I just wrote what I think will be the end of my dissertation. Perhaps true to form, it reprises an idea from my master’s thesis. Or I suppose, insofar as the whole dissertation is a reinvention/elaboration of my thesis, it’s not so much that things come back around as it is that they never leave at all (but constantly change). It reads:
Throughout this dissertation I have attempted to follow where my questions have led, exploring in as much detail as possible these cases of music and of living. In the end, all of the arguments that I have made about the nature of improvisation, its political implications, and the specificities of each case study have been in service of answering that larger first question: what is the relationship between musical improvisation and everyday life? The answer, it seems to me, is that both operate in and through the medium of contingency, that improvisation is a necessary outcome of contingency. If, in pursuit of this answer, I have tended to conflate my key terms “improvisation” and “contingency”, it is because there is never a moment of living that does not involve the latter, and which does not consequently both require and instigate the former. It is true that this conflation can render improvisation inert, or threaten its revolutionary potential as a praxis. In many ways, bringing improvisation ‘down to size’ has been exactly my aim. But at the same time, it is always true that improvisation’s neutrality vanishes when it is exercised by specific people in specific circumstances. In this spirit, I end by referencing that other meaning of “contingent”, which is a group in solidarity.
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.
On the 19th and 20th of July, I will be hosting the first in a series of improvisation workshops. Ideally, one round in the program would be between six and eight weeks long, so these two sessions are just a kind of pilot program.
I have set up a website where you can read more about it and sign up. The basic idea is that it’s a structured approach to collective improvisation, meaning that it’s not centered in any one style of music, but it’s also not a free-for-all. We will be discussing various methods, techniques, strategies, and compositional considerations for improvising with other people. It is meant to be valuable to any level of musician on any instrument. Ideally, over time, this would develop into a consistent and sustained program, so that we could engage with each other’s music, practice together, and maybe put on a show.
Do let me know if you’re interested. I’m very excited to see how it develops.