The subject of this critical essay (Iyer 2019) is the field of music theory writ-large, and critical improvisation studies more particularly. In it, Iyer argues that in part because of improvisation’s utter ubiquity, it is impossible to locate it without doing so through our own subjective viewpoints. That is “We do not ‘perceive’ improvisation but through systems difference” (3). And yet, improvisation scholars have paid scant attention to questions of difference, instead theorizing universalist claims about improvisation’s emancipatory potential from practices such as jazz.
It may sound paradoxical for a field of study centered around (in many cases) musical forms and practices created by Black Americans to produce scholarship that does not pay attention to questions of difference, or which pays lip service to it while producing a kind of colorblind scholarship. But Iyer argues that is exactly the case. Focusing on jazz and other Black artistic practices, while declining to cite Black authors, or other scholarship in women’s studies, subaltern studies, and others, maps onto “the pattern of a rehabilitative gesture, a vindication, a hollow, performative rescue of that which society has deemed abject” (4).
After elaborating his observations of the field over the years, Iyer then proceeds to detail some of the complexities that lie “underneath” the idea of improvisation, such as “Being, Doing, Sensing, Feeling, Thinking, Speaking, Acting, and Moving”. These categories correspond to the methodological perspectives or scholarly approaches, “Subjectivity, Practice, Phenomenology, Affect,Cognition, Discourse, Agency, Migration”. Each of these perspectives, Iyer argues, reveals gaps in dominant improvisation studies discourses when considered from the perspective of difference, for example: “while Black/Brown/indigenous, while non-male, while queer, while colonized, while undocumented, while seeking refuge, while disabled” (8).
His basic point is that, while improvisation studies has largely concerned itself with emancipation, community, democracy, cooperation, and other liberal terms read out of jazz performance (for example), they have given scant attention to examples of improvisation that might undercut their basic assumptions. For example, “Diaspora is, we might unremarkably observe, improvisation within constraints” (12).
In short, it matters who is doing the improvising, and in what contexts. As I have argued, there can be no universalist or widely applicable understanding of improvisation, even if it is theorized from a particular, instance or historical tradition, because, as Iyer puts it, “these mechanisms’ theoretical manifestations—subjectivity, practice, agency, phenomenology, affect, and so forth—seem not to operate equally in the universe of constrained affordances and potentialities that characterize non-normative, othered bodies” (15).
It a bit unclear whether or not Iyer views the project of improvisation studies as defensible. But if it could be, it would be especially necessary to bring these perspectives to bear during this moment, when COVID-19 is raising the palpable terror of uncertainty and precarity for many of us, but disproportionately BIPOC; this is contingency and improvisation to be sure, but it is not liberating. Doubtless, improvisation scholars would agree that having to find new jobs, coping emotionally when gigs dry up and contracts are cancelled, navigating the uncertainty of an unemployment system short-circuited by demand, or the quotidian evil of our healthcare system, and trying to raise money by performing music online are instances of improvisatory action. But outside of exceptional cases like Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism (2011), such acts are rarely the subject of studies on improvisation. As I write in my book, “The implication made by virtue of their exclusion is that such acts cannot exist—that is, that such acts are not really what we mean when referring to improvisation. Hence, a definition is implied negatively and without acknowledgement.” Moreover, this exact moment is one, because of the protests over George Floyd’s murder, with at least the potential to unearth the white frameworks undergirding our institutions and epistemologies. If (ethno)musicology, music theory, and improvisation studies are to continue in any legitimate way, questions of difference must move to the center.
The critical assumption informing all of Iyer’s arguments is an assumption that I share and have argued for: improvisation is synonymous with experience itself. We are always, all of us, improvising. But the analysis can’t end there, because the experiences these improvisations produce, what possibilities or impossibilities are allowed to us, and how are actions are perceived by others all differ radically based on our contingent circumstances. To elucidate this point, I’ll end with another critical passage that ties musical improvisation to everyday life. Speaking of the innumerable instances of Black Americans being targeted for any number of everyday behaviors, Iyer writes:
“What I hope to indicate is that such clearly improvisative moments that are contiguous with everyday life—events of extremely minor import, the innocuous actions of innocents—are systemically suspected, abhorred, criminalized, punished. So this kind of systemic struggle is what I wanted to study: the very unequal distribution of experience itself, the differential ways that the world “shows up” for different populations, in the real-time, improvisative flow of everyday life. Because if we can’t even agree on that, then what do we mean when we speak of improvisation in music? In whose music? Improvisation for whom, and compared to what?” (5).
Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Duke University Press.
Brown, Danielle, “An Open Letter on Racism in Music Studies: Especially Ethnomusicology and Music Education”. My People Tell Stories (online, June 12).
DiPiero, Dan. “Improvisation as Contingent Encounter, Or: The Song of My Toothbrush”. Critical Studies in Improvisation/Études critiques en improvisation vol. 12, no. 2.
Ewell, Philip A. “Music Theory and the White Racial Frame”. Music Theory Online vol. 26, no 2 (September).
Iyer, Vijay. 2019. “Beneath Improvisation”. In The Oxford Handbook of Critical Concepts in Music Theory, edited by Alexander Rehding and Steven Rings. Oxford University Press