Improvisation versus Familiarity

This past week, my life partner and I went to see the Counting Crows perform live. It was not the first time we saw the band live, and unless they retire, it won’t be the last. This time, however, I did something after the show I had never done before, and in so doing, noticed an interesting dichotomy. What I did was follow, read, and think about comments on social media about the show itself, and the ways people interpreted the performance. The dichotomy I noticed revolved around tensions between attendees who hoped for the familiarity of songs they had on records at home, and other attendees who enjoyed the ways the band reinvents songs on stage over time.

Similar to acts often labeled as jam bands, the Counting Crows have a long standing reputation – dating back to the earliest days of the band actually – for revising and adjusting their songs over time to the point where even someone who has seen them many times (like me) never knows exactly what to expect or which versions of the songs might pop up in a show. Sometimes they add in or delete instrumental interludes and solos into songs that sounded different or even used different instruments on their studio records. Sometimes they insert pieces of other songs – their own and those by other people – into the middle of some of their more famous songs. Sometimes, they even re-write whole songs – instrumentally or lyrically – from tour to tour, and experiment with various arrangements of different songs. In all such cases, the shows often feel like a bit of improv mixed into familiar music, and songs one may know every word to from an album can become entirely different creations in the midst of the show.

For an example, check out this live version of Round Here, and then check out the studio version of the same song.

Now, I’ll admit my own bias here. I like this approach, and I actually wish artists did it more often, and tend to love it when other artists do it as well. For me, the songs feel more alive when they change over time, and the concert feels more like its own experience when the songs don’t exactly match the studio album versions. That said, even before reading comments online following the recent show, I was well aware that other listeners do not like these things, and I see no reason to pretend my preference is any better or worse than theirs in any objective sense. Rather, what struck me as I read the comments was that the show was either “the best ever” or “completely terrible” depending on which side of this line the commenter was coming from in the first place. This interpretive variation is what caught my attention.

It reminded me of many other cases where I see tension between improvisation (or something new and unexpected) and familiarity (or something that fits existing expectations). I think about colleagues and I reading the same manuscript – as reviewers or more informally – and reaching completely different about what constitutes a “contribution” (for example, an addition to an existing line of argument versus a wholly new perspective).  I think of debates concerning static versus fluid ways of thinking, ways of being, ways of studying, and ways of interpreting the world (i.e., those who see an obvious truth versus those who see subjective possibilities). I think about these and so many more situations where familiarity (and the desire for that) clashes with improvisation (and the desire for something different) throughout social relations, and I wonder, as suggested in a recent SI article by Dunn and Creek, just how many social debates and conflicts stem from such clashes repetitively playing out in our world.

J. Sumerau

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4 Responses to Improvisation versus Familiarity

  1. excellent piece, J. I knew of the Counting Crows but were not listening to them regularly before you started writing about them here. It’s great music and can see the appeal they have to you who has attended more than 16 of their concerts now. The tension between improvisation and familiarity is an interesting phenomenon. When is a song experience as a new song considering the many improvisations and extensions that often happen at concerts. I guess their is a legal, i.e. copyright notion of ‘new’ but when do fans experience a song as entirely new, up to the point as the fans on social media who did not like the songs anymore. I also like your exploration of the relationship between life-events and social media discussion. Now, I am looking forward to your next post. Thanks for your contributions here.

  2. Andrew Carlin says:

    Thanks for this piece, J. I noticed this precisely, with the BBC Bowie Prom a few days ago. I’m a life-long Bowie fan. So it was touch and go whether I’d actually enjoy the tribute.

    I’m also a fan of The Blue Nile, and Paul Buchanan appeared at the Prom too. TBN fans are undivided that it was a triumph — while I agreed that his version of “I Can’t Give Everything Away” (from Blackstar) was brilliant, I really couldn’t say that his “Ashes to Ashes” was any good at all.

    These “interpretive asymmetries” — to use Jeff Coulter’s term — are writ-large in social media comments, as you’ve observed. A piece from the NME has curated some of the contrasting views:

    http://www.nme.com/blogs/nme-blogs/the-best-reactions-to-the-bbcs-david-bowie-proms-tribute

    (Actually, I did enjoy it. I’d rather I’d been watching Bowie himself, of course… But the real stars of the show, I thought, were the members of the orchestra (Stargaze). They were fascinating to watch, and I admired their virtuosity.

  3. Pingback: Start Again | Symbolic Interaction Music Blog

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