Master Course: Freedom and Improvisation (Conservatory of Amsterdam)


Freedom is key to improvisation. Jazz music, in particular, lends itself to freedom of form, of imagination, of expression. But freedom is a porous concept, subject to diverse and even conflicting interpretations. In this course, we will reflect on the interplay between freedom and improvisation. Together, we’ll explore the following questions:

What is freedom? Does freedom have the same meaning for all of us? How do we define the different kinds of freedom? How do we define “improvisation?” How free are we when we improvise? How do we experience “non-freedom?” What about the act of creating something unexpected, on the spur of the moment? The word improvisation comes from the Latin word improvisus, meaning “unforeseen” – but can we really create the unforeseeable, or is the concept of “true” improvisation a myth? Don’t we need source material, something to improvise on, as Charles Mingus said? What about John Cage, who believed that even free jazz wasn’t really free? And what do make of free jazz and freedom during the Civil Rights era?

We will also reflect on what philosophers have contributed to the conversation about freedom and improvisation. A passionate improviser, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote about the “improvisation of life.” Hannah Arendt defined freedom as the capacity to “start something new” and “unexpected.” And Jean-Paul Sartre, an avid jazz fan, maintained that humans are “condemned to be free.” What did these philosophers mean, and to what extent can we relate to their ideas?

Throughout this course, students will develop their understanding of the complex requirements that they, as musicians, are expected to meet – requirements that ultimately fall under the rubric of freedom. For example, what does it mean to create an artistic identity and to be authentic? How can we relate to the musical heritage of the past, without losing our authenticity, our freedom? How, in fact, do we reconcile tradition with uniqueness? We will discover that musicians are in the company of philosophers in confronting these issues.

We will also discuss whether these questions of improvisation and freedom apply to jazz music only, to improvised music in general, or to allmusic-making. We will listen to various kinds of improvised music and discuss how we can connect these improvisations to our newly refined philosophy of freedom and improvisation.

[Text edited by Lisa Friedman]