Sunday 30 March 2014

The Aesthetics of Politics

I haven't done any improvised music for ages - and returning to it after a break has made me reflect on the nature of improvisation and how it relates to those creative acts which require more planning, determination, commitment, etc. I had a discussion with a composer at Duke University a while ago whose background was jazz, but whose composed music is very carefully are beautifully constructed. We talked about the difference between 'slides' and 'ladders' in creative processes. Improvisation was, in his opinion, a 'slide'. Everything flows, we are taken by the moment and act as best we can to maintain the flow. Our actions when sliding are necessarily limited: we are constrained to do whatever is easiest to hand - take too many risks, and the thing can fall apart. The opposite is the 'ladder' which more traditional composers climb - the struggle to 'get it right' to 'say what we want to say', or to 'get to the heart of the matter'. Those kind of struggles can last years. There used to a be a joke about modernist composers labouring for years over a 20 bar piece, whilst improvisers would produce vast quantities of music, and just enjoying it.

Music is more than entertainment. To me it is naturalistic inquiry of the highest order, because the challenges music throws up are so profound. As naturalistic inquiry, the composer in struggling to get it right is also struggling to articulate something about the real. When Beethoven does something extraordinary, he is not just entertaining us, or surprising us (although it is all those things too). It is teaching us about the nature of the world and how we might think to act in it. Beethoven knows, and shows us, that revolution is not simply about the clash of principles: it is about knowing exactly how to intervene and at what moment. It is about understanding that moral rightness is not subjective, but ontological and naturalistically grounded.

This is where the ladders come in. They are about studying action, material, the creative mind and the condition of the world. Improvisation is a condition - a document or testament. It may be a small part of the ladder, but it is in itself too constrained.

My blog posts are on the whole improvisatory. I get in the flow of writing. I type quickly and out it all comes. It's much like improvising on the piano for me. I haven't always written this much. My early posts are simply a video of me playing and a couple of lines of writing. But gradually I have acquired new skills and confidence in writing. In fact, I think I have transferred some of the techniques of music improvisation to writing improvisation. But it is still (I think) deficient as intellectual work. Although I'd prefer not to think of it like this, my blogging is a bit like wanking. Words issue forth, retweets made, likes gathered, hits counted, ego massaged. To be fair, I think a lot of academic publishing has become like this too. But it is all somehow half-baked: the point isn't reached; the inquiry doesn't penetrate the surface.

So I need to think harder about the aesthetic ladder. The way in which things can be gathered together and a naturalistic inquiry can produce something which tells us how and when to act in the world today. That means stepping outside all the conventional boundaries between art, music, politics, ethics and aesthetics.

To be fair, some of this was attempted at the ASC Conference in Bolton on Acting - Learning - Understanding. But that conference was largely improvisatory - we did a lot of music improvisation partly with home-made instruments! Largely it went nowhere (I think) - although some of the group improvisations and presentations did present challenges of aesthetic construction and coordination which required more thought. Generally, however, there were no ladders - and indeed, if anyone tried to climb a ladder, someone else would come along and do their best to throw them off! But perhaps seeing its "nowhere-goingness" is useful if we are to think about how we do climb ladders.

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