The Social Structuration of A Collective Musical Improvisation, Followed by Three Remarks on Alexandrian Musicians

A musical “jam”, a collective musical improvisation, can be defined as a social interaction. As any social interaction, some variables govern how this interaction will evolve. This doesn’t mean that we can predict what will be the outcome of the interaction, but on the other hand, we cannot pretend that the outcome is fundamentally spontaneous. Let’s say that we can understand the course of a musical improvisation by crossing two elements : contextual factors (factors concerned with the interaction between musicians) and dispositional factors (factors concerned with personal characteristics  of each musician).

First of all, we can mark out a series of variables that we could call “objective” variables : Among these we have the Key signature (are we playing in C or D ?) and the Time signature (is it a regular 4/4 or an odd time like 5/4 ?). The musicians may also decide beforehand of a chord progression (let’s say Bm, D, A, G). In these cases, none of the musicians can derogate to these rules. If one does, the jam would be ruined. We can see here the rules of the interaction.

Then, we switch to dispositionnal variables (meaning what a musician is disposed to play, or can play). This means that the outcome is also limited by the personal skills and knowledge of the musician. His understanding of the musical theory, of different genres, his knowledge of the scales, of the different styles of composition but also different instrumental techniques.

Finally, we have the degrees of interpersonal acquaintance and familiarity from which stem degrees of predictability. Musicians used to jam together can read each other. They can understand the direction one of them is taking very easily. Acquaintance and familiarity in jamming can also be achieved even if musicians don’t know each other very well if they are familiar to a certain genre. For instance, jazz musicians who are familiar to certain classics (take 5, my favorite things, etc.) will automatically be able to jam by their knowledge of the internal rules of a certain genre or style, etc.

While observing a musical jam, we can observe how these different components or variables interact depending on objective variables, personal skills, interpersonal familiarity, etc. Looking at a musical jam can actually teach us a lot more about a revolutionary event than a broad macro-social analysis because it suggests that different elements must be looked at simultaneously : the “rules” of the event (interaction between a multitude of actors), the dispositions of individuals protesting (who they are, what do they know, what do they fear), and the differential interactions between them during the event. We cannot predict what they will do, but we can understand the sequences that lead them to play this or that, do this or that, by this cross referencing of different data.

Three remarks on professional musicians of the alternative scene in Alexandria

Spending time with alexandrian musicians of the alternative scene, I was interested by some of the words they used to describe some situations. These words made great sense to them while it seemed to me somewhat out-of-place.

Every time two musicians would evaluate the performance of a third one, if the evaluation was positive, they would use words such as “mezaker” (studied well) to describe him. Mezaker is a word that is normally used in the case of studying at school. For me, that showed a tendency of these musicians, as they evolve in their musical career, to value above all the real understanding of music, as in the understanding of musical theory, which is achieved by the reading books rather than practicing an instrument.

A second remark stems from this first one. There is an identifiable pattern in a musical career, at least as I observed it in Alexandria since I started playing an instrument in 2004. The manner in which a musician’s perceptions of skills evolve with his musical career (musical career does not mean a musician’s career in the professional manner, but more how his relation to the instrument subjectively changes with time). I mean here – if we take the example of guitar –  that a novice musician will usually define skills with reference to speed in playing. Then, skills will be defined by a set of techniques and tricks (sweeps, tapping, etc.). After that, it will usually become theoretical knowledge and an interest in the history of the musical genre etc.

My third and last remark stems from the observation of musical jams bringing together very skilled musicians. In these cases, it is relatively obvious that the interaction is less concerned with the production of a certain sound directed at a public. The interaction is rather oriented at the musicians themselves, it’s a performance. Its quality will be measured by the number of scales, time changes, technical tricks played : all elements that will show the musicians’ skills to each others, and also to themselves. The jam is necessarily auto-centered.


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