ABOUT THE LARGER PROJECT
Equal parts memoir-treatise, live-recorded album, and VN-RPG (visual novel role-playing video game), TOUCHING PITCH illustrates how culturally hybridized pedagogies and practices of Western classical improvisation (a so-called lost art) can empower musicians to animate a spectrum of anti-racist, anti-assimilationist, and anti-capitalist agendas in the 21st century.
In classical music spheres today – from conservatories and concert halls to nightclubs and YouTuber bedrooms – there are musicians who actively perform, teach, and advocate for improvisatory practices. But their numbers are few and far between, especially when held up against other musical traditions (such as jazz) where improvisers are legion, formative, and indispensable.
I contend it is disingenuous and unduly exculpatory to call improvisation a lost art in Western classical traditions. (For a modest summary of what tends to be included, excluded, and signified by Western art music today, please look forward to A Cultural History of Western Music in the Modern Age [ed. Cheng and Fosler-Lussier, forthcoming Bloomsbury 2023]). Things (e.g., the library book you need to return but can’t find) don’t just get lost – at least, not in this physical world where survival-minded and possession-and-territory-oriented humans reliably demonstrate reasons to optimize behaviors of keeping versus discarding things (and spaces and ideas). Over the last century of Western art music, free improvisatory practices have been consciously, keenly, systematically, bureaucratically, instrumentally, and institutionally suppressed and devalued by human agents, often those in positions of leadership or influence. Predictable but heretofore underexplored reasons for this fall of improvisation begin and end with some of the superbosses of late modernity: colonialism, racism, assimilationism, capitalism.
Who has most benefited – financially, personally, professionally – from the suppression of improvisation? Who historically had (and who today has) incentives to curtail it?
Who now has most potential to flourish from the revivification and repopularization of this practice? What if the answer is everyone? Can things change? Should they?
How do the above questions connect and collide with the comparatively ample debates, practices, archives, and lived experiences around improvisation in jazz, oral and folk musics, and other improvisation-rich traditions and collectives?
I proceed with the belief that everyone can freely improvise in music – and that everyone can likely improvise more adventurously, beautifully, serendipitously, heart-forwardly, and playfully than they believe they can. Or the flipside: improvisation can be what we choose to call any act of doing adventurous, beautiful, serenditipous, heart-forward, and playful things with music, sound, bodies, voices, what have you (literally, whatever you have).