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

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