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Foreman, Iain (2005) The culture and poetics of jazz improvisation. PhD thesis. SOAS University of London. DOI:

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How is the jazz language inventive in spite of the objective limits that delineate and govern it? This fundamental question is examined in light of the musical practices of young jazz musicians with whom I conducted fieldwork in Los Angeles from 2002-2003. Their insights enabled me to outline four dimensions of theoretical enquiry into improvisation: the formal, the historical, the phenomenological and the hermeneutic. By placing these four levels in a dialogue, a productive dialectic emerges which provides a rejoinder to deconstructive musicology's inability to understand the jazz language's capacity to transcend its structure and create and express new meanings. As improvising jazz musicians blur the distinctions between analysis and performance, the process of improvisation can also help to cultivate a more productive dialogue between the 'outside' and 'inside' of music, structure and experience, texts and extemporisations, and cultural reality and poeisis. The dissertation follows each of the four analytical-interpretive levels and explores the ways in which musicians relate to them. I begin with an analytical exegesis of the objective rules and codes which constitute the basis of substantial portions of contemporary jazz musicians' vocabularies. This discussion illustrates the symbolic nature of the jazz language and its role as a repository of shared understandings in which individuals and the jazz community form their stylistic identities. This analysis in turn engenders a historiography of the language and the process of canon formation. I illustrate this process by paying special attention to John Coltrane's composition 'Giant Steps', which I relate to Bourdieu's notion of symbolic capital. However, despite a growing anxiety among jazz musicians concerning the workings of power, ideology, and strategies to sound 'hip' in improvised performances, these same musicians were dedicated to experiencing improvisation beyond the inertia of power hierarchies and discourses. A phenomenological analysis, in response to this inertia, focuses attention on aspects of playing music as it emerges in play. However, rather than grounding these experiences within the realm of immediate, intuitive knowledge - which neglects the mediating role of the jazz language in shaping experience - I have found it necessary, through the final hermeneutical level based on Ricoeur's threefold mimesis, to return dialectially to the formal, analytical aspects of the jazz language as a symbolic system. This language thus enables us to both relate to the world and foster interpretive access to self-understanding. In response to the initial question, I illustrate that the transformative power of improvisation resides not in a representation or reduplication of cultural reality; rather it addresses itself to the deeply rooted potentialities of reality absent from the actualities of everyday life.

Item Type: Theses (PhD)
SOAS Departments & Centres: SOAS Research Theses > Proquest
DOI (Digital Object Identifier):
Date Deposited: 16 Oct 2018 15:02

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