Fragile Mastery is structured around conversations I had with my peers who are improvising musicians, supported by research on software, improvisation, and collective practices. These bodies of research are applied to my own works and my improvisational practice involving software and music. My interest in software and improvisation has lead me to ask, how can improvisation augment my practice involving music and software?
I have pursued Improvisation as a methodology since as far back as I can remember. During my studies in Jazz Performance, I experienced problematics in my practice as a musician, and a narrow representation of improvisation. Improvisation here was limited to the structure and language of Jazz, limited by an approved rule set as extrapolated from the master’s that came before. I later discovered that a resistance to a limited definition of improvisation was shared by many of the celebrated legends of improvisation that came before. The likes of Ornette Coleman, Herbie Hancock and others, who in the face of these narrow representations of improvisation shaped many contemporary musical styles. Some ways this manifested in their practices was through the abstention to theoretical and aesthetic structures of jazz, the adoption of new technologies and a re-imagining of the cultural mainstream.
I adopt software, primarily the visual programming environment Pure Data1 to further break from the predispositions of my formal musical training. Pure Data allows me to not only create software instruments to improvise with, but is an environment in which I can apply improvisation to uncover both the breadth of the software, as well as new sonic possibilities. Software like Pure Data share many qualities of traditional music. Like music it has a myriad of structures, rules, aesthetics, competencies, and practices as informed through history.
As a tool in any creative practice software can dissolve the distinctions between tool creator and art creator. This is explored by artists and researcher Thor Mangusson who, like many of his peers, acknowledge the challenges between creating tools and creating work.
Software and improvisation however are not limited to creative practice. I have extended my practice beyond the frameworks of jazz, hybridising it through the employment of software, discovering new pathways into understanding and reflecting on discourses that extend beyond a creative field. For instance, performance artist and improviser Mattin proposes a relationship between improvisation and communisation, the act of revolution, which draws on agencies that improvisation provides. Mattin, in Improvisation and Communization (2014), examines the misplaced utopic ideals of improvisation by re-defining what extent improvisation can truly be revolutionary.
When I talk to my peers, who are improvising musicians, they do not make a distinction between their work and their instrument. The way they interact with their tools is inherent in their process. This relationship extends to the collectivity of their practice, largely engaging in group work, collaborating with improvisers that break from the impositions of traditional music values.
To embrace software as a tool to problematise and complexify situations rather that to find solutions, would be to further explore our existences as a complex network of artists, activists, workers, and global citizens. It is this collection of complexities that instigated my passion for an improvisational methodology, and why I pursue a practice playing improvised music, and experiment with software. Through the course of my research I have witnessed the hesitation of others to incorporate either software or improvisation into their work. Both are full of preconceptions, impositions and legacies which either intimidate newcomers, or hold back seasoned practitioners. A contemporary adoption of improvisation engages directly with these barriers and has the power to overcome them.
Thor Mangusson suggests that open source software encourages questions rather than providing solutions (2008). In this work I try not so much as to answer questions on the merits of improvising and what agencies it may provide, but more propose it as a tool to question my own practice.