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Scripting social interaction: Improvisation, performance, and Western 'art' music

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For historical and political as much as aesthetic reasons, a firm line is often drawn between jazz improvisation, which is seen as embodying utiopian values of social interaction, and the performance of Western ‘art’ music, seen either as embodying establishment hegemonies or as having no social content at all. In this paper I deconstruct the opposition between improvisation and performance, and explore the extent to which classical music, too, can be understood as staging different kinds of social interaction. This performative approach entails thinking about musical scores in a manner very different from the conventional textual model (I draw a comparison with architects’ sketches), and also entails an aesthetic shift comparable to that of Nicolas Bourriaud’s ‘relational aesthetics’: classical music is understood not, or not simply, in terms of the construction of individual, subjective experience, but as a means of constructing social relationships between all those involved in it.

Nicholas Cook took up the 1684 Professorship of Music at the University of Cambridge in 2009, having previously directed the AHRC Research Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music at Royal Holloway, University of London. His most recent book, The Schenker Project: Culture, Race, and Music Theory in Fin-de-si├Ęcle Vienna, won the SMT ’s Wallace Berry Award, and he is now completing Changing the Music Object: Analysing Performance. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and of Academia Europaea.

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