Improvisational Performance

My keynote talk today closed out the Performance Studies Network International Conference. My title, “Creativity in Performance,” emphasized my own research on creativity, and my talk explored the parallels between verbal performance and music performance. (I’ve done studies on both: including Chicago improvised theater and small group jazz.)

It’s been a highly stimulating conference and I enjoyed all of the talks I attended. Most of them focused on musical performance in the European classical tradition, and that tradition is very much based in written musical scores. I took a different approach in my keynote talk: I argued that written notation is a very recent development in human history, but musical and verbal performance goes back thousands of years. Most performance genres around the world are not “composed” by a “composer” and they are not written down; they come down through oral tradition.

I encouraged the assembled researchers to consider these non-European genres, and to be careful not to be biased by their own emphasis on composed, scored traditions. Yes, I agree that we should be studying all performance, including European performance from a composed score. But I worry that if the notation becomes the focus, then we might lose what makes performance so special:

It is contingent and unpredictable from moment to moment;

It emerges from the successive actions of the performers;

It is collective and socially distributed–what I have called “distributed creativity” in a 2009 publication.

Kudos to conference organizer Professor John Rink, and to the conference administrator David Mawson. The conference was brilliantly conceived and perfectly executed! I hope this conference helps to correct a weakness in musicology: an almost total neglect of performance, in favor of a focus on composition, theory, and history.