Beyond order: to live is to improvise

Derek Horton

Art can be nowhere; it only exists in the emission and reception of a signal, only in feedback.

Paul Virilio1

When I think of improvisation I think of going from zero to zero. Or to wherever it goes. But I'm not connecting one thing to another.

Keith Jarrett2

The thoughts in this text began to come together as I watched Ornette Coleman on stage earlier this year. He didn’t call one of his most important 70’s albums Science Fiction for nothing: having recorded The Shape Of Jazz To Come in 1959 he is still playing in the shape of things to come in the 21st century. Set against the blandly superficial backdrop of pastoral, parochial sentimentality and melting-pot naivety that masquerades in western popular culture as “world music” or “global fusion”, Ornette’s three-dimensionality starkly draws the world into his sound and projects it back on itself as something still new, “an everyday sound that communicates the raw experience of unstructured cosmic consciousness. That’s Science Fiction.”3 The cliché of the saxophone as a human voice was never more justified than in his reined-in banshee squall that, while so urban (and so urbane), is never far from the plaintive field holler and the wail of the country blues or the Texan R&B bands in which he began his professional career sixty years ago.

Pioneering the rejection of the deadening hierarchical structure of sequential soloing in his groundbreaking Free Jazz in 1960,4 Ornette Coleman’s bands are still the epitome of collectivity and the human (and humane). In Ornette’s world there are only people: “people who play and people who listen”. In fact, really only people who listen - “I learned more about listening playing with Ornette than I ever learned in my life from anyone, because to play with him you have to listen completely” was his bassist Charlie Haden’s comment.5

This commitment to the humane by means of genuine human response within a collective and collaborative environment is in a real sense a political one. Cornell West defined jazz “not so much as a term for a musical art form but for a mode of being in the world, an improvisational mode of protean, fluid and flexible disposition toward reality, suspicious of ‘either/or’ viewpoints”.6 Rebecca Solnit has related this to her assertion of the importance of improvisation as a political strategy in contemporary radical struggles, particularly those influenced by the Zapatistas, that share “an improvisational, collaborative, creative process that is in profound ways anti-ideological, if ideology means iron-clad preconceptions about who’s an ally and how to make a better future”.7 Zapatismo, in this sense, is not an ideology but an intuition. Pre-conceived visions of an idealized future almost always envision it as the end that justifies the means of achieving it, failing to see that to travel can be better than to arrive; that engagement in a process can provide far more benefits than simply its end product; that utopias congeal into dystopias when they are denied the life-blood of permanent revolution. Solnit’s advocacy is to “reject the static utopia in favour of the improvisational journey”, avoiding puritan tendencies, whether in art, music, education or politics, in favour of an attitude that is “generously, joyously impure, with the impurity that comes from mixing and circulating and stirring things up”.8

“Imagine tomorrow today and be wary of desires that can only be fulfilled in the future. In that moment of creation, the need for certainty is subsumed by doing and the doing is filled with meaning.”9 This takes real time, no editing possible; it takes your nervous system to be on alert for every possible thing. That’s what Keith Jarrett says about playing,10 but it extends simply to being, to being alive in the world, and to the question of “not so much how to create the world as how to keep alive [the] moment of creation, how to realize [a] world in which creation never ends and people participate in the power of being creators, a world whose hopefulness lies in its unfinished-ness, its openness to improvisation and participation.”11

The core of improvisation, both in this socio-political sense and as a strategy for any kind of creative practice, is the making of something that doesn’t yet exist by means of a continuous fragmentation and reconfiguration of what has been and is being made.

It’s practically a reflex to cling to the raft of the nearest structure, even if it’s sinking.

Marc Ribot12

What musicologists describe as horizontal (melodic) rather than vertical (harmonic) structure can be thought of as the weaving of a linear narrative free of the constraining solidity of a story; an unbound book that can have its pages re-ordered rather than being completely re-written. Think for example of Sonny Rollins taking a tune for a walk, and meeting lots of other tunes along the way, as compared with Charlie Parker delving the complexities of a single chord sequence. Horizontal rather than vertical improvisation might be read as a not necessarily utopian metaphor for the creative co-existence of difference rather than the integration of difference within an encompassing structure or the celebration of its potential for some kind of “harmony”: as for example in the increasingly discredited rhetoric of liberal multiculturalism, and its commodified aesthetic form, “world music”. It was the Coca-Cola Corporation after all who wanted to teach the world to sing. Collectively and freely improvised jazz asserts that difference, even disharmony, is not necessarily negative; that the individual can make an essential contribution without having to struggle to assert an independent voice in the collective; that the evolution of melody (narrative) does not have to be contained within, however complex, an endlessly repeated chord sequence (story).

This is a space in which spontaneity, emotional immediacy, risk, mistake, and interaction (with other players and the audience) are essential; in which Keith Jarrett, as cited earlier, maintains that, “by virtue of the holistic quality of it, it takes everything to do it. It takes real time, no editing possible; it takes your nervous system to be on alert for every possible thing, in a way that cannot be said for any other kind of music.”13 Miles Davis once argued that the only way to release a jazz album was to leave all the mistakes in, and that the only real jazz was full of mistakes, none of which would be recognisable as such because they had all coalesced into success.

These claims made for the transitory nature of improvisation - in the moment; created on the spot; never heard in the same way again; at the moment; of the moment; living in the here and now - all frame jazz as a fundamentally existentialist art form. But if its metaphorical potential for fusing a rejection of social restrictions with musical ones is to be realised - responding to infinite choice from a position of claiming control of the choices taken, opening up new possibilities, overcoming structural(ist) inertia - it needs to go beyond such autographic, expressive-individualist posturing and the deadening modernist narrative that defines it. Does free improvisation imply an unthinking burst of energy or can it develop intellectual procedures that bring some kind of structural unity? Is there a dialectic in which structural gravity might co-exist with but not hold down improvisational flight? An astronaut’s space walk in which no matter how far she drifts there is still a means for the astronaut to haul herself back? Can truly improvisational music embrace an overall form and cohesiveness without protesting that such a form would constrain the freedom of personal and idiosyncratic expression? There is either a dialectical interdependence between the assertion of individual freedom and the value of the collaborative collective, or an irreconcilable conflict between the rejection of conventional structure and the establishment of an aesthetic that is itself constructed in ways that in the end render it conventionally structural. Truly collective improvised music (it’s time perhaps to mention Mingus) rejects the former conflict and encapsulates the latter dialectic.

Let’s get something good goin’, so we can really derail it!

Steve Bernstein14

Improvisation as a rejection of the constraints or limitations of structure - whether aesthetic or socio-political - making it up as you go along without reference to precedent or procedure, a refusal of hierarchy and status in favour of collaboration and collectivity, might constitute some kind of radical existential change. But, if it truly aspires to fuel social change, the conventions it rejects must also include the conventions of modernist, “radical”, or so-called “left” notions of opposition that depend on a fixed sense of direction and linear progress; the replacement of an old order with a new order, but order nonetheless. Improvisation in this context needs to insist upon a complete rejection of order, but this rejection aspires not to chaos or disorder, but to a utopian space ‘beyond’ order; a space in which such structure as there is comes from within and is in constant flux, rather than being imposed from without and fixed by precedent.

Perhaps it aspires also to a space for thinking beyond thinking. “How we arrive at profound thoughts has a lot to do with what we aren’t thinking beforehand. … Transformative moments are very rare, or they seem so due to our inattention. It takes so many processes to coincide ‘just so’ for us to arrive at a transformative moment (if we’re watching). But maybe this is wrong, and they happen constantly, though we are absent.”15

This begs all kinds of questions, including ones about time and its “productive” use; asserting the value of idleness, recognising in it as Bertrand Russell did,16 not self-indulgence but a fundamental re-valuing of human activity. Such a re-evaluation extends to recognising the value of not always knowing what one is doing. This might to some extent involve - anathema to the rational values of modernism - privileging the body over the mind; foregrounding impulse, action and process; emphasising physicality and embodiment; recognising the irreducibility of bodily experience in that any action we make is necessarily from a position of being ‘embodied’ and that any action or response is part of the performativity of human existence and everyday life. And recognising that human existence and everyday life is characterised by the serendipity of accidents and a kind of careless ingenuity that derives from what Sally Barnes has called “the wisdom of the body”. In her recovery of contemporary use-value from the improvisatory dance and performance culture of the specific historical circumstances of Greenwich Village in 1963,17 she advocates the value of “the heat of kinetic intuition in the moment”, in contrast to pre-determined rational decision-making; a “bodily knowledge [that] stressed spontaneity, valuing rather than discarding the human imperfections of human creation”. To witness and to engage in creative practices of improvisation is to confront the reality that to live is to improvise, as well as to be reminded of the irreducibility of bodily experience. The “virtual” is always ultimately experienced as the “real” through a physical and sensory experience, and the “abstract” or “conceptual” is dependent on the physical and material to be manifest and to be understood.18 It is not necessary to deny the significance of learned experience or considered actions pre-determined by precedent in order to identify also that our capacity to understand, navigate or change our embodied life in this world is dependent first upon our collective responsiveness to our ever-changing surroundings and then on our capacity to interact collaboratively and spontaneously to improvise strategies based on those responses.

Disconnect me. Show me some new language.

Lee Ranaldo19

The purpose of art is to make a world in which people are producers of meaning, possessed of power and vision, in an unfinished world.

Rebecca Solnit20


  1. Paul Virilio, in The Dark Spot of Art, a conversation between Catherine David and Paul Virilio [trans. Brian Holmes], Documenta X, Documents 1, Kassel: Cantz Verlag, 1997 (p.47)

  2. Keith Jarrett: The Art of Improvisation, dir. Mike Dibb, Channel 4 Television, UK, 2005

  3. Bob Palmer, sleeve notes for Ornette Coleman, Science Fiction, Columbia 63569, 1972

  4. Ornette Coleman Double Quartet, Free Jazz, Atlantic 1364, 1960

  5. Bob Palmer, 1972, op.cit.

  6. Cornell West, Race Matters, Boston, Beacon Books, 1993 (p150)

  7. Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark, The Untold History of People Power, Edinburgh: Canongate, 2005 (p.133)

  8. Rebecca Solnit, op.cit. (p.134/5)

  9. The activist John Jordan cited by Rebecca Solnit, 2005, op.cit. (p.137)

  10. Keith Jarrett, 2005, op.cit.

  11. Rebecca Solnit, 2005, op.cit. (p.139)

  12. Mark Ribot, sleeve notes for Derek Bailey, Ballads, Tzadik TZ7607, 2002

  13. Keith Jarret, 2005, op.cit

  14. Steve Bernstein, introducing his band live on stage at Tonic, New York City, 14 November 2005

  15. Keith Jarrett, Some Words About The Music, ‘Radiance’, ECM no.1960/61, 2005

  16. Bertrand Russell, In Praise of Idleness, London & New York: Routledge, 1996 (first published 1935)

  17. Sally Banes, Greenwich Village 1963: Avant Garde Performance and the Effervescent Body, Durham & London: Duke University Press, 1993

  18. Perhaps not just on the physical and material, but even on the manufactured: much of my current practice centres on my research into the dependence of conceptual abstractions on metaphors located in manufactured objects.

  19. Lee Ranaldo & Leah Singer, Drift, Gigantic Art Space, New York City, November 2005 - January 2006

  20. Rebecca Solnit, 2005, op cit, (p.148)