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In 1800, Musicians Stopped Improvising…What Happened Next?


By Kelly Leonard – Executive Director, Insights and Applied Improvisation

In my attempt to try to make sense of everything that is happening right now, I’ve been revisiting some of my favorite movies (“Local Hero”), listening to some of my favorite music (Keith Jarrett’s “The Koln Concert”) and seeking out new insights that might give me some direction in navigating the world in front of me.

Earlier this year, I started following the academic work of Alfonso Montuori, who is a Professor in the Trans-formative Inquiry Department at the California Institute of Integral Studies. Alfonso writes a lot about creativity as well as improvisation – primarily through the lens of music. He posted a paper of his today on Academia. It was a paper he wrote in 1995, but it could have been written this last week with it’s incredible relevance to where we sit at this particular time and place in our country and in the world. The paper is called “Word,” and the first thing that popped out at me was this:

“Around 1800, musicians stopped improvising.”

What? What did this mean? He goes on:

“Before 1800 (a rough cut-off date) musical pieces consisted of loosely outlined chord progressions and melodies with which the musicians took improvisational liberties not unlike jazz musicians today. After 1800, with the ‘Beethoven revolution,’ musicians existed solely in function of the composition, which was now finally fully written out. This score had to be performed perfectly in accordance with the composer’s intentions. The disordered musical hubris of performing musicians making up stuff as they went along had to make way for the composer’s genius which, around that time, found expression in the work. The work was the word, written down in musical notation. The composer became God.”

Alfonso notes that this change paralleled things like copyright, ownership, financial dealings as well as the emergence of the symphony orchestra with its “hierarchical structure of composer, director, soloist, first violinist, section leaders, etc… .” In other words, the whole structure around our music became fixed and rigid. It catered to rules that could not be questioned. There was no speaking truth to power.

But artists have a natural affinity to play against the rules. And soon enough, improvised music emerges in all corners of the realm – from Jazz to House to Hip Hop.

Alfonso writes, “Sometimes musicians and artists develop a proprietary interest in categories – in their Order, their definition of what something is. But they’re also the ones who blow up the old orders and create new ones. They won’t take anybody’s orders. And that’s a whole different kind of power – a power the people who are supposedly in power sorely envy. It’s a power to create, rather than a power over others. It’s also a different kind of order.”

Essentially, the old system can’t hold. It works against the natural curiosity of individuals. The forces of chaos, entropy, and disorder are far too strong.

The paper explores the idea that “big narratives” are giving way to “little narratives,” for better or worse. Things are not easier. In fact, they are most complex. If life had a script and we all knew our roles, wouldn’t it be easier? Yes, but it would not be true. There is not script and that makes things hard.

But he ends the paper on an incredibly powerful note:

“In an Order worshiping system, any trace of difference or disagreement scares the bejesus out of people.” Paradoxically, these systems cannot handle difference. They repress it, and then it eventually explodes. We see this from families, to nation-states. Either way it’s fear: fear of Disorder, or fear-based security with Order. Bur from this new perspective, it’s up to us to create trust, to create what Riane Eisler calls partnership. If we create fear, those who want to divide and rule us will rejoice, because we will be fighting each other. Creating trust may seem like a small step in this problem-ridden world. In the old view you needed big causes for big effects, world-organization to change the world, all or nothing, Utopia or Oblivion. In the new view of complexity, a small step can have big effects. We just have to recognize we don’t have any control over it… If we create trust, we may never rule anything or anyone, but we’ll probably be having far too good a time to care.”

The musicians and the people just have to start improvising.

why improv


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