Aesthetics - session narratives

Improvisation, Creativity, Performance and Skill

Yesterday we heard a jazz band perform. I hope you enjoyed them! Especially the way they made it up as they went along. Improvisation is essential to jazz. The musicians have learned how to make up tunes that will go with the chord changes from a standard tune, or a new one. When they play that tune, they will usually play it through once, and then different players will take solos. Sometimes you can still hear the tune in the solos; other times, it won't sound anything like the tune. All you can count on is that the soloist will play something that goes with those chords, either all the way through the tune, or up to some logical stopping place where another player or the rest of the band will pick up.

Jazz is a great art form to get you thinking about improvisation, creativity, performance and skill. How important are these things to us? And how are they related? Creativity might even be defined as the ability to improvise. It has a big element of spontaneity in it. It is definitely not the same thing as skill. But perhaps skill (succesful training?) is necessary for improvisation. Is skill like the container that can hold creativity? It is certainly necessary for good jazz playing. Everyone of the musicians we heard has spent years practicing and playing. They have played scales, practiced rhythms, learned many tunes, practiced their instruments until they can play them smoothly and expressively. Without that training, they would not be able to make good jazz. And couldn't you say the same thing about painting, or dance? In both of those arts, too, there is a lot of skill involved. Without some skill, it is very hard to make something new and interesting.

How is performance related to improvizing? Once again, skill contributes to performance. But there seems to be something more. A good performer uses skill to present something to others. Performance is a form of communication, or so it seems to me. Think about the difference between going to a live concert and going to an event where a machine was fed intstructions that enabled it to perform a Beethoven symphony. (Not a recording of a human performance; a new production of the piece, generated by a set of instructions to the machine.) Would you feel the same way as you did listening to a live performance?

So, how are the other arts like jazz? Think of examples from the visual arts, from theater, from dance, from film, from classical and popular music. How do you think improvisation, creativity, performance and skill are related to each other? Why do we care about these things, and how important are they to our appreciation of music, or of the other arts?

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