Free Improvisation as Interpretation ?

Christine Esclapez, Jean-Marc Montera

Aix-Marseille University, CNRS, PRISM, fRANCE | GMEM-Marseille


«Performer, c’est d’abord lire : le monde est une écriture, il est déjà là,
à nous d’en faire jaillir les singularités (…)» (Charles, 1968, p. 201)1.

Even if the analysis of the music of oral tradition has made it possible, since the end of the 20th century, to rethink the link between the written and the improvised, free improvisation and interpretation still remain two modalities of musical playing very often considered as foreign to each other. One is qualified as unpredictable or immediate; the other is a more or less faithful reproduction of «what is written» (Charles, 1968, p. 200). A large part of musicology has thus considered free improvisation in its relation to «what is written», that is, to the score (Masson, 2012 ; Cook, 2013 ; Rousselot, 2016). Matthieu Saladin, for his part, works on the aesthetics of free improvisation (2014) and the political stakes carried by musicians practicing this type of improvisation. Rethinking, as proposed by this first generation of improvisers, the very conditions of music production and dissemination by freeing the musical gesture from its subjection to learned codes and mainly to the written medium, makes it possible to give a place to the enunciation in act rather than to the reproduction of a fixed text. In 2021, is the separation between free improvisation and interpretation still just as strong2? Is it possible to conceive of improvisation as an interpretation of the “partition intérieure3” of each improviser, to use the terminology of Jacques Siron (1992)4? How can the link between free improvisation and interpretation be made?

As early as 1992, Jacques Siron had indeed attempted in his work and method La partition intérieure. Jazz, Musiques improvisées to recreate the link between written and improvised music by conceiving the “partition intérieure” of the improvised musician as the «mental landscape used by an improviser to stretch his improvisations (…)» (1992/2004, p. 17). For Siron, the “partition intérieure” is a potential of actions in the making, ready to spring forth in the instant of improvisation (the unrepentant according to Jean-Marc Montera, 2019), the place of the potential activation of “what would be written internally”.

These remarks will engage us from the observation of an free improvised situation (proposed and commented on by Jean-Marc Montera):

(1) to clarify the terminology used (interpretation, improvisation and performance) in order to delimit their boundaries and their points of junction with regard to linguistic usage,

(2) to address the issue of performativity as it has been discussed in a diverse and varied manner, by Performance Studies (Féral, 2013). According to Schechner, performative traits are linked «to the combined relations of four major types of action evoked by four verbal expressions synthesizing the mechanisms or founding traits of any performed reality» (ibid., p. 206) : being (existence), doing (activity), showing doing (exposing oneself) and explaining this manner of doing (reflecting on this exposure) (ibid.),

(3) to try to map, based on these four mechanisms or founding traits, the intermediate place where improvisation could be considered as a form of performance-interpretation.

1 We translate : «To perform is first of all to read: the world is a writing, it is already there, it is up to us to bring out its singularities (…)».
2 As proposed in the call for papers: «Can free improvisation be considered as forms of musical performance?».
3 We can translate by “inner score”.
4 The connection between interpretation and improvisation has, for example, been explored by Mathias Rousselot (2016): to what extent could interpretation be improvisation? We will approach the question in the opposite way in this contribution.


Bibliographical Tracks

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