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(Musical) Improvisation and Ethics: A Pragmatic Reassessment

Concept: This interdisciplinary project asks two basic questions: How ethical is (musical) improvisation, and how is (musical) improvisation ethical? Using a series of workshop-based pieces as a sandbox, object of research, and conceptual springboard, researchers in diverse areas of the humanities will rethink key debates around ethics in Improvisation Studies (IS) from the bottom up. Background Over the last 20 years, scholars in IS have examined many facets of improvisation as a cultural and artistic practice. An important area of inquiry for researchers from the performing arts, communications, and philosophy, to the social sciences and psychology, is ethics. Studies have often taken what Georgina Born calls the “microsocialities” of improvised musical group performance (2017) as an object of research. Interaction between musicians onstage is crucial for players, listeners, and scholars alike; it generates fundamental musical structure and affect (Monson 1996; Sawyer 1996; Borgo 2005; Cobussen 2017). Theorizing phenomena and values that run through this interaction – such as listening, collective agency, choice, adaptability, and the negotiation of difference (Borgo 2002; Wilson and MacDonald 2012, 2014; Lewis 2013) – is thus an area of major interest and debate. A number of scholars have taken musical improvisation as a model for social practices beyond music and the arts, such as law (Ramshaw 2013), economics (Burrows and Reed 2014), and pedagogy (Rose 2017). Others have further argued that improvised music can provide lessons on the ethics of human interaction and community as a whole (Cobussen and Nielsen 2012; Nicholls 2012; Fischlin, Heble, and Lipsitz 2013; ). However, improvised musical practice itself has been largely absent from the methods of this research. Existing ethnographical, historical, and analytical approaches have rarely taken advantage of the richness and complexity of first-hand artistic knowledge to test assumptions and develop theoretical frameworks. This is particularly surprising given the degree to which improvising musicians (particularly in jazz and experimental music) have topicalized ethical questions in their own work over the last 50 years. Consequently, the models, metaphors, and discourses in this body of work remain incomplete. Unpacking aspects of improvised musical practice that tend to resist external observation (e.g. embodied skills, temporal contingencies, and ongoing group histories) – but are nonetheless crucial to understanding improvisation’s ethical dynamics – stand to trouble and enrich the field. The present project aims to redress this gap by forming a research cluster of scholars from artistic research, political philosophy, the social sciences, and organizational studies around a “musical ethics laboratory.” Through sustained, direct engagement with live musical practice, the cluster will rethink the relationship of improvisation to ethics from a fresh perspective, and expand IS’s relevance to their respective disciplines. Methodology: The laboratory consists of a series of seven musical encounters with three ensembles, all lead by Kolleg coordinator Christopher Williams. Each encounter will consist of a weeklong workshop with one or more ensembles, followed by two musical performances.

Kontakt: Caroline Gatt (Institut für Kulturanthropologie und Europäische Ethnologie)

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