Panel: The Embodiment and Embeddedness of Improvisation

Ingar Brinck, Improvisation in arts practices: Bodily coordination, imitation and engagement

What enables improvisation and how can we account for its function within arts practices? In the arts, improvisation means that agents engage in reciprocal real-time interaction without a script or leader. It combines skill and spontaneity by re-mastering the techniques and technologies that the local environment affords. In contrast, everyday routine improvisation is ubiquitous, occurring e.g. in verbal conversation and daily rituals such as cooking or cleaning. It is set to maintain status quo and compensate for ambiguity or error, a device for repair rather than invention. I will develop a theory of improvisation as based in sensorimotor processing and emerging from interaction dynamics. Bodily coordination (entrainment) provides the necessary underpinning in synchronizing the agents’ behavior temporally, allowing for a shared rhythm and timing. Imitation consists in the complete or partial matching of behavior and permits modulation of the interaction, normally serving to re-align agents when interaction breaks down. I suggest that in arts practices improvisation aims at discovery and novelty, as exemplified by modern dance and jazz music, and that agents imitate strategically to explore variations of expected behavior. I discuss how imitation may support improvisation on different temporal scales and levels of resolution, and consider the effects of emotional and material (dis)engagement on the interaction. Finally, I submit that studies in the visual arts imply that individual improvisation too emerges from imitation, the artist coupling to the physical context, using artefacts and her own body as tools for exploring novel trajectories, imitating shapes and forms or simulating imagined space. The present theory combines insights from the cognitive sciences, neuroscience, phenomenology, and studies in the arts, grounding the theoretical claims in reviews of empirical studies.

Susanne Ravn and Simon Høffding, Body memories in artistic improvisation: a dialogical embodied exchange of movement

When engaging in observations of and interviews with expert artists, such as dancers and musicians, it becomes evident that their practices are, in different ways, focused on developing, adjusting and optimising certain techniques of the body. In the phenomenological analysis of body memory in dance and musicianship presented in this paper, we contend that it would be a mistake to think of these body techniques – or specialised habits – as a repertoire of more or less automatized movements. Rather, in each repetition, body memories including these habits are to be understood as unfolding in response to the present context and accordingly instantiate a fresh memory of these habits while moulding them at the same time. In that sense, any habit is also always improvised in some degree – adjusted and timed in accordance with the present situation. In recent sociological discussions, several researchers have drawn attention to the facts that when exploring, and possibly changing, habits, we at the same time rely on other habits and that habit does not only include sensory-motor use of our bodies, but also the way we handle our attention and focus our awareness. We argue that dance and musical improvisation can then only be understood when taking into consideration its complex relation to habits and body memory. In the analysis we specifically draw on resent philosophical discussions (e.g. Sutton, Colombetti, Montero; Fuchs) to describe how body memories are not to be reduced to certain internalised dispositions, activated when performing. Rather body memories unfold and find their form in the contextual field of a dialogical embodied exchange of movement.

Mikko Salmela, Joint improvisation as interaction ritual

Improvised joint action feels good, sometimes even great when the participants experience highly rewarding “group flows”. In this presentation, I analyze the emergence of the positive affective phenomenology of improvised joint action in several domains such as various forms of art improvisation, improvisational music therapies for children with autism or schizophrenia, and social and political movements with the sociological interaction ritual theory of Randall Collins (2004). The understanding of joint improvisation as interaction ritual allows us to see how the shared affective experience of the participants builds up from several ingredients that include structural, intentional, and embodied elements. These are the participants’ bodily co-presence and physical separation from others; their joint attention to the joint activity; an initial shared mood among the participants; and their mutual awareness of the shared focus of attention. The initial affects intensify during the joint activity into an intrinsically pleasant collective effervescence in the group’s interaction ritual through emotional contagion and rhythmic synchronization of the participants’ bodily and behavioral processes as well as through the participants’ awareness of their shared experience. Improvised joint action involves more variation than typical rituals, but both are patterned social interactions in which the alignment of participatory, either synchronic or complementary, individual actions within the joint activity yields affective rewards to the participants, as shown by several empirical studies. Another difference to rituals is that in some cases of joint improvisation, the initial shared mood may emerge only from the affective rewards of bodily and behavioral synchrony and coordination. Another source of shared affects in joint improvisation is the activity itself, such as a successful performance of a difficult part of it. In social activism, improvised joint actions are often motivated by the participants’ collective emotions that by constitution involve extensive bodily and behavioral synchrony.

Ashley Walton, Auriel Washbun, Anthony Chemero and Michael Richardson, Musical movement: spatiotemporal patterns of coordination and embodied listening

Musical collaboration emerges from the complex interaction of environmental and informational constraints, including those of the instruments and the performance context. Music improvisation in particular is more like everyday interaction in that dynamics emerge spontaneously without a rehearsed score or script. First, we examined how the structure of the musical context affords and shapes interactions between improvising musicians. Six pairs of professional piano players improvised with two different backing tracks while we recorded both the music produced and the movements of their heads, left arms and right arms. The backing tracks varied in rhythmic and harmonic information, from a chord progression, to a single tone. Differences in movement coordination and playing behavior were evaluated using nonlinear dynamical systems methods. Collectively, the findings indicated that each backing track afforded the emergence of different patterns of coordination with respect to how the musicians played together, how they moved together, as well as their experience collaborating with each other. Second, listeners were asked to rate the audio recordings of the improvised performances. Listener’s experiences of the recordings were related to the way the musicians coordinated their body movements, including head movements. These results demonstrate a link between the perception of musical sounds and the motional characteristics of their sources, specifically the movements and gestures involved in musical production. Given that bodily motion is powerfully bound to listeners’ engagement with music, we explore new forms of listening experiences afforded by virtual reality and motion tracking technology. In collaboration with the arts collective Intermedio, new immersive experiences are demonstrated where listener movements determine and interact with the spatial distribution of sounds in a music composition. How these additional dynamics expand the possibilities for engagement with musical aesthetics are considered in relation to the theoretical framework of ecological acoustics.