What is Skeptic Improvisation?

Lecture-Performance on Musical Skepticism

What is skeptic improvisation?

The question of what it means to be skeptical in music and what a skeptic aesthetic of the musical act can be shall be addressed here.

Skepsis, coming from the greek verb σκέπτεσθαι sképtesthai “(to) look, peek, contemplate, examine”, shall be understood in an etymological way. It is not intended to follow the philosophical schools of academic or non-academic skepsis neither to develop a cartesian model of sonic gestures or to exercise in pyrrhonian music.

Skepsis constitutes a precondition of music: It is skepsis (in a historically sedimented form) that is needed to construct a double-bass from wood, metal and gut. It is also required as the motor of the historic and individual changes of musical paradigms, it forms a condition of the possibility of their existence. It is the joy of an aesthetic skepsis that leads to the construction of concert halls, philharmonic orchestras, pianos, organs, trombones, nose-flutes, mouth harps, scores, techniques of notation and so forth.

Skepsis, as opposed to its understanding and discussion in the history of philosophy, exists in many different forms and on many different logical layers. Skepsis has to be understood as a polyphony of different voices with different features, lengthes, directions, qualities, tonalities, dissonances, consonances and resolutions. It is not the repetition of a never changing leitmotif that appears as a cantus firmus of epistemology.

Despite the manifold forms it is a specific skepsis and its aesthetic qualities that should be developed and sonically acted upon. It is an aesthetic skepsis, a skeptical aesthetic of musical action

It is the skepsis of the musician regarding destiny, habitus, certainties, playing and the sense-games (Sinnspiele) of musical action. It is the skepsis of the player towards the inherent assumptions and certainties of the musical habitus that should be explored and pursued as an aesthetic in itself.

It is the individual assumptions and aesthetic dogmata that are accepted for any given sonic paradigm, that shall be played with, made conscious decisions about, changed, examined and discussed through the musical action.

It is this the principle and subject of the desired aesthetic skepsis, a skeptical aesthetic of musical action.

It is about the challenge of thinking, the aesthetic concern of thinking with the means of improvised music. Playing around and with the limits of musical thought.

This means: It is thinking with the individual aesthetic means. Hereby it is said that the musician is instructed to perform with all possible creativity and the means of the individual musical language.

For this purpose the musician is given some means. These can be used freely in sequence or in combination. It is possible to apply them to each other. Their elements (single lines, sentences, parameters) can be used in any order and in any combination.

The means of the composition are:

instructions in questioning



One can apply the parameter “irritation” to a curved line or single dots and see where this leads the thought. In the same way the sentence “Try to think things longer/shorter” can be followed on its own or be applied to an ascending line or the parameter of rhythm or both at a time. It is also possible to play with “irritation” or any other sentence/parameter/ line on its own. And so forth.
It is possible to do with these means all that inspires the skepsis of the players.

The players have to approach these parameters and any musical action based upon their own musical language, they are asked to come as the idiosyncratic speakers that they are.

They are also free to arrange the space or move in it, to work with an installation and other means of performance, to talk, to walk or not to play.

These means serve to create antinomical musical ideas an thoughts, that have to be resolved by the musicians. This strategy and the buddhist koan share a certain resemblance.

The content of the process is the exercise in skepsis. The goal of the means is not the realization of specifications or the measurement of sounds, the goal is to inspire and stimulate an aesthetic-constructive skepsis.

Thus the players are revolving around the impossibility of an hyperbolic skepsis, as Wittgensteins claims, it is possible to question everything, but not everything at the same time.

The players will be watching the certainties arising on their own, which Nietzsche and Wittgenstein understood as an inherent feature of (musical) grammar.

It is here, where certainties and ontological determinations arise through action, that the players are asked to remain skeptical and find ever more ways of how to evade their own dogmatism.

The aim is the idiosyncratic aesthetics of the skeptic musical act.

Instructions in questioning:

Attempt to think things longer/shorter (than usual) // endure decisions unusually long or short.

Attempt to think about the standards of your perception and act against them.

Attempt to confront different concepts / themes with each other.

Attempt to design the volume very consciously, up to its extremes.

Consider the logic of your acting and move the music differently than the habit of your acting and listening suggests.

Consider the background, the unaddressed and unconscious assumptions of every musical action.

Consider and examine your instrument.

Consider the elements of your aesthetic action in detail, examine them.

Consider your instrument as a space, as a vehicle, as a means of thought, as nothing, as different that it is.

Consider the placement of sounds in space.

Consider your body, performance and presence.

Consider all the sensory levels of your aesthetic actions.

Consider your silence.

Consider your voice.

Consider your tradition.

Consider what else the sounds might be wishing for.

Consider all parameters which are listed below.

Consider the forms of reflection.

Consider your previous and future considerations.

Consider new questions.

Attempt to think about thinking in all possible directions.


dynamics – limits

ontology – duration

dogmata – expectations

silence – harmony

overlapping – composition process

dissent – form

pitch – periodicity

levels of sense – background

polyphony – melody

position – skepsis

to consider all possible forms and directions – tempo

material – extremes

rhythm – structure

consensus – topology

tonality – irritation

Supported by University of Bonn

Premiered at Bonner Kunstverein, December 2017