Talk - On Perpetual (Musical) Peace? Notation as a background process for collaboration with improvisers


Here I will attempt to unpack the role of notation in the workflow of On Perpetual (Musical) Peace? (PMP), a series of experiments in musical cohabitation led by myself for improvising ensembles of diverse membership. To date, the ensembles Liminar (Mexico City) and SuperMusique (Montreal) have each hosted a version of the project.

PMP’s conceptual springboard is Immanuel Kant’s 1795 essay “On Perpetual Peace. A Philosophical Sketch” (1795), a proposal for perpetually warring nations to acheive lasting peace through an international federation of states. (It later influenced the writers of the UN Charter and EU Constitution.) PMP embraces Kant’s emphasis on hospitality, publicity (transparency), and perpetuality (sustainability) – and the often contentious work it takes to maintain them. The project takes them as bedrock conditions for life in which there is room for everyone and everything.

Rather than providing my own scores, materials, or aesthetic for the ensemble to unite around, as “the composer” I act as a sympathetic agitator. Over the course of several rehearsals, I propose exercises, discussions, and graphic and verbal scores by a variety of artists (including the musicians themselves). These are meant to provoke difference in and reflection on what the players (some of whom do not gravitate toward notation per se) do already. In turn, the musicians find new collective resources which they fold back into the work process en route to a kind of perpetual musical piece/peace.

The initial concept for the project revolved around notation. Kant’s text resonated with my own research on notation for improvisers (see in the ways it frames text as a primary tool for shaping community interactions. In practice, however, notation has played a surprisingly minor role. Rather than shaping interaction in performance directly, it has shaped musicians’ sense of how to be(come) a group in rehearsals; once emerged, this sense has itself become the basis for the musical results of the project, above and beyond notation. This experience suggests that composers collaborating with groups of improvisers might do well to think about notation’s potential for interpersonal negotiation and instigation in the background, over compositional aesthetics, in order to engage musicians’ unique resources qua improvisers.

IMR Notation for Improvisers One Day Conference
Senate House, Russel Square, London