The Book Cooks
Excerpts from
The Philosophy of Improvisation

by Gary Peters
(The University of Chicago Press; Chicago, London)

From Chapter Two: Freedom, Origination and Irony

The act of engaging in free-improvisation will become a liberator, and emancipator, for many people to touch into their emotional lives in a non-verbal and non-judgmental way. We must introduce this healthy way of life. (LaDonna Smith)

The Aporia of Freedom

Discourses of emancipation are usually in a major key, positive, sometimes celebratory even joyous, always engaged and committed, rarely if ever ironic. Such writings however, for all their positivity, harbor within them a deep-seated negativity that should remind us of freedom’s own questionable duality. One would do well to remember this–––the aporia of freedom––when considering the claims made for improvisation by the improvisor. Something of an exception, the improvisor Anthony Braxton is clearly alert to the problem in the following passage:

One of the problems with collective improvisation, as far as I’m concerned, is that people who use anarchy or collective improvisation will interpret that to mean “Now I can kill you;” and I’m saying, wait a minute...So-called freedom has not helped us as a family (…) So the notion of freedom that was being perpetrated in the sixties might not have been the healthiest notion. (1)

This is an interesting statement coming, as it does, from an African-American musician who one would have expected to identify with an aesthetic that emerged out of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s.(2) To speak on behalf of a putative “family“ demonstrates a continuing commitment to a collectivity thought both politically and aesthetically, but Braxton’s problematization of freedom (“so-called freedom”) bespeaks a certain skepticism as regards the utopianism of much liberatory politics that suggests an awareness of the perceived dangers accompanying the always difficult transition from negative to positive freedom. As Isaiah Berlin expresses it in his Two Concepts of Liberty:

“Negative liberty” (…) seems to me a truer and more humane ideal than the goals of those who seek in the great, disciplined, authoritarian structures the ideal of “positive” self mastery (…) It is true, because it recognizes the fact that human goals are many, not all of them commensurable, and in perpetual rivalry with one another. (3)

Braxton’s concerns echo these same sentiments. In common with most collective improvisors his primary concern is actualizing a series of overlapping negative freedoms, in his running through the desired freedom-from racism, intimidation and exclusion; the freedom-from a capitalist superstructure that commercially rewards artistic conformity and obedience to rigid stylistic codes while freezing out the alterity of genuine innovation. And also, to return to Braxton’s problem with “so-called freedom.” the freedom-from freedom itself: the freedom-from the freedom-to. Berlin identifies precisely this aporia as it unfurls in the increasingly conflictual history of liberty:

The freedom which consists in being one’s own master [positive/freedom-to], and the freedom which consists in not being prevented from choosing as I do by other men [negative/freedom-from], may, on the face of it, seem concepts at no logical distance from each other––no more than negative and positive ways of saying the same thing. Yet the “positive” and “negative” notions of freedom developed in divergent directions until, in the end, they came into direct conflict with each other. (4)

As Berlin demonstrates, in essence negative freedom is a collective ideal, it protects the collective by establishing a regime of non-interference that, in breaking with “men’s constant tendency to conformity,” allows the individual the scope and the space for “spontaneity, originality, genius [and] mental energy,” (5) all of which figure large in the world of improvisation. Positive freedom, on the other hand, is an ideal of singularity, and it has a rather more worrying vocabulary, one inescapably intertwined with a notion of mastery that has not worn well during the modern period.

The “positive” sense of the word “liberty” derives from the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master. I wish my life and decisions to depend on myself, not on external forces of whatever kind. I wish to be the instrument of my own (…) acts of will (…) I wish to be somebody, not nobody; a doer. (6)

Standing alongside Braxton again, the “doer” who wants to be somebody becomes the anarchist who would “kill you” as a means to this end, the master who would rather enslave you than go unrecognized as a nobody. So we end up with a situation where it is the singularity of the master that threatens the diversity, spontaneity and originality seen by the vast majority as essential to improvisation, while the collective consciousness of the group acts as guarantor for these self-same concepts by pitting the “family” (Godfather-fashion) against its individual members. What Roger Dean, in his discussion of Braxton, sees as the latter’s “ambivalence towards free-improvisation,” (7) is, in fact more than a matter of personal preference, it is, rather, a function of the conflictual history of freedom that emerges here as the complicating factor. As a consequence of this, it is not the ambivalence of Anthony Braxton or anyone else that is the issue but the ambivalence of improvisation itself as the aesthetic space wherein the aporia of liberty is enacted and re-enacted. If freedom as perpetrated in the 1960’s is not the “healthiest notion” this, perhaps, has less to do with the era and more to do with the notion. However, one could be forgiven for thinking it somewhat ironic that jazz of all genres of improvised music, implicated as it is in a whole history of drug and drink related excess, should give birth to a cultural movement dominated by the desire for the realization of an “aesthetic dimension” that has liberated freedom from its own imperfection, cleaned it up and purified it, but that is exactly what has happened.     

Improvisation is now a form of health, an exercise in healthy living. The cultural turn towards the spirituality of the East, the self-sufficiency of the land, the concern for peaceful co-existence with the Other “man,” the concern for the eco-system, the concern for the downtrodden and silenced, all of this has left its indelible mark on the dominant discourses of improvisation as they can be found today. Gone are all traces of the brash and virtuosic exhibitionism that excited performers and audiences alike in the pre-60’s, the competitiveness and one-upmanship that was everywhere in evidence, the arrogance, callousness and cruelty that gave so much performance its edge. For the last four decades the discourses of improvisation have become increasingly submerged in a collective language of care and enabling, of dialogue and participation, a pure aesthetically-cleansed language of communal love. However, while the more strident political proclamations typical of an earlier more “militant” time may have subsided there remains a no less engaged but gentler activism that, rather than challenging our dominant institutions head-on, constructs instead what might be described as microcosmic aesthetic communities that live-out or act-out the utopian potentiality that has remained a constant since those more exuberant days, now (it would seem) past.

Although largely of historical interest only nowadays, Herbert Marcuse, writing at exactly the right moment for what might be called the first wave of militant-improvisors, inspired a generation of artists and activists by tracing the radical dimension of art practice back to its own liberal bourgeois origins, that is to say to the aesthetics of Kant and Schiller, to the Critique of Judgement and On the Aesthetic Education of Man, respectively. Particularly influential was the politicization and radicalization of Schiller’s notion of the “play-drive” in attempt to integrate Marxism and psychoanalysis in Eros and Civilization. Regardless of the strengths and weaknesses of this book, it was the suggestion that the artwork allowed an aesthetic substantiation of political ideas in advance of the socio-economic conditions for their actual realization that resonated with those in search of an agency of political change within a conformist mass society. In a “one-dimensional” culture of positivism and technological reason, of the “performance principle” and status seeking, the very purposelessness of play was seen as a slap in the face for the unsmiling means/ends bureaucrats that constituted the power elite. Passages such as the following give a flavor of the way in which German aesthetics came to American radicals of the 60’s:

The quest is for the solution of a “political” problem: the liberation of man from inhuman existential conditions. Schiller states that in order to solve the political problem, “one must pass through the aesthetic, since it is beauty that leads to freedom.” The play-drive is the vehicle of this liberation (…) These ideas represent one of the most advanced positions of thought (…) the reality that “loses it’s seriousness” is the inhumane reality of want and need, and it loses its seriousness when wants and needs can be satisfied without alienated labor. Then man is free to “play” with his faculties and potentialities and with those of nature, and only by “playing” with them is he free. (8)

The charge of aestheticism that has always haunted Schillerian aesthetics and which, no doubt, motivates Marcuse’s projection of art’s substance onto a political problem yet to be solved, is perhaps of less concern to those artists who have experienced the onset of postmodernism in the 80’s, 90’s and onwards. Perhaps the degree to which culture in general and cultural politics in particular have become aestheticized has rendered the notion of aestheticism increasingly redundant. Be that as it may, the real intention here is to try and direct this discussion away from the political perspective which characterizes so many discussions of Schiller’s thought back into the aesthetic: the re-aestheticization of the aesthetic. The thinking behind this reorientation is the hope that, while the continuing relevance of Schiller’s particular appropriation of Kantian aesthetics and, indeed Kant’s own aesthetics might be open to debate, they nevertheless offer some important insights into the nature of improvisation that can be pursued here.

Freedom and Play

To begin with, it might be useful to take an initial step back or backwards from Schiller’s notion of the “play-drive” to consider first the role of “play” within Kant’s aesthetics, one that will prove helpful in understanding better the model of collectivity informing much group improvisation. The following passage from the Critique of Judgement will be a good starting point.

The cognitive powers brought into play by this [aesthetic] representation are engaged in a free play, since no definite concept restricts them to a particular rule of cognition. Hence the mental state in this representation must be one of a feeling of the free play of the powers of representation (…) This state of free play of the cognitive faculties attending a representation by which an object is given must admit of universal communication.(9)

There are a number of things here that need to be highlighted at the outset, primarily that the conjunction of freedom and play is, for Kant, simply a statement of aesthetic fact and not a political gesture. His notion of free-play describes a positive rather than a negative freedom, something that distinguishes it from Schiller’s “play-drive” and latter-day radicalized versions of the same. The hallmark of aesthetic free-play is its freedom from the restrictions of determinate concepts, but play does not free itself from concepts, it is prior to them, thus so is the aesthetic. Just to make the point, section 9 of book 1 of the third Critique is entitled: “Investigation of the question of the relative priority in a judgment of taste of the feeling of pleasure and the estimating of the object.” The free play of the imagination and the understanding prior to the determination of concepts might here be thought alongside the aforementioned use of the distinction marked/unmarked space as follows. Free improvisors want to mark an unmarked space, their ideal is a pure virgin territory within which to commune with the other. LaDonna Smith, in her somewhat ecstatic Improvisation as Prayer, positions herself on the edge of a virgin silence about to be shattered. She begins thus: “Beginning in silence, holding only an instrument, listening within, observing a point for departure into the inner world of sudden creative expression, tapping the well to draw out a first sound in musical exploration.” The dramatization of the instant prior to making the first sound, indeed, the dramatization of risk and contingency as associated with the transition from the unmarked to the marked articulates a freedom that is, in fact, doubly negative. The art of improvisation is the art of making something happen and, as such, a liberation-from the absence of the work. Silence, stillness, blankness are all valorized as originary aesthetic essences only to be cancelled by sound, movement or figuration. The problem however is that once at play within the marked space, the improvisor or improvisors risk being enticed or indeed forced into the given structures of gameplay, thus posing a threat to the positive freedom desired and demanding, in turn, a liberation-from the game. Squeezed from both sides, from the unmarked and the marked respectively, free-improvisation must either compromise and fall back on certain identifiable rules of gameplay or, conversely, devise strategies that allow a vestigial productivity on the very edge of self-negation. As the saxophonist Evan Parker remembers his duo with drummer John Stevens: “The moments of interaction got shorter and shorter, you couldn’t go any further than that.” (10) But you can, as David Toop reminds us in his consideration of ‘lowercase’ improvisation.

Experiencing the work for the first time, I experienced a sense of disconnectedness (…) sounds tend to be brief––the kind of short, harsh, messy sound that happens when dust is brushed off the stylus of a record turntable, or a plug is inserted into an amplifier socket when the volume is turned up. These sounds don’t feel aggressive, however, and in fact, references to emotional states such as aggression seem irrelevant (…) Sometimes there are long, high tones, which introduce smoother lines into the broken, impact sounds and crackles. Nothing lasts long enough to become intense, or reveal a conscious method. There is a stillness, without the progressive resolution we call development (…) The initial impression is disconcerting, because this seems to be extreme minimalism without the ideology of Minimalism, or its self-conscious dedication to process. I can imagine it would be possible to listen to this (…) and not hear it as music, or any kind of significant event at all, other than a faint disturbance of the atmosphere. (11)

If this is free play then it is a form of play that, having liberated itself from the game arrives at a mode of improvisation that might be better approached in Kantian terms.

Reception and Memory
Notwithstanding the extraordinarily productive dimension of his aesthetic thought, (12) Kant, in common with the majority of philosophers, speaks from the place of aesthetic reception as is evident in his concentration on, to repeat, the “free play of the cognitive faculties attending a representation by which an object is given” In this form the artwork must already be in place before the subject of aesthetic experience and judgment can be broached. For Kant, in other words, aesthetic experience can only take place as a moment of reception within a marked space, while the issue under consideration here is the nature of a freedom conceived as a moment of production, the positive force of a beginning. What relevance then could Kant’s reception aesthetics possibly have for the improvisor in that moment (if such exists) of silence or stillness prior to the marking of space? One way of answering this would be to recall that although, for Kant, the pleasure experienced during the reception of a work of art “attends” rather than produces that work, this feeling can in fact be traced back to an anteriority that, while no longer strictly aesthetic, might offer some clues as to the nature of productivity particularly as it figures within the context of improvisation. As such, the artwork is not the origin of aesthetic pleasure but rather the manner in which we are reminded of  a freedom that is prior not only to conceptual determination but to the aesthetic itself, a “memorial” (13) aesthetic as Jay Bernstein describes it when responding to passages such as the following from the Critique of Judgement.

It is true we no longer notice any decided pleasure in the comprehensibility of nature (…) Still it is certain that the pleasure appeared in due course, and only by reason of the most ordinary experience being impossible without it, has become gradually fused with simple cognition, and no longer arrests particular attention. (14)

By drawing this pleasure to the surface again the artwork does not, as with Schiller and Marcuse signal a liberatory or liberated future yet to come but an existing  (if forgotten) freedom to be affirmed; an affirmation and confirmation of the present rather than its negation. The moment of stillness prior to the initial improvisatory gesture of the work is not an aesthetic vanishing point where both absence and presence between them threaten to erase art but, rather, the space/time where a shared freedom can be recognized and re-affirmed. More than this, by grounding aesthetic pleasure in the prior attunement of our mental faculties with nature, Kant is able to claim a universality for aesthetic judgment that dramatically broadens the scope of the communicative community assumed by the domain of collective improvisation. By installing free play into the very heart of human understanding he is able to offer a model of “common sense” (sensus communis) that assumes rather than strives for individual liberty, albeit as an idea necessitating an aesthetic demand rather than (as with Schiller and Schillerians)) an ideal fuelling an aesthetic utopia. The result is an image of human intersubjectivity and communication that in some respects undoubtedly resonates well with many models of collective improvisation but which also, in its sensitivity to the counterposition of singularity and universality, raises some fundamental issues regarding the limits of communicative communication and the dialogical models that have subsequently come to dominate so many of the texts. Below is the way Kant introduces the notion of a sensus communis into the third Critique:

[Judgments of taste] must have a subjective principle, and one which determines what pleases or displeases, by means of feeling only and not through concepts, but yet with universal validity. Such a principle, however, could only be regarded as a common sense. This differs essentially from common understanding, which is also sometimes called common sense (sensus communis): from the judgments of the latter is not one by feeling, but always one by concepts (…) The judgment of taste, therefore, depends on our presupposing the existence of a common sense. (But this is not to be taken to mean some external sense, but the effect arising from the free play of our powers of cognition.) Only under the presupposition, I repeat, of such a common sense, are we able to lay down a judgment of taste. (15)

Thought receptively, the judgment of taste is made in the presence of a representation that formally triggers the feeling of pleasure that is at the root of aesthetic experience. But thought productively, is the judgment of taste laid down before or after the marking of the unmarked space? Or to pose the question that will be addressed throughout the next chapter: how does the artwork begin? What determines the initiating sound, mark or movement of an improvisation? In those performance-arts particularly prone to improvisation, where the aim is to combine freedom with irreversibility and the accompanying impossibility of correction or erasure, these are critical questions.

The shift from reception to production raises the issue of a felt pleasure that precedes the artwork or, put another way, is part of the prior work of the artwork. One question which immediately arises is that if, as Kant claims, it is the pleasure we take in the artwork that reminds us of our cognitive freedom within the conceptually undetermined aesthetic realm, by what means can we attain an awareness of this freedom prior to the work itself? Outside of performance-art this may or may not be such an important issue, but within the context of group improvisation the collective acknowledgment or assumption of a prior freedom represents a crucial aspect of its self-legitimation and consequent allure as an aesthetic strategy. Certainly, within the fraternity of collective improvisors there is what might be called an acute awareness of awareness. The dancer Susan Leigh Foster, writing on improvisation, speaks of “a kind of hyperawareness of the relation between immediate action and overall shape, between that which is about to take place and that which has and will take place” (16 )but, for her, this “hyperawareness of relationalities,” while bound up with what she calls the “playful labor” of improvisation, is restricted to the space/time of the dance itself rather than being directed towards the origin of the work prior to the artist and the artwork: towards art. Foster’s account assumes from the outset that the improvisor enters the “relational” space as an agent already free and ready to play, armed with an awareness that is ultra sensitive to any imminent threat to this productive freedom and its ongoing work. Such a view, however, does not pay sufficient attention to the “hyperawareness” that is necessary to both recognize and to render aesthetically productive the singular feeling of pleasure attending not the artwork but the play of the cognitive faculties and the certainty that such pleasure in play can be universally communicated, underwritten by the sensus communis. Moving attention to the anteriority of the work in this way is not intended to disable the aforementioned vocabulary of free-improvisation, on the contrary it can now be re-deployed more effectively and certainly with more ontological weight. The language of wholeness, dialogue, participation, sharing, one-ness, community and communion, stripped of its dubious actuality in improvisatory works, returns here to register the promise and possibility of a collective work that is rooted in the memory and potentiality of an unworked freedom. This returns the discussion to Bernstein’s notion of a “memorial aesthetics,” which can now be reviewed more carefully. He writes:

Judgments of beauty are memorial: in making aesthetic judgments we judge things “as if” from the perspective of our lost common sense (…) This “remembered” common sense is, as Kant has it throughout the third Critique, both presupposed in the judgment of taste and yet to be obtained. It is present by virtue of its absence (….) Common sense is the communicability of feeling, and not the demand for such. But such a common sense does not exist, or exists only as a memory, but in so far as “we” remember it (in virtue of serious participation in aesthetic discourse and practice), judge through it, it does exist. In its existing it binds us, not as a constraint but as ties of affection (and disaffection) do. (17)

As a reading of Kant’s third Critique and, in particular, as an alternative to the more anticipatory politicizations of the aesthetic forever cast out into the future this certainly gives pause for thought, but for all its resonance the above passage continues to make “participation in aesthetic discourse and practice” a condition of the “we” being able to feel itself emerge out of its originary source: sensus communis. It would seem that for Bernstein it is only within the marked space of the artwork and the aesthetic discourses spun around it that common sense comes into being as an existent absence: outside or prior to the work it is forgotten. So the question remains: is it possible to think beyond the memorializing continuum of existing artworks? Is it possible to imagine an aesthetic memory that is not only prior to the artwork but which gives birth to it, is its beginning?

©The University of Chicago Press 2009


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