This class will track the passage of improvised music into, through, and out of the Western avant-garde. Through readings, listening sessions, workshops, and performances, participants will learn how improvisation has functioned as an approach to composing and playing music and, perhaps more importantly, as an appropriation of alien musical cultures in order to radically alter the structures of Western music and the expectations of listeners.
While considering the use of improvisation and new forms of composition that emerged in the early part of the twentieth century in Europe and America, the class will focus on the crucial period of the 1960s and 70s, when black artists—many of them experimenting with traditional forms of African music—developed free jazz, and predominantly white artists began integrating non-Western forms of structured improvisation—occasionally even becoming disciples of the masters of those forms—into classical and avant-garde compositions and performances. The class will go on to consider the eventual diffusion of these artists and the legacy of their work, especially in relation to contemporary experimental music, much of which eschews notation- and composition-based improvisation in favor of sound-based work. I imagine the class consisting of three to five reading and discussion sessions, perhaps bookended by actual improv workshops (no expertise necessary); these could be augmented by in-house performances or trips to shows at local venues.
Some questions to consider along the way: How did these diverse groups of artists use non-Western forms to question and even undermine the dominance of traditional jazz, academic classical music, and anodyne pop? What was the relationship between the racial divide that separated the artists who comprised those emergent movements and the work they made and the audiences they cultivated? How did the use of non-Western music cultures change the way we think about Western music, and the way we think about what exists outside of it? Why have these groups perennially excluded women? Despite formal similarities and political sympathies, why have there been so few musical exchanges between black artists working in the jazz tradition and white artists working in the Western classical tradition? How did they pit the values and concerns of their adopted musical cultures (purported to be mystical, apolitical, invested in timeless truths, etc.) against those of their native culture (cold war America)?
Potential artists to be considered: The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, Anthony Braxton, John Cage, Pandit Pran Nath, Sonny Sharrock, La Monte Young, Alice Coltrane, Tony Conrad, The Velvet Underground, Steve Reich, Sun Ra, AMM, Henry Flynt, John Zorn, Derek Bailey, Aaron Dilloway, Sun City Girls, etc.
George Lewis, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (he's at Columbia and could potentially teach a session)
Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (he's in New York and could potentially teach a session)
Brandon Joseph, Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts after Cage (also at Columbia, could also potentially teach a session)
John Zorn, Ed., Arcana: Musicians on Music (also in New York, could perhaps lead a workshop or host a performance)
Derek Bailey, Improvisation, Its Nature and Practice in Music
John Cage, Silence: Lectures and Writings
SESSION 1: Experimental Music (See attached note for full description and suggested readings): Sunday, June 13, 5:00 pm, at 177 Livingston; taught by Christoph Cox
SESSION 2: Instrumentalists (See attached note for full description and suggested readings): Sunday, September 19, 5:00 pm, at 177 Livingston; with Connie Crothers, Matana Roberts, and Andrea Parkins.
SESSION 3: Minimalisms (See attached note for full description and suggested readings): Monday, October 11, 7:00 pm, at 177 Livingston; taught by Zach Layton + David Weinstein
SESSION 4: Space and Body (See attached note for full description and suggested readings): Sunday, October 24, 7:00 pm, at 177 Livingston; taught by Kabir Carter
SESSION 5: DIY DJ (See attached note for full description): Saturday, October 30, 10pm, at 177 Livingston
ALL SESSIONS ARE FREE