Monday, September 10, 2007

People Get Ready - Guelph Jazz Festival + Colloquium 2007: Presentation of Papers - Exploring the "Improvisative" - Two Views

Panel and Academic Presentation @ Macdonald Stewart Art Centre, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada
Friday, September 7, 2007

Benjamin Piekut (Musicology, Columbia University), "From the Performative to the Improvisative: Reconsidering Butler"

Tracy McMullen (Critical Studies/Experimental Practices, University of California, San Diego), "Playing the Performative: Replay and Improvisativity"

It was almost a cruel irony to schedule this presentation of academic papers in the wake of Anthony Braxton's soaring keynote address and William Parker's call to action over theory from the halls of academia. Taken in isolation, these are two insightful, thoughtful essays that are well done and represent a a valuable contribution to musicology research. I liked them in spite of multiple reservations.

I'm not familiar with the Butler writings that Piekut's paper was a response to. So it's hard to gauge the dialogue being advanced in his paper. Tracy McMullen offered some fascinating insights into the fetish of recreating and duplicating past performances punctuated with supporting anecdotal examples of Civil War re-enactments and the Montreal Genesis tribute band Music Box.

But the context of this presentation so soon after hearing Braxton, Parker and Baraka speak revealed some sharp contrasts that highlight several of the issues I have with the current state of academic discourse. Semantic gamesmanship may be the most prominent problem. While Anthony Braxton may have an unfair advantage in owning the language he's created when it comes to consistent definition, it became clear that the term "improvisative" had two completely different meanings for these two authors. Piekut even seemed to be going to great lengths to re-define it. Personally, I'd advocate using "improvisation" and "performance" as a matter of clarity unless there's a tangible advantage to the -itive form of those words. At least they weren't abusing the word "paradigm" - a word that was all the rage back in my grad school days.

Another sad contrast was the extreme reduction of scope. While Anthony Braxton advances his theories as a means to understand and create without limitation, Benjamin Piekut chose to avoid difficult questions by limiting the scope of his study to description and observation. A disappointingly timid approach consistent with the current post-manifesto era. And after William Parker's call to arms for actions over theory it was hard not to feel let down that so much intelligent, insightful work failed to produce a more activist-centered component.

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