Improvisation is in a sense the antithesis of the well-wrought plan: at its most basic it is the process of coping with, and attempting to remedy, unexpected lacunae, unplanned changes and accidental breakdowns in the planned or anticipated order of things. In a medical emergency, an injury must be treated, or first-aid given, with whatever materials lie ready to hand. The damaged tool or machine must be ‘jury-rigged’ or ‘bodged’ until a more permanent repair can be effected. Such improvisation plays a routine part in the execution of building works too – for example in adapting a normal house design to irregularities in a site’s topography, or in fitting prefabricated panels of mosaic into a mosaic pavement. But it also lies at the heart of the creative process. It famously plays its part in military tactics and in tactical sports such as tennis and football, while in the kitchen a meal or recipe may need to be improvised to suit the raw foodstuffs that are available. It can often be discerned in prehistoric art, and has played a vital role in the performance of music and dance. Sometimes it is chosen as a defining mode of performance and of composition.
The outcomes of improvisation are typically temporary, in performance transitory, experimental. Their success is nevertheless dependent on satisfying certain rules, or norms. This is true of improvisation in music, poetry, drama and rhetoric, as well as in other performative explorations of space and time and knowledge, especially through dance and procession. Scholars have long debated as to how far the performance of ancient epic verse was improvised (rather than remembered as continuous text) and, if so, how far its composition was formulaic, how far pure invention. Today such performative improvisation can be exciting, amusing, moving – and also an interesting subject for study. How does improvisation work? What do ancient authors say about it? Where can we discern its traces in the archaeological record?
The informal conversations will be led by Ricardo Eichmann, Mark Howell (acoustic guitar) and Graeme Lawson (Sumerian lyre). As usual, Tee und Kuchen will be provided. All are welcome.