In an article in “Süddeutsche Zeitung” I came across the thoughts of Elinor Ostrom on commons. I had heard about that before but this time I noticed that the problem of commons is pretty central to my musical thinking.
In music, there is a limited sonic space, the human capacitiy of hearing is limited within a certain range of frequencies. If one musician ocupies certain frequencies, this may interfere with another musicians interest to use these frequencies. In other disciplines this can be different. With movement, it´s not the same. A group of dancers may do contact improvisation in duos or small groups, together in one room without disturbing each other. If one dancer does a certain movement, this movement is not lost for the other dancers, no, all dancers might use one and the same movement without serious interference.
Of course when it´s about a jam but a dance performance it´s different: the attention of an audience on one dancer is very much affected by what the other dancer do, and this is also very true to any musical action in front of an audience.
So, as musicians, we share the sonic range of audible frequencies and also we share the attention of the audience. And a third element is very important: we share the option for silence, an element that has great suggestive potential but is also very easily disturbed by lack of care. And, of course, we share the time of the performance.
In Wikipedia, eight “design principles” of stable local common pool resource management are attributed to Elinor Ostrom.
The second one is as follows:
2. Rules regarding the appropriation and provision of common resources that are adapted to local conditions;
This is what we try to adress in Minimal Improvisation by limiting the number of sounds to be used by each performer to only one sound. While this does create a certain sparseness it lacks some flexibility. Inspired by Elinor Ostrom, one may approach an improvised musical performance as an economic situation: the musicians share the sonic space, the attention and the possibility for silence together and it is up to them to distribute these goods in a fair way. In the artistic context, it´s not really about reaching equality of distribution, but to create a heightend awareness of the group process and the impact of one´s own actions on this process. One performer may make only very few sounds altogether, but gain audience attention exactly because of this, the anticipation of his or her actions extending the impact of these actions far beyond the actual time of performing these actions.
A more flexible option to deal with the problem of commons in musical performance than just forbidding more than one sound may be put this way:
Pay attention to the musical situation and make sure that you leave enough of sonic space, audience attention, silence and time to the other musicians’ contributions. Take care that all the contributions stand out which gives them momentum. Silence is very powerful to accomplish that, but in a more dense context, respect towards the fellow musicians is also very powerful.
Such an approach may create an atmosphere of sensitivity and significance, which seems pretty desirable to me.
In many situations it may be more appropriate than a strict rule, but the latter also has it´s advantages, being very strict and clear.