The Other Side of Here and Now: Cross-Cultural Reflections on the Politics of Improvisation Studies

Scott Currie


Scholarship on African-American avant-garde jazz and European free music is prominently featured in the emergent field of improvisation studies, premised upon an allegorical understanding of the phenomenon as a musical analogue for counter-hegemonic political dialogue and action. However, from an ethnomusicological standpoint rooted in improvisational traditions from Africa to Asia, serious questions arise about the cross-cultural validity of this axiological paradigm. Drawing upon studies of West African and South Asian traditions of improvisation, this essay brings a critical global perspective to bear upon issues of improvisation, community, and social practice, to elucidate the manner in which universalistically conceived ideological commitments can shape the political meanings of extemporaneous music-making. Ultimately, an ethnographic focus on ritual overdetermination of meaning within festive performance frames can reveal the significance that ICASP organizers’ conception of improvisation—as “a crucial model for political, cultural, and ethical dialogue and action”—plays in empowering artists to imagine and realize utopian, transcultural, socio-sonic communities.

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Critical Studies in Improvisation / Études critiques en improvisation is generously supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (through both its Major Collaborative Research Initiatives and Aid to Scholarly Journals programs) and by the University of Guelph Library.
ISSN: 1712-0624