The Ecstasy of the Extreme:

Improvisation, Gesture, Event

Fehta Murghana

In conversation with Robert Cheatham

Part 1

We now know, those of us who live in the twenty first century, that absolutes are impossible. The whole course of modern thought and art seems to be to affirm such and even to police the possibilities for such yearnings. The terror of any absolute state is that it is uncompromising in its demands and unstinting in its call for complete commitment. Like Jesus’ adjuration to his disciples to toss off all previous commitments, even to the extent of leaving one’s family behind, the absolute in all of its phases requires a similar exile before it’s promised ecstasies are delivered.

The pragmatics of the modern technological state, the critical repudiation of ‘art for art’s sake,’ the speed with which all religious or political promise (two sides of the same coin perhaps) is turned by our technical media apparatus into cultic seduction would seem to lead one even further to the decay of any idea of the absolute.

It’s curious then to see that absolute music (that which has no ties or relationship with external events per se; that is, music is said to form a transhistorical and transcultural mode of touching people, slipping over all spatio-temporal borders) seems to be at its zenith in modernism. In fact while it has often been pointed out that modernism can be defined by its ‘linguistic turn’, it could be said that ‘music’ forms an underlying archaic substratum more all encompassing even that language, thereby encompassing the whole sonic spectrum. While language has, even at its most rudimentary (which, as in poetry, is perhaps also it’s fullest), ties to ‘meaning,’ sounds have an unexpected deliverance from ‘usefulness’ and transport of meaning. In the great modernist experiment, any sound can be connected to any other sound (‘connected’ is used loosely here; ‘put in the proximity of’ would perhaps be a better formulation) forming a new sort of fully present life whose acoustics and mysteries always fail to be exhausted. If this sonic tapping is indicative of interiorities (a main component of the ’popular’) as some have held then what are to make of this massive ‘world concert’?

One could say that in fact the Absolute Extreme is the firm undergirding of the modern (a tapping of modernity’s interiors which is in direct opposition to what modernity SAYS about itself through it’s official outlets) and that this is a form of the Absolute (exhaustingly articulated by Hegel) which all counter-thought and practice must deal with. To make this more plain: the calculative, planar, mathesis of modernity which is numbingly exhaustive of subjectivities IS a form of an Absolute, veiled however by it’s rational and seemingly pragmatic usefulness. The practice of the absolute, if it may be put that way, is the technical pragmatic. The extreme position of this absolute would be, as Hegel indicated, an exhaustion of the singular subjective. (This, as Hegel also pointed out, coincides with the Christian and, arguably, with the technical.)

To get to the question, then, which you originally posed to me as to the strength and viability of ‘improvisation’: one can approach the question in two opposing ways. The first would be that improvisation escapes nothing in this modernist Absolute but is in fact the most highly developed--and hence most hidden--’arm’ of the development of the modern, absolute state of a resolute abstraction or nihilism, the contradictory folding of all singular gestural states (which every form of improvisation musical or otherwise, can be seen to strive for in its historical running) into their own stylistic periodization, hence supercesson, hence annihilation in the mortification of technical reproduction and criticism and subsequent exhumation at a later date .

This is a fate of all styles which we learned through that wing of modernity known as post-modernity, a form of improvisation known as pastiche and which itself now seems to be circling the drain. In this view all improvisation is simply an initial probe of the technical, an experimentation of gestures which are proffered only to be later exhausted of their content and turned into ‘programs,’ ‘contents,’ styles, methods, and so on. The starfish is not really turning itself inside out; it is merely preparing to eat its prey.

The other approach to improvisation is that such spontaneity is somehow able to be just that (that is, it is not COMPLETELY preformed by the circumstances which the gesture finds itself surrounded by and inculcated with) but instead is able to detach itself and find crevasses and cracks which more ponderous means (and by that we mean a rational matheis, articulation in a visible plane of symbols; writing, composition) are unable to articulate. The promise here would be that improvisation can have access to inchoate arenas of things-not-yet-articulated, that improvisors can find states and relationships which a more considered, rational approach of forethought cannot. We might determine this as the oracular or Orphic approach.

The first approach would perhaps question whether improvisation is EVER possible (that we always operate in terms of a technical, pre-determined probe) while the second would no doubt contend that improvisation is all there is, outside a technical overlay. Needless to say, these endpoints turn very quickly into theologies of one sort or another. While there are also many hybrids marking the continuum between one extreme and the other, it has become abundantly clear that contemporary human culture and thought is fascinated with the very idea of the extreme in general. There still remains the specificities of the instrumentalities involved in each point, how the abundance of improvisation (indeed it’s position as constitutive) on the one extreme and it’s total oblivion on the other work themselves out in immediate gestures of music, art, theory, politics and community.


Gesture, Improvisation, Event

part 2

All most people have to do is a little introspection and they will be hard-pressed to find anything other than the dead-ends, false leads, and fore-shortened gestures that mark living in the temporal sludge we know of as the ‘everyday’. The idea of being at the limit of something (at least one mark of an extreme or absolute), or at the threshold of an event (something which is invariably determined in retrospect) seldom manifests itself in ‘walking around reality.’ Event thresholds and limits do become manifest (or even become created at that moment of contact) however when the individual becomes aware of much larger structures of organization.

As you mentioned in your question to me earlier, we might have warrant for saying that the singular individual now moves with some regularity amongst these liminal signposts (all limits now having been converted into technical problems), never quite reaching the threshold level. In more pedestrian terms, we are constantly being bombarded with ‘revolutionary’ technical advances (even the media bombardment is ‘revolutionary’!) and yet there is a hysterisistical drag that slows the onset of the threshold conditions (that is, the absolute, ‘revolutionary’ transformation of the human condition in its most basic state.) As Walter Benjamin pointed over forty years ago, modernity is now in a constant ‘state of emergency,’ both in the sense of a constant stream of technical emergings as well as the state of alarm which these developments bring in their wake.

Improvisation is nothing if not a liminal state. That is, it always exists at the boundaries of current practices, gestures, and genres. It is also the crossing point where first contacts from cultures wholly unknown to each other cross over, the incubator of a hybidization mechanism whether the emergence of blues and jazz from contact of European formal musical structures with African sensibilites or the appearance of any world musics now extant (and we should be clear that once a phenomena becomes visible on the world stage it is already well on it’s way to a ‘pigeon language’ or hybridization; that is, processes of improvisation and adaptation are at work, enabling even the ur-formations of the native forms to be understood by those distantly removed from those structures.)

Improvisation, both socially and musically, happens at the margin of any form, at the place where rules and methods begin to thin out, dissipate, and begins to incorporate the textures of what it often times seemed opposed to. Every form (genre) has it’s improvisational shadow, or anti-system, which extends the core while simultaneously opening it up.

Just as there are trade languages (such as Swahili) pragmatically formed of bits and pieces of other languages, an improvisational toolbox allowing just enough communication to begin transactions, so are musical improvisations bits and pieces broken off from various cores (and these cores themselves may have, historically, initially formed around intuitive, gestural --as well as conceptual -- responses to readily available materials in the environment.

Event the wildest improvisation can be seen as an environmental response, as well as response to the social structure it is nestled in, with that socius having its own orientation, tacit as well as readily apparent, to such factors as risk, chance, the value of freedom versus constraint, and various imponderables connected to the singular, subjective responses of individuals. (You may remember the short film by Frederico Fellini about an orchestra and it’s refusal to play for the conductor--or rather their desire to play but only on their own individual terms. The film revealed quite neatly and amusingly the relation between social structure, musical structure and individual identity--and that when societal expectations change so to our musical habits and even perceptions of what is musically desirable.)

That’s why one could say that there is ONLY improvisation (as a pragmatist might) and that the only thing that distinguishes improvisation form it’s formalized counterpart is the historical moment at which one is able to glimpse it.

And that is also the reason that one could say that improvisation does NOT exist, if by that is meant a totally free response to materials and skill sets, since all actions, gestures, events are bound up in prior constitutive constellations and sets of meaning which we did not form but rather inhabit and form us (even to the extent, in some traditions, of seeming like daemonic possession itself). these two extreme poles represent also social, cultural, and political positions from conservative to radical, and have even helped to form the modernist lens through which we view those political polarities.

We can see, that form an ontological, metaphysical viewpoint, if we take the core of what it is to be human to be immutable we will approach an improvisational mindset from a point more rigid than if we believe in the possible modification of what it is to be human.

If we take the chromatic scale to be ‘god given’ then there can be no fruitful (that is satisfying, that is, communicable) experience much beyond that, except to add a frisson of tension which leads back to the satisfactions of core structure and closure.

An undoubted delirium inhabits the pure improvisational position, which form the core position looks like madness. In making this observation we are treading ground which Nietzsche broke in ‘The Birth of Tragedy’ with the concepts of the Apollonian and the Dionysian. in its turn we are led into considerations which may even be thought of as pre-historical, a set of beliefs linking to myth and perennial philosophy as Aldous Huxley put it. Here, improvisation is thought to have an incantatory and even liberating effect by acting as a ‘channel’ of higher powers which escape from normative realities of the everyday. (I realize that this is anathema in the current theoretical climate and would need to be surrounded with it’s own incantatory hermeneutic apparatus. The theoretical formations in which such considerations exist have been subsumed in various psychoanalytic rubrics of verweigerung (refusal), resistance, delay, negativity, silence and so on, all of which bear on modernity’s alliance -- or non-alliance one should say -- with death and extinction. Perhaps one could say that, finally, this is Absolute Improvisation.) There seems to be some truth to this ‘channeling’ metaphor creating a liberating effect for the subjective, at least tot he extent, however momentary, of a breakup of what passes as normal. We will leave aside the question of whether such improvisational circumstances (so called ecstatic trance) allow a more direct ‘communication with the gods.’ The question of the intrusion of nonsense into rational structure has been explored by Fredrich Kittler without recourse to a transcendental hypothesis. Indeed, this is the whole thrust of so called poststructuralist philosophy. Here, what is being channeled is the inchoate material world with which modern technology surrounds us (and is composed of) and acts as conduit of this materiality directly into the psyche. Inherent in this new technical soup is a continual and rapid oscillation between center and periphery which, rather than being informed by gods, leaves us channeling raw matter in transition to information and eventually back again.

Here, improvisation and navigation of these approaching and uncertain quantum seas would be indistinguishable since the core itself begins to breakup in real time.

Just Shut Up and Play!

Part 3

The promise we are always given (by who?!) is that music is a universal language, that there is only a Platonic ‘Music’ into which all subsets of music as it finds itself played in the everyday world will automatically fit into. It’s translatability is taken to be instantaneous and with the ability to link, transparently, invisibly, all segments of the human community and even, if we are to believe the Orphic myths, to even bring the inhuman groupings of rocks and animals into the range of ‘community’ (that is, equivalence of communication between all parts, turning singularities into community components, much like the ringing of the medieval church bell signified to all who heard, of the extent of that particular community; That ‘church bell’ now rings world wide and is in competition with numerous other bells.)

Improvisation is often seen as the frayed edge of this system. But if music is ‘universal,’ it has no edges strictly speaking but rather every musical ‘place’ is a center equidistant from all other places. If this is the case, then perhaps ‘improvisation’ is the name of that impossible figure (even as a fraying of the universal) that would haunt universal communication and the universal State. Rather than inscribing a pure figure of universal access, it would ALSO inscribe an inassimilable specificity and regionality, an indeterminate double encryption which nevertheless faces ‘out’ and ‘away from.’.

Repetition and its other

At least one component of this universality must be repetition, a task now taken on by the technical media infrastructure itself (radio, recording mediums, the net). The task of having a unique event (one of the previous leit motifs of improvisation) becomes more and more improbable given the capture of events now by electronic means. Whereas previously structure (composition) and play were separate, now they have collapsed one into the other. One is tempted to say that, in a real sense, improvisation is ceasing to exist (in the way of Fredric Jameson’s comment that one never hears a pop song for the first time; if the ideal of pop culture is complete seriality, repetition, and hence instant recognizability, absolute improvisation moves to the extreme edge of that state, an indeterminancy that opens to the outside of recognizability, even to mis-recognition and non-recognition, a liminal state not between one state or genre and the other but between state and non-state, sense and nonsense, spirituality and its daemonic other of pure materiality. Improvisation would only become effective here when it disappears, when its virtuosity becomes at one with its structuration, when function and object-of-functioning —- such as kidney and manufacture of piss -- become one event, subsumed under the singular performative event, the poetic abandon of the gesture becoming/belonging only to itself as it borders on a dissolution to an ecstatic Outside.