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  • On Reception of Improvised Music
  • James Dennen (bio)

The genuine artist lives only for the work, which he understands as the composer understood it and which he now performs. He does not make his personality count in any way. All his thoughts and actions are directed towards bringing into being all the wonderful, enchanting pictures and impressions the composer sealed in his work with magical power.

—E.T.A. Hoffman ([1815] 1919:69; in Goehr 1994:1)

Something of the musician's own "character" will be heard in the choices he or she makes, in the patterns of emphasis that constitute a performance style. So it is that his or her own "subjectivity" appears.

—Naomi Cumming (2000:9)

In the great room of a house perched in the green hills above Oakland, California, a six-year-old girl, playing quietly by herself, hums along with music that her father plays on the hi-fi. As the song evolves into something she no longer recognizes, the young girl stops humming but continues to listen, secondarily, as the tune becomes strange and dissonant, eventually transforming itself into a concatenation of bizarre squeals and squawks unlike anything she's ever heard. Suddenly, and unexpectedly, the song changes again, back to the song she unconsciously recognizes and, recommencing her humming, the young girl notes a sense of having returned to a place she remembers.1

The song is a version of John Coltrane's "My Favorite Things," recorded live at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1963, which the father treasures not only because of the pleasure he gets each time he plays the track but also, and in particular, because he attended the event, when the 36-year-old sax-playing luminary, at the peak of his career, graced the stage with this 17-minute version of the song (Coltrane [1963] 1993).2 What the father hears at once as an awesome record of virtuosity and a series of spiritual journeys departing from the popular song, the daughter, who recognizes the tune from The Sound of Music (1959), hears, without apperceptive interference, as an adventure to unknown places replete with an unexpected triumphant return.

To imagine such a moment, and thereby to uncover some of the various listening experiences shared (or exclusively felt) by a child and an adult—sophisticated (in this case) by an apprehension of the improvisatory nature of the piece, an appreciation for its mastery, and a personal recollection of the originary event—is to begin to construct a typology across a wide range of modalities in the reception of improvised music. By isolating modes of listening that are unique to improvised performance—if in fact such uniqueness exists—a deeper understanding of subject [End Page 137] formation, on the part of the listener within this dynamic, might be developed. Also at stake here are questions of immanence: that is, are there qualities specific to improvisation that cannot survive beyond the moment of performance? Distinguishing viability across the temporal and spatial divide between a live performed event and its corresponding recorded media, I am concerned principally with the effects of the temporal displacement that occurs when a piece of music is effectively frozen and transported to another time and place for its reception. Thus, sample "reads" of live improvised material—tapped to reveal potential social value that performed improvisation might have for its spectators3—will exclude phenomena specifically related to material liveness such as olfactive, haptic, nonsensory communal, and/or sonic/visual peculiarities of live reception, in order to probe possible participatory and/or emancipatory qualities of recorded improvisations in particular and the status of spectatorship within the ontology of performance in general.

What Is Improvisation?

Every action performed contains within it some element of improvisation. Offstage, this is obvious as most of everyday life unfolds in an unscripted manner, but with regard to actions framed explicitly as performance—such as theatre or musical performance—the issue of improvisation is complicated slightly by actions (or components thereof) that have been scripted.4 Nonetheless, even during the most exhaustively scripted performance, a performer must improvise in the gaps between each predetermined action. If we take, for example, the instance of a...


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