Sunday, September 30, 2007

Playing on the Edge

Again, ruminations in preparation for the Grateful Dead conference:

What does it mean to play on the edge? It seems that this expression (or figure) would indicate a state of playing where the mind is on the verge of losing touch with the fingers. Facing the potential loss of control, the mind either embraces the situation or becomes agitated. If the former, "playing on the edge" takes on the sense of a letting go. The "letting go" is experienced as ecstatic freedom, where new possibilities are allowed to occur.

But the figure of the "edge" is spatial. It is the border of something. Playing on the edge, as a spatial imagery, implies a willingness to go beyond the border or boundary. But the edge also cuts, it is the edge of a knife blade for example. The playing must cut an object. This cutting produces something new, an event.

Music's spacing is thus improvisation. Improvisation, in principle, must always already be ahead of itself, moving toward the unforeseen, to the "place" of edge. Improvisation places the player at the boundary of the edge, the jumping-off point to the pure possibility of the impossible. This is the paradox of improvisation: that its possibility relies on what is impossible, that is, the spacing of cutting that is non-contiguous with that which is cut. The border cannot be cut because as soon as it is, a new border appears.

We return to the idea of touching the border in improvisation at another time. Indeed, we must develop the thinking of the touch in music along the lines that Derrida has recently laid out in his book on Nancy.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Grateful Dead and Improvisation

I'll be giving a paper in November at the Grateful Dead "Unbroken Chain" conference at UMass, Amherst, and must start honing in on my thesis. Since I wrote my first Dead paper on the "Eleven" a few years ago now (published in Meriwether's All Graceful Instruments, 2007), I am still stuck on the problems and paradoxes that the idea of improvisation entails.

The event of improvisation relies on codes that have evolved within a melodic-harmonic language, and on rhythmic patterns which existed prior to the event. Yet for something to be an "event," a happening, it should not rely on these codes or patterns. Improvisation must occur in spite of musical codes, and must create a new structure and relationship to the language. Every improvisational act, in principle, thus needs to build a certain tension between a previous order and an emerging one.

Nearly everything written on the band states that the Dead's primary focus was on live, group improvisation. Given the mid to late '60s San Francisco context, the Dead were not alone in this quest for musical spontaneity. However, the Dead were the only group to survive this era who continuously sought to deepen their improvisational skills. The way that they did this was to build a relationship with their audience which is perhaps unprecedented in music history. For the Dead, the audience was not static, but rather a potent force with the stunning ability to influence and enrich the Dead's improvisational fantasies. In other words, the Dead's improvisational music would not exist without their audience. This is confirmed by numerous quotations from the band members; further, this philosophy of performer-audience synergy comes out of a certain 1960s social context favoring audience participation, most famously in the Acid Tests.

If rock n' roll (understood here in the widest sense and including R & B) was not yet a legitimate form of expression for artistically sophisticated Beat types and the folk-music patrons of the '60s, the Grateful Dead set out to change this. Drawing on rock's propulsive rhythmic power, it's simple and direct energy, the Dead were able to transform rock into a vehicle capable of transforming consciousness. Though they could perform a tune from the rock or R & B canon straightforwardly, the Dead's preferred path was to turn these songs into a hybrid music, as it were, blending it stylistically with folk and jug musics, and then with early '60s modal jazz.

--to be continued