Protocols of Improvisation

Protocols--"long-established codes" determining "precedence and precisely correct procedure"--may seem antithetical to popular notions of improvised creativity. Interdisciplinary research into improvisation shows, however, that it typically occurs either within, or in close relation to, voluntary constraints. Pressing, for example, writes: "To achieve maximal fluency and coherence, improvisers, when they are not performing free (or 'absolute') improvisation, use a referent, a set of cognitive, perceptual, or emotional structures (constraints) that guide and aid in the production of musical materials" (52). Attali writes extensively on the "codes" found in the production of music: "rules of arrangement and laws of succession" which provide "precise operationality" (25).

Protocols are strategies or agreements which "glue" events together (after the Greek protókollon, a first leaf glued to the front of a manuscript and containing notes as to its contents). These guidelines, whether explicitly stated or implicitly embodied in the mode of expression, ground the play of improvisation in performance situations and, in Pressing's analysis, signify expertise.

Improvisation for performance--both in jazz music and otherwise--is not typified by unrestrained freedom, though it does provide unique expressive opportunities for individual performers within the ensemble.

A network of analogies informs improvised music, transformational acting, and the notion of the improvised character in a "culture of spontaneity" (Belgrad). The work of Sam Shepard often explores characters who must improvise within a matrix of social codes. Often those codes are attributed to the family or some other social grouping, such as a band or group of friends.

Shepard explicitly associates this need to improvise with the performative practices of jazz, as his "Note to the Actors" in Angel City makes clear.

Instead of the idea of a 'whole character' with logical motives behind his behavior...[the actor] should consider instead a fractured whole with bits and pieces of character flying off the central theme. In other words, more in terms of collage construction or jazz improvisation. (61-62)


© Marshall Soules 2001