Knut Holtsträter ist Assistent des Lehrstuhls für Theaterwissenschaft unter besonderer Berücksichtigung des Musiktheaters an der Universität Bayreuth.

Issue 5

Analysing and Interpreting Improvised Music

August 2014

ISSN 2191-253X

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Editorial 2014/5: Analysing and Interpreting Improvised Music

von Knut Holtsträter

In dealing with improvised music, conventional musical analysis and interpretation come up against their (seemingly natural) limits. First of all, music which is partly or completely improvised calls into question the nature of musical-artistic expression and with it, the Werkästhetik as well as the manual and technical procedures and principles of composed music, expressed in such bywords as structure, form, idea and in aesthetic premises like subjectivity, expression, development. In this regard improvised music as ‘playing culture’ is found in the scholarly, aesthetic and pedagogical discourse again in a competitive situation with the written cultures of composed music—a situation in which the playing culture, owing to its difficulties in describing musical processes, tends to be marginalized and excluded. At the same time, musical improvisation or improvised music has long since arrived in our musical world: The array of improvised music in western culture includes all genres, from the free-play forms of new music to the improvised music (in German "Impro­visierte Musik" with a capital "I"), jazz (free jazz or free-form jazz) or rock (acid rock, krautrock, jam rock, noise rock). Even in the avant-garde currents of funk, soul, blues and pop decidedly 'free' forms of playing can be found.

In a certain sense it may be indicative of the research landscape that the contribu­tions received for the current issue deal with free or, to be more precise, avant-garde jazz or new music, in other words, with styles of music that attempt to follow the demands that in fact are made by music of the written culture, namely structural complexity and advancement of the musical language. With our journal’s priorities decidedly orientated to the performative dimension of music, we see the opportunity to find for the area of improvised music new and 'subject'-appropriate approaches to analysis and interpretation, arising from improvised music as ideational expression not only (as with all music) in the performance, but also, first and foremost, for and on the basis of the performance. This could also expand the range of possibilities heretofore neglected for analysis and interpretation. If we assume that the structural-analysis approach is an ideological remnant of composed new music, understood as absolute art, then the question arises of whether this 'ideology' or 'set of ideas' can be used at all for the description and interpretation of improvised music, which indeed appears to be permeated with an entirely different 'ideology' or 'set of ideas.' It is necessary to ask to what extent approaches from ethnology, sociology, psychology, physiology and performance studies come closer to the subject of improvised music. Admittedly, this would mean a shift of focus with respect to the subject matter, that is, from the sonic result of an action to the action itself. Thus, instead of the focus being the structure, psychology and culture of a music (in the sense of a globalised, German romantic-modern music aesthetic, wherein even Wagner's music is understood to be separated from its drama), the focal point of interested observation would now be the structure, psychology and culture of making music with all of its implications (hence, in the sense of 'musicking', as Christopher Small has suggested).[1] Consequently, the performance situations, the physicality, the space, the narratives and 'social dramas,' the motiva­tions, the modes of publicity, the dynamics and frameworks of musicality, as well as the technical and cultural technologies of music-making would move to the fore­ground.[2] I am convinced that the special character of improvised music as a form of artistic expression can be found precisely in these preconditions, which do not necessarily have to be prescribed by an author or written down, and that these preconditions influence and have a lasting impact on the sonic result, which emerges in improvisations. Calling into question the compositional authority, however, does not therefore mean also abandoning the structural-analysis approach of the new music aesthetics. For ultimately, improvised music too develops a structure, only it is not necessarily developed within the framework of the rules of composition, but rather in the course of exploratory, experimental playing.

In this regard I find it very enlightening that with Richard Scott and Oliver Schwerdt, two established and concertizing improvisers speak to the topic. In differing ways both provide insight into the distinct playing cultures of improvised music and free jazz. Floris Schuiling in his article starts out with this dichotomy between composition and improvisation and points to the Instant Composers Pool, whose musicians use the conflicts resulting from this constellation in creative ways.

Once again we conclude an issue with a review section that is not related to the main theme, here consisting of Bernd Hobe's discussion of a psychoanalytical interpretta­tion of Richard Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen and Céline Kaiser's review of two publications from the field of theatre pedagogy.

With the appearance of the last issue of Act to be supported by the German Research Foundation (Deutschen Forschungsgemeinschaft), I am pleased as chief editor to be able to address my thanks to the movers and shakers who until now have received no mention in this journal, yet without whom this and the other issues would not have been possible. These experts, to date 20 in number, had so much confidence in the fledgling journal that they volunteered their time and expertise to help out as anonymous reviewers. Moreover, given that the principle of peer review is still not very widespread in German-speaking scholarly circles, these still unnamed indivi­duals deserve special thanks. Also I would like to thank once again the student assistants, Lara Zickgraf and Steffen Klein, who in the course of the project have been invaluable help in the conception of the journal and in documenting the phases of our editorial development. I would like to take this opportunity as well to express my gratitude to the publishers of the issues released to date (Anno Mungen, Melanie Fritsch, Sarah Mauksch and Wolf-Dieter Ernst) and the issues now scheduled for publication. Without their professional expertise and their commitment to finding interesting focal themes for each issue, acquiring the help of specialists and supporting the peer review process, the journal would be poorer in various respects.

A special, very warm and heartfelt thanks goes to our editor of the English-language texts and translator from German to English, Glenda Dawn Goss. Thanks to her help, we have been able to keep a high standard in the English texts, while our German texts have also often benefitted from her editing. We very much look forward to our continued collaboration.

We have decided on some changes, which stem on the one hand from the daily editorial work and on the other hand take into account the progress in Internet technologies. Because of the small number of submissions of French and Italian articles, the journal in the future will be bilingual, which means that the articles will be published only in German and English. Furthermore, because the section maintained by the editors under the rubric "Hinweise" has not turned out to be practical for this journal or for an Internet format, it is being suspended as of this issue. In addition, we will henceforth publish the articles and reviews only as PDF files, a decision that is a result of the extensive compatibility of the PDF format today and of the increasing interconnectedness of our content with full-text databases. The overall appearance of the website, however, will be only slightly affected, with the teaser and the abstracts for the respective contributions continuing to guarantee the possibility of browsing our journal.


Knut Holtsträter

[1]        Christopher Small, Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening, Hanover 1998.

[2]       As successful examples of such alternative approaches, I present here in chronological order a few recommended titles, which vary widely in nature: Derek Bailey, Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music, London 1992; Peter Niklas Wilson, Reduktion: Zur Aktualität einer musikalischen Strategie, Mainz 2003; David Borgo, Sync or Swarm: Improvising Music in a Complex Age, New York 2005; Iain Anderson, This Is Our Music: Free Jazz, the Sixties, and American Culture, Philadelphia, PA 2007; Guerino B. Mazzola and Paul B. Cherlin, in collaboration with Mathias Rissi and Nathan Kennedy, Flow, Gesture, and Spaces in Free Jazz: Towards a Theory of Collaboration, New York 2009.