Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
In his influential book Musicking, musicologist Christopher Small challenges the conventional Western view of music as object. Rather than something complete and autonomous, Small views music as a holistic activity, encompassing not only what the composer and performers do, but also the contributions of “passive” participants: roadies, ticket takers, ushers, caterers, custodians, stage mangers, security guards, bartenders, audience members, etc. Moreover, musicking extends beyond live performances to include dancing to recordings, listening through headphones, exercising to a stereo, shopping to piped in music, and other contexts. The key is that music is a verb—a process—not a self-contained entity.
Complementing this insight is something Small wrote about twenty years earlier in Music, Education, Society. While acknowledging that all music contains an active essence, he notes that present-tense-ness varies in degree. For instance, Western composition gives us an account of a creative process that has already taken place. “The journey may have been a long, arduous and fascinating one,” writes Small, “and we may be excited, moved, even amused by it, but we can not enter fully into the experience . . . because the experience was over and [the composer] was safely home before we came to hear of it.” The generative stage has already taken place behind the scenes, diminishing, ever so slightly, the immediacy of the experience.
With improvisatory music, on the other hand, the listener is included in the journey of creation. Neither party knows for sure how long or windy the path will be, whether it will chart new frontiers or retread old roads, if it will end in success or limp to the finish line. The unfolding notes are shaped directly by environmental factors: the improviser’s state of mind, the size of the stage, the acoustics of the venue, the other players, the audience’s attentiveness, the intensity of the lights, the temperature of the room, the loudness of conversations, the line at the buffet table, and so on. Everyone and everything potentially plays an immediate contributing role. It is musicking in its purest form.
To be sure, external and internal factors also impact the interpretation of notes on a score. But again, it is a difference of degree. For interpreters of written music, the exploration is in the past. The musical moment brings the possibility of nuance, but not the act of formation. In contrast, Small declares, “improvisation is the journey itself.”
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