The Power of Things – Materiality and Performance Practice in Contemporary Improvised and Experimental Music

The Expansion of the musical material and innovations of instrumental playing techniques are part of the history of improvised music, especially in Free Jazz and European Free Improvisation of the 1960s and 70s that broke away from the jazz tradition. With the ’emancipation of sound’ in contemporary improvised music, forms of material exploration became possible that had a considerable impact on performance practice. From the development of experimental playing techniques, to the reconstruction or invention of musical instruments, from the explorative handling of ‘natural’ objects to the misappropriation of everyday objects, industrial artefacts, as well as recording and playback media, the instrument has undergone a transformation from a pre-determined object to a performative act: artefacts and objects appear as instruments only in execution.

In the course of their work on their personal sound repertoire, improvisers usually develop individual object assemblages and media constellations whose handling is not or not exclusively characterized by virtuosity and control, but by indeterminacy and unpredictability; these assemblages resemble scientific experimental systems, generators of surprises. In the focus of the materiality of performance practices, improvising groups appear as networks of human and non-human actors, as socio-technical network in which action is distributed among humans and technology in variable form (Latour 1994; Rammert/Schulz-Schaeffer 2002). Under these conditions, one of the aims of the performance analysis of improvised music is to examine the respective interactions not only between musicians but also between people and artefacts.

The lecture presents the results of a qualitative study on the performance practice of contemporary improvisation, in the context of which concerts by improvising musicians were videographically documented and commented on by the participants individually and in the group within the framework of video stimulated recall interviews. The focus is on the reconstruction of performance-specific interaction processes. From an analytical and theoretical perspective, I will show how people and artefacts interact,  how material and technological effects coordinate musical processes, direct the perceptions and behavior of the participants, and how instruments and objects become delegates of specific aesthetic dispositions.

Talk given at Annual Conference of the German Musicological Society, Greifswald, 17.-20.09.2014