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"Wild notes"...Improvisioning

Daniel Fischlin

Published: 2010-12-01

This essay unpacks a new term in improvisation studies and discourse. Improvisioning--for want of a better word or, perhaps, as the best word to describe this practice beyond words--unifies notions of diverse improvisatory practices with what those practices express, the vision (aesthetic, social, intimate, unspeakable) that only an embodied, live, improvised performance can bring into being. Improvisioning implies not only the active elements in creative practices based on improvisation, but also the seeing into things (the envisioning) that improvisation makes possible, the calling forth of the unexpected, the making present a response that could not have been predicted except in that moment, and in that specific context. The epigraph to Fischlin's essay--from orator, social reformer, abolitionist, and author Frederick Douglass's "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845);" as part of an extended passage on 19th century musicking made by American slave populations--reminds us that music made in the key of slavery and oppression literally sees into the nature of things in ways that other discourses do not--cannot--and that musical meaning is made out of specific contexts that challenge a listener's capacity to take what is apparently "unmeaning jargon" and grasp its intent. "Jargon" here designates the very sign of difference upon which the social practice of slavery was predicated, that those who can't understand the "unmeaning jargon" are diminished by their incapacity. But this jargon also marks the unique response, the singularity of the musical vision that captures and "impress[es]" minds with the unspeakable nature of oppression. Song, in this sense, improvisions: it sees, literally and figuratively, into things in an utterly distinctive fashion and reveals embedded truths about realities in powerfully affective ways.

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So one of the things that improvisation has come to mean in the context of highly technological performance is that improvisation is the last claim to the legitimate presence of a human in the performance of music.

– Bob Ostertag