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Art Criticism, Vol. 58, No. 2, Improvisation in the Arts (Spring, 2000), pp. 163-172 Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The American Society for Aesthetics Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/432095 Accessed: 04/03/2010 18:04
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thejazz referenceworkcited above ac- The Journalof Aesthetics andArt Criticism58:2 Spring2000 .7 Alongside the idea that improvising taps divivid flow rectlyintothe mindas "onecontinuous. "staringinto the blanknessof the space in front of him. yourself. spirit. and that the latter is singularly linked to such propertiesas "spontaneity.Convincedas earlyas 1948 that"spontaneouswriting" was thekey to honestandauthentic literarycreation.appearing in his fragmentarylist of thirty "essentials" aresuchphrasesas "Write whatyou wantbottomless from bottom of the mind"and "Composing wild."2In 1959 he publishedone of severalmanifestosin whichhe elaborated on the importanceof an improvisatory visions writingmeantto capture"theunspeakable of the individual"in unadulterated form.Kerouacrefined this technique in 1951 afterlisteningto the fluid"lyric-alto" style of jazz saxophonistLee Konitz and deciding "to write the way [Konitz] plays.associations.or innerself... and the result was as startlingas being trappedin anotherman's eyes. of sense-data. unpredictability.nor autotelic in the ways suggested by idealized discoursesof extemporaneous invention.experiment."' In descriptiveterms.and simply recordingthe 'movie' unreeling in his mind.. Prevision. and discovery.in Beiderbecke's words."3 In philosophical terms."8 however."5 In its supposition that "self' expression is facilitatedless effectively by interpretation than by invention. individuality." and when he recalls that legendary musicianBix Beiderbecke couldnotplaythe same chorusmorethanonce because."Idon'tfeel the sameway twice. Holmes appearsto have given an accurateaccountof Kerouac'sworking method.is a qualifiedview of the process that recognizes its connection with planandother ning.for example.whose novel On the Road had played a majorrole in putting the Beat Generationon the map of both mainstreamand countercultural America a year earlier. who sharedKerouac'sinterestsin this area."4Or the assumptionmay be implicit. individualistic.memoriesand meditations.. the view taken by Holmes and Kerouac of what the latter called "spontaneous bop prosody" or "spontaneous trance composition" is clearly rooted in a romanticist sensibility-or a Dionysian one.. I don't know what's going to happennext. in FriedrichNietzsche's terminology-with its emphasison immediacy. undisciplined. and the Aura of Improvisatory In a 1958 essay aboutJackKerouac. The thatideals of spontaneity andauthenassumption ticity are achievablethroughimprovisationmay be explicit. crazierthe better.."in the wordsof Beat poet Alien Ginsberg. preconceptualization. Somehow an open circuitof feeling had been establishedbetweenhis awarenessandits objectof the moment. In defining improvisation. This sensibility has been sharedby many artists and critics who promulgatenotions of improvisation as an idealized route to the authenticexpressionof a uniquesoul. and freedom from socioculturalnorms imposed by the present or inheritedfrom the past. careful not to will anything. surprise. mental activities that are neitherwholly spontaneous. as when a reference work on jazz statesthatimprovisedmusic "gives the player an opportunity for self-expression which is to a large degree absentwhen he reproduces composed or arranged works.DAVID STERRITT Art Revision.pure.coming in from under.deliberation."6this assertion tacitly endorses theconceptof improvisation as a privileged means of access to "immediateflash materialfrom the mind. Beat fellow traveler John Clellon Holmes imagined his friend working at his typewriter. as when cornetistJimmyMcPartland statedthathis apprenticeship with a Chicagojazz group trained him to "play the way you feel.
the affirmationthat workcan operateon each of these improvisatory levels (i. prerehearsedtechniques."10' andcritics very often place theiremphasison the term's first meaning ratherthan its second. rechanical reproduction. professionallyhoned presentations-into homes.164 The Journalof Aesthetics andArt Criticism may be in termsof physicalproximity.to cite one the classicalperiodof European reason of manypossibleexamples-an important for its high reputationin the modernistera may regardingthe uncertainties be twentieth-century of artisticworksandpracticesthemauthenticity selves. and its situatedness the "uniquephenomenon of a distance" that it presents to the beholder no matterhow close it .or treatedas a mere afterthoughtor addendum. Benjamin argues that contemporarymass audiences havedesiresconduciveto different resultsnotjust "spatially" thewish to bringthings"closer" and the wish to overcome but also "humanly.By facilitating the "decay"of art's auraticquality. But the popular won overby theunprecedented imagination."or may follow a course"inbetween"these possibilities. mainedlargely untroubled It is likely thatthe growthof mechanicallyreplayed a role in the tenproducedperformances dency of pre-WorldWar II jazz musicians to roots of theirartstray from the improvisatory exemplified by the polyphonic New Orleansor Dixieland style-and steer jazz toward Europeanized models that undergirded anotherhuge knowledges that in addition to "the immediate compositionof an entireworkby its performers. this development hardly encouragedongoing respect for such auratic qualities as unapproachabilityor specificity.respondedto the reproducibility trendwith growing uneasiness about the course that it would take in the hands of the capitalistic powerbrokerswho controlledit." the practicemay alternativelyinvolve "theelaboration or other variationof an existing framework. it is interestingto observe how closely its early days happento coincide with the birth of the recording industry. immediatecomposition and reworking of an existing framework)simply follows the as meaning dictionarydefinition of "improvise" both"toinvent. clearly a majorevent (along with the emergence of cinema) in the developmentof the age of meFor the first time. reby such thoughts. however. workplaces.individuality. In workremains"essentially theauratic discontrast. and commercial establishments.bebopmusicians."1' To focus once again on jazz. such desiresreveal a regrettable popularbelief in the "universalequality"of perceptiblethings. This raisesimportant related to the ontological natureas well as the day-to-daypracticeof improvisatoryart. Indeed. in a particular time andplace. andcriticsallowed-or causedWhyhaveartists such a mystique to grow around spur-of-themoment creativityas a pathwayto aesthetic and While improvisation psychologicalauthenticity? has played a significant role in artisticcreation for centuries-it was a favorite practice during music. The effect of this discursive maneuveris to ratify the link between improvithatis held sation.9Semantically.Some observers. in its "uniqueexistant"and "unapproachable" tence.or recitewithoutpreparation"and "to make or provide from available It is notable.or altogetherignored. the second is often presentedas if it was an occasionallyrelevantmodificationof the first.Embracedwith alacrityby large segments of the expanding turn-of-thecenturymarketfor consumergoods. time-and-place eventually including FrankfurtSchool philosophers like Benjamin.and like-mindedartists.thus takingthe music physically closer to its uniqueness its consumerswhile contradicting via the ready availabilityof copies that are (actually) identical to one anotherand (putatively) fromthe originalperformances indistinguishable that they reproduce.compose. and effects as its advocates frequently prearranged questions appearto believe. that artists materials.Yet a look at the actualmethin practitioners odologies of some paradigmatic these fields suggests that spur-of-the-moment creationmay not be nearlyas divorcedfrompreconceived ideas.e.." "the uniqueness of every reality"by according thatdisweight andsignificanceto reproductions place the originalsfrom which they aremade.and authenticity forthby manyBeat writers. plenitude of readily available cultural products.While the auraticeffect has a long and imposing history." even if there is a degree of "closeness which one may gain from its subjectmatter.'2 jazz andotherforms cordingtechnologybrought of music-not in amateurvarietiesbut in prestigious. WalterBenjamincasts light on this possibility when he introduces the term "aura"to identify certain qualities of the traditionalart work: its position within an establishedlineage.
and rehearsedin advance. iii.since unlikeimprovisations they can be repeatedas often as desired in substantially the same form.Most listenersknow this. and the Aura of Improvisatory Art 165 sector ("serious"or "concert"music) of the reIn the 1920s.these were subordinated to the prearrangednumber as a whole.which may be regardedas a markof intellectual alertnessand emotional"cool"as well as creative ability and musical skill. and "mood.but maintaintheir viaof improvisedmusic. dynamics. ticity noted in Benjamin'saccount specificity. but they sufferalongside live performancesof improvised music in this respect. (The player who improvisesbefore a live audienceor insists on direct.14 offers a field on which such Improvisation displacements of auraticqualities might be recouped in at least three ways: i. white nightclubsthatwere boostpredominantly ing the economics of jazz) and used "throughcomposed" arrangementsthat downplayed improvisationbut enabled commercialintereststo exploit popular numbers with newfound effialmost alciency. (b) the proliferation less copies easily obtained. Phonographrecords then rose in importance once again. they suggest a significant reason why many musicians and listeners felt a need to reinvest improvised . recordingsmay have paradoxicallyfostered the critical and commercial dominance of "swing" or "big band" styles that relied on large-scale instrumentation (which proved no more unwieldy in recordingstudios than in the upscale. rhythm. moreover.unapproachability-recordingtechnology offers (a) the ability to hear a recorded piece with no regardfor the time or place of its of endoriginalperformance.13 carefully "charted" The prestige of improvisationdid not regain its early ground until the years immediately after World War II.which gives even their massmarketedreproductionsa certain second-hand cachet. The ability to craft." The question that now arises is why such a highly improvisatorystyle as bebop should successfully emerge at the time when it did. Only a fraction of such performancescan ever be recorded. uniqueness. Hence. While big-bandarrangements ways left roomfor improvisedsolos and"breaks" by individual performers. andthey also know that recordedimprovisationsretaina greaterdegree of specificity than recordingsof through-composed pieces do. Elementsof singularityand "specialness" may be lost in reproduction.Sterritt Revision. and tempo. ii. to be sure. since the improvisation was capturedduring its sole moment of existence. who took a radical stance for cut-and-splice studio recording and against all forms of live performance.But in the 1930s and 1940s. bility in live performances which providea spur-of-the-moment "nowness" that recordingsmust lack by definition. Live performances of through-composed music offer more singularityand "nowness"than recordingsof such music do. when the innovative bop school reassertedextemporaneousplaying as an essential jazz ingredient. Historianshave suggestedmanyvalid answersto this. Even record-listenersuninterestedin the original time-and-placeparticularities of an improvisationmay value the fact that it was a singularoccurrenceratherthan a representative of a precisely notatedpiece thatcan run-through be played many times with little variation.) These three points illustratethe value of improvisationas a tool for restoringto jazz auratic qualities that are threatenedby the prevalence of phonographicreproduction.But one underrecognized factor may be a nagginguneasinessover music's loss of auratic half a centuryof mechanical dignityduring Contrathe marksof auraticauthenreproduction. but also of such notation-resistant qualities as tone. ings facilitatedthe rising popularityof solo jazz improvisationby allowing one-time-onlyflights of invention to be readily and inexpensively revisited by listeners. and "improve" a performance via recording-studio technology puts a premiumon off-the-cuffspontaneity. fromthe arrival of a postwar"freshstart" mentality to changesin musiceducation amongbothplayers andlisteners.given the renewed interest in preserving unrepeatablesolos-not only in terms of pitch. manipulate. Prevision.recordcordingindustry.and(c) a sense of not only physical proximityto the work ("a breathtaking performancein your own home") but of aesthetic intimacy ("the most subtle nuances") andeven a sortof artisticcommunion("youhear the full intentionsof the composer")with its cre- ator. unmodified recordingof a one-timeonly performancemay thereforebe seen as the diametricalopposite of such a musician as classical pianist Glenn Gould.
At issue here is the nearly ubiquitousbebop techniqueof using a familiarharmonicframeworkoften borrowed from a frequently performed "standard" or a current hit song-as a framingor orienting device for unfamiliar melodicandrhythmic inventions that are overlaid upon it.coherentmelodiesin real time without havinga well-rehearsed bag of melodic tricks ready. and the rest of it. exaggeratedor misrepresented II To make the latterassertionis not to deny in any is a longstanding andproway thatimprovisation ductiveformof creativityin jazz. but in stringing together learned licks and references in new and appropriatecombinations.These needsexplainthe preference of many bop players for preselected chord progressions that are not just readily comprehensible but in manycases instantly recognizable to all involved.for no one can createfluent. ThomasOwensstates that alto saxophonist Charlie Parkerresembled "allimportant improvisers" when he "developed a personalrepertoryof melodic formulasthathe used in the courseof improvising. Notingthatthe proliferation "jamsessions" allowed bop players "a forumin culturalhistowhich to practiceimprovisation. The fact that the formulations of such a prodigiousimproviser can be so categorizedprovides furtherevidence that preparationand precompositionare mainstays of improvisatory jazz.This preparation was absolutely necessary. and (b) anchorsthe listeners in intelligible aestheticterritory thathelps themmaintain theirmusical bearings and gives them the pleasure of a known commodityeven if the improvisatory explorationshead in difficult or bewilderingdirections."'9 Owens addsthatParker's formulasmay be placed into severalcategories:Occuringmost frequentlyare figures only a few notes long and those with a variety of pitches.16 In addition to these harmonic considerations. music with a prestige that had dwindled during the big-bandera. chords. while the "complete phraseswith well-definedharmonicimplications"areencountered less often.scales. Asserting that Parkerwas "undoubtedly" the "greatestformulaic improviser"in jazz history. The expropriationof preexisting pop-culture elements is not bebop improvisation'sonly involvementwith the elaboration of availablematerials as opposedto purelyextemporaneous invenof freewheeling tion.modes. moreover. sidersandoutsiders Yet it is equally clear thatbebop partakesof the or othervarisecondarydefinition ("elaboration ation of an existing framework")as well as the primary definition("immediate compositionof an entire work by its performers") cited above.large structures." leadingto the conclusionthat"his 'spontaneous' performances were actually precomposedin part. It is only to note how apprehensions over authenticity. in musichaveencouraged thedisandindividuality certain idealized cursivemaneuver of emphasizing virtues of improvisationeven as improvisatory and practice draws on techniquesof preparation that were developed before preconceptualization ever had reasonto takeroot.tiny figures." rian Daniel Belgradpoints out that "practicing" and "improvising"need not be contradictory termssince the latter"doesnot consist mainly in inventing new licks. He also describes the typical improviser's mind as being "stuffedwith a congeries of motifs. individuality-are often by its advocates. well-known melodies also contributeto bebop performances-played more or less straightforwardly during the first (thematic statement) and last (recapitulation) segmentsof a piece. The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz notes.When he observes that improvisersmust develop great familiarity with "the(roughly)dozen chordtypes thatmost jazz improvising is based on.l5 The prominenceof this method in bebop stems from the need for an organizingprinciplethat (a) provides the musicianswith a frameof referencethat allows theirimprovisations to remaincollectively as well as individually coherent no matterhow adventurous or far-reaching they might become. instrumental sounds. such apprehensions Bebop is among the most fertile breeding groundsof improvisation. spontaneity.as commentaryby inalikehasconsistently stressed."17 Jazz historiansprovidemanyconfirmations of the idea thatpreviously learnedmaterialplays a centralrole in improvisation. and that formulaicimprovisationitself is not limited ." from which the player "worksthroughassociation."'8 Morespecifically. spontaneity.this in turnsuggests why claims for allegedly inherenttraits of improvisationauthenticity." James Lincoln Collierindicatesthatmostjazz is rootedin a basic "vocabulary" rather thanan"anything goes"boundlessness.166 The Journalof Aesthetics andArt Criticism quoted(often humorouslyor sardonically)in the courseof otherwisewide-ranging improvisations.
who linkedjazz innovationwith modernity by saying."21 Kerouac decided that conventional prose was in such times."you can't compose the materials. "Onetries not to impose story plot or continuityartificiallybut you do have to he observed.the most enthusiastic proponentof that discourse. taneityas a routeto renewedauratic qualitiesmay have led Kerouacand other Beat writersto find in improvisationmore values of originalityand thantheirpractices individuality actuallyentailed."27 view the bop compositionsof KerouacandGinsberg arenot trulyspontaneoussince theirflow is to some extent"willed"intoexistence.we have notedhow strongly Kerouac's idealof spontaneous compositionwas influencedby his perceptionof bop music. resultof freneticwriting-its using an important foreclosure of the time necessary to engage in self-censorship. spanning all styles. Burroughs called "anew dimension [in] writing"25and what Ginsberg called "wild phrasing . III 167 Again as in the case of postwar jazz. Burroughsaffirmedthatthe "bestwritingseems to be done almostby accident. able. some were preexistingmaterialsappropriatedfromthe worldof popularor literaryculture.."but immediately addedthatone "cannotwill spontaneity" andthat until he helped introducethe cut-up and fold-in procedures. One might expect Kerouac.with writing-or-typingcramps. motivicimprovisation..Sterritt Revision. We arefamiliarwith the Beat notion thatvarious forms of spontaneouscomposition can produce whatWilliamS. evasiveness." And again."26 in Beat writingindicatesthatits compositionwas not always as extemporaneousas it appeared.experimentally.literarycritic JamesT. hadbeen diminishedor even lost in the literature of the day. and turnedto equally incongruous writing"excitedly. we may see Kerouac'schangeto a new writingstyle-carried out duringthe samepostwarperiod-as an effort to restorean auraticqualitythat. tion may occur-and it becomes clear thatjazz in generalis firmlyimbricated with improvisation practices based less on rigorously spontaneous inventionthanon the inspiredelaborationof prethe freexisting music material."we may discover that Kerouacis not so much mimicking capitalist methods as subverting them.notwithstanding quency with which a rhetoricof extemporaneous purityhas been appliedto it. "I've done writingthatI thoughtwas but simply not readinteresting."28 He thereforesubjectedhis "jumbles" of dissected prose to rearrangement and revision before expectingreadersto grapplewith them.. to be the Beat writer most immune to such impurities. Tracing numerous factors that contributed to Kerouac'sconcept of spontaneity. or pomposity-to achieve levels of "100 percentpersonalhonesty both psychic and social etc. andmodalimprovisationwhose very names point to types of raw material andconstrucuponwhichvariation.. in accordance . development. abstract poetry of mind .Burroughs also emphasizedthathis own cut-upspontaneity was not based on randomor haphazard juxtaposition. effectively mimics 1950soverproduction.. "writers .."24 thatconstitutehis equivalentof the Benjaminianaura.. Jones finds thathis method imitatedor parodied"the culture in which it developed"in that its "torrent of words . albeit with a somewhatdifferentset of motivatingand the impulseto use sponmodifyingcircumstances. How .sinceaftercuttingor foldinga text (orcombining texts using these techniques) he would rewritethe result until it carriedsome degree of identifiablesense. really a new po- Returningto improvisatoryliterature. based on scrambling prose physically in order to disruptconventional meaning. It is also worthnotingthatwhile the textsBurroughs used for cutting and folding were frequentlyhis own.."22 Still. "reactionagainst the rigid social mores of the developing suburbanculture.he felt. had no way to produce the accident of As with the reascendancyof jazz improvisation in the years afterWorldWarII. "Wekeptreadingaboutrocketsandjets andradar."23 If we connectKerouac's parody of overproductionwith another factor proposed by Jones as a motivation for spontaneous prose. and you can'tplay 4/4 music in times like that. This fact adds Burroughsto the list of improvisers practicingelaboration as well as the invention idealized by romanticizeddiscourse. swiftly."20Add such othervarietiesas paraphrase improvisation. long saxophone-like chorus lines . with laws of orgasm. examinationof methodologiesused etry..and the Aura of Improvisatory Art to bebop but is "the most common kind of improvisationin jazz." just dump down a jumble of notes and thoughts and considerationsandexpect people to readit... which he viewed in terms similarto those embracedby drummerMax Roach. This implies that in Burroughs's spontaneity..Prevision.
his habit of revisitingcertainpersonalthatpreoccupied ities." Weinvented it."31 of anAfricanAmerican But the dynamic of verneighborhood in bal sketchingis by Kerouac'sown definitionless ajournalentryforAugust1949. he dug it."Millerwrites. either in reality. discursiveclaims . as Thereare when Kerouacwrites that"sketchinglanguageis instances when Kerouacuses virtuallythe same undisturbed flow from the mind of personal sephrasesin differentworks to evoke materialthat cret idea-words. described by literaturecritic i. "The object is set obsessive prerehearsalsthat must indeed have before the mind." which begins.His highly romanticized description on subjectof image."citing biographerGerald Nicosia's sugfixation dreamingupon object before you" and gestion that Kerouac would often participate "Dont think of words when you stop but to see eagerly in life activities while at the same time picturebetter. however."33 Jones calls on Neal Cassady's idea of "prevision" when he speculatesthat Kerartist would sketch it with lines. ing from memory of a definite image-object. andattitudes him throughout his careermay itself constitutea sort of revision.its direction. Inaddition to hisboplike stream-of-consciousness by the publisher. successfulbebopperformance.. His stream-of-consciousness prosewas inspired Regina Weinreichas "quiteliterally a repetition of seeing (as the writer'simaginationand memby what novelist Henry Miller called "the idiomaticlingo of his time.. Memory played an overarchingrole in Kerouac's methodology by providing source material that he returnedto again and again."34 other.as inating but ratherchroniclingthe sociolinguistic when he conceived the novel VisionsofCody as tenorof the scene in whichhe lived andtraveled.35 Thisstrongly words."32 However rapidandfluid the writingprocessmay These pointsindicatethatwhile Kerouac'simbe.andits final form. his desireto convey his perceptions as accuratelyas possible "forced[his] mind method. and at times their rhetoric overlaps.' He got it. since it involves holding an image in cona sectionof On theRoad. Despite his insistence that revision is antitheticalto immediacy... so that the acand "blowing"arenot entirelydistinctfromeach tual process of puttingwords on paperwas but a mechanicalextensionof the process. events."He 'inory go back over the past to redefineit). a correctiveto inaccurateimpressionsconveyed by On the Road because of changes demanded ii.conspontaneousthan that of thebop-inspired techtainsmanypassagesthatarevirtuallyidenticalto nique.blowing (as per jazz musician) affectedhim deeply. he put it ments of past experience were revised in the act down." Particular versionsof the past almostlike ajournalist or anthropologist. as Kerouacwrote." recognize that by such repetitiona stage of revimeant to be spontaneousbut entailed the different techniqueof viewing or imagining a subject sion is alreadybuilt into the supposedly'spontaand then sketchingit with wordsjust as a visual neous' prose..' people will say. ideas.which was largelycomsciousness(whether or notit is also beforetheeye) posed duringhis famoustypingmarathon in April for as long as the writer needs to capture it in 1951. in his head.168 could they creep into the work of an authorwho once criticized Ginsbergfor correctingeven the errorsin a manuscript. This is clear from "Essentialsof Spontasuggests thatKerouac putkey experiences through neous Prose. almosta yearanda half later.moreover. What they should say reich observes that. Kerouac was strongly committed to a over the materialagain and forces the readerto whichwas also methodthathe called "sketching. not origwere also revised in lateraccounts.as in sketching turnedhis writing sessions into mere extensions (before a landscapeor teacup or old face) or is of an ongoing mental process on at least some set in the memorywhereinit becomes the sketchimportant occasions. it does not seem wholly extemporaneous if it provisationalwritingcertainlyreflects a sense of is linked to a sustainedmental image that influimmediacy thatmay be comparedwith that of a ences its content. forexample. typographical calling this a form of revision andthereforea violationof the "firstthoughtbest thought" rule?Kerouacstands accountableon this score in at least three ways. The Journalof Aesthetics andArt Criticism iii. "the eleis: 'He got it."30 The two methodsof "sketching" "virtually writing ."29 This descriptionmakes Kerouacsound of being recorded. This device is probablythe motivationfor such phrasesin "Beouac may have "revised in his head before he lief & Techniquein Modem Prose"as "Intranced wrote.
bop novsoundingvery muchlike a spontaneous elist. like an article writtenat one go. andFrancis a scriptdevelopedfromthatmaterial.felt by manycriticsto be the most influentialmemberof the Nouvelle Vague. he subsequently of decided. in a sort of directorial ventriloquism.Sterritt Revision. "I prefer to look for something I don't know. IV in the faces unusually high barriers Improvisation field of motion pictures.he has appealedto values of authenticity and uniqueness in justifying his methods." he stated in a 1962 description of the production process. use improvisation as a tool for developing charactersand performancesbefore the camerasroll. and the without sound so that movie was photographed Godard could call to the performerswith the words he wanted them to say."Ididn'tknow exactlywhatI was going to do. a procedurethat he labeled "last-minutefocusing.38 theirmakeupimmediately These works set the patternfor what became Godard'ssteadyhabitof allowing improvisatory elements to play a strongrole in his productions extemporanethroughlast-minutescreenwriting.. scenes for his 1960 film Le Petit soldat were often written during the same day when they were to be filmed... I was so sincere in my desire to make the film that between us [Godardand Karina] we broughtit off.the result will necessarily be sincere and honest.. Ford Coppola has expressed interest in filming Kerouac'snovel On the Road with inexpensive 16mm technology that would allow for improvisatory methods. calling upon his performers for primary contributions(inventing narrativeevents. Some avantgarde directors..36 Members of France's innovative NouvelleVague group have also drawn upon improvisation in some of their productions. and the Aura of Improvisatory Art 169 of a radical spontaneityand "nowness"do not comport with the practices he employed in achievinghis effects." he said of his 1962 drama Vivresa vie. reproducibilAlthoughhe acceptsthe mechanical ity of motionpicturesas a given.Initiallyanxiousabout this situation. and for the rest I had a pile of notes fered from its predecessors in that it adhered closely to a preparedscenarioand was filmed in a studioratherthanin real locations. for each scene. however.such as Andy Warholand Jack Smith. have used low-budgettechniquesto profilms thatallow for wholly exduce nonnarrative temporaneousacting and camerawork.yet muchof its dialoguewas writtenas the performers applied beforefilmingbegan.and dialogue) as well as the secondary contributions(interpretinga previously written screenplay)that would normallybe expected of them.This relationship began in 1959 when he directedA bout de souffle. "Ihad writtenthe first scene . Prevision. dif- for example. footage during the editing process. Like the Beat Generationwriters.. is probablythe best known Europeanfilmmaker to have maintaineda complex relationshipwith improvisationthroughouthis career.At other JohnCassavetesmade pointsalong the spectrum. Extending the practice of last-minutefocusing.I shall inventat the last minute. a Godard'slongtime admiration Frenchethnographic filmmaker who has directed both documentary and narrative works using methods.Godard'sthird wholly improvisational feature. Some mainstreamdirectors. Jean-LucGodard. and an importantinterviewstyle episode was completely improvisedby actressAnna Karinain a filming session guidedby for JeanRouch.his firstfeaturefilm. since cinema's costly benatureencouragesplanning and preparation fore expensive film is exposed by trainedtechnicians using valuable equipment. intuitivemanipulation of film ous performances."Instead planningahead. and various combinations of these practices. their actual voices were dubbedin later. Une Femme est unefemme (1961)." And again.Jacques Rivette has usedthepracticeextensivelyin suchworksas Out One: Spectre and Celine et Julie vont en bateau. character traits. In fact I made the film right off the bat. "Onefeels thatif one is sincereandhonest andone is driveninto a corner over doing something." as if carriedalong.. his 1959 productionShadows with entirely imthenreshotmostof it with provisedperformances. Likethemusiciansandwriters Godardhas been motivatedin his searchfor alternativepracticesby the wish to restorean auratic qualityto the artform with which he is engaged. such as RobertAltman and Mike Leigh.This does not mean that improvisationis unknownin cinema. recognizingthis ."39 discussedabove."37Much of the dialogue was written the evening before a given scene was shot..
" he said in 1983. and individuality as idealized passageways to aestheticoriginalityand uniqueness. but when shooting begins it should change as little as possible. The same wish motivatesa characteristic statementon the topic of cinematicoriginality. "I makemovies as thoughI'm living a day of my life.he feels moderncinema has been overwhelmedby commercializationand commodificationthat derive from the film industry'sinsistence on mass distribution andindiscriminate of its prodmarketing ucts."44 One means of accomplishingthese goals is to film improvisationalperformances.interests."It'sonly because I have a narrative line in mind thatI'm able to improvise and to go on shooting every day." When anotherquestionerraised the issue of improvisation.andthereby to reinvigorate what he perceives as the artisticand expressive possibilities of cinema.. Still anotheris to replace the idea of "picture. to begin again." Yet while the evolution of such notions may be tracedthroughGodard'sentireoeuvre. holding insteadthat all cinemais ultimatelynonfictionsince (a) photography always has an indexical relationship with reality46 and(b) moving-imagephotography captures the mutability of reality in ways that even fictionalframeworks cannotobscure ortransform."47 Various otherstatementshave revealedhow substantially his discursiveembraceof contingencyhas been balancedby a pragmaticacknowledgment of the problemsposed by cinematic improvisation." he responded.often places a romanticized emphasison notions of spontaneity. authenticity. the strongerthe image.. .170 The Journalof Aesthetics andArt Criticism all phases of cinematic production. which is what most movies do. explaining that instead "the movie is the reality of the movie moving from realityto the camera.Godardattemptsto divorce what he sees as the purity of cinema from the contamination of everydaylanguage.. he again rejected that term. otherwise it's catastrophic. Onestatement of this principle occurs in Godard's 1994 film JLG/JLG-December Self-Portrait: "An image is the creationof the mind by drawingtogethertwo differentrealities.. No one improvisestheirlife-at least.. I don't want to show again what I've alreadyseen. a timeof terrorism of language.As early as 1962 he contrastedhis practiceof "last-minute focusing" with the idea of improvisationper se. "I want to be able to see what is not seen.the further apartthe realities. Kerouac'shabitualuse of a narrative framework to shape and contain extemporaneousinvention prefiguresGodard'sremark. he has also recognizedthe limitationsof spontaneity and improvisationin artisticwork."Kerouac'speriodicreturn to particular ideas..the last-mentioned film was produced at the beginning of a period in Godard's careerwhen he attempted to bypass the normsof mainstreamfilm altogether.40His culunnecessaryartistically." he said with regard to La Chinoise.as indicated inby Godard'scontentionthatextemporaneous vention "takes place in front of the movieola [editing machine]just as much as it does on the set.It's between them. such as. addingthathe wishes "to speak of thingsbefore words andnamestakeover"and to deal "withthingsthatmay soon no longerexist or .which exist only on the spur of the ephemeralmoment."42 This insertion of a dynamic (and ungraspable) gap between the film andits means of realization points to Godard'sdesire for a discourse of auraticcinema. We consume things that are he has said.I never have."43 At his most radical.withthatof "image.like thatof other artistscited earlier. contending that "you can modify up to a point.. subsequentlylinkingit with "chance" andstating that when one employs chance the results might be "good once and bad a hundred times. I'd as a definingcharacteristic of themedium."representedby a fixed (objective) photocreated graph."45 Anotheris to resist the generallyheld distinction between fiction (narrative)and nonfiction (documentary) cinema. with things which do not exist yet.ou plutotai la chinoise.In his 1967 film La Chinoise."41 Significantly. Answeringa questionerwho inquiredabout his "techniques of improvisation. "Thetroublein the Westis thatwe areoverfed aesthetically. "I think the movie is not a thing which is takenby the camera.strippingaway conventionalelements of narrative andperformance and rejectingconventionalnetworksof distribution and exhibition."48 Godard's explanations of his improvisatory practices often recall Kerouac'smethodologies. for example. His rhetoric. his intention was "to rediscoverthe cinema.Another is to extend the idea of improvisationinto like to work both by chance and by control." tivation of an improvisatoryaesthetic has been motivated in part by his desire to evade filmindustrialnorms." spontaneously in the mindof the (subjective) observer. "Today we live in an epoch of total power being given to all formsof rhetoric. .
p."Improvisation.standard edition. Post Campus Long IslandUniversity Brookville.. Whilehis employmentof such frameworksand materialsmay amountto a demystification of improvisatory "purity. and control. 1966). BarryKernfeld(New York:St. p. 2." EvergreenReview2 8 (1959): 57. JackKerouac. 13. leading the Kerouacfigure to reply.. 94.HearMe Talkinto Ya(New York:Dover. he balancesan idealized rhetoricof auraticauthenticityand individualitywith a judicious use of preexisting aestheticframeworks and"previsioned" artistic materials.W. Quotationsfrom Columbia Disc Digest (July 1948). 7. NY 11548 INTERNET: djsterritt@aol. WalterBenjamin. pp.Bebop:TheMusicand Its Players(New York: OxfordUniversityPress.among others. 14. 29."Belief & Techniquefor ModernProse. 1. Kernfeld. 1980).Art Sterritt Revision.exemplifiedby 1940s bands of Dizzy Gillespie and Woody Herman. ed. when he depicts a conversationbetween Jack Duluoz. Nat Shapiro andNatHentoff. 554. 5. and another man representing poet Randall Jarrell. 8. 243 n. critic Morley Jones notes that recorded music did not become widely available"untilthe emergence of Victorand Columbiaas majorrecordlabels in 1902. v DAVID STERRITT Department of Theater. Ibid." the very same year in which pianist Jelly Roll Morton later claimed (dubiously but colorfully) to have "invented" jazz. 1980). See Alan Rich.1967-1977 (San Francisco: Grey Fox Press. 1985). 6.preconceptualization. Film. AmericanHeritage Dictionary. the FiftiethAnniversary p.com Kerouacaddressesa root issue of improvisatory prose in his novel Desolation Angels. 1994). Barry Kernfeld.While bigbandjazz andbebop differedin important ways. p. quoted by James LincolnCollierin Jazz:TheAmerican Theme Song(New York: Oxford UniversityPress. quotedby Tom Clarkein Jack Kerouac:A Biography (New York:ParagonHouse."the freshness of his results and the energy of his proceduresreconfirmthe ideal of extemporaneouscreation as a firmly groundedinstrumentalityfor specific types of artisticproduction." p. p."The Last Word. p. "The Great Rememberer. 43.Like improvisers in the neighboring fields of music and cinema. 102. p. 590. 1993).51 "Howcan you get any refinedor well gestated thoughtsinto a spontaneousflow as you call it? It can all end up gibberish. p. John Clellon Holmes. p."albumbooklet. therewas in fact a species of big-bandbebop. initially completed in 1956 and publishedin 1965. Harry chanicalReproduction. 10. Zohn(New York:Schocken Books."says the Jarrellfigure. p.or a lack of coherentgoals and efficacious techniques." p."49 materialthathe would of mentallyprerehearsing later commit to paper finds a reflection in Gouse dard'scommentthathe makesimprovisatory only of "materialwhich goes a long way back. p. p. "Improvisation. all of which are also found in jazz improvisationas well. p.. 1990). are meant to be representativeand illustrativeratherthanparticularly articulate or insightful. See ThomasOwens. Scott Donaldson(Harmondsworth: PenguinBooks. pp. extractedfrom readily available books on the subject.ed. Jazz (New York: Simon and Schuster. Martin's Press.and the Aura of Improvisatory and charactersis echoed by Godard'sadmission that "quiteoften when I make movies I discover that I'm making again. "GreatRememberer. Note that the longplaying recordwas born duringthe same postwaryears that witnessed the rise of bebop." in The New Grove Dictionaryof Jazz. 5. 1994). 15." Illuminations. 9. 5. Reprintedin "Celebrating of the LP. The quotations from jazz musicians that I cite in this essay.generalities and labels should not be taken too literally. 157-158. 12. quoted in Jack Kerouac: On the Road-Text and Criticism. 11.Prevision. 554." This response indicates Kerouac'sclear awareness of the "spontaneous" writeras a deliberative artistwhose speed and fluency must not be mistakenfor heedlessness. This method is relatedto other musical combinations of the precomposedand the extemporaneous -e. p.g. whom Kerouacadmired. 32. the key- . in a very differentway." in Composedon the Tongue:LiteraryConversations. p. 589. Jack Kerouac. 1979). Holmes. 4. 561. 221. carelessness. As always in discussion of artisticpractice. ed. Kerouac'shabit somethingI've done already."in Nothing More to Declare (1958). 3. Allen Ginsberg. 20-21. Over the years you accumulatethings and then suddenlyyou use them in what you're doing."TheWorkof Art in the Age of Metrans. 3."50 Each similarityof approach betweenGodardand Kerouac underscoresthe manner in which the ideal of extemporaneouscreationis temperedin practiceby realitiesof repetition."A Conversation. pp. Sony Classical/Masterworks Heritage CD (MHK 63327).it's gibberish. 2-3. 223. Although recordingson wax cylinderswere produced as early as 1877. and Dance 171 C. the character standingin for himself. 147. "If it's There'sa certainamount gibberish. of control going on like a man telling a story in a bar without interruptions or even one pause."Escapade (December 1960): 104. 49.
" TheNew Yorker (June22 & 29. 33. The Cultureof Spontaneity:Improvisation and the Arts in Postwar America (The University of Chicago Press." in Jean-Luc Godard:Interviews. p. Kerouac. Jack Kerouac. Burroughs. p. 1998): 56. 47. William Burroughs. p. p. David Sterritt. p.On the Road (New York:PenguinBooks. p. p. 37. 129-130. 58. Prose"(1953). Ibid. 56. cited by Clark. p. p. 82.ed. 25. 180.172 board"continuo"of the baroqueperiod-that can be traced back to much earliertimes. 500). p. 125. MemoryBabe: A CriticalBiographyof The Journalof Aesthetics andArt Criticism Jack Kerouac(New York:Penguin. p. 50."Montagemy Fine Care. Ibid. 200. 24. 49. ed. 51.. 151. JamesT. 13. 172. p. This idea is stronglyassociatedwith criticAndreBazin. 30. "The Cut-Up Method of Brion Gysin. 1991). see pp. 32."Reprintedin Jean-LucGodard. Reprintedin Godardon Godard. 1990). A Biography(New 26. The SpontaneousPoetics of Jack Kerouac:A Studyof the Fiction (New York:ParagonHouse. Narboniand Milne. 555-561 for various types of improvisatory techniqueand procedure. p. 36.even thoughthe style's audience was largely white-to carnivalize. The Subterraneans. Methodof BrionGysin. p. 280. Jones. Regina Weinreich. Quotedby Penelope Gilliattin "TheUrgentWhisper." 28. Burroughs. 1989). pp.who specifiesthatanAM radio(tuned to speech ratherthan music) be played duringevery screening of his 1959-1963 film Blonde Cobra. Reprintedin Godardon Godard. 43. 40. 120. Quoted by Jonathan Cott in "Godard:Born-Again Rolling Stone 27 (November 1980). Ann Charters (New York:Viking." "Cut-Up 27. 86. 172-173.57. 174.ed. Reprinted Filmmaker. 1998). Kernfeld. 18.pp. "Essentials of Spontaneous Prose. p. p. 173. 43. (New York: & Literature of the Beat Generation 1976). Henry Miller. 29. 31. 180. 45."Onthe Road Again. Reprintedin The Portable Beat Reader. quoted by John Tytell in NakedAngels: The Lives McGraw-Hill.theradical reworking business materialallowed African American bop playersof whom there were many. or ignores the concept of chordprogressionsaltogether."Los Angeles Free Press (March15..As a bonus. The Unspeakable Visions of the Individual. 1992). p. Narboniand Milne.Cahiers du Cinema 138 (December 1962). Reprintedin Jean-Luc The New Yorker Godard:Interviews. 33. "Belief& Technique forModernProse." Cooked:A Conversation in Jean-LucGodard:Interviews.ed. 180-181. p. 46. 1956). Quoted by Youngblood in "Jean-LucGodard. Bebop.ed.Jack Kerouac:A Biography. pp.p.1989)."Re/Search4/5 (1982): 36. 1968). 1986). WilliamS. p. which extendsmelodies "outside" even the implied pitches of the harmonicseries. Jones. JackKerouac.ed.. Reprinted ed. terly27:3 (1984). Quotedby Dennis McNally in DesolationAngel: Jack Delta.p. 24. pp. Kerouac. 21. 51. he obviously has no controlover what audiences will hearon any given occasion. See also GeraldNicosia.Reprinted in Godardon Godard. Burroughs.Reprinted in Godardon Godard.ed. Quoted by Gideon Bachmann in "The CarrotsAre Film Quarwith Jean-LucGodard. 57 (emphasisin original)." p.While he gives very specific instructionsabout when (and how loud) the radio should be played. p. 102. Jean-LucGodard. 521 (emphasis in original). 35. Interviewwith Jean-LucGodard. David Sterritt(University Press of Mississippi. 1990). 34."Improvisation. 146-147.ed. 48. throughtime-space. p.. Arthur Knight and Kit Knight (1978). 17. 29. Map of Mexico CityBlues. Ibid. Jean Narboni and Tom Milne (New York:Da Capo Press. Jack Kerouac. He also notes (and Jones also cites) the fact that Kerouac's memorizationof had "extensivepassages"fromplays by WilliamShakespeare been allowed to "filterinto his spontaneousprose. one of Godard'searly mentors. Daniel Belgrad.Desolation Angels (New York:Perigee Books. 41. p. 23.p. An exis found ception to the principleof a basicjazz "vocabulary" in "free"or "outside" jazz. 78-79. William S. 1980). ironize.Cahiersdu Cinema. referringto Kerouac'schildhood nickname.Cahiersdu Cinema.ed. is revealing in this context. 1983).An exampleis KenJacobs. TheBeatGeneration. 1992)." p. pp. 38. p. 1998). Quoted by Gene Youngbloodin "Jean-LucGodard: No Differencebetween Life and Cinema. Owens. Ibid. 188. Quotedby BarryMiles in Ginsberg: York:Simon and Schuster. 20. Sterritt. A Map of Mexico City Blues: Jack Kerouac as Poet (SouthernIllinois UniversityPress. 35. p. p. 40. Sterritt."suggesting that Kerouac'sliterarymemorieswere anotherimported element in his allegedly individualisticprose (p. 40.Nicosia's title. 558. of commonplace show16."Cahiers 65 (Dec. Interviewwith Godard.. Jazz. 48. of Spontaneous "Essentials 22. . Jack Kerouac. Sterritt. Interviewwith Godard. du Cine'ma ed Jean Narboniand Tom Milne." 25 (October 1976). Some avant-gardefilmmakershave broughtimprovisation into the area of exhibition as well as production." 30. 39. a particularpleasure after their years of oscillating between assimilationismand marginalizationduringthe big-bandera. 42. 92. James T. p. and personalize products of mainstreamculture. 54-55. Quotedin The Beat Journey:Volume8. ed. Ibid. p. James Lincoln Collier. pp. Reprintedin Jean-Luc Godard. p. 44. preface to Jack Kerouac. Daniel Odier (New York:PenguinBooks."Journey The Job: InterviewsWithWilliamS. 186. andAmerica(New York: Kerouac. 19.
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