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Ritwik Banerji, University of California, Berkeley, Ethnomusicology

What should “now” sound like? Normalized Notions of Freedom in Berlin’s Echtzeitmusik Scene

While the discourse of musical free improvisation widely claims that performers are now liberated from the limitations of genre and tradition, its practice tends towards two basic trends: 1) avoidance of conventional harmonic and rhythmic practices and exploration of novel timbres and instrumental techniques and 2) suppression of direct, face-to-face peer critique of fellow performers’ aesthetic choices.  In essence, free improvisation functions as a genre, while simultaneously asking participants, whether performers, audience, or critics, to view the practice as an emancipation from the concept of genre itself, and furthermore, to overlook the irony of the reduction of the concept of musical “freedom” to a handful of musical parameters.  Through an ethnographic study, this project investigates the social processes by which the pursuit of musical “freedom” results in the elaboration of new musical constraints in Echtzeitmusik (“real-time music”), a scene of improvisers active in Berlin since the early 1990’s.  If freedom was desired, what is it that people actually do that leads to the recrudescence of constraint?

Crucially, because face-to-face critique is so rare in scenes of free improvisation, participant-observation as a fellow performer yields little evidence of what constitutes the norms and core competencies of this musical practice.  In response, my project asks performers to interact with and critique an artificially-intelligent interactive improvising system, “Maxine.”  Given that Maxine is non-human, performers are often more direct in their critique of this system’s musicality than they would with another human being.  Thus, this project builds on ethnomusicologist Steven Feld’s experiments in dialogical ethnography by asking participants to critique a representation of human practice, such as Maxine, in order to elicit further discussion of that practice and the cultural politics shaping it.