IS (MUSICAL) IMPROVISATION POLITICAL?

Anyone who is familiar with my arguments about improvisation will know that I consider improvisation itself to be politically neutral, and radically so. The reason for this is that improvisation, for me, is defined by one characteristic only, which is contingency: in that sense, any political valence that improvisation generates or raises is dependent on its deployment in specific, singular circumstances. Put another way, while improvisation certainly can be political, it is not necessarily or always so, and how it is political varies widely depending on its contexts of use. The politics of improvisation have famously been progressive and egalitarian when deployed by jazz musicians who articulated these principles through their music, their collaborative praxis, their discourses, and more. But likewise, the politics of improvisation are brutal and exploitative when it is the poor who are asked to improvise, and everyone else need not be bothered. More than anything, during the pandemic we have seen the ways in which improvisation can become an obligation required of some people and not others, a mode of scrambling that is not required of the wealthy under neoliberal capital, because they have the stability and resources to be able to act how they wish. When you lose your job or can’t afford to have your groceries delivered, you improvise, and this is not a romantic proposition.


In my last post, I outlined a notion of “musical improvisation” not as a certain artistic capacity, but rather as an attunement with or orientation towards the improvisation of which one is already a part. In other words, if everyday life is always already improvised, musical improvisation attempts to attune to that fact, resonating with awareness of the contingencies in each moment from a position of pre-existing openness. Now the question becomes: if improvisation is the radically neutral, always already mode of being alive, does musical improvisation (as described here) carry a political valence? Does becoming aware of one’s contingent improvisations activate a kind of political possibility?

In a limited sense, my answer is yes: insofar as it brings the contingencies of our lives into awareness, musical improvisation becomes a precondition for political action, or the means by which we can reach for the political. I say “reach for” because “the political” is not something that can be willfully manifested, per-se. This is because, following Rancière, politics consists in a radical break with “the sensible,” or the police formation that governs not only who belongs and doesn’t belong, but also the criteria by which belonging is evaluated in the first place. In other words, one cannot simply manifest a rupture with the sensible.

And yet at one and the same time, such ruptures also do not occur without effort. While politics is a political logic that emerges in total opposition to the police, politics also emerges from that same police order, which is to say from everyday life. To bring awareness to the contingent foundations of our police order and the everyday improvisations that take place inside them–in other words, to improvise musically–is then to activate a kind of precondition from which political action could occur.

By “political action” all I mean is those actions that reach for an unknown that cannot be thought or felt or planned, an unknown that, even in its unknowability, is oriented in a certain direction. When we become aware of our improvisations in daily life, we activate the possibility of orienting toward what we can name as our desires, even if, as in the case where we desire the dismantling of racist capitalist patriarchy, we cannot know how to achieve it or what it would look like. By becoming aware, by perceiving with our bodies the partition of sense that governs our worlds, we become oriented towards contingency in both its closed sense (the facticity of what is, but also the profound arbitrariness of that existence, the “could have been otherwise”) as well as the its open sense (the “could yet be otherwise” if only). In doing so, it becomes possible to try, to reach, to orient towards the political where “political” signifies the outside that is beyond our ability to fully imagine.

Seen in this way, musical improvisation produces a political dynamic not because it necessarily generates democratic relations, but rather because–in the sense developed here–it attunes towards the contingencies of a moment from a pre-established orientation, which is to say from a position of openness to an otherwise. Awareness of those contingencies undermines the apparent ‘givenness’ of any formation, and, in becoming aware of the arbitrary conditions of any scene in the police, we activate the potential to pursue that to which we had already opened: the beyond, the outside, the political.

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