Organ improvisation : Activity, action and rhetorical practice

Abstract: This thesis focuses on contemporary organ improvisation in Western European musical culture. The aim of the study is to explore organists’ descriptions, constructions and definitions of improvisation in words and music, with an interest in the interaction between receptivity, creativity and change. As a research object, the art of organ improvisation is defined as a source for exploring learning and creative processes in self-directed learning and artistic performance. The framework of activity theory is applied in order to study organ improvisation as forming part of dynamic cultural-historical activity systems, where music-making and learning develop, transform and expand.For methodological purposes, the participating organists’ production and use of improvised music in professional practice and performance are seen as discursive practices. Five male and five female professional organ improvisers from four countries participated in the study. The data collection took place at two occasions: (i) a semi-structured, in-depth interview at the organ, and (ii) a public musical performance, followed by a concluding interview. Both occasions were DV documented and MD recorded. Data thus consisted of verbal as well as musical statements, and were submitted to a qualititative and interpretive analysis through the use of the computer soft-ware Hyperresearch. The results show that the organists in this study display an expansive approach towards notation and music-making, which thus deconstructs the opposition between interpretation and improvisation. Moreover, the results show how the character of organ improvisation depends on the performance contexts: Two discourses on music - music as a means and music as an end in itself - and two discourses in music - contextual communication and individual expression - were identified as situated in the liturgy and the concert, respectively. These discourses regulate the scope for musical expression, and are connected to clearly defined learning and creative strategies as well as to the shaping of the communicative events of sounding music. The gender differences found in the study are discussed as connected to two historical tracks, and to differing, but equally successful strategies, covering an imagined scale from historical style studies of composed musical works to individually conceived instant compositions. In conclusion, organ improvisation is viewed as a contemporary rhetorical practice, where the organists as musical orators act with (i) a well-informed discourse awareness, (ii) an ability to make self-assessments, and (iii) a stable, integrated sense of musical quality, in expressing intentional and important musical messages. A model of expansive teaching and suggestions for the use of activity theory in artistic research are put forward.

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