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 academic language 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, ask questions, participate in group discussions, and evolve their own understanding of freedom and improvisation. 

Course Content
Freedom is key to improvisation. Jazz music, in particular, lends itself to freedom of form, imagination, and of expression. But 19th-century free fantasias were also highly improvised, and Baroque musicians too were expected to play freely. This course will reflect on the interplay between freedom and improvisation. 

Both freedom and improvisation are porous concepts subject to divergent and conflicting interpretations. What is freedom? What is improvisation? Are you free when no one interferes with you, when you realize your ‘true’ self, or when you actively participate in political affairs? Like freedom, the term ‘improvisation’ is used very broadly; you can ‘improvise’ anything from a trumpet solo to a political demonstration.
Throughout this course, students will develop their understanding of the complex requirements that they, as musicians, are expected to meet. They will also learn how our current expectations for improvisation, such as newness, freedom, and inventiveness, are informed by Romantic ideas of aesthetic genius and autonomy that took hold in the late-18-century (Landgraf 2014, 11). Improvisation wasn’t always tied to modern expectations of creating something new and unexpected; therefore, we will consider earlier, pre-Romantic experiences and practices of improvisation.

The word ‘improvisation’ comes from improvisare, an Italian verb whichin the 17th-century context denoted the art of spontaneous, impromptu verse-making. Improvisation was originally at home in poetry and theatre, specifically in Italian commedia dell’arte theatre. The late 18th century saw the emergence of improvvisatori (male) and improvvisatrici (female), who would improvise poetic verses based on themes given to them by audience members. This Italian improvisation practice was picked up and celebrated by Romantic authors, philosophers, and poets such as Madame de Staël, Lord Byron, and Mary and Percy Shelley. Not everyone celebrated improvisation; in 1770, emperor Joseph II even issued an official law against improvisation in theatre, for the sake of the 'safety of the citizens'. In the 19th-century context, the figure of the improviser would remain ambiguous; especially in Germany, improvisers were either regarded as Romantic geniuses or as unreliable agents with a lack of discipline. 

Apart from the cultural history of improvisation, we will examine what performers, philosophers, and political thinkers have said about improvisation and freedom. What characterises the improviser, Karl Marx thought, was “inconsistency” and “insubstantiality of thought.” Nietzsche, a passionate piano improviser, listed musical improvisation number 1 on his list of favourite activities, while also concluding that “the truly terrible” would be “a life that continually demanded improvisation.” Rosa Luxemburg spoke of an “improvisational capacity to act,” Isaiah Berlin praised “the improvisations of gifted leaders,” and Hannah Arendt alludes to improvisation when she connects freedom to political action, the capacity to begin something new and unexpected. Governments started celebrating improvisation for ideological reasons: starting in 1956, the US State Department sent jazz musicians abroad to promote improvisation as consumer freedom and deflect from racism in America. In the 1960s, East Germany started sponsoring free jazz improvisation, framing it as a revolutionary, anti-capitalist mode of expression. 

These widely divergent views on freedom and improvisation will serve as a springboard for group discussions, and they can challenge our assumptions about freedom and improvisation.

Course Details

teacher Joris Roelofs
term September-December 2023 / January-April 2024; Tuesdays 10.00-14.00h
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, Angela Esterhammer, Erika Fischer-Lichte)
  * The 19th-century emergence of an interpretation of improvisation as an 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].
  * A critical assessment of the jazz-as-democracy metaphor (Benjamin Givan, Wynton Marsalis)
  * 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