MUSICAL IMPROVISATION AS ORIENTATION

Whenever I have the opportunity to present the elevator pitch of my book (very rarely!), I tend to focus on its most polemical thesis: namely: that comparing improvisation between music and everyday life reveals its utter consistency and ubiquity as a concept, that musical improvisation is structurally identical to quotidian improvisation because at the exclusion of everything else, improvisation is defined through contingency. I have written about this here and here and here so I won’t belabor the point right now.


What I talk about less often is an idea that comes late in the book, which is a theory of “musical improvisation.” Following the idea that everyday life is made up of practices, and that practices are inherently contingent (i.e. improvised), I move from examining contingency in walking, baking, listening, inhabiting, and working towards an analysis of “perceiving”. Using Merleau-Ponty and Sara Ahmed, I show how perception is not something “prior-to” practice but is itself an activity that requires bodily participation, and therefore that perception is an improvisation that a) constantly shifts, b) deeply depends (on your subjectivity, your body, your circumstances, your orientations, or how you enter a room), and c) is inexhaustible in any case. As Merleau-Ponty puts it, “consciousness, which is commonly taken as an extremely enlightened region, is, on the contrary, the very region of indetermination.”

This detour into questions of perception also raises a compelling fact about improvisation. If improvisation is always already operative, or moreover, if improvisation is already the mode through which we experience anything at all, “consciousness” and “perception” raise the idea that it is possible to be both aware and unaware of this fact. In other words, one can be improvising without being aware of it, just the same as one can be improvising and deeply focused on that process as it emerges in real-time.

I have long been fascinated by my own ability to improvise while not attending to the fact of my improvising. How many choruses of someone else’s solo have I spent comping, improvising, playing along, supporting, and also thinking about things totally beyond the music? Surely, this is not ideal; my goal is always to be as present as possible in the listening moment. But as in meditation, distraction does happen. As a musician, I want to return from that distraction as quickly as I can. But from a theoretical perspective, what’s interesting about the distraction is that it doesn’t stop me from improvising at all. While distracted, I have certainly changed something about how I am improvising—but I am still doing it. That “something” is what I attempt to explore in distinguishing “musical improvisation” as a concept unto itself.

“Musical improvisation” is what I call an attending-to or an orientation-toward the improvisation of which one is a part regardless. It is not “awareness” of one’s improvising, as if the unfolding contingencies present in a moment could be totally captured in conscious experience. It is rather a kind of meta-reflexivity whereby the improviser, even though they can’t totally apprehend what’s happening, continuously and willful returns to the present moment in its very presentness. Seen in this way, musical improvisation is not a particular type of activity but a modality that can be activated in any moment.

I once again use Ahmed to think through these dynamics, along with Brian Massumi’s use of affective attunement. Affective attunement refers to the ways in which a body can be “induced” into the forces unfolding in a situation–this can happen when the situation itself grabs hold of us (as when a car backfires, and everyone jumps) or when we reach out to hold the situation (as when matching someone’s energy level or when trying to follow a lecture). The useful aspect of affective attunement is that, unlike “consciousness” or even “awareness”, it gives us a space to talk about how bodies can be linked up with an unfolding situation even if they can’t completely consciously process it. This is what musicians do when improvising together, a process that could hardly be apprehended in its totality, as if one’s notes flicker before one’s mind (C#, D, F#) on the way out. Affective attunement names how we can be resonating with something happening, each in our own ways, and without reducing that situation to a pre-existing genre or type form (“Bye Bye Blackbird” or “grocery shopping”).

Likewise, Ahmed’s orientation has something to do with situations, but instead of referencing the way that bodies can link up with unfolding affects, orientation has more to do with how we come into or approach those situations in the first place, both how we are conditioned or set up and also where we turn given that history. That is: an orientation can be a state (how I am oriented at the moment) and also where I continuously choose to turn, based on what I can name as my desires (which seem to be in this direction and not that one).

Musical improvisation then references the deliberate orientation towards the contingencies of a moment, toward resonating with and attuning to a situation as it unfolds, even if we could never fully apprehend it and because we know in advance that this attunement is partial, not guaranteed, and could result in any number of outcomes. There is no direct cause/effect relationship that occurs when we improvise musically, because the situation is still full of contingencies we can and can’t name or feel. But the insistence on trying, the willful turning toward, and the effort to attune to and become aware of what’s happening does make a difference in what’s happening. If one is always already improvising, attending to that fact activates new potentialities, not as a guarantee of any outcome but as an orientation or openness–an openness that affects our behavior. In this way, improvisation can be understood as both the medium through which we live, and as something that–for all of its ubiquity–still makes a difference.

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