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. The students will discover how group discussions with a free exchange of ideas and opinions are themselves linked to 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? What does it mean to be free, how do people experience 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 does improvisation relate to freedom of speech? How do we experience 'non-freedom?' 
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? 

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 connected freedom to political action, 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 how 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, how can we relate to the musical heritage of the past, without losing the freedom to start something new and unexpected? 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 improvised music only, or to all forms of music-making.

Course Details

teacher Joris Roelofs
term September-December 2022
method of instruction 3 hours a week, consisting of:
  * 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 readingsPlease note that these topics are subject to change.
  * Isaiah Berlin’s notion of 'positive' and 'negative' freedom. Excerpts from Two Concepts of Liberty (1969) [1958] and The Pursuit of the Ideal. (1988)
  * Hannah Arendt’s concepts of action, freedom, and plurality. Excerpts from What is Freedom? (2006) [1961] and The Human Condition (1998) [1958].
  * Nietzsche’s conception of improvisation, critical thinking and the 'free spirit'” Excerpts from The Gay Science (2012) [1882], and Human All Too Human (1996) [1878].
  * Improvisation and the work-concept as it emerged in Romanticism (Lydia Goehr, Bruce E. Benson).
  * The intersection of musical improvisation with poetry- and theater improvisation (Dana Gooley, Erika Fischer-Lichte)
  * The 19th-century emergence of an interpretation of improvisation as restive, emancipatory, and liberating practice; the influence of the improvvisatori and improvvisatrice (Dana Gooley, Angela Esterhammer, Edgar Landgraf).
  * Primary and secondary literature on the concepts of freedom as formulated by Karl Marx, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Ralph Ellison, Dostoevsky.
  * Improvisation and freedom in non-jazz, everyday life and public debate (several contemporary authors.)
  * Jazz musicians on freedom and free jazz. Arthur Taylor: excerpts from Notes and Tones: Musician-to-Musician Interviews (1993) [1977].
  * Assessing the jazz-as-democracy metaphor (Ben Givan)
  * Freedom and the American 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.
  * Secondary literature on the Jazz Ambassadors programme, created by the US State Department in 1956, and its conception of freedom as consumer choice.
course requirements Readings, final assignment and 80% class attendance are mandatory. A good command of the English language is needed.
final assessment Based on the material covered during this semester, students will write an essay of approx. 2,000 words exploring their personal perspectives on freedom in relation to improvisation. The arguments used must refer to at least one of the course topics discussed.
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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