Freedom and Improvisation

Learning Objective
This course explores topics that are vital to the lives of improvisers, including freedom of musical form and freedom of musical expression. Students will be exposed to the academic language of philosophy and will develop strategies for how to approach the complex content of primary and secondary sources. All participants will be encouraged to challenge their pre-conceived ideas, to ask questions, to participate in group discussions, and to evolve their own philosophies of freedom and improvisation. 

Course Content
Freedom is key to improvisation. Jazz music, in particular, lends itself to freedom of form, of imagination, of expression. But freedom is a porous concept, subject to diverse and even conflicting interpretations. In this course, we will reflect on the interplay between freedom and improvisation. Together, we’ll explore the following questions: 

What is freedom? Does freedom have the same meaning for all of us? How do we define the different kinds of freedom? How do we define 'improvisation?' How free are we when we improvise? How do we experience 'non-freedom?' What about the act of creating something unexpected, on the spur of the moment? The word improvisation comes from the Latin word improvisus, meaning 'unforeseen' - but can we really create the unforeseeable, or is the concept of 'true' improvisation a myth? Don’t we need source material, something to improvise on, as Charles Mingus said? What about John Cage, who believed that even free jazz wasn’t really free? And what do we make of free jazz and freedom during the Civil Rights era?

We will also reflect on what philosophers have contributed to the conversation about freedom and improvisation. A passionate improviser, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote about the 'improvisation of life'. Hannah Arendt defined freedom as the capacity to 'start something new' and 'unexpected'. And Jean-Paul Sartre, an avid jazz fan, maintained that humans are 'condemned to be free'. What did these philosophers mean, and to what extent can we relate to their ideas? 

Throughout this course, students will develop their understanding of the complex requirements that they, as musicians, are expected to meet - requirements that ultimately fall under the rubric of freedom. For example, what does it mean to create an artistic identity and to be authentic? How can we relate to the musical heritage of the past, without losing our authenticity, our freedom? How, in fact, do we reconcile tradition with uniqueness? We will discover that musicians are in the company of philosophers in confronting these issues. 

We will also discuss whether these questions of improvisation and freedom apply to jazz music only, to improvised music in general, or to all music-making. We will listen to various kinds of improvised music and discuss how we can connect these improvisations to our newly refined philosophy of freedom and improvisation. 

Course details

teacher Joris Roelofs
term January-April 2021
method of instruction 3 hours a week, consisting of:
  * A lecture, incl. listening examples (50 min.)
  * Q & A (40 min.)
  * A group presentation led by students (30 min.)
  * Discussion/questions (60 min.)
  The group will be divided into smaller work groups. On a rotating basis, each work group will prepare a presentation about the assigned reading material.
planned course topics and readingsA complete bibliography and topic schedule will be provided at the start of the course. Please note that these topics are subject to change.
  * The difference between 'positive' and 'negative' freedom. Isaiah Berlin: excerpts from Two Concepts of Liberty (1969) [1958]
  * Improvisation in non-jazz and in everyday life. (Several contemporary authors.)
  * Nietzsche’s conception of improvisation, freedom, and the 'free spirit'” Excerpts from The Gay Science (2012) [1882], Human All Too Human (1996) [1878], and The Birth of Tragedy (2000) [1872].
  * Primary and secondary literature on the concepts of freedom as formed by Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Hannah Arendt, and Jean-Paul-Sartre.
  * Jazz musicians on freedom and free jazz. Arthur Taylor: excerpts from Notes and Tones: Musician-to-Musician Interviews (1993) [1977].
  * Freedom and the Civil Rights movement: Secondary literature on Max Roach, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, and their explicit support of the Civil Rights Movement as represented in their music.
  * Hannah Arendt, 'What is Freedom?' (2006) [1961].
  * Secondary literature on the connection between the 1957 Little Rock Crisis, Charlie Mingus’ music and Hannah Arendt’s Reflections on Little Rock (1959).
recordings * Roach, Max. We insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite. Candid Records (1960).
  * Rollins, Sonny. Freedom Suite. Riverside (1958)
  * Mingus, Charles. 'The original Fables of Faubus,' from Charles Mingus presents Charles Mingus. Candid Records (1960).
  * Ellington, Duke, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach. Money Jungle. United Artists Jazz (1963).
  * Coleman, Ornette (selection).
  * Bennink, Han (selection)
  * Cage, John. Indeterminacy: New Aspects of Form in Instrumental and Electronic Music(1959).
  * Bach, J.S. The Musical Offering (1747).
  Poulenc, Francis. Improvisations (1932-1959).
  Guiffre, Jimmy. Free Fall. Columbia (1963)
  Tristano, Lennie. 'Intuition' and 'Digression'. Recorded in 1949. Capitol (1950).
course requirements Readings, final assignment and 80% attendance are mandatory
final assessment Based on the material covered during this semester, students will write an essay of approx. 2000 words, exploring their personal perspectives on freedom in relation to improvisation. The student’s arguments must refer to at least one or two of our discussed topics.
credits 5
related electivesDeveloping Creativity
  Music Theatre and Stage Performance
  Reading Black Music – Key Texts on African-American Music
  Transdisciplinary Approaches: Composing Time & Space
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