Yesterday I presented “Improvisation and Everyday Performance” at the Cultural Studies Association conference in New Orleans. Our panel was a part of the performance studies working group, so my main point was to try to understand how improvisation relates to questions of performance and performativity.
Briefly put, my argument is that improvisation studies is overdetermined by a view of improvisation as a “special” kind of activity, and that we need to pay more attention to the ways in which improvisation can be banal, repetitive, destructive, and ordinary. To that end, I discussed Michel de Certeau’s notion of an everyday practice and Sara Ahmed’s idea of an orientation to identify the contingencies involved in everyday activities. Following from my idea that improvisation is strictly co-extensive with contingency, I argued that–if perception itself is a practice that is improvised–then improvisation should be considered not only as profoundly ordinary, but also as foundational to our experience of the world.
What happens when improvisation moves away from a creative capacity proper to the acting subject and toward an constitutive feature of being in the world? What do we gain or lose by bringing improvisation into conversation with habitus, performance, practice, and other terms that try to think human agency in relation to memory, history, contingency, and power?
My friends and I have recorded some music for a new improvisation project called Common Things. The band is Joshua Bryant on bass, Alex Burgoyne on alto, myself on the drums, and Aaron Quinn on the guitar.
No other interval carries an equivalent ambivalence or affect. The major seventh simultaneously belongs to its tonic and nevertheless sounds a world apart. By comparison, the tritone belongs to the major scale only as a matter of technicality; its dissonance is total, so much so that it is caricatured. Far from this crass and cartoonish dissonance, the major seventh uses dissonance to achieve transcendence. Or: the major seventh is beautiful by and through its very dissonance, through its long distance from tonic that is also the shortest distance possible.
This past weekend I was lucky to present at the Capacious conference in Lancaster, PA. Subtitled “Affect Inquiry/Making Space”, the title alludes to affect’s transdisciplinary spread as well as the omnivorous attitude that such a spreading-capacity engenders, at least in my experience, in those who think with it. I found the conference to be incredibly expansive both in breadth and depth, indeed a space-making for all kinds of approaches, topics, experiences, and ideas. I come away lit up with new energy.
As I continue writing my dissertation, affect is becoming an increasingly important aspect of how I think about improvisation. Maybe I will talk about that here soon. In the meantime, if you want more affect, you can start here.
Last year I was interviewed for a podcast about improvisation and sound called Sound it Out. We talked about my research in general, and the idea that there is a connection between musical improvisation and everyday life. For me, this connection has always centered around “contingency”—the idea that at the heart of the matter, what it means to improvise is to engage with the contingency of a moment.
It was still early days in my dissertation work, so there are some rough spots in terms of what I’m saying and thinking. But I think there are some good parts too, especially the music and the conversation that we have at the end.