Media Literacy, Comic Book Pedagogy, and the Aesthetic Myth of the Given

By Spencer Cawein Pate

[This is a paper I wrote for a graduate course on “Literature and Other Media for Adolescents.”]

We live in the stories we tell ourselves. In a secular, scientific rational culture lacking in any convincing spiritual leadership, superhero stories speak loudly and boldly to our greatest fears, deepest longings, and highest aspirations. They’re not afraid to be hopeful, not embarrassed to be optimistic, and utterly fearless in the dark. They’re about as far from social realism as you can get, but the best superhero stories deal directly with mythic elements of human experience that we can all relate to, in ways that are imaginative, profound, funny, and provocative. They exist to solve problems of all kinds and can always be counted on to find a way to save the day. At their best, they can help us to confront and resolve even the deepest existential crises. We should listen to what they have to tell us.

–from Supergods by Grant Morrison (2012 p. xvii)

“You fellas think of comics in terms of comic books, but you’re wrong. I think you fellas should think of comics in terms of drugs, in terms of war, in terms of journalism, in terms of selling, in terms of business. And if you have a viewpoint on drugs, or if you have a viewpoint on war, or if you have a viewpoint on the economy, I think you can tell it more effectively in comics than you can in words. I think nobody is doing it. Comics is journalism.”

–Jack Kirby (quoted in Howe 2013 p. 103)

I. Introduction

In a vastly influential paper published in 1956, “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind,” the American philosopher Wilfrid Sellars coined the concept of “the myth of the given.” The proximate target of Sellars’ critique of “givenness,” of the apparent immediacy of knowledge as derived from sense-data (“knowledge by acquaintance,” as he called it), was intended to be foundationalist epistemologies such as phenomenological theories of perception and cognition, but it has often occurred to me that “the myth of the given” can be formulated or translated into aesthetic terms as well as philosophical ones (Sellars 1956).

For example, it’s frequently argued that reading prose is inherently superior–in cognitive terms if not also in morally virtuous ones–to viewing films or engaging with mixed-media texts like comics. This argument relies on an assumption of the native “givenness” of meaning for the spectator of movies and comics as opposed to that of literature, in which it assumed that meaning must be actively constructed by the reader and is therefore not given as such. What requires more effort, what makes the audience work harder, is asserted to be better for the consumer and perhaps even for society as a whole. (We can see this snobbish attitude literalized and illustrated in Francois Truffaut’s film version of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, in which–horror of horrors–text-based newspaper articles have been replaced with wholly pictorial representations of events.)

The purpose of this paper is to argue against the aesthetic myth of the given in theoretical terms and then on practical, pedagogical grounds as well. I hope to demonstrate why and how comics should be taught as part of a comprehensive program of media literacy instruction in schools and across content areas, and not just utilized as a mere transitional / remedial form introduced in order to hook “reluctant readers” on literature. Rather than being an unhappy medium or mere hybrid between prose and cinema, comics in their syncretism can embody the finest qualities of both while accomplishing things that neither books nor movies can successfully pull off. (An outstanding recent example: in Silver Surfer 11, Dan Slott and Mike Allred designed the page layout and narrative of the entire issue with the looping structure of a Möbius strip [Slott & Allred 2015].) We will begin by formalizing and critiquing the aesthetic myth of the given, proceed to defining and advocating for media literacy and adolescent literacy as such, and finally demonstrate how comics fulfill the key elements of media literacy instruction and explore their pedagogical implications in content areas across the curriculum. (Please note I’ve already covered cinematic media literacy through film history and theory in two previous essays.) While critics often prefer to hold up universally-acknowledged masterpieces like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Alan Moore’s Watchmen and From Hell as specimens of comics at their most refined and literary (read: wordy), I plan to focus on comics at their most ubiquitous and popular among adolescents, which is to say superhero and science fiction / fantasy comics. A significant amount of Japanese manga undoubtedly falls under these categories as well, but as I only have a passing familiarity with this genre, I will mostly concentrate on Western comics. And as an ardent and lifelong Marvel Comics fan, that publisher’s books are going to be given far more space and consideration than DC.

II. The Aesthetic Myth of the Given

Surely, there is an element of truth to the aesthetic myth of the given, at least with regard to reading. Speaking from personal experience, I possess what William Butler Yeats called “the fascination of what’s difficult,” which is why I find the prose of James Joyce and Henry James and the poetry of Hart Crane and John Ashbery to be so deeply enjoyable and rewarding. And even the most ardent proponents of whole language reading instruction would agree that the apparently simple task of reading for comprehension is really an extraordinarily complex act, one that involves the decoding of signifiers–not just individual words, but also sentences, paragraphs, narratives, and megatexts or discourses–on multiple and simultaneous levels (Harvey & Goudvis 2007 p. 12-15). Learning to read and write cannot be accomplished through cultural osmosis in the manner of learning to talk and understand speech; these skills must be actively taught or facilitated by an educator.

But the aesthetic myth of the given fails when it comes to comics and film, because meaning is no more immanent in images than in prose. In other words, just because a narrative is primarily told through images instead of text does not mean that processes of decoding and sense-making are absent in these mediums. The comprehension strategies of visualization and inferring are related but distinct: comics always-already provide us with visuals, but we must still do the inferring (Harvey & Goudvis 2007 p. 130-132). Moreover, these interpretive processes are fundamentally learned behaviors; we only fail to recognize them because they take on essentially different rhetorical forms than the codes and modes of representation in literature. Although it’s undoubtedly easier to learn how to read a picture book or comic than a piece of prose, one is no more born knowing how to read comics by their arbitrary and sometimes contingent rules–to understand, for example, that every panel is a discrete temporal moment and spatial frame, or that one generally reads the pages and panels from left to right and top to bottom (Japanese manga, for example, is different in this regard)–than one is born knowing how to read text. Written texts generally make meaning through signification and symbolism, while drawn texts like comics primarily build meaning via dialectical juxtaposition and movement either within or between frames–or as it is called in film discourse, montage (Cousins 2011; Godard 1988; McCloud 1994).

Let us illustrate this distinction using a semi-hypothetical model from the musings of the film director Jean-Luc Godard. (Incidentally, along with his fellow nouvelle vague filmmaker Alain Resnais, Godard was a fan of populist comic books [Howe 2013].) When asked whether he ever considered becoming a writer, Godard replied:

Yes, of course. But I wrote, “The weather is nice. The train enters the station,” and I sat there for hours wondering why I couldn’t have just as well written the opposite: “The train enters the station. The weather is nice” or “it is raining.” In the cinema, it’s simpler. At the same time, the weather is nice and the train enters the station. There is something ineluctable about it. You have to go along with it. (Brody 2008)

Written texts rely on signifiers, such as the word “train.” The letters t-r-a-i-n, when decoded as the word “train,” serve as more-or-less stable referent for the set of essential characteristics that describe a form of mass transportation that runs on rails. The arrangement of the opening sentences also creates meaning, because sentences and paragraphs are nothing more than higher-level signifiers; each of the two alternatives signifies a subtly different mental picture and limns a slightly different mood. This ability to make sense and meaning from letters and words that we call “reading” is nothing more than this process of decoding. By contrast, in a frame of film or in a panel of a comic, the images of a train and the weather–the visual diegesis–are near-instantaneously given to us in its sensuous immediacy. Does this indicate that meaning, too, is always-already given? No; this conclusion does not follow from the premises.

As Godard observed, the temporal and spatial simultaneity of images is a foundational principle of visual texts like comics and film. There is not necessarily any inherent meaning within the picture of the train and the rain, but there would be meaning if this picture were followed by, say, one of a businessman struggling with his heavy briefcase as he futilely chases after the train as it pulls away from the station. This juxtaposition between images–regardless of whether this juxtaposition was crafted through cross-cutting by editing between scenes, the horizontal motion traced by a tracking shot, or the absolute spatial continuity preserved by a long shot (although each alternative again suggests varying shades of meaning)–naturally leads the curious viewer to ask questions: Who is this man? Why did he miss the train? What is he running toward, and what is he running from? What’s in the briefcase? Regardless of the viewer’s predictions, the audience knows that the answers to these questions are likely to be clarified in scenes to come. And, in turn, avant-garde filmmakers would not be able to deliberately subvert our expectations if we didn’t have expectations to begin with–the inculcated set of rules which film theorist Noel Burch called the “institutional mode of representation” (Burch 1973).

However, comics are not subject to the institutional mode of representation to the degree that film is; there is more freedom, more slippage allowed within this medium. Noel Burch claimed that following the “primitive mode of representation,” films identify the viewer’s sight with that of the camera and utilize rules of three-dimensional perspective to make the diegetic space of the screen continuous with the viewer’s environment. Furthermore, each shot in a cinematic sequence–analogous to the individual frame of a comic–conveys a single piece of information. Close-ups, which focus inward on one discrete image, are perhaps the most salient example. However, close-ups briefly disrupt the aforementioned spatial continuity, so the latter quality must be preserved through eye-line and directional matches (Burch 1973). By contrast, while comics constantly zoom in and out between frames and utilize jump cuts and cross-cutting, eye-line and directional matches are not so important. In their radical compression and dilation of time and space, even humble superhero comics can be almost inadvertently avant-garde and psychedelic; their genealogical lineage is closer to the experimental Soviet, German, and French cinema that pre-dates or post-dates the institutional mode of representation than to the modern Hollywood blockbusters that superhero comics have inspired. 

Meaning, then, emerges from the cracks within and between images. It is not given, nor decoded from a single image, but dialectical or dialogical in same manner of the rhythm at the heart of film editing: shot-reverse-shot: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. With comics, this is obviously complicated by the presence of signifers in the form of dialogue, narration, and monologue, meaning that they are ultimately a form of aesthetic bricolage or assemblage of affects. But because the essential axis of a comic is its visual dimension and not its textual characteristics, the point still stands. (I.e., you can have a comic without text–indeed, there are many such “silent” comics, such as the remarkable woodcut novels of Lynd Ward, the phantasmagorical Frank stories by Jim Woodring, Shaun Tan’s classic picture book The Arrival, or even particular issues of ongoing series, like Jonathan Hickman’s moving Fantastic Four 588–but you can’t have a comic without pictures.) The aesthetics of painting, comics, and film emphatically do not comprise a kind of “visual language” whose semiotic structure and symbols can be delineated with any kind of consistency (at least not across spoken languages or cultures). By reducing the concept of literacy to the mere decoding of written language, the myth of the given thus serves to impoverish our world of aesthetic experience by obscuring visual / non-linguistic ways (in this case, montage) of constructing meaning.

Why is the aesthetic myth of the given so universal and so difficult to identify and critique? It almost certainly derives from class prejudice. Comics, being a rich and vibrant tradition with its origins as a working class art form, are automatically denigrated as simplistic trash for children, while the most aggressively mediocre works of prose fiction or nonfiction are elevated far beyond their actual stature or quality. (Indeed, newspapers used to publish stories with perennial regularity on the subject of: “Comics! They’re Not Just for Kids Anymore,” causing every comics professional / journalist alive to groan in unison [Rhoades 2008].) Comics are, to be sure, a populist medium (albeit one that’s more sophisticated and stylistically diverse than ever), but they don’t have to be lowbrow. At their best, comics embody what J. Hoberman once said about his fellow film critic Manny Farber: they short circuit the lowbrow with the highbrow and play both ends off the middlebrow (Farber 2009).

III. Comics and Media Literacy

If a school’s curriculum is something like a map, showing us the breadth and contours of its terrain, then media literacy is a sprawling, uncharted blank spot; it is terra incognita waiting to be explored with the depth this rich topic demands of us. Few public high schools (usually just some of the largest ones) offer a course or even a course unit in media literacy. The closest many schools come is a technology course on digital art–i.e. learning the basics of computer software for graphic design, animation, and audiovisual editing. In the digital art classes I’ve seen, a lesson on making comics was one component of the curriculum. These technology classes may be pragmatically useful, intellectually and creatively stimulating, and even innovative in curricular terms, but they are quite different from learning media literacy as such. If this subject is taught in its own right, it is almost invariably territorialized by the content area of language arts, which can sometimes lead to it being taught both inadequately and inaccurately. The end result is art that loses much of its medium specificity and aesthetic charm in translation.

It is my belief that public schools–whether at the middle school or high school level–need to start developing courses and thematic, interdisciplinary units in order to teach media literacy as part of the curriculum. Media literacy is defined by the National Association for Media Literacy Education as being:

seen to consist of a series of communication competencies, including the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and communicate information in a variety of forms, including print and non-print messages. Media literacy empowers people to be both critical thinkers and creative producers of an increasingly wide range of messages using image, language, and sound. (NAMLE 2013)

And as a subset of media literacy, Nancy Frey and Douglas B. Fisher define visual literacy as:

describing the complex act of meaning making using still or moving images. As with reading comprehension, visually literate learners are able to make connections, determine importance, synthesize information, evaluate, and critique. Further, these visual literacies are interwoven with textual ones, so that their interaction forms the basis for a more complete understanding. The twenty-first-century learner must master this intermediality of images and text in order to interpret an increasingly digital world. (Frey & Fisher 2008 p.1)

What is “the visual interwoven with the textual” but a description of the form and content of a graphic novel?

While budget cuts and the standards-based education movement have led to a drastic reduction in the art classes and electives that schools offer to students, there are several conceptual and empirical reasons that support my arguments about the importance of media literacy instruction. Increasingly, adolescents are surrounded by screens and omnipresent media images for almost every waking moment of their days. Their lives are always-already mediated, but they nonetheless have little idea as to how one can contextualize, analyze, and evaluate visual texts like comics. (This would hopefully not be the case with written texts, which they will have studied for many years by the time they graduate from high school.) And without being able to properly contextualize, analyze, and evaluate, one cannot move to the level of media critique for which many theorists of media literacy advocate. I believe that critical media literacy is a public good; it is particularly invaluable in the process of coming to political consciousness which Paulo Freire termed conscientization. In Freire’s words, media literacy helps us to “read the world” (Freire 1968).

Media literacy is thus a natural component of the expansive definition of adolescent literacy proffered by Moje, Young, and Readence (2000). Adolescent literacy refers to both the practices of reading and the body of texts and discourses that adolescents encounter in their daily lives. At its narrowest, it includes school-based literate activity: namely, the books that adolescents are expected to read, discuss, and write about as part of their formal education, as well as the works they choose to read voluntarily (young adult or otherwise). At its most broadly conceived, however, adolescent literacy encompasses multiple emerging extracurricular mediated literacies: magazines, newspapers, advertisements, emails, text messages, social media, the web, music, film, video games, comics, etc. Neither most adults nor many adolescents themselves consider the more ephemeral of these mediums and forms of communication to be legitimate literary practices, but their very ubiquity and invisibility is what makes them such important supplements in the contemporary language arts classroom. Through the use of media literacy as a subset of adolescent literacy, teachers can a) demonstrate that their students are always-already literate and possess reading skills and knowledge in a number of alternative, informal ways, b) connect students’ informal literacies back to formal literacy practices in and out of schools, and c) make their own instructional practices more culturally and generationally relevant (Moje et al. 2000).

As Carrye Kay Syma and Robert G. Weiner note in their book on Graphic Novels and Comics in the Classroom (to my view, possibly the best work on the subject), “sequential art, cartoons, comics, and graphic novels are not a genre, they are a format and a technique for telling a story or conveying information. […] [C]omics are a form of social history that can be used to impart knowledge about a particular era.” In other words, comics are an artistic medium rather than the determinate content thereof. They go to claim that “In the past 10 to 15 years, the use of sequential art in education has exploded. […] It is no longer a question of whether sequential art should be used in educational settings, but rather how to use it and for what purpose” (2013 p. 1). Finally, Syma and Weiner connect comics back to media literacy in precisely the same terms and arguments I have utilized:

In today’s transmedia culture, the concept of just what it means to be educated and literate continues to change and mutate. […] The combination of images with text in order for students to understand and interpret the world is probably the most important aspect of teaching literacy in the 21st century. […]

Sequential art, of course, usually combines both the visual and the narrative in a way that readers have to interpret the images with the writing. With comics and graphic novels permeating all aspects of popular culture and the world it is almost impossible for even those who disdain the format to not be touched by it (for example, in 2012, The Avengers was one of the biggest movies in the history of popular culture, and its source material is comics). Even those who may never pick up a comic for pleasure reading or analysis are still touched by the world of comics. Comics are probably one of the purest forms an educator could use to teach visual literacy.

One of the things that make comics such a good fit for education is that students are using a format that provides an opportunity for active engagement. Their minds are lively when reading comics. The readers involve their minds with both the visual and narrative content, hopefully resulting in greater comprehension and interest. (Syma & Weiner 2013 p. 15)

In the twenty-first century, we can no longer afford to ignore all forms of literacy except for printed text on a page. While comics should not serve as a substitute for all of these other forms of media literacy, they remain one of the most exciting and fruitful ways to teach and learn about this subject. In the following section, we will explore some specific pedagogical implications of comics in several separate content areas or domains.

IV. Comics and Pedagogy

Since comics as an artistic medium are inherently interdisciplinary, formal instruction on the subject would need to mirror this content in its very form. Thus, one could easily build exciting curricular connections and thematic units between language arts (studying comics and reading / writing criticism thereof); visual art (making comics and exploring their history); and social studies, science, and technology. Comics have pedagogical implications and applications across the spectrum of a school’s curriculum, and we will demonstrate this by examining each of these content areas in turn.

A. Language Arts

One of the elements of comics that I find most interesting is that of narrative compression. For example, the iconic origin story of Spider-Man as told by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in Amazing Fantasy 15 is a masterpiece of compression; they constructed a complete, compelling, and self-contained story in a mere eleven pages. It’s fast-paced, showing the viewers only the most crucial scenes as it swings to its climactic denouement. When Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley retold and greatly expanded upon this simple narrative for a new generation at the beginning of their Ultimate Spider-Man series, it took them a seven issue story arc of about twenty pages per issue–or roughly one hundred forty pages total, over ten times as long as the original (Morrison 2012 p. 96). This is not to say, however, that the slower pace of modern comics is necessarily inferior to the seminal works of the 1960s. On the contrary, this “decompressed” approach allows for a greater naturalism and flexibility, an increased focus on character development and dialogue, and a reduction in repetitive, overbearing narration and expository direct addresses to the reader. Indeed, nostalgia often prevents us from seeing just how well-written the average modern comic is to the comics of yesteryear. (Unnecessary sound effects are, alas, still with us.) But regardless of how much space and time is covered in a certain span of pages, comics rely upon compression, on the viewer’s knowledge that one is traveling through time as one’s eyes scan across from panel to panel. Compression is a feature, not a bug. It’s impossible to depict a continuity of motion on pages as film is capable of showing (through the fusion frequency of twenty-four frames per second), so comics can only select representative high points of the action.

The beauty of compression is that it forces the reader to make inferences–Scott McCloud calls it “closure,” in that in involves closing the gap between parts that comprise a whole–about what happens in the interstitial gutters between panels or the margins between pages; reading comics is thus a fundamentally participatory act (McCloud 1994; Yang 2008). (Also, for what it’s worth, Robert Brandom’s “inferential role semantics” and meaning holism as an influential school of pragmatist thought in analytic philosophy, derives in part from the work of Wilfrid Sellars [Brandom 1994, 2000, 2015]. In other words, linguistic inferentialism comprises a powerful challenge to the aesthetic myth of the given.) Language arts teachers spend much of their time trying to get students to consciously make predictions–which are one type of inference–about the future events of a work of prose fiction, when comics already do this quite naturally (Harvey & Goudvis 2007 p. 141). This is also the quality that makes them a powerful pedagogical tool in the multilingual classroom, as English-language learners can infer the meaning of vocabulary words from reading them in the context of images (Cary 2004).

To demonstrate inferences from narrative compression, we might turn to the opening of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s twelve-part All-Star Superman, an elegant, wordless two-page spread recapitulating the essential, instantly-recognizable elements of Superman’s origin story, compressed to its mythic core (Morrison & Quitely 2011). Like hearing the first few notes of a familiar melody, viewing these pages prompts the reader to fill in the blanks from his or her own memory. A more recent and even better instance would be Jason Latour and Robbi Rodriguez’s immensely clever and amusing Edge of Spider-Verse 2. In an alternate universe story about a world in which Gwen Stacy–Spider-Man’s late girlfriend in mainstream Marvel continuity–and not Peter Parker himself is the one bitten by the radioactive spider, Latour and Rodriguez accelerate through Spider-Gwen’s origin story in a two-page montage, much like Morrison and Quitely. Unlike these two creators’ work, however, Latour’s script is more like an improvisation upon an old standard than a faithful cover version. The reader scans the rapid editing between this alluring display of images, inferring from each one the key divergences between the respective histories of Spider-Man and Spider-Gwen, with the former serving as a kind of aporia, an absent center, around which the latter is constructed.

One of the finest examples of inferentialism in comics as a pedagogical tool for the language arts classroom, however, might be Matt Fraction and David Aja’s delightful, award-winning Hawkeye 11–otherwise known as “Pizza Is My Business” (Fraction & Aja 2013). A near-wordless issue shown from the perspective of Hawkeye’s pizza-loving dog, Lucky, as he pieces together the subtle clues of a murder mystery from the previous issue, Aja conveys information through Lucky’s associations of characters with distinct scents, which are represented through networks of thumbnail graphics. The only pieces of dialogue we are allowed to see are the words that a dog might know or understand, so without words to assist us in making sense of the sequence of pictures, we must work harder to infer the connections between clues and make predictions alongside our unlikely protagonist. It’s a totally satisfying narrative in and of itself (although one needs to have read the previous issues for context), and as an experiment in representing nonhuman perception, it demands multiple readings. I, as an adult, find something new to discover and appreciate every time. Fraction and Aja also constructed a terrific follow-up in Hawkeye 17, another nearly silent issue in which spoken dialogue and word balloons are replaced with sign language. Taken together, they are a magnificent demonstration of the power of comics to elicit reader participation in constructing meaning through inferences. Not only do comics appeal to reluctant readers, they also work to teach the literacy skills we associate with conscientious readers and desire to inculcate in our students.

One activity language arts teachers might employ is to engage students in “translating” a written script to a page or spread of a comic–or, conversely, to deduce the script from the comic representation thereof. By comparing and contrasting various students’ pictorial interpretations of a particular printed script (and perhaps also viewing them alongside a professional comic artist’s adaptation in a published comic book), students can gain a better understanding of how there can be multiple valid visual representations of a given textual diegesis, and that each version conveys different shades of meaning. Moreover, aspiring students of creative writing can learn a great deal about naturalistic, witty dialogue from the work of such writers as Brian Michael Bendis, Al Ewing, and Matt Fraction, and they can gain an understanding of narrative structure and pacing from Jonathan Hickman or Rick Remender.

Comics also allow language arts teachers to introduce students to the concept of flat vs. rounded characters. Most superheroes-as-protagonists are defined by a set of key personality attributes and traits, but conversely they also grow and change–if slowly–over time, adding depth and turning them from flat into rounded characters. The sheer accumulated volume of publication means that once-simple characters have become, issue by issue, complex and compelling creations (Wolk 2008). Other, more minor characters and supervillains, however, are more liable to be flat and static as they continually revert back to their original status quo.

Including comics studies in the language arts classroom might also involve reading and writing criticism of comics. Douglas Wolk’s work serves as an intelligent and wide-ranging introduction to the field, while Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith capably put comics in historical, artistic, and political-economic context in their textbook on the subject (Wolk 2008; Duncan & Smith 2009). Finally, the two academic volumes edited by Charles Hatfield, Jeet Heer, and Kent Worcester bring together some of the most crucial theoretical and critical texts in the nascent field of “comics studies” in a pair of serious and thought-provoking anthologies (2008, 2013).

B. Visual Art

In his seminal Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud accurately points out that the history of comics stretches back centuries (even millennia) further than we might imagine; Greco-Roman sculptures, Egyptian and Mesoamerican picture narratives, and medieval tapestries all tell stories through the sequential juxtaposition of images (McCloud 1994). Exploring such connections between contemporary superhero comics and the art of the ancient world might get students interested in learning more about art history and mythology. Furthermore, discussing how a single panel of a comic represents a moment in a greater narrative is a wonderful way of introducing the visual literacy skills necessary to comprehend figurative / representative painting. By examining their overall color schemes and use of light and dark, specific penciling and inking techniques or brushwork, tensions and balances of framing and perspective, selection and deployment of specific detail, grasp of the human anatomy, and capture of movement and emotion through gesture and expression, we can learn to analyze the meaning and evaluate the quality of paintings and drawings as well as narrative comics. And just as the works of Edward Hopper have been compared to stills from film noir movies, paintings often suggest a larger story extending beyond the confines of the frame. Again, the very open-endedness they share with comics is what leads the viewer to make inferences and predictions.

Comics can also demonstrate the differences between Western and non-Western art and the historical trends within each tradition. While comics still generally abide by the Renaissance conventions of representation (like three-dimensional perspective), their vibrant dynamism and hyperreal exaggerations mark them as products of artistic Modernism and / or Postmodernism. In recent years, superhero comics (particularly those published by Marvel) have moved away from cinematic, detail-heavy mimetic realism to a smoother, more stylized, flattened-out graphic approach.

Other series might serve to illustrate the influence of artistic movements upon wider popular culture. Grant Morrison’s career in independent comics alone serves as a superb illustration. In its boundless overflowing of mad creativity, his Doom Patrol (with Richard Case, among others) is a mindbending journey of surrealism and psychedelia. Morrison’s Flex Mentallo (with Frank Quitely), The Invisibles (with a rotating cast of artists), and The Filth (with Chris Weston) verge on pop art, while Animal Man (with Chas Truog) is realism spiced with metafictional, postmodern self-reflexivity. His brilliant, thrilling, and heartbreaking We3 (with Frank Quitely) is “Western manga,” combining a kind of inhuman naturalism with a Modernist fracturing of space and time, while Seaguy (with Cameron Stewart) and Vimanarama (with Philip Bond) hearken back to the glory days of Jack Kirby in their retro stylings while bringing in influences from Disney cartoons and Indian culture, respectively.

Finally, visual art classes can teach children to make their own comics to tell stories–either adaptations of pre-existing narratives from literature or stories that students create on their own in order to express themselves (McCloud 2006). As mentioned above, many digital arts classes already instruct students in how to create comics and animations using various software programs and apps found on the web.

C. Social Studies, Science, and Technology

Superhero comics often strive for relevance within contemporary pop culture–they reflect the time period in which they were created–so they can be utilized in the classroom as an index to broader sociocultural shifts (Syma & Weiner 2013). Many social studies classes already make extensive use of political cartoons, so delving further into graphic narratives makes sense, too. For example, Captain America can tell us something about perceptions of the United State’s role in World War II and other conflicts, while the X-Men have always served as a literalized metaphor for prejudice and discrimination–toward racial and sexual minorities, for example–of all kinds. Sean Howe’s totally engrossing Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is a hilarious and often horrifying chronicle that engages with such issues as the class struggle, U.S. labor and business history in the twentieth century, the contributions of immigrants and religious / ethnic / racial minorities to American culture, the impact of drugs and sixties / seventies psychedelia upon society, moral panics and political anxieties, conflicts between creativity and copyright, and the uneasy relationship between commerce and art (2013). Moving from straight history to a sui generis work blending subjective history, criticism, philosophy, and memoir, Grant Morrison’s entertaining Supergods (2012) is a mind-expanding look into what comics can tell us about the (post-)human condition. Finally, David Hajdu’s work on comics in the fifties and sixties gives us great insight into the history of censorship in the United States (2008). The website of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, a group that promotes and protects First Amendment liberties, also contains many detailed resources on banned and challenged books (CBLDF 2015).

It’s worth noting that in recent years, Marvel’s superhero comics have become more diverse (both stylistically and in terms of representation) than ever. In addition to all of the original, classic characters, there’s now a biracial Spider-Man, a black Captain America, a female Thor, a female Captain Marvel, a Pakistani-American (and Muslim) Ms. Marvel, a Korean-American Spider-Woman, a Hispanic Ghost Rider, and several gay or bisexual Young Avengers and X-Men. Having such an egalitarian cast of characters can allow previously excluded minorities to hear their own unique voices, to see themselves reflected–as heroes instead of sidekicks or villains–in the media they consume. At their best, superhero comics can widen the circle of our empathy and inspire us to create a more tolerant society.

Scott McCloud suggests in his Reinventing Comics that webcomics–which are not bound to the dimensions of a printed page–can give creators the freedom to sprawl out in multiple directions, to play with the representation of space and time (2000). But regardless of whether comic is published on paper or on a screen, all comics allow the reader to pause, rewind, and fast forward, to play with the subjective flow of time. This is exactly the quality that makes them so ideal for conveying information regarding science and technology. As Syma and Weiner note, a growing number of high school and college textbooks and “graphic guides” on various academic subjects utilize comics as a concise and elegant way of explaining concepts, one that lends itself to repeated viewings for the purpose of studying or memorization (2013). In many ways, superhero comics actually anticipated this by overlaying pictures with explanatory text that referred the reader to the numbers of previous issues for context, in a kind of primitive augmented reality.

(Speaking of memorization–anyone who thinks superhero comic books are light reading with low cognitive demands on the reader likely has not read one lately, for few genres require the reader to file away and recall later as much minutiae and trivia from decades of relevant backstory as this one does!)

V. Conclusion

Artistic innovation flows upward, from the lowbrow to the highbrow, as often as it trickles downward in the reverse direction. With regard to graphic novels, the subtle innovations of Alison Bechdel, Charles Burns, Daniel Clowes, Marjane Satrapi, Art Spiegelman, Craig Thompson, and Chris Ware–to name some of the “prestige” comics creators acclaimed by the literary mainstream–often pale in comparison to the splashy psychedelic hyperrealism and radical reinventions of both form and content that can be found in the humble superhero comic. Panel after panel, page after page, too many graphic novels limit themselves to repetitive foresquare panels and staid rectangular page layouts, with a kind of lazy middlebrow naturalism (perhaps gleaned more from television or film than from the history of comics) serving to render them aesthetically conservative or even downright stodgy.

In his “theoretical fiction about postmodernism,” Doom Patrols (which was in turn inspired by the eponymous series by Grant Morrison), the theorist and critic Steven Shaviro points out that comic books have a curiously bifurcated nature:

The mechanically reproduced object has two lives: one as an ephemeral throw-away item, the other as a precious fetish. This also corresponds to two ways that comics are consumed by their audience. On the one hand, you need to leaf through them quickly, with what Walter Benjamin calls distracted attention: it’s precisely in this suspended state that they become so strangely absorbing. On the other hand, you need to go back over them, studying every word and every panel, with a fanatical attention to detail. The letters pages of any comic book are filled with the most minutely passionate comments and observations. The letter-writers worry about inconsistencies and continuity errors, express approval or disapproval of the characters, engage in lengthy symbolic analyses, critique the artists’ renderings, and make earnest suggestions for future plot directions. In this way, these books become interactive; as Marshall McLuhan was apparently the first to note, comics are “a highly participational form of expression.” It’s all so different from the old habits of highbrow literary culture. A comic book has fans, more than it does “readers.” The medium is the message, as McLuhan always reminds us. The disjunctive mix of words and images, the lines and colors, the rapid cinematic cuts, the changes in plot direction, the tactility of newsprint at your fingertips: all these are more important than any particular content. (Shaviro 1996)

When I first entered the world of comic books and graphic novels, I assumed that superhero comics were merely a text to be critiqued, deconstructed, or parodied rather than appreciated in their own right. This attitude, which was no doubt borne of reading postmodern works like Alan Moore’s Watchmen before I ever encountered a single superhero comic, prevented me from perceiving and entering into the “living conversation” surrounding the medium (Buehler 2009). As Shaviro alludes to above, there are already expansive subterranean literacies–such as letter columns in the back of single issues, online forums devoted to comics, and comic book shops themselves–in which adolescents and adults can engage in passionate discussion and debate. For example, if one enters a chain bookstore, one is unlikely to overhear customers and staff members talking animatedly about the merits of individual creators, characters, titles, and storylines, but when one walks into a comic book store, this is exactly what one might reasonably expect to immediately encounter. As a form of collaborative storytelling and mass readership, comics are perhaps unique in inspiring more devotion, attention to detail, and vociferous praise and criticism, than any other text-based medium. As educators, we need only reject or revise our aesthetic assumptions and myths (which, in the last instance, often amount to sociocultural ones) about what constitutes literature and, indeed, the act of reading itself, in order to access this rich and colorful discourse and to encourage a new generation of media literate citizens.

This essay is dedicated to Nich Boyd–for getting me back into comics. Thank you also to my local comic book store, Nostalgia Ink. 

VI. Works Cited

Archer, J. (Producer), & Cousins, M. (Director). (2011). The story of film [Motion picture]. Ireland: Hopscotch Films.

Brandom, R. (1994). Making it explicit: Reasoning, representing, and discursive commitment. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Brandom, R. (2000). Articulating reasons: An introduction to inferentialism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Brandom, R. (2015). From empiricism to expressivism: Brandom reads Sellars. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Brody, R. (2008). Everything is cinema: The working life of Jean-Luc Godard. New York: Da Capo.

Buehler, J. (2009). Ways to join the living conversation about young adult literature. The English Journal 98(3), 26-32.

Burch, N. (1973). Theory of film practice. New York: Praeger.

Cary, S. (2004). Going graphic: Comics in the multilingual classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

CBLFD. (2015). Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Retrieved from

Duncan, R. & Smith, M.J. (2009). The power of comics: History, form, and culture. New York: Continuum.

Farber, M. (2009). Farber on film: The complete film writings of Manny Farber. New York: Library of America.

Fraction, M. & Aja, D. et al. (2013). Hawkeye vol. 2: Little hits. New York: Marvel.

Freire, P. (1968). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Frey, N. & Fischer, D.B. (2008). Teaching visual literacy: Using comic books, graphic novels, anime, cartoons, and more to develop comprehension and thinking skills. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Godard, J-L. (Director). (1988-1998). Histoire(s) du cinéma [Motion picture]. France: Gaumont.

Hajdu, D. (2008). The ten-cent plague: The great comic book scare and how it changed America. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Harvey, S. & Goudvis, A. (2007). Strategies that work: Teaching comprehension for understanding and engagement. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

Hatfield, C., Heer, J., & Worcester, K. (Eds.). (2013). The superhero reader. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.

Heer, J. & Worcester, K. (Eds.). (2008). A comics studies reader. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.

Howe, S. (2013). Marvel comics: The untold story. New York: Harper Perennial.

Latour, J. & Rodriguez, R., et al. (2015). The amazing Spider-Man: Edge of spider-verse. New York: Marvel.

McCloud, S. (1994). Understanding comics: The invisible art. New York: William Morrow.

McCloud, S. (2000). Reinventing comics: How imagination and technology are revolutionizing an art form. New York: William Morrow.

McCloud, S. (2006). Making comics: Storytelling secrets of comics, manga, and graphic novels. New York: William Morrow.

Moje, E.B., Young, J.P., Readence, J.E., & Moore, D.W. (2000, February). Reinventing adolescent literacy for new times: Perennial and millennial issues. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 43(5), 400-410.

Morrison, G. (2012). Supergods: What masked vigilantes, miraculous mutants, and a sun god from Smallville can teach us about being human. New York: Spiegel & Grau.

Morrison, G. & Quitely, F. (2011). All-Star Superman. New York: DC Comics.

National Association for Media Literacy Education. (2013). Media Literacy Defined. Retrieved from

Sellars, W. (1956). Empiricism and the philosophy of mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Shaviro, S. (1996). Doom patrols: A theoretical fiction about postmodernism. London: Serpent’s Tail.

Slott, D. & Allred, M. (2015). Silver Surfer vol. 3: Last days. New York: Marvel.

Syma, C.K. & Weiner, R.G. (Eds.). (2013). Graphic novels and comics in the classroom: Essays on the educational power of sequential art. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Wolk, D. (2008). Reading comics: How graphic novels work and what they mean. New York: Da Capo.

Yang, G. (2009). Graphic novels in the classroom. Language Arts 85(3), 135-140.

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A Madison Cawein Sesquicentennial

By Spencer Cawein Pate

Today, March 23, 2015, is the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the birth of Madison Julius Cawein. To celebrate–and to enact a little more “poetic justice”–my dad had these beautiful stamps made with Madison’s image:

Madison Cawein stamps

Here is a close-up of the image of Madison at work:

Madison Cawein Sesquicentennial

Finally, we also purchased a flower arrangement for Madison’s grave in Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery. Two pictures follow below:

Madison Cawein flowers 1

Madison Cawein flowers 2

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Recommended Music 2014

By Spencer Cawein Pate

[see also: 20092010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015]

1. The Lowland Hundred–The Lowland Hundred

  • Our Love–Caribou
  • “Falling Asleep / Orpheus Avenue”–The Clientele
  • “Julia / Tiberius”–Daphni / Owen Pallett
  • Nothing Important–Richard Dawson
  • Primitive and Deadly–Earth
  • Bécs–Fennesz
  • Inherent Vice–Jonny Greenwood
  • Plowing Into the Field of Love–Iceage
  • Houston Saturday, Ghost Passing, & Houston Saturday 2011–Jandek
  • Under the Skin–Mica Levi
  • Mess--Liars
  • N–Nisennenmondai
  • Surface Image–Tristan Perich & Vicky Chow
  • Lese Majesty–Shabazz Palaces
  • Terrestrials–Sunn O))) & Ulver
  • Detour–Toshiya Tsunoda & Manfred Werder
  • No. 2–Christina Vantzou
  • SousedScott Walker & Sunn O)))
  • Out of Range–Jana Winderen
  • AtomosA Winged Victory for the Sullen
  • Tomorrow’s Modern BoxesThom Yorke
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An Interview With The Lowland Hundred

By Spencer Cawein Pate

The Welsh band The Lowland Hundred make the kind of music I dream about, music I have longed for even before it came into existence. After reading Rob Young’s characteristically astute and enticing review of their most recent release in the pages of The Wire, I immediately purchased and listened to their three albums to date–Under Cambrian Sky (2010), Adit (2011), and The Lowland Hundred (2014). To say that I was impressed is putting it very mildly. The Lowland Hundred seamlessly blends nature recordings and spare instrumentation into suites of drifting, pastoral songs that glow with spectral light. (Had I heard The Lowland Hundred before I compiled my “Ecological Music 15” chart for The Wire, they absolutely would have been accorded a prominent place on that list.) Since their extraordinary third album is my favorite record of 2014 so far, I decided to interview The Lowland Hundred’s multi-instrumentalist Tim Noble and vocalist Paul Newland to learn more about their utterly distinctive approach to crafting music. My questions and their insightful and detailed responses can be read below.

SCP: I greatly enjoyed viewing your exquisite photographs of the Welsh landscapes that inspire your music as I listened to The Lowland Hundred–although your music conjures a keen sense of time and place even without the benefit of photography. Could you elaborate on some of the psychogeographical and personal connections between your surroundings and your art?

TN: Paul and I are English.  I moved to Aberystwyth in 2006 when my wife took up a lecturing post at the University.  Aberystwyth and the wider county of Ceredigion had a powerful, entirely unexpected and pretty much immediate emotional impact on me.  I spent the first 30 years of my life in the East Midlands of England and, by the end, I was utterly sick of it.  I was ready for a change in my life and I found that change in Aberystwyth.  It’s a dramatic way of putting it, but I fell in love with the place from the moment I arrived–the sea, the mountains, the sunsets…  It was so different to the East Midlands, so wild and exciting.  When I met Paul some two years after I’d first arrived, I was still absolutely besotted with the place and I was very lucky to have the chance to relive my own early encounters with the area through his early encounters.   What you see in the photographs and hear in the music is someone finding their way in new, unfamiliar surroundings.  The photographs are documents of early visits to places that would become important to the music; they are visual notes, research material.  Neither of us spends hours gazing at the photographs afterwards but, for me, the act of taking a photograph helps to fix in my memory the emotions I felt in that place at that time.  When composing the music, those emotions are that much easier to draw on and convert to sound.

PN: I think I’ve certainly been influenced by psychogeography to a certain extent. A decade or so ago I discovered the work of Iain Sinclair, and I was really struck by what he did imaginatively with the Hawksmoor churches in London (among other things), which of course was later echoed by Peter Ackroyd and Alan Moore. I know Tim was interested in this too. Guy Debord talked about the notion that places can have an impact on the emotions of an individual, and that people can find ways of creating a new awareness of a place, and find new paths. That certainly struck me as a useful (and fun) way of engaging with Aberystwyth when I first moved here and met up with Tim, who was so obviously fascinated with the place. But we never made a conscious decision to make ‘psychogeographical music’, and indeed the term ‘psychogeography’ feels rather exhausted now (as all terms do after a while). We just wanted to find a way to work together as writers initially, and luckily we had the idea to write about this incredible place that we both found ourselves in. No doubt some of these ‘psychogeographical’ ideas found their way in subconsciously, though.

SCP: Far from being wholly impressionistic and reflective, there’s a really lovely–even scientific–specificity and realism to your band’s lyrics and use of nature recordings. What is the role of these sedimented layers of memory, history, and mythology in your process of crafting music?

TN: This is in no way aimed at you, Spencer, because you didn’t mention it, but it’s galling how many people waste space recycling readily available information about Cantre’r Gwaelod (the mythical Welsh place from which we take our name) and almost completely gloss over the music.  The myth is important to us only in the sense that it reminds us of the way people have created stories around this landscape since ancient times.

Our music wouldn’t exist without memory: the starting point for all our music is the memory of an emotion experienced during a first encounter with a particular place.  We research the history only after feeling moved to write about a particular place.  Even then, we prefer to examine the history as if it were the memory of a character.

PN: I quite liked the idea of specifying the names of some of the trees and flowers and sea life of the area in the lyrics, for example, as, above all else, there is a certain ineffable, magical quality to some of the words used for these things! Often you would walk past a flower on a path or see a small fish in the sea without looking twice at it, but if you discover its Latin name you somehow feel differently about it. I think this is linked to how we might see / feel places differently if we make the effort. I also really enjoyed the challenge of singing these lines and trying to invest them with a level of emotion. In terms of memory, history and mythology, I think we were more interested in making and recording our own experiences and then evoking our subsequent memories of places, above all else.

SCP: Do you see yourself working more in a tradition of folk music or one of post-rock / hauntology? Or do you view those subgenres as essentially stemming from the same impulse?

TN: It’s for other people to decide which tradition we’re working in.  We’re aware of traditions, but we focus on using the skills we have to make music that reflects the people and the landscape around us.  If someone thinks we sound like band X or belong to tradition Y, I consider that a failure on my part.

For a while, I quite liked the whole hauntological genre as a casual listener but, nowadays, I hope it’s dying out.  Its early exponents were creative and imaginative but, in recent times, it’s grown into something ridiculous.  There was a time, coinciding with the release of Berberian Sound Studio, that my Twitter feed was full of mentions of preposterously named and eminently spoofable acts–Tiswas Scrying Unit, TDK Investigation Bureau etc.–who seemed to be offering nothing more than a collection of hackneyed musical tropes recycled from British children’s TV of the 1970s.

In the UK, folk and hauntology both stem from an impulse to curate the past.  I have very little interest in this as a consumer and absolutely zero interest in it as a producer.  With so much music and film of the past now available to us, I accept that we live in “haunted” times, but mixing analogue synth, tape hiss and cloying whimsy is a lazy, reductive way to communicate how it really feels to be alive today.

PN: While I love folk music and I like a lot of so-called post-rock music, Tim and I never really discussed genres, and I think we were probably resistant to making music that might in any way be genre specific. As Tim says, we were interested in the here and now (but at the same time how the past informs our experiences of the here and now in a specific place). Of course people will hear some influences in the music (as in all music), and that’s fine by me, but we basically wanted to come up with a sound world that might capture how these places in west Wales made us feel, in the moment. Personally I’ve no real interest in hauntology as a musical movement or subculture.

SCP: Outside of more obvious precursors like Talk Talk, Bark Psychosis, and Disco Inferno, have you also been influenced by classical music? What about British folk-rock and psychedelia? Are their any particular poets or prose writers you admire who have left their mark on your music and lyrics?

TN: I don’t really listen to music that much but,  over the last 10 years, when I have done, I’ve mainly listened to classical music.  Here in Britain, we’re extremely fortunate to have BBC Radio 3, which is an incredibly valuable resource for anyone interested in classical music.  I’d go as far as to say it’s an incredibly valuable resource for anyone interested in music.  I spent the daily commute to work and the weekly commute to Aberystwyth–my wife lived here for 3 years before I was able to move–tuned to Radio 3 and discovered a world of music that I always suspected existed, but had never previously found a way to engage with.  I’m confident that, without classical music and the access to it afforded by Radio 3, I would not be typing these words now.

I’m sure every second of these records is the product of books I’ve read over the years, but two authors in particular made a huge impression.  The first is David Toop, whose Ocean of Sound introduced me to some music with which I was completely unfamiliar but, perhaps more importantly, it shamed me into engaging with, and subsequently falling for, some music I’d previously dismissed.  The second author is a local man, Erwyd Howells.  I chanced across his book Good Men And True–part memoir, part personal history of the shepherds of Mid Wales–while I was in the local petrol station one Saturday.  I bought it instantly and I didn’t put it down for about a year.  It fills places I know only as desolate valleys or crumbling ruins with light and laughter.  His style is unstudied, personal and, as such, it makes for an engaging and utterly enchanting book.

PN: I listen to classical music, and I love a lot of British folk rock and psychedelia, but in terms of specific artists, and for that matter writers / poets who might have left a mark, there are simply too many to mention. I spend as much time making music as I do listening to it, really. And I spend a lot more time reading and watching films than listening to music. Talk Talk get mentioned a lot with us. I remember my brother buying the first Talk Talk album when it came out in the early 80s when we were kids, and between us we bought all their subsequent records. Spirit of Eden in particular had a huge influence on me but also the musicians I was working with in various bands around northeast London in the late 80s. But so did Prince and Sonic Youth! I don’t particularly hear Talk Talk in what the LH do, but if others do I’m not at all unhappy about it. Indeed, I find it fascinating. Mark Hollis is somebody I admire. Above all else he is a wonderful singer.

SCP: The press materials for your latest album mention the “haunted middle-aged doubt” of the underrated Scottish band The Blue Nile as a possible reference point for your sound. I can definitely hear the commonality with Paul Buchanan’s vocals, but I was also wondering if that band’s musique concrete approach to pop was another inspiration for the way in which you construct your songs?

TN: The press materials were drawn up by the label and whatever they want to say to sell the record is fine by me.  I’d never heard a record by The Blue Nile before people started mentioning them in connection with us and I’ll certainly not listen to one now.  If writers draw comparisons between us and another act, I avoid their music altogether.  I first heard Laughing Stock in early 2009 and I was quite enjoying it until the persistent and widespread comparisons to Talk Talk meant I had to stop listening to it.  I’m still baffled by those comparisons.  My ears must be defective because I hear a band that is completely at odds with us.  Their subject matter is vague and universal where ours is unashamedly specific and local.  Hollis had a deep, powerful voice where Paul’s is high and delicate.  Furthermore, the bedrock of the Talk Talk sound is pulse and groove, anchored so brilliantly by Lee Harris’s drumming; our music has nothing more than a fleeting acquaintance with pulse and groove.  I’d like to meet Mark Hollis one day.  I would apologise and reassure him that a) I cannot hear the similarities myself and b) sounding like his band was never on the list of things I wanted to achieve in music.  Hollis’s retirement and subsequent silence created a void and we’re just one of the many bands people are busy cramming in to fill it.

PN: The press material was not put together by us, so it reflects how somebody else heard our music. But while the label wouldn’t have known this, I have known of (and rather liked) The Blue Nile for many years, and I really loved Paul Buchanan’s recent solo album Mid Air. I can’t really hear a clear connection between the LH and The Blue Nile, though. Their music is very electronic and has a rather straight-ahead rhythmic style (the use of Linn equipment), and it seems very connected to Scotland, and Glasgow in particular. I also can’t really hear a connection between my voice and Buchanan’s, but there is an honesty about his performances that I really like and indeed admire–a lack of showboating, and a tangible sense of genuine emotion. But I do accept that there is a sense of melancholy to some of our music (and a slowness) that might also be found to a certain extent in Buchanan’s music and TBN. Having said all this, though, I wasn’t thinking about or indeed listening to Paul Buchanan when we wrote and recorded these records.

SCP: The nature recordings are seamlessly incorporated into the mix; when I first listened to your music outside, I couldn’t easily tell what was coming from inside my headphones and what was emanating from outside. There’s such clarity with which you capture every nuance of the instrumentation, too. I was wondering if you could describe both your process of gathering field recordings and that of folding them into the structures of your songs as they are recorded.

TN: That’s very kind of you, Spencer.  Thank you.  As with the photographs, field recordings often date back to early encounters with a place.  I moved to Aberystwyth from Nottingham, a city in England, and, when I arrived, I instantly embraced the novelty of teetering along coastal paths or kicking through fallen leaves in remote woodland.  Aberystwyth afforded me space to think and peace and quiet to listen and, gradually, as I walked around, I found myself hearing sounds that would blend with the instrumental and vocal ideas Paul and I were developing.

Capturing those sounds was frequently a case of good fortune: I’d be bumbling along somewhere, trailing recording gear like some low-rent astronaut on the surface of an alien world, and I’d hear something interesting, then there’d be a mad scramble to get the microphone and recorder working, followed by a period of silent prayer that the sound would return.  Sometimes I’d hear a sound when I didn’t have the recorder and mic with me, and I’d have no choice but to drive back to the location in which I’d first heard the sound in the hope of recapturing it.  A lot of the sounds on these albums were actually recorded at night, with me silently cursing myself off-mic for not bringing the equipment along earlier in the day.

I fold the field recordings into the albums as if they’re instrumental passages.  For example, I may decide I require a high-pitched shrieking in a certain section of a song: this could be served by my electric guitar or I could opt for a recording of the shrieking, creaking garden gate outside my house.  The recording of my gate plays the same role as a guitar would in terms of pitch yet, at the same time, as a sound from the place and the time in which the album is set, it brings with it an extra layer of meaning.

I’ve also found that the field recordings serve as a way to sew memory into the fabric of the albums.  I’ve used a particular recording of children playing in local woods across all three albums.  I noticed recently that I applied more distortion and processing to the recording each time I used it.  I think I was trying to tell myself to remember just how quickly a trivial event can become a cherished memory and how quickly that memory can fade.

SCP: It strikes me that the lyrics of all three of your albums display a strong awareness of human mortality and the transience of nature and climate. Do you consider your music to express ecological or conservationist themes?

TN: I’m ambivalent towards the issue of conservation, but I’m absolutely fascinated by people in a landscape.  I like the fact that the mediaeval castle still looms over me as I walk along Aberystwyth’s Victorian promenade, but I also like the fact that teenagers are hidden among its walls smoking dope and drinking strong white cider.  I would rather the castle be a part of the lives of people today than have someone rebuild it with modern materials, erect a steel fence around it, and charge visitors £10 to look at failed drama students huffing and puffing through lacklustre recreations of mediaeval combat.

PN: We are middle-aged men–and at least one of us is a melancholy soul (!)–so yes, the music might express an awareness of mortality, as such–but not just human mortality. I don’t think the music expresses conservationist or ecological themes, per se. I am reluctant to consider the ‘human’ as somehow divorced from ‘nature’ and ‘ecology’. Perhaps as such you could argue that there is a kind of ‘deep ecological’ aspect to what we do. I’m with Tim on conservation–I’m rather ambivalent about it and often suspicious of some of the ideologies that drive it. But, again, we were primarily interested in trying to articulate the particular ‘feel’ of a place–its emotional force. Everything stemmed from that.

SCP: What contemporary musicians and bands do you feel closest to, or consider to be your thematic / aesthetic compatriots?

TN: For me, one and one only.  Hallock Hill.  He’s a native of New York who I first met through Twitter in 2010.  I don’t listen to much music at all but, finding him to be a friendly, fascinating human being, when he subsequently mentioned that he was a musician, I listened to his music out of courtesy.  It still remains one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.  He shares The LH’s fascination with time, memory and landscape, but he has his own, uniquely American take on those themes.  In the four years since I first listened to his music, I have released two of his albums through my label, Hundred Acre Recordings (collaborating with him directly on one of them), I’ve played live with him on Jersey City’s WFMU, The LH played a recent double-header with him at London’s Cafe OTO, and I’ve met up with him socially in London, New York and Chicago.  He is as fine a human being as he is a musician and I consider him a friend for life.

PN:  I don’t really feel close to any contemporary bands or musicians other than, perhaps–as Tim says–Hallock Hill (who is brilliant). It isn’t really easy to talk about ‘thematic/aesthetic compatriots’–that’s for other people to think about if they want to. But as somebody who is fascinated by the art of songwriting (and how it functions now), it would be remiss of me not to say that in recent years Joanna Newsom, Justin Vernon, Gillian Welch, Jeff Tweedy and Mark Kozelek in particular have really impressed me.

SCP: How do you translate your music from your records to live performance? It seems like it would be difficult to maintain the sonic balance of your albums.

TN: You’re quite right: the music is very much a studio creation.  Studio technology allows us to create a soundworld where creaking pines co-exist with a Hammond organ.  We can’t exercise anywhere near enough control in the live environment to pull this off, so we don’t really try.  Our live shows retain the songs, the space and the dynamics of the records, and whilst we do use a laptop for a touch of atmosphere here and there, we rely on the strength of those songs, rather than the sonic trickery of the records.  Do you want to part with £10 of your week’s wage to watch a couple of guys press play and noodle along to a backing track or do you want to see two musicians performing to the best of their abilities, earning your entrance fee by wrenching the sound you’re hearing out of instruments you can see?  If you come to hear the album, save yourself the money, stay at home and play the CD: the sound is infinitely better and, more often than not, so is the beer.

PN: I agree with Tim. We decided that we couldn’t–and indeed shouldn’t–try to replicate the albums live. That would be pointless. We used live performance as an opportunity to explore how far the songs might be stretched or reworked, and to take the opportunity to play together and embrace improvisation, which actually led to us ‘writing’, which was great fun and very useful. I think I’m right in saying that some aspects of LH3 developed out of live performances we did a few years ago.

SCP: Your first three records have been described as a loose trilogy. Is there a particular schema as to how they fit together? It seems that with each album, the songs grow longer, with soundscapes taking greater precedence over more conventional song structures and miniatures. On The Lowland Hundred, there’s an even greater variation of mood–with some atmospheres verging on the eerie and disquieting–and more sudden shifts of dynamics and texture.

TN: The albums chart a drift inland, away from the sea.  We both live in Aberystwyth, so Under Cambrian Sky took its inspiration from the town and its immediate surroundings.  Adit is the start of a move inland, as we got to know the dark lanes and hidden valleys away from the coast.  The most recent album, The Lowland Hundred, is primarily concerned with the old metal mining area, some 7-12 miles inland.  The sound and structure has shifted to reflect the changes in the landscape or, more correctly, our perception of and reaction to the changes in that landscape.  The metal mining valleys are desolate places–they’re part of what is known as The Green Welsh Desert–and the form of The Lowland Hundred proceeds directly from a place in which the ruins of the previous century’s industry are slowly sinking into the hillsides and the handful of hill farmers that remain fight for survival against ever greater threats to their livelihoods.

PN: I think in terms of the ‘loose trilogy’, for some reason in early discussions we decided that we could easily muster enough material for 3 albums based on this location. The term ‘trilogy’ tends to have ‘high art’ connotations in cinema and elsewhere, but that’s OK–we were ambitious! Working on 3 albums also gave us an opportunity to develop our sound and our writing style. Tim and I co-write the material, but I think it’s fair to say we come from different backgrounds as writers, so part of the process of putting together the albums was to find a way to bring our styles together but also to ‘collide’ them in interesting ways. In my view you can hear this progression across the 3 albums. I’m keen on all three for different reasons, but for me personally LH3 sees us properly combining our styles to create something pretty unique across the four long tracks.

SCP: What is next for The Lowland Hundred after the release of your self-titled third album?

TN: As Paul said earlier, we always felt that we could make three albums.  I am extremely proud that we managed to do this in 5 years, while retaining busy, responsible day jobs.  Sadly, the albums have not brought us the wealth and wide renown that other musicians have enjoyed over the years.  I can’t pretend I’m particularly happy about this, but we are not in a position where we have to please a large record company, and we don’t have jet set lifestyles to fund, so we’re free to move on to other projects now that the Lowland Hundred idea has run its natural course.  It is exciting to look for a new sound again and comforting to know that we’ll never have to scrape the barrel to satisfy the terms of a contract.  Paul and I are still making music together but, as I type this, we have no plans for a fourth Lowland Hundred record.  If an idea came along that suited The Lowland Hundred, we’d certainly make a fourth album but, if that idea never materialises, we can be forever proud of three albums filled with beautiful, uncompromising music.

PN: I don’t know if there will be another LH record – perhaps, but only if it feels right and we are properly inspired to do it as the LH. I’m proud of the 3 albums, and I’ve had a great time being involved with the LH project. But we won’t carry on under that name unless it is for the right reasons. Tim and I continue to really enjoy working together, though, and new collaborative work is already in the pipeline.

SCP: Tim and Paul, thank you for your time and for your wonderful music!

Posted in interviews, music | Leave a comment

Madison Cawein’s Louisville II

By Spencer Cawein Pate

Spencer and Filson

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been planning to return to Louisville, Kentucky, in order to explore the collections of the Filson Historical Society related to Madison Cawein. This post will be another photoessay–a sequel to my original post on Madison Cawein’s Louisville–documenting what I discovered while I was there this weekend.

Conrad-Caldwell House

The first thing I did in Louisville was to visit the Conrad-Caldwell House (above) on the corner of St. James Court. This was one of the best house tours I’ve ever been on, not only because the home is gorgeously ornate (complete with original furnishings and decorations), but also because our guide, Beth Caldwell, was one of the great-granddaughters of William Caldwell, and thus had many fascinating details, stories, and experiences to share. When I asked Beth if she was familiar with Madison Cawein, she replied in the affirmative and said that the house has among its collections some framed manuscripts / typescripts of Madison’s poetry. For both of us, this suggests that the home’s original owners were at the very least acquainted with the Caweins–the Conrads and Caldwells hosted and entertained guests frequently–during their time at St. James Court. I strongly encourage all visitors to Louisville to tour the Conrad-Caldwell House, and they welcome and deserve any additional donations to their foundation as well.


While at the Conrad-Caldwell House gift shop, I purchased a coffee-table book titled Old Louisville written by David Dominé and featuring photography by Franklin and Esther Schmidt. This profusely illustrated volume portrays the exteriors and interiors of many of Louisville’s most beautiful historic homes in St. James Court, including–and this was the central reason why I bought the book–the Madison Cawein house! The accompanying text fills in some crucial historical details by discussing the home’s other owners, too, including the remarkable fact that this residence has since become home to another Kentucky poet laureate, the writer Sena Jeter Naslund (who has published many works of fiction, including a historical novel titled The Fountain of St. James Court). To the best of my knowledge, the photographs in this book are the only available modern depictions of the inside of Cawein’s former home, so I am reproducing them for viewers below:

Old Louisville book 1

Old Louisville Cawein

Old Louisville Cawein 2

I recommend that anyone interested in Louisville or historic homes seek out and buy Dominé’s book.


Filson marker

The Filson Historical Society (above) possesses three portraits of Madison Cawein and one of Madison’s wife, Gertrude Foster McKelvey. Two of the Cawein portraits have been packed away and placed in storage offsite due to the Filson’s ongoing campus expansion, but the other two are on display on the third floor of the museum, accompanied by a display case of some Cawein artifacts (a letter to Eric Pape, a selection of the manuscript to The Shadow Garden, and photos of his death mask). The portrait of Madison is by J. Bernard Alberts, while the lovely portrait of Gertrude was done by the Caweins’ friend Eric Pape. Here are photos of both:

Cawein portrait and artifacts

Cawein portrait

Gertrude portrait

The Filson staff was also kind enough to provide me with images of the two portraits currently in storage. This is what they look like:

cawein, madison 1993.35.12-watermarked

cawein, madison 1983102-watermarked

The Filson’s special collections includes many cubic feet of documents (subdivided into folders covering a few months at a time) related to Cawein. Here is the description from the online catalogue:

Papers include material which was collected by Otto Arthur Rothert in preparation for his book: The Story of a Poet: Madison Cawein (1921). Cawein’s correspondence discusses his literary work and that of others, especially R. E. Gibson; local, personal, and family news; visits to New York and Washington; meetings with many literary people of the period; publication and reviews of his books; and the sale of his library and letters. Otto A. Rothert’s correspondence, 1915-1928, is chiefly about his biography of Cawein. The collection also includes publisher’s contracts, scrapbooks, photographs, typewritten and handwritten copies of Cawein’s poetry; his translations of works by German poets; and memorabilia. Correspondents include Robert E. Lee Gibson, William Dean Howells, Eric Pape, Jessie B. Rittenhouse, Clinton Scollard, Sara Teasdale and Henry Van Dyke.

It was the mention of Sara Teasdale which most intrigued me, as I am in possession of seven letters written by Cawein to Teasdale (I scanned and transcribed the correspondence and related the full story in my post “The Cawein-Teasdale Letters”), so I decided to focus my study on Cawein’s correspondence from 1910 to 1912, as this time period includes not only the letters Cawein and Teasdale exchanged, but also letters to and from Cawein’s friend Robert E. Lee Gibson, which discuss Teasdale and her work extensively. Upon beginning my research, it quickly became apparent that only a fraction of Cawein’s total correspondence made it into Otto Rothert’s The Story of a Poet, as the number of letters indexed among the Filson’s holdings is overwhelmingly vast; he was apparently as prolific a correspondent as he was a poet.

And now, I am pleased to announce that I was able to read and transcribe the other half of this dialogue–five letters from Sara Teasdale to Madison Cawein! I have since updated “The Cawein-Teasdale Letters” to include this additional text in its proper chronological sequence. Please visit this post to read the rest of the story!

Posted in literature, Madison Cawein | 2 Comments

Blog of the Year

By Spencer Cawein Pate

Krankin’ My Way Through Kranky by Scott Tennent

Scott Tennent, the author of one of the best books of music history and criticism I’ve ever read–his 33 1/3 volume on Slint’s Spiderland–is now writing a blog in which he listens to and reviews every record released on his favorite label, Kranky. As Kranky also happens to be my favorite record label, it’s been a joy to follow along and engage with Tennent’s thoughtful appraisals of so many great albums alongside those that were unfairly overlooked. Now, if only someone would do the same thing with my other favorite labels, Touch and Erstwhile

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Improvised Teaching, Teaching Improvisation

By Spencer Cawein Pate

[This is a paper I wrote for a graduate course on “Action Research in Education.”]

I. Introduction

Recently, my friend Ronnie—a doctoral student who teaches undergraduate English—posed an interesting question during one of our lengthy email conversations about education. Ronnie, who is interested in theater, asked me whether I feel as though my classroom teaching is a “performance” of sorts (as he did). After some consideration, I replied that I view teaching as essentially performative, but not in a manner that is fundamentally different from the construction of identity in any other circumstances. In this regard I concur with the seminal work of the social psychologist Erving Goffman, who held that the presentation of oneself to others in social / symbolic interactions is constituted like a theatrical performance—one adapts the presentation of one’s identity to the audience in question (Goffman 1959). In teaching, of course, the specifically theatrical element of performance is more apparent than in other contexts; many of the best teachers are accomplished performers and storytellers (Sawyer 2011 p. 4). While I never felt that my “teacher self” was too different from my core, internal identity, I could definitely see how my presentation as a teacher amplified some elements of my personality (such as my enthusiasm for the subject matter or my patience with children) while downplaying others.

But I went on to tell my friend that I perceive teaching not just as a performance, but above all as an improvisation. I view teaching as an art rather than a science; it has always struck me that a famous quote about art from the Henry James story “The Middle Years” could just as easily apply to education: “We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art” (James 1996 p. 354). Teachers require what the poet John Keats termed “negative capability,” or the ability or capacity to live with contingency, uncertainty, doubt. So for me, the difference between the practice of teaching and the improvised comedy one might view on Whose Line Is It Anyway?, the improvised vérité cinema of Jean-Luc Godard’s À Bout de Souffle, or the improvised music one might hear when one attends a performance by The Necks, is one of quantity, not one of quality.

This begs the question of what, precisely, improvisation is in the first place. If I had to define it (as broadly as possible, so as to capture the rich diversity of improvisatory practices in all types of art and media), I would say that improvisation is any practice in which one must act and react flexibly, in real time, to contingent and changing material and ideological conditions. I will unpack the separate ideas embedded in this definition later. For now, though, I would like to briefly discuss my personal experience with improvisation in an educational context. My own relationship with improvisation is a somewhat contradictory one. I can’t act or play an instrument, but my appreciation for and admiration of improvised music and comedy is boundless. On the other hand, as a substitute teacher for the past three years, I often felt as though I was doing nothing but improvising (and also because I avoid detailed lesson planning as much as possible, preferring to read up on the content, select activities beforehand, and then make improvised decisions and speak extemporaneously in the moment). Regardless of the level of detail of the lesson plans I was given, there would always be unexpected situations and unfolding complexities with which I would have to contend. Much like live music, teaching is an ephemeral art, leaving no material trace or record other than memories, and subbing is an ephemeral form of teaching: every new day is often completely different from the previous. And in these instances, the best one can do is to improvise, to make the best of one’s prior knowledge and the materials one has at hand. If a lesson plan is something like a map, then it follows that we must remember the map is not the territory, no matter how accurate a representation of reality it is.

In truth, as stressful and exhausting as improvising in a classroom situation can be, many of my proudest moments as a teacher can be found during those times. For example, when I had to take over for a seventh grade language arts teacher for a few weeks on very short notice due to illness—three weeks during which I had to lead students through a major service learning project on which they had already fallen behind due to a succession of unprepared substitutes, a project that incorporated not only an act of community service but also a paper, a poster board, and a presentation—all I really had to go on were the instructions and supplies that other language arts teachers could pull together from their own classrooms.

Between creating a schedule for completion, crafting a rubric, motivating students, giving detailed writing feedback, leading students through the process of editing and revising, and grading all of the projects in time for both the end of the quarter and student-led conferences, I don’t think I have ever worked harder and longer in my professional life, but the resulting projects were so impressive as to be totally worth it. I felt a great sense of pride and freedom upon the realization that I could teach almost any subject through the use of the strategies of improvisation. It was at this point I became interested in thinking about the syncretic unity of pedagogy and improvisation.

II. Literature Review

The literature on improvisation in the arts is vast, but the literature on improvisation as such in education is comparatively small. When papers regarding the relationship between teaching and improvisation are published, they usually focus on whether improvisation can be taught, and not the reverse—whether teaching itself is always-already an improvisation. We might call these two topics “teaching improvisation” vs. “improvised teaching.” One of the most interesting essays I’ve read on the former subject is Philip Clark’s first-hand account of attending the improvisation workshops given in London by the percussionist Eddie Prévost (formerly of the pioneering British “free improv” collective AMM) that he wrote for The Wire magazine, a British journal of experimental and underground music. Clark is careful to delineate how teaching improvisation is as much a process of unlearning as it is one of learning per se—unlearning ingrained and traditional styles of playing instruments so as to develop one’s own unique voice and musical language (perhaps through the use of instrumental extended technique) while simultaneously relearning to truly collaborate with other musicians through the use of close listening and responding (Clark 2012). Conversely, though, there is the risk that any attempt to formally teach improvisation will ossify into mannered ritual, prescribed method, and dull aesthetic and political orthodoxy, a process which many claim has befallen Prévost’s instruction of, and writings on, free improv as a genre (Cowley 2003).

With regard to “improvised teaching,” the work of Elliot Eisner (particularly The Educational Imagination) was invaluable, as this great educational theorist concurs that teaching is more of an performative art than a science (Eisner 2001). Similarly, in the anthology Structure and Improvisation in Creative Teaching, the editor R. Keith Sawyer claims that because “teaching is highly unpredictable,” “routines, scripts, protocols, and the like can act as a straightjacket, restricting reflection and creativity” (Sawyer 2011 p. xiii, xvi). I also ran across a brief discussion of improvisation in Sonya Nieto’s anthology Why We Teach. Nieto avows that although lesson “templates”—which have all but territorialized contemporary education—can be pedagogically useful (because creativity often needs some semblance of basic structure as its foundation), there is a time and place to welcome uncertainty, ignore templates, and “think on your feet” instead (Nieto 2005 p. 212).

As Mary M. Kennedy very accurately writes in her book Inside Teaching: How Classroom Life Undermines Reform, teachers already “must be prepared to have the entire plan disrupted or defeated by some unforeseen event.” Constant distractions are inherent to classroom life, such as:

Someone from down the hall may enter the room and interrupt the lesson midstream. A student may poke another student or ask a question that other students don’t understand or don’t care about. The projector may break, or there may not be enough copies of a handout to go around. Though such distractions appear everywhere, schools seem more susceptible to them than other organizations. Perhaps because schools are teeming with children, they are subject to much higher levels of distraction than most other organizations. (Kennedy 2006 p. 2)

In such circumstances, improvisation is really the only workable option.

Possibly the most useful work on artistic improvisation is the eponymous book—Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music—written by the late guitarist Derek Bailey to accompany his BBC documentary on the subject; it features interviews and quotes from countless musicians in every conceivable genre (Bailey 2003). Bailey is the closest personage that an ostensibly egalitarian and anti-hierarchical genre like “free improv” music (incidentally, a term that Bailey and many other musicians hated) has ever come to a patron saint. Feeling that “free improv” had become a genre unto itself, Bailey championed “non-idiomatic improv” by forging his own musical language instead. He was willing to collaborate with one and all—free jazz artists, tap dancers, televised big band orchestras, avant pop singers, noise rockers, even drum-and-bass DJs—while refusing to compromise on the uniqueness of his approach. Bailey extolled the virtues of unfamiliarity in collaborative improvisation in the following quote from an interview:

There has to be some degree, not just of unfamiliarity, but incompatibility [with a partner]. Otherwise, what are you improvising for? What are you improvising with or around? You’ve got to find somewhere where you can work. If there are no difficulties, it seems to me that there’s pretty much no point in playing. I find that the things that excite me are trying to make something work. And when it does work, it’s the most fantastic thing. Maybe the most obvious analogy would be the grit that produces the pearl in an oyster […]. (Bagatellen 2005).

The virtuosity of his technique is unquestionable, but Bailey relished the spontaneity of performance above all—he infamously claimed that there is no point in listening to any recording more than once, so as to force the audience to focus all of one’s attention onto the sounds and musical interactions between the players (Watson 2013). It is this sense of spontaneity and intuition that Bailey puts center stage in his book on improvisation in all genres and traditions of music, although he never loses the awareness that apparently “spontaneous” intuition and non-idiomatic improv can only be cultivated and advanced by pushing oneself outside of one’s generic comfort zones.

Two other similarly good books on improvisation include Ben Watson’s Derek Bailey biography (Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation), which is based upon interviews with the man himself, and Joe Morris’s Perpetual Horizon: The Properties of Free Music, which is also centered around first person, primary source testimonials from improvising musicians. Amplified Gesture, a fine documentary on free improv produced by David Sylvian as a companion piece to his 2009 album Manafon, features interviews with many of the key improvisers in the genre.

Finally, I tried to acquaint myself with some of the political dimensions of improvisation. As usual, Karl Marx said it best in his Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living” (Marx 2010 p. 146). Just as the most successful political revolutionaries have always balanced transitional demands (which are pragmatic measures one can accomplish by working within the status quo) with transformational demands (which are impossible to achieve within the status quo and are thus only made possible through revolutionary change thereof), it seems to me that improvisation in teaching is always going to be constrained by “circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past”—political economy, rules and regulations, hierarchies and power, community standards and sociocultural norms, etc. Educators are never purely free to make their own pedagogy “as they please…under self-selected circumstances” either individually or collectively. But although they may lack the “negative freedom” from externally imposed demands, their “positive freedom” to improvise can never truly be revoked—unless, of course, teachers as a profession end up being replaced by computers. The subtlety of improvisation emerges from this productive tension between accommodation and innovation, pragmatism and idealism, negative freedom and positive freedom.

To close, we might turn to the anthropologist and anarchist scholar David Graeber, who writes of this inherent tension in terms of play vs. games:

Play can be purely improvisational. Once could simply be playing around. In this sense, play in its pure form, as distinct from games, implies a pure expression of creative energy. In fact, if it were possible to come up with a workable definition of “play” (this is notoriously difficult) it would have to be something along these lines: play can be said to be present when the free expression of creative energies becomes an end in itself. It is freedom for its own sake. But this also makes play in a certain sense a higher-level concept than games: play can create games, it can generate rules–in fact, it inevitably does produce at least tacit ones, since sheer random playing around soon becomes boring–but therefore by definition play cannot itself be intrinsically rule-bound. (Graeber 2015 p. 191-192)

This is also a beautiful way of thinking about improvised teaching: it is present when the free expression of creativity in classroom teaching–educators and students collaboratively exploring, discovering, and learning for their own sake–becomes an end in and of itself.

III. Statement of Problem

The intent of this paper is to explore the extent to which teaching can be considered  improvisation according to the definition I proposed above. The specific question I would like to answer is as follows: Is improvisation an accurate and useful conceptual framework for educational practice?

Before I delve into the problem, I must first analyze the parts of my personal definition of improvisation: improvisation is any practice in which one must act and react flexibly, in real time, to contingent and changing material and ideological conditions:

any practice: Improvisation is fundamentally about contextual / situated praxis, and not about the consistency of theory. In this regard, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s maxim that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” is something of a romantic credo in favor of the primacy of improvisation over composition.

in which one must act and react flexibly: Improvisation involves a dialectic between being proactive and being reactive; one might say that it is inherently a form of inquiry (in its spirals of thinking and acting) or perhaps even of action research. Of course, the nature and course of one’s actions must be flexible in response to shifting situations; in fact, the idea of flexibility dictates that sometimes inaction or silence might be preferable to unnecessary or counterproductive action.

in real time: Improvisation cannot be planned in advance or carried out after the fact, or else it is by definition no longer improvisation—rather, it would become a form of composition. Thus, while improvisers must be flexible with regard to their use of time or duration, improvisation as a practice will always be temporally bounded by the practicalities of performance or, more prosaically, scheduling.

to contingent and changing: Improvisation means that the composition of our world is not fixed in space and time; it is fluid and mutable, often surprising and frequently challenging. Therefore, improvisation places a high value on the subjectivity and free will—the human agency—of the individual.

material and ideological conditions: Improvisation in music will be conditioned by the material realities of one’s instrument, acoustic space, collaborators, audience, genre, etc.; improvisation in education will similarly be conditioned by the political economy of what is available to us as teachers. When I taught seventh grade science for the first quarter of a school year, I did not have a functional SmartBoard or even computer projection system (I had to rely on an oldfashioned overhead projector instead), and our textbooks were the same ones I used ten years earlier when I was in seventh grade. And yet somehow—through improvisation, I suppose—I mostly managed to make it work. Ideological conditions, though, are more subtle. This concept refers to “sociocultural norms and community standards”—the mental and emotional aspects of education that affect the form and content of one’s instruction. The delivery of one’s lessons, whether consciously or not, will always be shaped by the expectations of students, other teachers, administrators, and parents (Goffman 1959).

IV. Methods

For the purposes of this study, I read basically everything I could get my hands on regarding the nature of improvisation in the arts. I then tried to reduce this discourse to the key elements and precepts with which nearly all critics and artists agree or share in common. I will examine every tenet of improvisation in turn, comparing or contrasting each one to improvisation in the classroom setting in order to see how they match up. And when I discuss improvisation in the classroom setting, I will draw on and engage with my own experiences in an autoethnographic narrative.

V. Results

Improvisation thrives on the tension between structure and freedom, between constraint and invention. Structure should not be seen as negative or otherwise antithetical to improvisation; rather, structure provides form to formlessness and opens up a space in which freedom can meaningfully occur (Morris 2000). (Think of all the great jazz music that arises from improvising upon classic pop songs.) In education, structure is unavoidable, from the macro—academic content standards—to the micro—the form and content of a particular lesson. Standards are object-oriented and linear, whereas educational improvisation is about an unfolding, contingent, and holistic process of discovery. There does not even have to be a goal or destination in mind—the only requirement is that the journey itself is interesting and meaningful. As Eisner says in his The Educational Imagination, “ends need not precede means” in education; ends can be immanent to the process and discovered along the way (Eisner 2001). But since teachers have no choice but to follow the conceptual structure of the standards and the curriculum map, the best they can do is to improvise on them in the same manner as a jazz artist upon a standard tune. The most successful plans, then, strike a balance between structure and freedom and allow in advance room for improvisation and differentiation. For the most part, the ordinary, day-to-day lessons contained in textbooks and the accompanying teacher’s manuals (even the lesson plans for ostensibly inquiry / discovery oriented books like the Investigations or Connected Math series—there is great irony in trying to forcibly dictate progressivism a la lettre) tend to be too prescribed and limiting for the teacher to truly improvise. Even the manner in which one is supposed to ask questions and differentiate is already provided for the teacher. But whenever I had to create, assign, and grade a project of my own, a project that was an exception from the classroom norm—such as the aforementioned service learning project, or a “great scientist” poster / presentation project in seventh grade science—I felt free to go off script. I could make the basic form of the project more open-ended, and I could substantially alter the content (and to my view, often for the better—for example, I tried to make the “great scientist” project more relevant and inclusive by updating the list of scientists so that it was both more contemporary and more diverse, and by allowing the presentation portion to be more fun and creative). I think both my students and I enjoyed school much more than usual during these all-too-brief moments when we were free to be self-directed as to how we met the standards. Whenever possible, the improvising educator treats high-stakes standards, mandates, and evaluations with playful evasion, much like the subject of Hart Crane’s lovely poem “Chaplinesque”: “We will sidestep, and to the final smirk / Dally the doom of that inevitable thumb / That slowly chafes its puckered index toward us, / Facing the dull squint with what innocence / And what surprise!” (Crane 2006).

Improvisation is a form of embodied mind and situated cognition. The phrases “embodied mind” and “situated cognition” are likely to be unfamiliar to many, but the concept behind them is actually rather simple and elegant. They mean that consciousness is not something we possess—instead, consciousness is something we do. Rather than being located entirely within the mind, the locus of consciousness is found in the interactions between self and the physical world. In other words, the subjectivity of consciousness is embedded within the materiality of the body. The figure most associated with the connections between embodied mind / situated cognition and improvisation in music is the brilliant jazz pianist Vijay Iyer, who wrote his doctoral thesis on this topic. Because of the mind-body dualism implicit in so much Western philosopher, Iyer notes that theorists often focus on classical / art music, because of its privileging of the written score over the enacted performance, to the exclusion of other traditions—such as non-Western musics (Iyer’s own discussion centers on the music of West Africa) in which improvisation is seen as inherently material, and consciousness as embedded in instrumental practice (Iyer 2008). What does this imply for education? If anything, it’s a further refutation of the banking metaphor of education that Paulo Freire so harshly criticized in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. As Freire would have it, learning is not a purely objective mental process; knowledge cannot be withdrawn and deposited in the brain without internalizing and accommodating the knowledge and adjusting and transforming one’s conceptual schema. True education cannot be reduced to purely abstract mental processes because it is emergent from concrete inquiry and material interaction with the natural world (Freire 1968). Nowhere has this been more apparent to me than from my three years of experience as a Camp Invention instructor, in which I led a class where students took apart old, broken electronic devices and combined the resulting parts with recycled materials in order to build new inventions that solve problems (such as constructing a Rube Goldberg machine to burst a water balloon or a rubber duck launching device). This kind of reverse engineering and upcycling is improvisatory because every student’s individual, creative inquiry leads them to “divergent thinking” and varying results; the teacher becomes more of a facilitator who poses problems and questions, ceding control of the pedagogical stage to students and assisting them as they handle both manual labor and conceptual design, improving on their invention through trial and error. The discovery learning process we strive to facilitate at Camp Invention requires immersion in the qualia, the haecceity, of the world.

Improvisation takes practice. While amateurism or primitivism can make for raw and compelling art—punk, garage rock, outsider music—it’s not always sustainable in the long-run. The ability to effectively think on one’s feet can only be learned from practice with thinking on one’s feet. Intuition and spontaneity are not marked the absence of careful thought; rather, they result from the unconscious internalization of it (Bailey 1993). In this sense, veteran teachers are more likely to improvise successfully than novice teachers: veteran teachers know to grasp and seize a teachable moment when they sense one (Nieto 2005). The musical chemistry and instantaneous improvisation of, say, Miles Davis’s tight groupings of his electric era, the free jazz of Sun Ra, the psychedelic funk of the eternally great German band Can, the art-punk of Fugazi, or the minimal techno of Factory Floor, resulted from their relentless hard work (all five groups were known to jam for hours on end) at developing virtuosity on their instruments and establishing a nearly psychic rapport at playing them collectively. Likewise, I strongly believe that the ability to teach is not predominantly an innate talent. Reading books on theory and talking to other educators can help, but teaching skill can only be honed through practice and repetition in real-world environments. One learns to teach by engaging in, and then reflecting on, the act of teaching—the same process that is central to inquiry and action research. All of the classroom management books and lectures in the world could not have prepared me for actually setting foot in a seventh-grade classroom on the first day of school. I made many mistakes, but I learned from them, and that practice is what has led me to become a better and more effective classroom manager today. When one is forced into a contingent situation in which one must act and react in real time, one quickly learns to improvise, to build one’s own repertoire of methods, techniques, strategies, and activities. (This in turn has tremendous implications for preservice teacher education and mentorship, in that we so often tend to privilege theory over practice, planning over acting, data over narrative observation, justification over experimentation, and the abstract over the concrete, local, and specific—which is precisely the opposite from how it should be, if learning to improvise is the goal. Instead, we need a phenomenology of teaching that grasps the immanent unfolding of a process rather than freezing it into a series of static tableaux.)

Improvisation and composition are not discrete categories but rather points on a spectrum of possibilities. Contrary to the hyperbolic claims of the most fervent adherents and advocates of composition vs. improvisation, neither method of artistic creation is morally or aesthetically superior to the other. Composition is perhaps best understood as a subset or foreclosure of improvisation. The masterpieces of classical music, no matter how seemingly intricate and overdetermined, do not emerge fully formed from composers’ minds like Athena bursting from the brow of Zeus. Frequently, compositions are back-transcribed and edited from extensive improvisation—in other words, trial and error (Bailey 1993). On the other hand, many of the best jazz improvisers, such as Dave Brubeck and Thelonious Monk, have chosen to put their own distinct spin on the compositions of both others and themselves by improvising on their melodies, harmonies, and rhythms. In education, we might equate composition to the planned curriculum and improvisation to the actually-existing enacted curriculum. The best planned curricula are the results of the evolutionary processes of improvisation, editing, and revision inherent to enacted curricula—one holds on to what is successful and discards that which is not—and they purposely leave room for further improvisation in the future, because school circumstances and contexts will always be changing over time. Planned and enacted curricula, precisely in the same manner as composition and improvisation, are not a binary, but rather two stages in a dialectic—or a “spiral,” as many educational theorists would have it. Improvisation becomes composition becomes improvisation again. I’ve seen this process at work when I’ve taught science lessons on the water cycle and the nitrogen cycle using simulation—in essence, students take on the roles of molecules and make random choices in a manner not too different than a choose-own-adventure game, sending them down different geophysical and chemical pathways until they have mapped out the entire cycle in all its complexity and contingency. When I first taught a lesson on this subject in a fifth grade classroom, I learned that the rules / instructions I set out and the language I used were too confusing for some students, so I had to simplify them and make them more explicit for the next instance I taught the lesson, this time in seventh grade. However, I felt that some of my conceptual understandings I hoped students would assimilate were lost in the realization of my plans mark two. The last time I taught it, in a graduate course on curriculum design and innovation, I finally felt that I had struck a perfect balance between student inquiry and guided instruction, open-endedness and planned objectives. Each iteration of the lesson plan, then, was a new and improved version of the same composition, altered through the improvisation that is inevitable when we are forced to accommodate our ideas to the real world.

Improvisation is a form of bricolage. The anthropologist and philosopher Claude Lévi-Strauss defined bricolage as the art of making do with what’s around—like MacGyver, one works only with the materials the bricoleur has direct and immediate access to (Lévi-Strauss 1966; Deleuze & Guattari 1972). (Lévi-Strauss counterposed this notion to the figure of the “engineer” in which rationality and planning trumps real time improvisation.) Derek Bailey compared improvisation to assembling a jigsaw puzzle, which reminds me of Kenneth Koch’s vision of his poetry “like a Cadillac of wampum / Unredeemed and flying madly” (Koch 2005 p. 237). Great music has often come from limited and heterogeneous materials. Whether it’s the plastic instruments of free jazz pioneers like Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry; the “three chords and a tune” mentality of punk rock; or the cracked electronics of noise, glitch electronica, and Japanese onkyo, limitation can force the artist to use prosaic, conventional items in surprising and creative ways. The film critic Manny Farber’s distinction between “white elephant art” and “termite art” might prove useful here; improvisation is clearly a form of the latter:

Movies have always been suspiciously addicted to termite-art tendencies. Good work usually arises where the creators […] seem to have no ambitions towards gilt culture but are involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn’t anywhere or for anything. A peculiar fact about termite- tapeworm-fungus-moss art is that it goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.

The most inclusive description of the art is that, termite-like, it feels its way through walls of particularization with no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement. (Farber 2009 p. 535)

In improvisational comedy, the lack of stage sets, props, and scripts other than prompts from the audience is an advantage, not a hindrance. In the interactions that result, both performers and spectators must fill in the blanks with nothing but their imaginations, making improv a more active, participatory form of theater. When I was a seventh grade science teacher during the aforementioned long-term assignment, the lack of useable textbooks (not only were they outdated, they were also in terrible physical condition) might have been a good thing! Had I actually had access to modern textbooks, I might have relied on them as a crutch far more than I did otherwise—in reality, I was forced to draw upon a variety of other, superior and more current texts and media and to facilitate more demonstrations and experiments for the class. My enacted curriculum became a bricolage instead of a work of rationalist planning in which all of the life, improvisation, and inquiry had been engineered out of it. A pedagogical bricoleur can act and react in real time to changing circumstances far better than an engineer.

Collaboration is at the heart of improvisation. The best improvised music, both on record and live, usually involves two or more musicians. Solos can be fascinating, but they rarely push the artist into new realms of innovation. When multiple artists play together, though, they are forced to engage in a dialogue, bouncing ideas back and forth and changing their form and content in the process (Bagatellen 2005; Sylvian 2009). Humor, surprise, and invention can emerge from the unexpected collisions between differing mindsets and styles, meaning that the best collaborative improvisations are greater than the sum of their individual parts. Many improvisers even go so far as to consider their practices, which place value on pragmatism and compromise, as a model of egalitarian dialogue or as a model of democracy as such; improvisation can reflect collective dreams of utopian spaces and societies. Improvisation in the classroom is not located solely within the reflective minds of teachers, but rather in the collaborative give-and-take between teachers and students (or in the collaboration between co-teachers with complimentary approaches, who can produce superior results together compared to that which one teacher can accomplish alone). In terms of educational philosophy, improvisation is most closely aligned to the pragmatic progressivism of John Dewey. I know that I’m often at my best when I teach lessons that are neither entirely teacher-centered nor purely student-centered—the grey area in between in which there is freedom within structure is what allows for a truly equitable transference, sharing, and celebration of knowledge. Indeed, it is in these times when we most effectively teach students to improvise–for example, teaching how to use mental math and problem solving skills to estimate the answer to math problems that cannot be solved precisely.

The meaning of aesthetic success vs. failure must be rethought with reference to improvisation. To teach is to become intimately acquainted with the raw stuff of failure. Teachers will fail to engage the hearts and minds of their students; students will fail to try regardless; policy-makers, administrators, and parents will fail to support teachers; and society will fail to act in the interest of its children’s futures. Even if a state approaching perfection were achievable in any of these spheres of influence, we must also accept that teaching and learning are delicate things. Like an iridescent soap bubble, the subtle magic of education can burst and evaporate at any moment, for almost any reason: the attention wanders, boredom sets in, teacher and student fail to connect. By standardizing curricula to within and inch of their life, by scripting lesson plans down to the tiniest detail, and by scheduling the school day into rigid and immovable blocks of time, the American education reform movement–which is of course a misnomer–has boldly (some might say hubristically) attempted to failure-proof education. All it will take to fix schools, they say, is the application of universal consistency and accountability. But by mandating these sweeping, totalizing changes in order to foreclose the ever-present possibility of failure from existence, reform movements have also inadvertently ensured the impossibility of success. I’m reminded of a quote from James Joyce’s Ulysses: “A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery” (Joyce 1922 p. 190). But in order to pass through those portals of discovery, one must first accept the possibility that one will fall off the high-wire act that is teaching. Failure is, in fact, always an option. In improvisation, “success” and “failure” no longer refer to relative states of (im)perfection. Instead, greater importance is accorded to how one responds to mistakes—ideally, one treats them as productive opportunities, as “portals of discovery” as in the Joyce quote. In philosophy, one might identify this perspective with the Hegelian dialectic, in which truth emerges through an evolutionary process of error (Roberts 2011). One of the major influences on contemporary improvisation is the composer and conceptual artist John Cage (who, ironically, distrusted improvisation), and his emphasis on trusting to aleatoric / chance / non-deterministic processes can expand our definition not only of aesthetic quality, but also of educational ability. Instead of evaluating teachers based on how their students match up with object-oriented standards assessments, perhaps we might try to evaluate them on how they respond—how they improvise—to novel situations. Success is something one can only approach asymptotically, so we must accept and even invite the possibility of failure along the way. The desire for perfection / perfectibility in teaching is as counterproductive as it is foolish; succumbing to this superego imperative engenders cycles of manic depression that ultimately lead to burning out on teaching altogether. (Indeed, one of the most valuable pieces of wisdom that a former professor once passed on to me was this: that over decades of teaching, she only ever taught one single lesson that she considered perfect. The field of teacher education could use more of this kind of pragmatic perspective.) Here I’m thinking of another powerful quote, this time from Samuel Beckett’s late novel Nohow On: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better” (Beckett 1995 p. 89).

VI. Discussion

If there is any particular talent that I have as the educator, it is articulacy—the ability to speak publicly and extemporaneously on almost any topic. It’s not surprising that so many writers begin their careers as teachers (well, aside from the political-economic reason that few other jobs would be open to English majors), because teaching forces one to improvise linguistically. A teacher must be able to vary his or her use of language (particularly one’s vocabulary, imagery, and figurative language) while always keeping it as clear, concise, and concrete as possible. The idea of scripting a lesson in advance, down to every sentence that one plans to speak, has always struck as bizarre, not to mention unfeasible, for this exact reason. One way we might define genuine teaching and learning is to say that it’s what occurs in a classroom when a teacher feels free to go off script! A teacher needs the same abilities that define any talented improviser—namely, the skills of close listening, instantaneous communication, and Thelonious Monk-like timing and emphasis.

If there is an equivalent to this in the improvisation arts, it would surely be graphical notation. It is a discussion of this specific topic with which I would like to close the paper, as graphic scores neatly encapsulate all of the themes that have been enumerated above.

Graphic notation refers to the practice of using symbols, pictures, graphic images, geometrical diagrams, and written descriptions (of musical elements like dynamics, pitch, duration, etc.) in place of notes on a staff in order to represent a musical score (Cage 1969; Sauer 2009). (Famous creators of graphic scores include Anthony Braxton, Earle Brown, John Cage, Cornelius Cardew, Mauricio Kagel, Gyorgi Ligeti, Krzysztof Penderecki, Karlheinz Stockhausen, David Tudor, Jakob Ullmann, Christian Wolff, Iannis Xenakis, and John Zorn.) Their purpose is to deconstruct the authorial authority of the composer and to share creative power with the musicians, affirming the composer’s trust in their artistic responsibility and ability to improvise. While they can vary wildly in the level of detail given to the improvisers, graphic scores can be thought of like blank spaces on a map, waiting to be colored in by explorers into unknown territory. (And as alluded to earlier, the map is not the territory.) The concept is similar to the philosopher Walter Benjamin’s idea of “spielraum”—literally, room for thinking (Benjamin 2008).

I would like to suggest that lesson plans should be thought of as graphic scores rather than as traditional scored compositions.

There is a paradox embedded in the heart of lesson planning: the more detailed and exhaustive they are, they less utility they are likely to possess for the interpreter—in this case, the teacher. (Although writing detailed and exhaustive lesson plans—learning to compose, as it were—can be an important exercise for the novice / pre-service educator, before they have had the time and practice to unconsciously internalize all of the elements that go into lesson planning.) Such plans can never hope to succinctly cover all of the possible contingencies that will arise in even an ordinary day in a typical classroom setting, because then they would become too long, unwieldly, and rigid to read and properly interpret in the limited time available to the average teacher. By contrast, graphic scores privilege relativity and subjectivity over the absolute and objective, so a space for improvisation and inquiry is built in already. When I was a substitute teacher, the lesson plans I appreciated most were ones that were specific, clear, and realistic enough to provide me with a framework for acting, but also flexible enough to allow me to exercise my professional judgment with regard to pedagogy and temporal duration. As in all things, a balance is desirable.

What would a lesson plan look like if it were conceptualized as a graphic score? I would argue that it would be centered on posing questions and on the collaborative process of discovery rather than on answers and procedures. This would give the plan the greatest relevance and applicability to educators in diverse situations. Privileging improvisation over composition does not mean vagueness, of course, and a few objectives and a list of possible materials, activities, and methods would still be necessary, but student inquiry and hands-on participation should be the driving forces behind the instruction. Questions to ask students and possible avenues for further exploration and research (as well as a list of suggested resources and references) would be the most useful for educators unfamiliar with the content. The suggested length of time for the lesson should be left up to the discretion of the teacher, and the method of evaluation or assessment should be open-ended—perhaps in the form of a portfolio or project.

Graphic scores are rhizomatic, holistic, and nonlinear instead of arborescent (to borrow terms from the work of Gilles Deleuze), allowing the interpreter to improvise, to chart his or her own idiosyncratic paths through the unknown (Deleuze & Guattari 1980). Instead of traveling along a single temporal-spatial axis, a curriculum should be free to expand and build collaborative relationships in multiple directions, to find its own lines of flight.

To close, I would like to consider a quote from the first stanza of Wallace Stevens’ great long poem, “The Man With the Blue Guitar.” Stevens writes the following: “The man bent over his guitar, / A shearsman of sorts. The day was green. / They said, ‘You have a blue guitar, / You do not play things as they are.’ The man replied, ‘Things as they are / Are changed upon the blue guitar'” (Stevens 1997).

Composition, especially in education, will always remain a way of playing things as they are; it takes place within the status quo without altering the boundaries of the possible. It seems to me that improvisation, then, is like the blue guitar in Stevens’ poem: to many, it will seem unusual and threatening precisely because of its transformational nature: when played, it confronts, challenges, and changes things as they are. Improvisation invites, delights in, and dances with the unexpected.

VII. Acknowledgements

Thank you to Ronnie G. for inspiring the initial idea behind this paper; to Vanessa W. for passing along the Sonia Nieto book; and to Dr. Ann Mackenzie for her thoughtful feedback and recommendations for further exploration and improvement.

VIII. Works Cited

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Iyer, V. (2008). On Improvisation, temporality, and embodied experience. In Miller, P.D. (Ed.), Sound unbound: Sampling digital music and culture (263-282). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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Koch, K. (2005). The collected poems of Kenneth Koch. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Lévi-Strauss, C. (1966). The savage mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Marx, K. (2010). Surveys from exile. New York: Verso.

Morris, J. (2000). Perpetual frontier: The properties of free music. New York: Riti Publishing.

Nieto, S. (Ed.). (2005). Why we teach. New York: Teachers College Press.

Roberts, J. (2011). The necessity of errors. New York: Verso Books.

Sauer, T. (2009). Notations21. New York: Mark Batty Publisher.

Sawyer, R.K. (Ed.). (2011). Structure and improvisation in creative teaching. Cambridge, UK:Cambridge University Press.

Stevens, W. (1997). Collected poetry and prose. New York: Library of America.

Sylvian, D. & Molloy, A. (Producers) & Hopkins, P. (Director). (2009). Amplified gesture [Motion Picture]. United Kingdom: Samadhi Sound.

Watson, B. (2013). Derek Bailey and the story of free improvisation. New York: Verso Books.

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