve, a prior degree of aesthetic erasure beyond the reach of other art forms precisely because its primary aim is not to produce works. Its primary aim is to produce beginnings. As Eddie Prevost affirms:

Now, nothing is more dead than yesterday’s improvisation. What’s happening to a listener exposed to a repeated (recorded) improvisation? What’s happening to the music? As [Cornelius] Cardew noted, at least one feature of an improvisation is absent in a recording: that is, its transience. … A recorded improvisation is forever fixed, its routes to be learnt and remembered. This is exactly not the case with the playing and listening situation at the moment an improvisation begins.

… How can the disruption that is production, its spontaneity, surprise, its originary interruption of the repetition of the same take on the consistency or density of a work without sacrificing or betraying the logic of its production?

[ … ]

… Perhaps free-improvisors are the rarest and most peculiar artists of all, but what is clear is that such improvising brings to the surface in a very pure way not only the energy, passion, spontaneity, and extraordinary inventiveness upon which it stakes its reputation but also the contingency, fragility, and alterity of the aesthetic project. Derek Bailey claims that free-improvisation is the most natural thing in the world, being perhaps the most ancient mode of art practice: : “Historically, it pre-dates any other music — mankind’s first musical performance couldn’t  have been anything other than free improvisation.” This may well be true but it does not change the fact that the world of free-improvisation remains a strange place, strange because it is not really a place but more an edge between spaces, between times. This might explain the widespread fear of free-improvisation, both among audiences who tend to avoid it and performers who apparently are terrified by it. This is not an exaggeration: whenever and wherever improvisation figures in performance art, fear management becomes the central problem and task. So many improvisation workbooks are rooted in terror. Virtually every exercise, game, or “sport” to be found in such manuals has been designed to ward off the fear of the unmarked space, of the unknown and unplanned, of failure and ridicule, and above all of the fear of nothingness — that nothing will happen and the work will fail to begin. As Johnstone admits, almost all games in Impro for Storytellers were created to allow “improvisors to defend themselves against imaginary dangers as if these dangers were real.” Of course the strategies devised to manage and overcome such fears, so important for developing improvisational confidence and inducing performers into the community of improvisors are, for all of their value, nevertheless in danger of obscuring the fact that fear is not something that needs to be overcome so much as rerendered as aesthetically productive. Certainly the fear of improvising needs to be dealt with at the outset (so the books have some value), but this should be carefully distinguished from the fear for the improvisation, for the work of improvisation. This would be closer to fhe fear for one’s child, closer, that is, to what Heidegger would call “care,” a primary concern for the existence and continuance of the improvisation that is too often forgotten in the discourses of care and enabling that surround improvisation but which are directed toward improvisors rather than the improvisations.

The peculiarity of free-improvisation is that it does not produce works. To echo Kant’s description of art as “purposiveness without a purpose,” it is a working without a work; indeed, in certain respects it might be considered a working to avoid works. The absence of works, of “masterpieces,” might partly explain the small fan base for free-improvisation, fandom normally being driven by the promotion and consumption of “great works,” but, one suspects, it is the radical defamiliarization of the artwork enacted in such performances that is most alienating to audiences who have been weaned on a diet of set pieces and wall-to-wall favorites. Instead of art simply being there, improvisation renders it questionable, insecure, contingent, and endangered. Representing, along with the performers, the “standpoint of the other” necessary for an improvisation to attain the intensity necessary to begin, the audience is here denied the all-too-familiar pleasures of the known and forced instead to witness close up not only the contingency of the artwork’s occurrences but also the uncertainty of its continuance, the contestation of its identity, and its eventual destruction at the hands of the improvisors.

… More than any other form free-improvisation turns self-destruction into a spectacle. A microcosmic fragment of tradition, the work is destroyed by becoming a work. It is destroyed by the improvisors, by the audience, by all modes of preservation and documentation, and not least, by the aesthetic discourses (including this one) that would construct arguments to hold the work together even as it unravels before our eyes.

Once the work is in play, and contrary to the claims of Schiller and radical Schillerians alike, the possibility of freedom and commonality are progressively lost as continuity once again take precedence over the discontinuity of origination.

My most recent previous post from Peters’s book is here.



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