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date: 26 September 2017

Abstract and Keywords

While all human agency unfolds with a certain degree of improvisation, there are specific cultural practices in which improvisation plays an even more relevant role. Among these, jazz offers a privileged site for understanding how improvisation operates, offering the opportunity to find within it a frame of reference that might be related to other genres and modes of creation. This contribution, as Wittgenstein would say, has a “grammatical” design to it. It proposes to clarify the significance of the term “improvisation” by reflecting upon the conditions that make the practice possible. Rather than calling forth mysterious processes that take place in the unconscious or in the minds of musicians, the focus is on the criteria that must be satisfied before one may accurately ascribe to an act the concept of improvisation. By comparing the practice of improvisation to the notion a musical “work,” five such criteria are established: inseparability, irreversibility, situationality, originality, and responsiveness. The last part of this chapter offers an insight into the improvising dynamic. Unlike a composer in the domain of classical music, who works from a plan looking ahead, improvising musicians cannot by definition look ahead. Yet they can look behind at what has already been played, and respond to it, extending the logic of the previous phrases, shaping a form retrospectively, blending the emergent with the intended. Hence any musical statement emerging during a performance is at the same time a constraint and a springboard for the following statement.

Keywords: music, jazz, improvisation, affordance, performance, practice, time, knowledge, agency, representation, consciousness, body, translation, work, composition, Werktreue, reproduction, originality, process, contingency, constraint

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