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The Philosophy of Improvisation$

Gary Peters

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780226662787

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: March 2013

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226662800.001.0001

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Freedom, Origination, and Irony

Freedom, Origination, and Irony

(p.21) 2 Freedom, Origination, and Irony
The Philosophy of Improvisation
University of Chicago Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter attempts to make a strong case for free-improvisation by claiming that it is exemplary in its enactment of the beginning of art, thus bringing into view the tragedy secreted beneath the immaculate surfaces of “finished” works. Improvisation is a form of health, an exercise in healthy living. The art of improvisation is the art of making something happen and liberation from the absence of the work. The notion of freedom operative in free-improvisation at the level of aesthetic discourse appears to be hamstrung by both the negativity that runs through it, and the apparent inability to think freedom outside of the work where it is assumed, respected, and protected by myriad forms of “hyperawareness.” The pursuit of negative freedom is most likely to produce improvisations that are “hyperaware.” It is ideally believed that free-improvisation begins in freedom and ends with freedom before it, but it is itself unfree.

Keywords:   free-improvisation, art, aesthetic discourse, negativity, finished works, freedom, hyperawareness

The act of engaging in free-improvisation will become a liberator, and emancipator, for many people to touch into their emotional lives in a non-verbal and non-judgmental way. We must introduce this healthy way of life.

LaDonna Smith

Discourses of emancipation are usually in a major key, positive, sometimes celebratory, even joyous, always engaged and committed, rarely if ever ironic. Such writings, however, for all their positivity, harbor within them a deep-seated negativity that should remind us of freedom's own questionable duality. One would do well to remember this—the aporia of freedom—when considering the claims made for improvisation by the improvisor. Something of an exception, the improvisor Anthony Braxton is clearly alert to the problem in the following passage:

One of the problems with collective improvisation, as far as I'm concerned, is that people who use anarchy or collective improvisation will interpret that to mean “Now I can kill you”; and I'm saying, wait a minute…. So-called freedom has not helped us as a family…. So the notion (p.22) of freedom that was being perpetrated in the sixties might not have been the healthiest notion.1

This is an interesting statement coming, as it does, from an African American musician who one would have expected to identify with an aesthetic that emerged out of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.2 To speak on behalf of a putative “family” demonstrates a continuing commitment to a collectivity, thought both politically and aesthetically, but Braxton's problematization of freedom (“so-called freedom”) bespeaks a certain skepticism regarding the utopianism of much liberatory politics that suggests an awareness of the perceived dangers accompanying the always difficult transition from negative to positive freedom. As Isaiah Berlin expresses it in his Two Concepts of Liberty:

“Negative liberty” … seems to me a truer and more humane ideal than the goals of those who seek in the great, disciplined, authoritarian structures the ideal of “positive” self mastery…. It is true, because it recognizes the fact that human goals are many, not all of them commensurable, and in perpetual rivalry with one another.3

Braxton's concerns echo these same sentiments. In common with most collective improvisors his primary concern is actualizing a series of overlapping negative freedoms, in his running through the desired freedom-from racism, intimidation, and exclusion; the freedom-from a capitalist superstructure that commercially rewards artistic conformity and obedience to rigid stylistic codes while freezing out the alterity of genuine innovation. And also, to return to Braxton's problem with “so-called freedom,” the freedom-from freedom itself: the freedom-from the freedom-to. Berlin identifies precisely this aporia as it unfurls in the increasingly conflictual history of liberty:

The freedom which consists in being one's own master [positive/freedom-to], and the freedom which consists in not being prevented from choosing as I do by other men [negative/freedom-from], may, on the face of it, seem concepts at no logical distance from each other—no more than negative and positive ways of saying the same thing. Yet the “positive” and “negative” notions of freedom developed in divergent directions until, in the end, they came into direct conflict with each other.4

(p.23) As Berlin demonstrates, in essence negative freedom is a collective ideal. It protects the collective by establishing a regime of noninterference that, in breaking with “men's constant tendency to conformity,” allows the individual the scope and the space for “spontaneity, originality, genius [and] mental energy,”5 all of which figure large in the world of improvisation. Positive freedom, on the other hand, is an ideal of singularity, and it has a rather more worrying vocabulary, one inescapably intertwined with a notion of mastery that has not worn well during the modern period:

The “positive” sense of the word “liberty” derives from the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master. I wish my life and decisions to depend on myself, not on external forces of whatever kind. I wish to be the instrument of my own … acts of will … I wish to be somebody, not nobody; a doer.6

Standing alongside Braxton again, the “doer” who wants to be somebody becomes the anarchist who would “kill you” as a means to this end, the master who would rather enslave you than go unrecognized as a nobody. So we end up with a situation where it is the singularity of the master that threatens the diversity, spontaneity, and originality seen by the vast majority as essential to improvisation, while the collective consciousness of the group acts as guarantor for these self-same concepts by pitting the “family” (Godfather-fashion) against its individual members. What Roger Dean, in his discussion of Braxton, sees as the latter's “ambivalence toward free-improvisation,”7 is, in fact more than a matter of personal preference; it is, rather, a function of the conflictual history of freedom that emerges here as the complicating factor. As a consequence of this, it is not the ambivalence of Anthony Braxton or anyone else that is the issue but the ambivalence of improvisation itself as the aesthetic space wherein the aporia of liberty is enacted and reenacted. If freedom as perpetrated in the 1960s is not the “healthiest notion,” this, perhaps, has less to do with the era and more to do with the notion. However, one could be forgiven for thinking it somewhat ironic that jazz, of all genres of improvised music, implicated as it is in a whole history of drug-and drink-related excess, should give birth to a cultural movement dominated by the desire for the realization of an “aesthetic dimension” that has liberated freedom from its own imperfection, cleaned it up and purified it, but that is exactly what has happened.

Improvisation is now a form of health, an exercise in healthy living. The cultural turn toward the spirituality of the East, the self-sufficiency (p.24) of the land, the concern for peaceful coexistence with the Other “man,” the concern for the ecosystem, the concern for the downtrodden and silenced, all of this has left its indelible mark on the dominant discourses of improvisation as they can be found today. Gone are all traces of the brash and virtuosic exhibitionism that excited performers and audiences alike before the 1960s, the competitiveness and one-upmanship that was everywhere in evidence, the arrogance, callousness, and cruelty that gave so much performance its edge. For the last four decades the discourses of improvisation have become increasingly submerged in a collective language of care and enabling, of dialogue and participation, a pure, aesthetically cleansed language of communal love. However, while the more strident political proclamations typical of an earlier, more “militant” time may have subsided, there remains a no less engaged but gentler activism that, rather than challenging our dominant institutions head-on, constructs instead what might be described as microcosmic aesthetic communities that live out or act out the utopian potentiality that has remained a constant since those more exuberant days, now (it would seem) past.

Although largely of historical interest only nowadays, Herbert Marcuse, writing at exactly the right moment for what might be called the first wave of militant improvisors, inspired a generation of artists and activists by tracing the radical dimension of art practice back to its own liberal bourgeois origins, that is to say to the aesthetics of Kant and Schiller, to the Critique of Judgement and On the Aesthetic Education of Man, respectively. Particularly influential was the politicization and radicalization of Schiller's notion of the “play-drive” in an attempt to integrate Marxism and psychoanalysis in Eros and Civilization. Regardless of the strengths and weaknesses of this book, it was the suggestion that the artwork allowed an aesthetic substantiation of political ideas in advance of the socioeconomic conditions for their actual realization that resonated with those in search of an agency of political change within a conformist mass society. In a “one-dimensional” culture of positivism and technological reason, of the “performance principle” and status seeking, the very purposelessness of play was seen as a slap in the face for the unsmiling means/ends bureaucrats that constituted the power elite. Passages such as the following give a flavor of the way in which German aesthetics came to American radicals of the ′60s:

The quest is for the solution of a “political” problem: the liberation of man from inhuman existential conditions. Schiller states that in order to solve the political problem, “one must pass (p.25) through the aesthetic, since it is beauty that leads to freedom.” The play-drive is the vehicle of this liberation…. These ideas represent one of the most advanced positions of thought…. the reality that “loses its seriousness” is the inhumane reality of want and need, and it loses its seriousness when wants and needs can be satisfied without alienated labor. Then man is free to “play” with his faculties and potentialities and with those of nature, and only by “playing” with them is he free.8

The charge of aestheticism that has always haunted Schillerian aesthetics and which, no doubt, motivates Marcuse's projection of art's substance onto a political problem yet to be solved, is perhaps of less concern to those artists who have experienced the onset of postmodernism in the ′80s, ′90s, and onwards. Perhaps the degree to which culture in general and cultural politics in particular have become aestheticized has rendered the notion of aestheticism increasingly redundant. Be that as it may, the real intention here is to try and direct this discussion away from the political perspective that characterizes so many discussions of Schiller's thought back into the aesthetic: the reaestheticization of the aesthetic. The thinking behind this reorientation is the hope that, while the continuing relevance of Schiller's particular appropriation of Kantian aesthetics and, indeed Kant's own aesthetics might be open to debate, they nevertheless offer some important insights into the nature of improvisation that can be pursued here.

Freedom and Play

To begin with, it might be useful to take an initial step back or backward from Schiller's notion of the “play-drive” to consider first the role of “play” within Kant's aesthetics, one that will prove helpful in understanding better the model of collectivity informing much group improvisation. The following passage from the Critique of Judgement will be a good starting point:

The cognitive powers brought into play by this [aesthetic] representation are engaged in a free play, since no definite concept restricts them to a particular rule of cognition. Hence the mental state in this representation must be one of a feeling of the free play of the powers of representation…. This state of free play of the cognitive faculties attending a representation by which an object is given must admit of universal communication.9

(p.26) There are a number of things here that need to be highlighted at the outset, primarily that the conjunction of freedom and play is, for Kant, simply a statement of aesthetic fact and not a political gesture. His notion of free play describes a positive rather than a negative freedom, something that distinguishes it from Schiller's “play-drive” and latter-day radicalized versions of the same. The hallmark of the aesthetic free play is its freedom from the restrictions of determinate concepts, but play does not free itself from concepts, it is prior to them, thus so is the aesthetic. Just to make the point, section 9 of book 1 of the third Critique is entitled “Investigation of the question of the relative priority in a judgement of taste of the feeling of pleasure and the estimating of the object.” The free play of the imagination and the understanding prior to the determination of concepts might here be thought alongside the aforementioned use of the distinction marked/unmarked space. Free improvisors want to mark an unmarked space; their ideal is a pure virgin territory within which to commune with the other. LaDonna Smith, in her somewhat ecstatic “Improvisation as Prayer …,” positions herself on the edge of a virgin silence about to be shattered. She begins thus: “Beginning in silence, holding only an instrument, listening within, observing a point for departure into the inner world of sudden creative expression, tapping the well to draw out a first sound in musical exploration.” The dramatization of the instant prior to making the first sound, indeed, the dramatization of risk and contingency as associated with the transition from the unmarked to the marked, articulates a freedom that is, in fact, doubly negative. The art of improvisation is the art of making something happen and, as such, a liberation-from the absence of the work. Silence, stillness, blankness are all valorized as originary aesthetic essences only to be cancelled by sound, movement, or figuration. The problem, however, is that once at play within the marked space, the improvisor or improvisors risk being enticed or indeed forced into the given structures of gameplay, thus posing a threat to the positive freedom desired and demanding, in turn, a liberation-from the game. Squeezed from both sides, from the unmarked and the marked respectively, free-improvisation must either compromise and fall back on certain identifiable rules of gameplay or, conversely, devise strategies that allow a vestigial productivity on the very edge of self-negation. As the saxophonist Evan Parker remembers his duo with drummer John Stevens: “The moments of interaction got shorter and shorter, you couldn't go any further than that.”10 But you can, as the British writer and improvisor David Toop reminds us in his consideration of “lowercase” improvisation:

(p.27) Experiencing the work for the first time, I experienced a sense of disconnectedness…. Sounds tend to be brief—the kind of short, harsh, messy sound that happens when dust is brushed off the stylus of a record turntable, or a plug is inserted into an amplifier socket when the volume is turned up. These sounds don't feel aggressive, however, and in fact, references to emotional states such as aggression seem irrelevant…. Sometimes there are long, high tones, which introduce smoother lines into the broken impact sounds and crackles. Nothing lasts long enough to become intense, or reveal a conscious method. There is a stillness, without the progressive resolution we call development…. The initial impression is disconcerting, because this seems to be extreme minimalism without the ideology of Minimalism, or its self-conscious dedication to process. I can imagine it would be possible to listen to this … and not hear it as music, or any kind of significant event at all, other than a faint disturbance of the atmosphere.11

If this is free play then it is a form of play that, having liberated itself from the game, arrives at a mode of improvisation that might be better approached in Kantian terms.

Reception and Memory

Notwithstanding the extraordinarily productive dimension of his aesthetic thought,12 Kant, in common with the majority of philosophers, speaks from the place of aesthetic reception as is evident in his concentration on, to repeat, the “free play of the cognitive faculties attending a representation by which an object is given.” In this form the artwork must already be in place before the subject of aesthetic experience and judgment can be broached. For Kant, in other words, aesthetic experience can only take place as a moment of reception within a marked space, while the issue under consideration here is the nature of a freedom conceived as a moment of production, the positive force of a beginning. What relevance then could Kant's reception aesthetics possibly have for the improvisor in that moment (if such exists) of silence or stillness prior to the marking of space? One way of answering this would be to recall that although, for Kant, the pleasure experienced during the reception of a work of art “attends” rather than produces that work, this feeling can in fact be traced back to an anteriority that, while no longer strictly aesthetic, might offer some clues as to the nature of productivity, particularly as it figures (p.28) within the context of improvisation. As such, the artwork is not the origin of aesthetic pleasure but rather the manner in which we are reminded of a freedom that is prior not only to conceptual determination but to the aesthetic itself, a “memorial”13 aesthetic as Jay Bernstein describes it when responding to passages such as the following from the Critique of Judgement:

It is true we no longer notice any decided pleasure in the comprehensibility of nature…. Still it is certain that the pleasure appeared in due course, and only by reason of the most ordinary experience being impossible without it, has become gradually fused with simple cognition, and no longer arrests particular attention.14

By drawing this pleasure to the surface, the artwork does not, as with Schiller and Marcuse, signal a liberatory or liberated future yet to come but an existing (if forgotten) freedom to be affirmed—an affirmation and confirmation of the present rather than its negation. The moment of stillness prior to the initial improvisatory gesture of the work is not an aesthetic vanishing point where both absence and presence between them threaten to erase art but, rather, the space/time where a shared freedom can be recognized and reaffirmed. More than this, by grounding aesthetic pleasure in the prior attunement of our mental faculties with nature, Kant is able to claim a universality for aesthetic judgment that dramatically broadens the scope of the communicative community assumed by the domain of collective improvisation. By installing free play into the very heart of human understanding he is able to offer a model of “common sense” (sensus communis) that assumes rather than strives for individual liberty, albeit as an idea necessitating an aesthetic demand rather than (as with Schiller and Schillerians) an ideal fueling an aesthetic utopia. The result is an image of human intersubjectivity and communication that in some respects undoubtedly resonates well with many models of collective improvisation but which also, in its sensitivity to the counterposition of singularity and universality, raises some fundamental issues regarding the limits of communicative communication and the dialogical models that have subsequently come to dominate so many of the texts. Here is how Kant introduces the notion of a sensus communis into the third Critique:

[Judgments of taste] must have a subjective principle, and one which determines what pleases or displeases, by means of feeling (p.29) only and not through concepts, but yet with universal validity. Such a principle, however, could only be regarded as a common sense. This differs essentially from common understanding, which is also sometimes called common sense (sensus communis): from the judgements of the latter is not one by feeling, but always one by concepts…. The judgement of taste, therefore, depends on our presupposing the existence of a common sense. (But this is not to be taken to mean some external sense, but the effect arising from the free play of our powers of cognition.) Only under the presupposition, I repeat, of such a common sense, are we able to lay down a judgement of taste.15

Thought receptively, the judgment of taste is made in the presence of a representation that formally triggers the feeling of pleasure that is at the root of aesthetic experience. But thought productively, is the judgment of taste laid down before or after the marking of the unmarked space? Or to pose the question that will be addressed throughout the next chapter: How does the artwork begin? What determines the initiating sound, mark, or movement of an improvisation? In those performance arts particularly prone to improvisation, where the aim is to combine freedom with irreversibility and the accompanying impossibility of correction or erasure, these are critical questions.

The shift from reception to production raises the issue of a felt pleasure that precedes the artwork or, put another way, is part of the prior work of the artwork. One question that immediately arises is that if it is the pleasure we take in the artwork that reminds us of our cognitive freedom within the conceptually undetermined aesthetic realm, as Kant claims, by what means can we attain an awareness of this freedom prior to the work itself? Outside of performance art this may or may not be such an important issue, but within the context of group improvisation the collective acknowledgment or assumption of a prior freedom represents a crucial aspect of its self-legitimation and consequent allure as an aesthetic strategy. Certainly, within the fraternity of collective improvisors there is what might be called an acute awareness of awareness. The dancer Susan Leigh Foster, writing on improvisation, speaks of “a kind of hyperawareness of the relation between immediate action and overall shape, between that which is about to take place and that which has and will take place.”16 For her, however, this “hyperawareness of relationalities,” while bound up with what she calls the “playful labor” of improvisation, is restricted to the space/time of the dance itself rather than being directed toward the origin of the work prior to the artist and the artwork: (p.30) toward art. Foster's account assumes from the outset that the improvisor enters the “relational” space as an agent already free and ready to play, armed with an awareness that is ultrasensitive to any imminent threat to this productive freedom and its ongoing work. Such a view, however, does not pay sufficient attention to the “hyperawareness” that is necessary to both recognize and to render aesthetically productive the singular feeling of pleasure attending not the artwork but the play of the cognitive faculties and the certainty that such pleasure in play can be universally communicated, underwritten by the sensus communis. Moving attention to the anteriority of the work in this way is not intended to disable the aforementioned vocabulary of free-improvisation; on the contrary, it can now be redeployed more effectively and certainly with more ontological weight. The language of wholeness, dialogue, participation, sharing, oneness, community, and communion, stripped of its dubious actuality in improvisatory works, returns here to register the promise and possibility of a collective work that is rooted in the memory and potentiality of an unworked freedom. This returns the discussion to Bernstein's notion of a “memorial aesthetics,” which can now be reviewed more carefully:

Judgements of beauty are memorial: in making aesthetic judgements we judge things “as if” from the perspective of our lost common sense…. This “remembered” common sense is, as Kant has it throughout the third Critique, both presupposed in the judgement of taste and yet to be obtained. It is present by virtue of its absence…. Common sense is the communicability of feeling, and not the demand for such. But such a common sense does not exist, or exists only as a memory, but in so far as “we” remember it (in virtue of serious participation in aesthetic discourse and practice), judge through it, it does exist. In its existing it binds us, not as a constraint but as ties of affection (and disaffection) do.17

As a reading of Kant's third Critique and, in particular, as an alternative to the more anticipatory politicizations of the aesthetic forever cast out into the future this certainly gives pause for thought, but for all its resonance the above passage continues to make “participation in aesthetic discourse and practice” a condition of the “we” being able to feel itself emerge out of its originary source: sensus communis. It would seem that for Bernstein it is only within the marked space of the artwork and the aesthetic discourses spun around it that common sense comes into being as an existent absence: outside or prior to the work it is forgotten. (p.31) So the question remains: Is it possible to think beyond the memorializing continuum of existing artworks? Is it possible to imagine an aesthetic memory that is not only prior to the artwork but gives birth to it, is its

Reception, Production, and Mourning

Jay Bernstein speaks primarily from the point of aesthetic reception and seems less comfortable when negotiating the issue of aesthetic production. Correctly identifying Kant's discussion of genius as the place in the third Critique where production is foregrounded, Bernstein is both engaged but also unsettled by the “hyperbolic” claim that the work of genius, far from being “memorial,” is in fact a work of forgetting that itself must be forgotten in subsequent work. Exemplary works of genius, as Kant describes them, are models of autonomous aesthetic production that can only be followed by being themselves abandoned in the name of that very autonomy. This “exaggerated severity”18 that demands the infinite beginning of art out of nothing through the successive interruption of one genius by another results, to Bernstein, in a “frenzied autonomy”19 that only begins to make sense within the context of the (Nietzschean) “active forgetfulness” of modernism. Kant expresses this in his far from hyperbolic style as follows:

The product of genius … is an example, not for imitation (for that would mean the loss of the element of genius, which constitutes the very soul of the work), but to be followed by another genius—one whom it arouses to a sense of his own originality in putting freedom from the constraint of rules so into force in his art, that for art itself a new rule is won—which is what shows a talent to be exemplary.20

Bernstein grafts this onto the aesthetic discourses and practice of modernism in the following way:

While Kant's autonomy requirement sounds utterly hyperbolic, its urging of novelty and originality coheres, with unnerving accuracy, with at least that dominant stretch of modernist art that restlessly searches after the “new.”21

One final citation from Bernstein will allow these thoughts to arc back to the earlier discussion of “preservation”:

(p.32) An exemplary work begins a new movement of history, and will act as a constraining provocation to a later genius. Further, as Kant's genius-to-genius argument suggests, the audience of genius must itself respond “autonomously”; this form of response will be akin to the manner of Heideggerian preservers as opposed to connoisseurs or aesthetes.22

We will not on this occasion follow Bernstein back down the well-trodden path to modernism but will, instead, respond to his ideas in a manner that will allow us to take up again the question of the freedom of free-improvisation and the existential predicament of the new rather than its inscription in a received tradition of the modern. One last remark before doing so: Bernstein understands the prehistory of modernism as what he calls “the collective labour of mourning,”23 where “we (re)experience in painful pleasure our lost common sense; [where] we mourn the death of nature and community.”24 Of interest here is the way in which this thought points back to the earlier discussion of Heidegger and Benjamin where, in Howard Caygill's reading, the catastrophe of history is staged in two ways, either as tragedy (Heidegger) or as mourning (Benjamin). At stake in this distinction is the place and the efficacy of the subject in the face of this perceived destruction and the extent to which the domain of singular human action is, can, or indeed should be the arena in which this drama of loss is played out. This is how Caygill presents the issue:

The differences over origin and tradition extend repeatedly into the two theories of art. In Benjamin tradition is ruination—barbarism—it destroys what it hands over; yet without this destruction nothing would be handed over. The work of art is a ruin, a site of mourning where the destruction of tradition can be acknowledged. For Heidegger tradition may gather what it would hand over, deliver it into the light, and for him the work of art is a temple which presents this gathering. Heidegger celebrates tragedy as a place of witness to this handing over, while Benjamin discounts tragedy in favour of Trauerspiel [mourning play] as a communal lament for ruin.25

What draws this difference out even more clearly is the contrast between the melancholic perspective of Benjamin's communal lament and the singular suffering of the tragic artist to be found in (early) Heidegger. Caygill continues:

(p.33) By introducing the dialectical logic of subjectivity … [Heidegger] transforms the paradox of tradition into the agonal and tragic struggle of the subject. The resolute subject struggles with tradition in the guise of fate and destiny, and in the struggle finds freedom…. The struggle clears the space for a moment of decision, one in which the past and future may be gathered and granted significance in the present.26

As with Bernstein, Caygill's primary concern here is the continuation of Benjamin's avowed project: the “politicization of the aesthetic.” And also like Bernstein he finds the promotion of a hyperbolic subjectivism deeply problematical as a politico-aesthetic response to the scrap yard of history. While he acknowledges with approval that Heidegger ultimately turns away from the reflexive subject toward the working of the work and the site of its occurrence, and while it is also interesting to note that it is precisely this removal of the subject that receives Bernstein's disapproval, they both feel able to articulate their politico-aesthetic concerns through the dark melancholia of Benjamin's mourning play, where fulfilment can only be awaited as the messianic rupturing of lived time outside of time. Caygill perfectly captures this lamentable predicament here:

For Trauerspiel the world was empty, a place of “never-ending repetition” with no possibility of ever becoming genuine or authentic: “For those who looked deeper saw the scene of their existence as a rubbish heap of partial, inauthentic actions.” The world handed down to us by tradition is uncanny, undecipherable, always other.27

But who makes up this community of mourners? Who laments? The suggestion throughout the above is that philosophers and artists are together engaged in the labor of mourning, that it is, to recall Bernstein's words again, “participation in aesthetic discourse and practice” that forges the links between those left grief stricken in the face of an indecipherable alterity. So the philosopher would have it, but for all its undeniable philosophical resonance is it really credible to conceive of postromantic art practice as a work of mourning when one considers the productive aesthetic action taken by artists within time as distinguished from the inert futility and resignation that locks mourning into a melancholia that, like all mourning, is therapeutic at best, a road to productivity perhaps, but never productive itself? In a telling remark Caygill admits that “when (p.34) the question is asked what the new configurations of tradition might be, what shape the new gathering of the past, present and future might take, Benjamin is almost silent.”28 It is Paul Klee who paints Angelus Novus, not Walter Benjamin—Benjamin mourns, Klee paints. Benjamin receives the artwork as the inauthentic repetition of the same, Klee produces the artwork as the authentic repetition of difference. As far as the “gathering” of a dislocated history into the now of an aesthetic beginning is concerned, the artist speaks while the philosopher looks on in silence and despair. It is for this reason, and notwithstanding Caygill's philosophical reservations, that we will often in what follows take Heidegger's tragic vision as the point of reference on returning repeatedly to the existential predicament of the artist rather than the ontological essence of art.

By taking up again here the specific predicament of the free improvisor it is hoped that the complex of themes introduced thus far might be brought together in such a way that the existential drama of improvisation can be better understood. If, as suggested, the notion of freedom operative in free-improvisation at the level of aesthetic discourse seems to be hamstrung by both the negativity that runs through it—freedom-from—as well as the apparent inability to think freedom outside of the work where it is assumed, respected, and protected by myriad forms of “hyperawareness,” this should not prevent us from trying to retrace some of our steps here in an attempt to reconnect these discourses with that which, at the level of practice, remains outside of them.

Returning to Kant, it is the free play of the cognitive faculties that grounds the sensus communis, the loss of which Bernstein identifies as the aesthetic “death” that gives rise to the “mourning” of modernist art. But if this were the case no art would ever be produced. In this regard, at the level of practice the sensus communis is never lost as the origin of the artwork. This is not to say, of course, that it is not lost, forgotten, destroyed during the course of the work's unfolding—it is (the tragedy)—but that is a different matter that concerns the reception of the work (by its creator or creators), not its production. If, as may be the case, an artwork is merely imitative, part of a continuum of reception without beginning or end, then it is of no interest to us here. No doubt a great deal of what passes for art is of this nature, but by no means all, a fact that should be apparent to anyone who is genuinely engaged with art practice, but which is somewhat obscured by Kant in his welding together of aesthetic production and genius. But, far from advocating a “frenzied autonomy,” the model of aesthetic production proposed by Kant is not at all remote from the actuality and ingenuity of much aesthetic practice. Certainly, the idea that works of genius radically break with the continuum (p.35) of cultural history, confronting us with unprecedented aesthetic acts that are both exemplary and inimitable would appear to set the bar ludicrously high, but given that, for Kant, all fine art requires genius, can this really be his intention? The truth is that any art worthy of the name will contain within it unwonted moments of originality, interruptions of the given and exemplary acts of ingenuity, often lodged within a mimeticism that, in reality, can by no means be crudely opposed to origination and originality. This, the “repetition of difference,” is a vital dimension of all “idiomatic” improvisation, as the late avant-garde British guitarist Derek Bailey calls it, and will be discussed in due course, but at this stage it will suffice to note the active and productive dimension of imitation as noted here by Paul Ricouer in very Kantian language:

Whether we say “imitation” or “representation” … what has to be understood is the mimetic activity, the active process of imitating or representing something. Imitation or representation therefore must be understood in the dynamic sense of making a representation, of a transposition into representative works.29

This should alert us to the highly complex relationship to be found in Kant's aesthetics between presentation and representation, production and reproduction, and, to reintroduce Heidegger, creation and preservation. Indeed, it is Heidegger who, in his attempt to ground the whole Kantian project in the productive imagination, identifies the profound interrelationship between production and reproduction or spontaneity and receptivity as he describes it here in his Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics:

We must point out that spontaneity constitutes but one moment of the transcendental power of imagination and that, accordingly, while thinking indeed has a relationship with the power of the imagination, this is never indicative of a full coinciding of their essences. For the power of the imagination is also and precisely a faculty of intuition, i.e., of receptivity. And it is receptive, moreover, not just apart from its spontaneity. Rather, it is the original unity of receptivity and spontaneity.30

This statement will reverberate through much that will follow, but for the moment it is the introduction of the imagination that adds one crucial component to the Kantian framework within which we are working at the moment.

(p.36) To summarize, the singular feeling of pleasure that grounds the aesthetic judgment of taste attains its universal communicability by being itself grounded in the free play of human cognition, which is common to all (sensus communis). Although this offers an explanation of the pleasure (both singular and shared) we have in the reception of the artwork, it leaves out of account the manner in which the same free play actually produces that work prior to the judgment of taste. Kant's response to this is to introduce the exemplary figure of the genius who, as the incarnation of the productive imagination, appears able to spontaneously originate artworks untarnished by the history of representation sustained by the mimetic activity of the reproductive imagination outlined above. The intermingling of the productive and the reproductive imagination, however, as illuminated by Heidegger, complicates the picture further in a manner that will deepen and enrich our understanding of improvisation while, at the same time, configuring the ground upon which the tragedy of the self-reflexive artist is played out: free-improvisation being the purest form of this drama.

The Beginning of the Work

Think of the above not as an aesthetic space constructed by a philosopher but as the existential predicament of a free improvisor situated within a practice. This practice has to begin and the dramatization of this beginning is achieved by introducing freedom into the silence prior to the work—will or won't it begin? But this is disingenuous: nothing could be more certain than that such work will begin. An infinite multitude of artworks never manage to mark the unmarked space from which they are intended to be liberated-from, but freely improvised performances have to begin precisely because that is their primary role within the aesthetic: to make the distinction between nothing and something. The aesthetic discourses underpinning improvisatory practice will tell us that the absence prior to the work, so important for the self-understanding and self-dramatization of the improvisor, concerns the absence of planning, the risk taking associated with an unguided journey into the unknown where “anything can happen.” Future plans are of course based on past successes, so the removal of all planning does raise the specter of failure, which is always entertaining. But there is a deeper issue here, one that concerns neither the future nor the past but, rather, the now that gathers each into the originary moment where the birth of the work is copresent with the “death” of the subject, a different absence necessary for improvisation to begin, if Derrida is to be believed:

(p.37) It is not easy to improvise, it's the most difficult thing to do … [but] I believe in improvisation, and I fight for improvisation, but with the belief that it is impossible. But there, where there is improvisation, I am not able to see myself, I am blind to myself. And it is what I will see, no, I won't see it, it is for others to see. The one who has improvised here, no I won't ever see him.31

On the face of it this seems like an odd statement but it touches upon a crucial aspect of aesthetic production, one that free-improvisation more than any other form brings into view.

At issue here is not just the aforementioned transition from absence to presence constitutive of the artwork but also the position and status of the artist whose productive freedom is also dependent upon the liberation of the reflexive subject from the subjection to subjectivity, which is necessary for the artist to attain presence within the artwork. It is the sacrifice of this originary positive freedom to the negative freedom of the work's unfolding that introduces tragedy into the aesthetic experience of the artist, as we shall see, but for the moment it is the manner in which Kant can offer up some clues to an understanding of the above scenario that will be of interest, especially given the charge of subjectivism that continues to hang over his aesthetics.

For Kant, genius is the power of origination in the artist, a power that can be “followed” by another artist but not imitated. In other words, the marks of the marked space can be imitated but the transition from the unmarked to the marked can only be followed by an-other transition. Clearly, all spaces are in reality marked by the presence of other works, not least the artist's own, which implies that the ingenuity of origination must find ways to erase or forget the presence of the given in order to both avoid imitation (including self-imitation, perhaps the most common form) and open up the path to be followed, the “Open” that Heidegger believes is created and preserved by art. As an ideal-type in this regard free-improvisation is able to achieve, or at least strive to achieve, a prior degree of aesthetic erasure beyond the reach of other art forms precisely because its primary aim is not to produce works. Its primary aim is to produce beginnings. As Eddie Prevost affirms:

Now, nothing is more dead than yesterday's improvisation. What's happening to a listener exposed to a repeated (recorded) improvisation? What's happening to the music? As [Cornelius] Cardew noted, at least one feature of an improvisation is absent in a recording: that is, its transience…. A recorded improvisation is forever (p.38) fixed, its routes to be learnt and remembered. This is exactly not the case with the playing and listening situation at the moment an improvisation begins.32

This is confirmed by Derek Bailey and Stephen Hicks in conversation:


  • Most of the time … I think an improvisation should be played and then forgotten.
  • HICKS:

  • It's appropriate or not and that's it?

  • It's either good or bad but if you listen to an improvisation over and over again it just gets worse….
  • HICKS:

  • But it's of the nature of improvisation, I would have thought, that you don't listen to it over and over again. Without recording you couldn't, could you?

  • No, you couldn't, and I don't think you should. It's something that should be heard, enjoyed or otherwise, and then completely forgotten.
  • It may be that opponents and supporters of improvisation are defined by their attitude towards the fact that improvisation embraces, even celebrates, music's essentially ephemeral nature. For many of the people involved in it, one of the enduring attractions of improvisation is its momentary existence: the absence of a residual document.33

    Prevost, Bailey, and Hicks here speak for many improvisors, most of whom are much more interested in finding and doing work than they are in fixing the working of the work in documents that clog up the aesthetic space with ever more marks that will only need to be erased before the work can begin again. The transience Cornelius Cardew speaks of here concerns the gathering of past and future time in the now of the work that must begin again at every moment if its negative and positive freedom are to be maintained. By transforming this labor into a work, ready and available for reception, the futurity of the improvisation is removed as is also the engagement and negotiation with the past, which during the work is riddled with a compelling uncertainty, now lost. But what would the past of a free-improvisation be if per impossible the space was cleared of all other works, thus enabling the work to truly begin? From where would the work draw the originary force necessary for it to become a work? Improvisor Susan Leigh Foster speaks of a “suspense-filled plenitude of the not-quite-known,”34 which is certainly evocative (p.39) but lacks definition regarding the substance of this plenitude. Staying with Kant's account of genius might suggest some possibilities here.

    If all works are removed/forgotten, and with them the temptation to imitate, the artist is only left with the figure of the genius to follow. But if the genius is not a figure but, rather, a creative act, an originary transition from absence to presence, then the artist as follower must begin by similarly erasing all traces of self-configuration in order to gain access to the same creative force. The genius-to-genius model of creativity promoted by Kant speaks of a “sense” of originality being “aroused” in the follower such that the transition to the work becomes a possibility. Kant speaks elsewhere of the “mutual quickening” of the productive imagination and the understanding, a cognitive intensification that is responsible not only for the feeling of pleasure associated with the reception of the work but also for the production of the work out of (what appears to be) nowhere. But the question remains, how can one come to a sense of one's own creativity? A Kantian answer to this might be framed as follows: within the third Critique Kant asserts that aesthetic judgment is grounded in a singular feeling but is, nonetheless, a “public sense,” thus encapsulating the dialectic of singularity and universality that runs through his aesthetics as a whole. Clearly, although Kant is primarily concerned with the judgment of taste as it relates to the reception of existing artworks, judgment is also needed for a work to begin, an originary “yes!” Gerhard Richter writes that “the making of pictures consists of a large number of yes and no decisions and a yes decision at the end,”35 which is, no doubt, true for the painter (and much improvisation) but not for the free-improvisor whose work is never intended as an end but as a beginning. Thus, the free-improvisor can only say “yes” if the working of the work is to be sustained beyond the instant of its origination. Keith Johnstone captures the tone in his Impro for Storytellers where his notion of a “Group-Yes” produces the following:

    When I arrived at class I asked the students to say “Yes!” to any suggestion, explaining that the suggestion should come from everyone—that there were to be no leaders: “If you can't respond with genuine enthusiasm, please leave the group and sit quietly at the side. We'll time how long the group can sustain itself, so don't fake it! Is that agreed?”


    “You promise not to say ‘Yes!’ to any suggestion unless you really mean it?”


    (p.40) “You accept these conditions?”


    “You want to begin?”

    Yess!” …

    If you want to accelerate the stories for entertainment purposes switch to Yes! And

    —Let's explore the forest!

    Yes! And

    —Let's go into the deepest part of the forest!

    Yes! And

    —Let's discover an old castle surrounded by thorn bushes!

    Yes! And

    —Let's make our way through the thorns!

    Yes! And

    —Let's explore the castle!

    Yes! And …

    —Let's find a sleeping princess!

    Yes! And36

    The positivity of an originary “yes,” the affirmation that brings the artwork into being and then sustains it, is not thought in isolation by Kant but as part of a reflective process that places aesthetic judgment between the realms of determination and freedom, thus casting art in the role of a transitional moment between the two. To illustrate this Kant introduces into the third Critique the “maxims of common human understanding” taken from the Critique of Pure Reason, which, as he admits, do not properly belong in a critique of taste. Kant introduces them in the following way:

    They are these: (1) to think for oneself; (2) to think from the standpoint of everyone else; (3) always to think consistently. The first is the maxim of unprejudiced thought, the second that of enlarged thought, the third that of consistent thought.37

    The first adjustment to be made here, one proper to Kant's aesthetics, will be to replace the word “think” with “feel.” Kant speaks of the first maxim in terms of a “never-passive reason” that avoids prejudice through action, the positive freeing or “emancipation” of thought from the heteronomy of the other. Within the context of our discussion this might be rethought in terms of the necessary erasure of past work to allow an unmarked opening for the new work to begin. The feeling necessary (p.41) for the first “yes” of the work to be delivered should not only be singular but also, as Kant insists, be independent and thus intolerant of interference or indeed contradiction by any external authority. In other words, the initial and initiating aesthetic judgment must itself be unjudged. The singularity of feeling necessary for a universally valid judgment of taste is not itself sufficient to produce a work, however. For that the other is needed, not the authority figure of the other but a sense of the other, a presence that can come to inhabit our feelings without prejudicing them. This, for Kant, is the crucial difference between the merely agreeable and the aesthetic, between the private and the singular. Privacy, for all its apparent freedom-from external influence is, in its attachment to “subjective personal conditions,” both “cramped and narrow,”38 whereas singularity and universality can be thought together thanks to Kant's second maxim that encourages the singular self to always aim to think from the standpoint of the other. What is particularly interesting here is the way in which Kant suggests that accounting for the other allows the individual to become not only “of enlarged mind” but also intense:

    As to the second maxim belonging to our habits of thought, we have quite got into the way of calling a man narrow (narrow, as opposed to being of enlarged mind) whose talents fall short of what is required for employment upon any work of any magnitude (especially that involving intensity).39

    The all-important transition from private feeling to public sense is not only necessary for the validation of judgment, it is, speaking now from the standpoint of the producer, necessary for the artwork to come into being. Feeling, alone, is not productive; the pleasure we might take in an emergent consciousness of cognitive freedom is not sufficient to transform us into artists. For this we need a sense of an audience, not the actual audience so important for improvised performance but the sense of a possible audience ready to validate a work that has yet to arrive. The audience must await the work, but for the artist the sensed audience is not only a têlos but also, as we have seen, an origin that, following Bernstein, is remembered. However, it is not the (mourned) absence of the sensus communis but its presence as a sensed intensity or, better, an intensification of sense that transforms the possibility of a work into an actuality. In other words, the “enlarged mind” of Kant's second maxim has nothing to do with a broadening of knowledge through empathetic and dialogical understanding. Rather, the “standpoint of the other” is not a (p.42) position or perspective to be understood but an intensity that is sensed as a double demand: the demand that the artwork be universally communicable, coupled with the demand that, given Kant's ingenuity aesthetics and the emancipatory nature of his first maxim, the artist follow an exemplary rule rather than imitate a given model. In this regard, the productivity of genius (or of any artist) is not a fact of nature, as Kant sometimes seems to think, but the aesthetic response to an audience that requires endless works to confirm the commonality of its common sense while at the same time demanding a productivity capable of introducing alterity into this commonality, thus protecting it from the commonness (in the bad sense) of common sense. This, perhaps, is where a “memorial aesthetics” would go astray. By treating common sense as a fact that can be lost and mourned, rather than as a work that must be worked and reworked, it fails to do justice to the tragic predicament of the artist who must gather together these originary demands in a work that must not only break with the past in the moment of its beginning but also be sustained into the future. That is, the intensity necessary for the artwork to begin must be carried over into the work itself. This leads us to Kant's third maxim of consistency.

    The consistency of thought inherited from the first Critique will here be reconsidered in terms of feeling and sense, but first a reminder of Kant's understanding of the third maxim:

    The third maxim—that, namely, of consistent thought—is the hardest of attainment, and is only attainable by the union of both the former, and after constant attention to them, has made one at home in their observance.40

    We might here think of the artwork in these terms and say that it is the transition from the singularity of feeling to the universality of sense that provides the intensity necessary for the possibility of a work, but that its actualization requires more than an infinite transition or oscillation between the polarities of singularity and universality if it is to attain any substantial presence. The duality of meaning evident here, that is to say, consistency thought in terms of logic, and consistency thought as material density, is problematic for the artist who must find ways of ensuring that the intensity of the work's beginning is not sacrificed to the density of the work's being. Put another way, to be logically consistent the artwork (and particularly the freely improvised work) should rehearse the intense interpenetration of singularity and universality through an incessant self-interruption that constantly opens the work up to another beginning, (p.43) and another, thus protecting the homelessness of the productive imagination from the conceptual structures that would limit its play. At the same time, however, Kant recognizes that the substantiation of consistency requires us precisely to feel at home within the accord of self and other, conceived aesthetically as consensus. The artwork must become a dwelling place, a gathering together not only of past, present, and future, but also of the one and the many. If the third maxim is, for Kant, “the hardest of attainment” within the context of the first Critique, then the same could be said here in the third: How can the disruption that is production, its spontaneity, surprise, its originary interruption of the repetition of the same take on the consistency or density of a work without sacrificing or betraying the logic of its production? Notwithstanding Kant's famous injunction that aesthetic judgments should always be cast without the determining concept of an end, for the artist there will always be an end: the work. This is the problem—the predicament of the improvisor—how to bring into accord a beginning and an end. What is philosophically problematical within the confines of an aesthetic discourse becomes tragic when played out existentially within the lives and practices of actual artists and it is in the dramatization of the above predicament that free-improvisation excels.

    An attempt has been made to establish that the freedom of free-improvisation is neither something to be unproblematically assumed within the collective, participatory, and dialogical play of the hyperaware work itself, nor does it have to be cast out Schiller-fashion into a utopian future that would see play liberate the artist from the contradictory claims of the work's formal logic and brute materiality. Instead, the artwork and the artist are understood here to originate in freedom, a freedom that is always already there cognitively but only given aesthetically to those who develop a feel for this freedom and who gain a sense of its universality. In order to gain some purchase on the event of the artwork as an originary marking of an unmarked space we have strayed somewhat during the course of the discussion from the receptive orientation of Kant, which places the judge in front of the work rather than prior to it. Prior to the work, it is not a question of assuming a sensus communis in order thus to validate the aesthetic judgment that would, in turn, validate the work, but, rather, attaining a feel for feeling and a sense of sense. It is one thing to claim that the aesthetic is grounded in an attunement of the faculties that is common to all, it is quite another to sense this common sense as an intensity that is aesthetically productive. The sensus communis is, one might say, a common sense that is by no means commonly sensed, hence the rarity of artists and the peculiarity of art.

    (p.44) Improvisation and Fear

    Perhaps free-improvisors are the rarest and most peculiar artists of all, but what is clear is that such improvising brings to the surface in a very pure way not only the energy, passion, spontaneity, and extraordinary inventiveness upon which it stakes its reputation but also the contingency, fragility, and alterity of the aesthetic project. Derek Bailey claims that free-improvisation is the most natural thing in the world, being perhaps the most ancient mode of art practice: “Historically, it pre-dates any other music—mankind's first musical performance couldn't have been anything other than free improvisation.”41 This may well be true but it does not change the fact that the world of free-improvisation remains a strange place, strange because it is not really a place but more an edge between spaces, between times. This might explain the widespread fear of free-improvisation, both among audiences who tend to avoid it and performers who apparently are terrified by it. This is not an exaggeration: whenever and wherever improvisation figures in performance art, fear management becomes the central problem and task. So many improvisation workbooks are rooted in terror. Virtually every exercise, game, or “sport” to be found in such manuals has been designed to ward off the fear of the unmarked space, of the unknown and unplanned, of failure and ridicule, and above all of the fear of nothingness—that nothing will happen and the work will fail to begin. As Johnstone admits, almost all the games in Impro for Storytellers were created to allow “improvisors to defend themselves against imaginary dangers as if these dangers were real.”42 Of course, the strategies devised to manage and overcome such fears, so important for developing improvisational confidence and inducing performers into the community of improvisors are, for all of their value, nevertheless in danger of obscuring the fact that fear is not something that needs to be overcome so much as rerendered as aesthetically productive. Certainly the fear of improvising needs to be dealt with at the outset (so the books have some value), but this should be carefully distinguished from the fear for the improvisation, for the work of improvisation. This would be closer to the fear for one's child, closer, that is, to what Heidegger would call “care,”43 a primary concern for the existence and continuance of the improvisation that is too often forgotten in the discourses of care and enabling that surround improvisation but which are directed toward improvisors rather than the improvisations.

    The peculiarity of free-improvisation is that it does not produce works. To echo Kant's description of art as “purposiveness without a purpose,” it is a working without a work; indeed, in certain respects it might be (p.45) considered a working to avoid works. The absence of works, of “masterpieces,” might partly explain the small fan base for free-improvisation, fandom normally being driven by the promotion and consumption of “great works,” but, one suspects, it is the radical defamiliarization of the artwork enacted in such performances that is most alienating to audiences who have been weaned on a diet of set pieces and wall-to-wall favorites. Instead of art simply being there, improvisation renders it questionable, insecure, contingent, and endangered. Representing, along with the performers, the “standpoint of the other” necessary for an improvisation to attain the intensity necessary to begin, the audience is here denied the all-too-familiar pleasures of the known and forced instead to witness close up not only the contingency of the artwork's occurrence but also the uncertainty of its continuance, the contestation of its identity, and its eventual destruction at the hands of the improvisors. Part of the strangeness for the audience is the fact that they are expected to make aesthetic judgments during the course of the work's production rather than as a moment in the work's reception. Or, to be clearer, the audience's judgment is based on the reception of production rather than the reception of the finished work. Although many improvisors allude to this in their valorization of audience participation, Keith Johnstone actually integrates judgment into his performances through the nomination of “judges” who determine the “success” or “failure” of the improvisations as they unfold. Here is a typical passage from his Impro for Storytellers:

    In the early days we were so protective of the players' feelings that a team kept possession of the stage until the third warning, and all warnings had to be unanimous. Then we threw teams off after the second warning. Finally, after much heart-searching, we decided that justice was less important than getting dead scenes off the stage, and we said that any Judge could end any scene at any time (without consultation), but even then dreary scenes were sometimes allowed to continue while the bored judges toyed with their rescue horns but were reluctant to “do the deed.”

    These days the so-called Hell-Judges (improvisors who are sitting at the rear of the audience) can press a button when they're bored. This flashes a red “Hell-light” at the Judges' feet, and in the lighting booth. The official Judges can ignore this, but it's likely to shake them out of their apathy.44

    Johnstone makes a serious point here, one that distinguishes his very fine book from the plethora of touchy-feely discourses that honor the (p.46) audience as “the most revered member of the theater” (Viola Spolin) while, at the same time, denying it any judgmental potency for fear of terrorizing the poor improvisor. Spolin writes:

    Exhibitionism withers away when the student-actor begins to see members of the audience not as judges or censors … but as a group with whom an experience is being shared. When the audience is understood to be an organic part of the theatre experience, the student actor is immediately given a host's sense of responsibility toward them which has in it no nervous tension.45

    The removal of an improvisor's nervous tension, fear, and dread can never justify the removal of judgment from either the audience or other improvisors, regardless of the damaging effect this might have on the familiar (but dubious) organicism that underlies such aspirations. If a case can be made for free-improvisation as an exemplar in the Kantian sense, then the centrality of judgment must be insisted upon if such a claim is to have any credibility. Undetermined by concepts, aesthetic judgments do not have the power to verify or falsify an artwork, but as a demand made from the standpoint of one judge to another such judgments set in motion a reflective process that, while assuming a consensual ground (sensus communis), is in practice contestational and intolerant. Here are two passages from Kant to illustrate the point:

    In all judgements by which we describe anything as beautiful we tolerate no one else being of a different opinion, and in taking up this position we do not rest our judgement upon concepts, but only on our feeling.46

    I stop my ears: I do not want to hear any reasons or any arguments about the matter. I would prefer to suppose that those rules of the critics were at fault, or at least have no application, than to allow my judgement to be determined by a priori proofs.47

    As Kant himself accepts, the sensus communis is an “ideal norm” that drives an “ought” rather than describing an “is” and, as such, acts as a benchmark by which to measure the failure of judgments to achieve universality or consensus. Indeed, the crucial difference between the merely “agreeable” rooted in private sense and the aesthetic rooted in public sense is that the latter will always fail to reach agreement because, unlike the former, it disallows an agreement to disagree. To resist this, as does (p.47) Spolin and LaDonna Smith (at the top of this chapter) in the name of nonjudgmentality is to return art to the realms of the “agreeable.” Aesthetic judgment is not open to discussion, suggesting that the notion of a sensus communis does not and cannot give birth to the communicative communities and dialogical models of intersubjectivity assumed and celebrated by so many improvisors. Not only that, in a fascinating passage Kant recognizes that the failure or refusal to enter into dialogue may not only lead to open conflict and the collapse of the aesthetic relation but to a culture of dissemblance and (to follow the logic) the ironization of art, a possibility that was raised in passing earlier and will be returned to again below. First the passage from Kant:

    Hence it is that a youthful poet refuses to allow himself to be dissuaded from the conviction that his poem is beautiful, either by the judgement of the public or his friends. And even if he lends them an ear, he does so, not because he has now come to a different judgement, but because, though the whole public, at least as far as his work is concerned, should have false taste, he still, in his desire for recognition, finds good reason to accommodate himself to the popular error (even against his own judgement).48

    It will be remembered that the choice of tragedy or mourning was offered by Caygill, and that, along with Bernstein, he chose mourning. Considering the latter choice to be aesthetically unproductive, this book is attempting to pursue a different course, one that is concerned to engage with the tragic predicament and practice of the artist working in the face of a forever failed commonality. But while continuing with this theme we might introduce here the concept of irony as an additional choice for the artist or improvisor. This will allow us to revisit an earlier quotation and, on this occasion, offer two overlapping readings of it, both of which will inform the subsequent discussion. This is the passage again:

    For Trauerspiel the world was empty, a place of “never-ending repetition” with no possibility of ever becoming genuine or authentic: “For those who looked deeper saw the scene of their existence as a rubbish heap of partial, inauthentic actions.” The world handed down to us by tradition is uncanny, undecipherable, always other.49

    The fundamental problem for Benjamin and Heidegger (and Caygill and Bernstein) is that the destruction of tradition and the breaking asunder of (p.48) an originary commonality that cannot be remade is a catastrophe brought upon art by the creators and preservers of art itself. It is this complicity that encourages Benjamin's departure from this catastrophic history into the time outside of time he reserves for mourning. Improvisors too rush forward into the future with their faces turned to the rubbish heap of the past, but the difference—the existential tragedy—is that they feel compelled to gather up this past and carry it into the future as a work of art. Free-improvisation gathers the past as an otherness not to be imitated but as the originary site of an aesthetic freedom to be sensed and followed. Weighed down by the scrap heap of history, by dead styles and wrecked idioms, free-improvisors are happy to contribute to this ongoing destruction through an active forgetfulness that clears the site for the beginning of new work out of nowhere. But then again, it is not out of nowhere because, as Søren Kierkegaard and Nietzsche agree, in order to forget you must find something to remember: “Try to forget it! That indeed is a hollow mockery … try to get something else to remember, and then it will succeed.”50 Free-improvisation forgets in order to remember the new obscured by the old, the beginning concealed by the end. So here destruction and construction go hand in hand through acts of aesthetic redemption that, as a moment of clearing, allows the work of destruction to begin. As Heidegger and Benjamin agree, tradition is destroyed by becoming a tradition. The raw performativity of free-improvisation is exemplary in the manner in which it dramatizes this aesthetic self-destruction in full view of a judicial audience that at best returns an inconclusive verdict and at worst is damning. More than any other form free-improvisation turns self-destruction into a spectacle. A microcosmic fragment of tradition, the work is destroyed by becoming a work. It is destroyed by the improvisors, by the audience, by all modes of preservation and documentation, and, not least, by the aesthetic discourses (including this one) that would construct arguments to hold the work together even as it unravels before our eyes.

    Once the work is in play, and contrary to the claims of Schiller and radical Schillerians alike, the possibility of freedom and commonality are progressively lost as continuity once again takes precedence over the discontinuity of origination. This loss is the tragedy of the work enacted by the performers and audience alike. Rather than being helplessly and hopelessly witnessed through the paralysis of mourning, the shattering of tradition is here localized within the individual work and the existential predicament of the artist who is made to suffer the contentiousness of the reflective judgmental process that, notwithstanding its ideals, forever fails to meet its own demands. This, it should be emphasized, is not the (p.49) failure of art or of the aesthetic, and certainly not of free-improvisation; it is, rather, the failure of idealism. The aesthetic does not fail, it succeeds. Or at least it succeeds to the extent that it allows an articulation and configuration of what might be viewed as an ontological failure but one that is nonetheless successful as art. Taking a Kantian view, the artwork would lack all intensity if it did not fail to realize the ideality that inhabits it. For him, there can be no aesthetic ideal—something that is confined to the merely “agreeable” (hence the “Ideal Home Exhibition”)—which should remind us that the sensus communis as “ideal norm,” while introducing intensity into the artwork in the form of the “standpoint of the other,” is not itself aesthetic, which might help explain the intensity. It is not aesthetic but, unlike the “agreeable,” which locks the subject into a private sensibility that makes no demands on the other, common-sense has an enormous impact on the aesthetic and on the nature of art practice, not only because the sense of or feel for common-sense is an essential prerequisite of the originary gesture of the artwork but because the aesthetic judgments necessary for the work to unfold beyond the instant of its origination would lack all validity if the universality of sense could not be imported into the contingency of the work. It is this, the introduction of the cognitive into the aesthetic, the ideal attunement of the senses into the real dissonance of sensibility, that results not only in the intensity of the artwork but also in the tragic predicament that must be lived by the artist. But the art world is dominated by works that, as Norman Bryson has argued in relation to the aesthetic “gaze,”51 have removed the working from the work, the temporality and physicality of this working that speaks of a singular life and an existential predicament that is thus rendered invisible. Of course, some artists may try to bring this working of the work back into view through a performativity that brings it closer to free-improvisation as can be seen in following statement by the artist Keith Haring:

    One of the things I have been most interested in is the role of chance in situations—letting things happen by themselves…. This openness to “chance” situations necessitates a level of performance in the artist. The artist, if he is a vessel, is also a performer. I find the most interesting situation for me is when there is no turning back. Many times I have put myself in situations where I am drawing in public. Whatever marks I make are immediately recorded and immediately on view. There are no “mistakes” because nothing can be erased…. The expression exists only in the moment. The artist's performance is supreme.52

    (p.50) By drawing much closer to performance art Haring exposes the radical contingency of art practice, an unsettling fact that is suppressed or repressed in the “finished” work (of the “gaze”), presented to an audience once the work necessary to disguise this contingency has been completed. Working alone, Haring has to make his own decisions about how chance events are managed and how mistakes are integrated into the unfolding work. For collective improvisors, however, things are not quite so straightforward partly because the openness to chance and error so celebrated by improvisors is seriously compromised by the play of aesthetic judgment both on the work (from the audience) and within it (from the performers, not uninfluenced by the audience). There is an idealism in improvisation that is heart-warming but misguided. The terminology that inhabits and informs the hegemonic dialogical language of care, enabling, sharing, and participation is only aesthetically productive to the extent that it confronts the far from ideal reality of the work, where the necessity of singularity plays havoc with any dreams of universal consensus. In this regard Kant, in his discussion of the “young poet,” is quite right to draw attention to a certain delay in the consentaneity of judgment, recognizing that it is only over time (“in aftertime”)53 that the intolerance of contradiction, perhaps necessary for authentic work, comes to be tempered by the judgments of others. But again, as with Haring, this is the situation of the individual artist producing a finished work that can be considered and reconsidered at will rather than that of the collective improvisor who must make judgments now in a performance with no aftertime in which to resolve the differences between one singularity and another. As the dancer David Gere writes:

    Choices … cannot be arrived at with the leisure of the studio, over the period of hours or days, months or years. These decisions must be made now. This moment. While it is true that virtually all artmaking demands decisiveness, in improvisation choices must be arrived at without creative blocks or procrastination. There is not time for delay in improvisational performances. There is simply no time.54

    Again, one can see how free-improvisation brings to the surface and plays out as spectacle the contingency and contentiousness of the artwork before it has a chance either to disappear (return to the unmarked) or re-present itself as a work (the marked).

    (p.51) Competition

    What would a successful improvisation be? The claim being made here is that success should not be measured against a consensual goal or têlos that drives the work ever urgently toward a communicative conclusion. On the contrary, an imputed consensus is the origin of the work, but one that is destroyed by the working of that work. Indeed, one could go further and suggest that the primary aim of free-improvisation is to ensure that this ongoing and endless destruction is not short-circuited by the finished artwork or by any spurious community promoting an ideology of oneness. The care for the work, one that overrides the more trivial concerns of intersubjectivity, is a care for the work's beginning, not its end; as such, it will be ever ready to destroy the work in an attempt to preserve what Heidegger describes as the openness of that beginning. The result is a mode of performance that is much more combative and competitive than the majority of discourses on improvisation are willing to admit. Indeed, and the two are not unrelated, just as Spolin moves against judgment in improvisation so she also takes a dim view of competitiveness as damaging to the harmonious “total environment.” Contest, on the other hand, is permitted and encouraged:

    A highly competitive atmosphere creates artificial tensions, and when competition replaces participation, compulsive action is the result…. Should competition be mistaken for a teaching pool, the whole meaning of playing and games is distorted. Playing allows a person to respond with his or her “total organism within a total environment.” Imposed competition makes this harmony impossible, for it destroys the basic nature of playing by occluding the self and by separating player from player…. Contest and extension, on the other hand, is an organic part of every group activity and gives both tension and release in such a way as to keep the player intact while playing.55

    Spolin is certainly working with a very fine distinction indeed here, and it is difficult to imagine what an uncompetitive contest would be like, but one suspects it would be extraordinarily dreary. The idea that competition occludes the self, while opening the way for an organicism uncontaminated by individual desire, loses sight of the fact that such a model of collective participation is in danger of sucking the improvisor into what we might call, following Emmanuel Levinas, a “rhythm” of “totality” (p.52) where the “I” is sacrificed to the “we” and where consensus is fatally confused with anonymity. In his essay “Reality and Its Shadow” Levinas describes the situation in the following way:

    Closed wholes whose elements call for one another like the syllables of a verse … impose themselves on us without our assuming them. Or rather, our consenting to them is inverted into participation. Their entry into us is one with our entry into them. Rhythm represents a unique situation where we cannot speak of consent, assumption, initiative, or freedom, because the subject is caught up and carried away by it. The subject is part of its own representation. It is so even despite itself, for in rhythm there is no longer a oneself, but rather a sort of passage from oneself to anonymity.56

    This, unhappily, shows the dark side of all organically conceived participatory cultures: in an effort to save the artwork from destruction at the hands of the competitive artist, the artist is destroyed instead, leaving nothing. For good or ill, free-improvisation, like all improvisation, is riddled with competitiveness and, as Ben Watson in his book on the history of free-improvisation puts it, “the idea that the ego can be transcended is obviously a convenient ideology for collectives. The problem is that, in a highly competitive scene, it's invariably absolute humbug.”57 Whether or not competition is perceived as a problem will depend on the understanding of the improvisational project and the place and nature of subjectivity within that project. Certainly anyone familiar with improvisation either as a spectator or participant could not fail to be aware of the fact that free-improvisation is more about power than it is about freedom. Sometimes this may be no more than a desire to draw attention to one's self at the expense of others: a simple case of “showing off,” as the improvisor Steve Beresford sees it with disarming honesty,58 or it may be more integral to the improvisational form such as is the case with “challenge dancing” in the world of tap dance. Constance Valis Hill gives an engaging account of this in her essay “Stepping, Stealing, Sharing, and Daring: Improvisation and the Tap Dance Challenge”:

    Like improvisation in jazz, improvisation in the challenge can take form as the spontaneous creation or composition of a percussive statement in performance. More often and most generally, however, improvisation in the challenge is the act of responding spontaneously (to an opponent, musician, or member of the audience), (p.53) in the moment of performance. If the challenge is the call to action, the putting forth of a rhythmic statement by the challenger, then the improvisation (or more aptly, the improvisatory imperative) is the response (and not only an “Amen”)—the answer to the call that is spontaneous, creative and reactive, compelling the challengee (who in turn becomes a challenger) to look, to listen, and to respond in the moment, with any and all means necessary…. [W]hat is essential in the dynamism and fierce excitement of the challenge is that it at the very least be perceived as an extemporaneous, or improvised, battle,59

    This is not exactly the collective love-in one has come to expect when free-improvisors take the time to speak and write of their improvisation, but it should remind us of the aporia of freedom remarked upon right at the beginning of this discussion. For all of the talk of dialogue, we witness here in the “pushing and pulling” of improvisation the dialectic of negative and positive freedom, of the collective and the singular, the “yes” and “no” of the work played out in full view of the audience. However, regardless of the acceptance or not of the competitive dimension of improvisation, what the majority of improvisatory discourses have in common is the assumption of a dialogical model that is played out intersubjectively within the performance. If competitiveness does creep into this performative interaction then it is understood exclusively in terms of social participation and human relations rather than as being a result of the improvisor's relation to the work: an aesthetic relation. One consequence of this within the discussion of freedom and free-improvisation is that it is inevitably framed in terms of either a negativity that strives to establish and maintain a regime of noninterference where mutual respect for the improvisatory space of the other is a first principle, or, conversely, a more risky positivity that recognizes a certain desire for mastery and accepts that issues of power and the freedom to actualize this power aesthetically are an integral part of improvisation. The latter does not necessarily destroy the collective aspirations of group improvisation but it certainly removes any ethical pretensions it might have.

    Negative and Positive Improvisation

    Thought thus, the pursuit of negative freedom is most likely to produce improvisations that are “hyperaware,” improvisations that in their profound concern and care for the other open up a performative space that is (p.54) attentive to, responsive to, and, above all, supportive of the mark-making project of the other. At its best, such a pursuit can produce improvisations of great sensitivity and delicacy where every mark is considered, every interjection is carefully weighed and weighted, ensuring that participation in an emerging oneness effectively extinguishes the desire for empty theatricality and virtuosic self-aggrandizement. At its worst, there can be witnessed what might be described as an escalation of sensitivity where virtually every mark interferes with or intrudes into the marked space of the other. Such hypersensitivity can result in an exaggerated politeness that endlessly waits to be asked: “After you,” “Oh, no, after you, please,” “No, I insist, after you,” “No, no, really.” This would be a regime of call and response where to call would be risking an act of violence, thus leaving the improvisation awash with responses in search of a call, answers without a question. Frozen in an ecstasy or ec-stasis of mutuality, such improvisation, if it fails to attain sublimity, quickly descends into the boringness that always awaits the improvisor. Notwithstanding David Toop's predilections, waiting for twenty-five minutes to hear the sound of a jack plug being removed from an amplifier might not be everyone's idea of a fun night out! Even where participants are a little less “lowercase” the concerted considerateness for the inviolable space of the other can encourage a peaceful coexistence that, in its beautiful but suffocating harmoniousness, is every bit as boring as the frightened minimalism of the oversensitive.

    Turning now to consider the strengths and weaknesses of positive freedom as an ideal pursued within free-improvisation, we will again start with the best and descend to the worst. And the best is very good: an approach to improvisation that does not stand on ceremony or wait nervously to be invited into the action but which is decisive, determined, and often disruptive of cozy, considerate communities. Such positivity might be thought in terms of calling rather than responding but this should not be confused with the posing of questions that might invite, require, or demand answers. In fact, positive freedom neither raises questions (too negative) nor does it answer questions (too heteronomous); instead, it might be described, like negative freedom, as an answer without a question, but here the similarity ends. Where negative freedom was described above as driven by answers in search of questions, positive freedom might be better grasped as an answer that gives rise to questions. The former is haunted by doubt, hesitant and puzzled as to the best way of proceeding; the latter is assured, committed, and challenging (question-raising). Maurice Blanchot identifies the same reversal in the thought of Simone Weil. He writes of her (not uncritically):

    (p.55) We enter into thought … only by questioning. We go from question to question to the point where the question, pushed toward a limit, becomes response…. Such a way of proceeding is foreign to Simone Weil…. [I]t would seem that she first responds to herself, as though for her the answer always comes first, preceding every question and even every possibility of questioning: there is an answer, then another, and then again another answer…. Affirming is often for Simone Weil a way of questioning or a way of testing…. [B]y affirming and holding firmly without wavering to the movement of affirmation…. The kind of invisible effort by which she seeks to efface herself in favour of certitude is all that remains in her of a will as she advances from affirmation to affirmation.60

    Such conviction can undoubtedly produce work of extraordinary authority, work that is imposing and masterful. What is more, although the positive free-improvisor is ultimately unconcerned with respecting the sanctity of the other's aesthetic space, such improvisation is not necessarily undialogical. On the contrary, such work can be full of dialogue as long as it is accepted, along with Franz Rosenzweig, that we are here in the presence of what he calls the “hearing of the eye” rather than the “true hearing of the ear.”61 We will return to this in a moment, immediately after we have reconsidered positive free-improvisation in its worst light.

    As Friedrich Schiller discovered when considering what he called the “form-drive,” the positive freedom associated with imposing order on chaos has something “barbaric” about it, an inhumanity that rides roughshod over the sensibilities of those “savages” enslaved to the “sense-drive.”62 Paradoxically, within collective improvisation, where the desire for mastery is likely to be harbored by more than one, the result is more often than not chaos rather than order. And when things go wrong in this way it becomes apparent that the opposite of negative freedom is not, as Berlin assumes, the interference of one singular freedom with that of another but, rather, an obliviousness to the other that also rushes headlong into boringness. After twenty-five minutes of cacophonous overkill perhaps the eventlessness of “lowercase” improvisation would be more fun after all.

    Dialogics of the Ear and Eye

    Returning to the subject of dialogue, it is worth reemphasizing that what have been described above as negative and positive free-improvisations are both dialogical, albeit differently. It would be useful to read Franz (p.56) Rosenzweig's words here before addressing this difference and then considering the possibility of a nondialogical listening that might allow us to begin rethinking the positivity of positive freedom outside of Berlin's dualism. There are many improvisors of a dialogical cast of mind that would benefit from listening to Franz Rosenzweig's following words from The Star of Redemption:

    Here we are concerned with a kind of hearing quite different from that required in dialogue. For in the course of a dialogue he who happens to be listening also speaks, and he does not speak merely when he is uttering words, not even mainly when he is uttering words, but just as much when through his eager attention, through the assent or dissent expressed in his glances, he conjures words to the lips of the current speaker. Here it is not this hearing of the eye which is meant, but the true hearing of the ear.63

    On the face of it this maps well onto the above discussion, with negative free-improvisation having more than a passing resemblance to Rosenzweig's “hearing of the ear,” while his “hearing of the eye” offers many (somewhat uncomfortable) insights into the nature of its positive equivalent. With this in mind it would no doubt be possible to judge the success or failure of actual improvisations in terms of their ability to originate and sustain dialogical forms that steer clear of the negative and positive poles of boringness that await timidity and arrogance alike. Ben Watson's recent book on Derek Bailey and free-improvisation, undoubtedly the most judgmental book on the subject currently available, does exactly this. Page after page (it's a long book) is devoted to detailed accounts of specific improvisations, tracing over and over again, with the obsessive-ness of a true fan, the microcosmic disasters and triumphs of an endlessly shifting personnel caught up in the trials and tribulations of these little dialogues. This makes for engaging reading, but for all its promotion of and enthusiasm for its subject, this book never quite manages to bring to the fore the real ontological force of free-improvisation, which is its incomparable ability to present the beginning of art and its glorious failure to hold this beginning before our eyes. To grasp this, the most important aspect of free-improvisation, it is necessary to follow Rosenzweig outside of all dialogics into the aesthetic that, for him, is not part of but “alongside” the world, indeed a silence alongside the world. The “true hearing of the ear” is not then, as improvisors would no doubt argue, the listening to the other as artist/improvisor but, rather, the listening to the (p.57) otherness of art itself, the silent alterity prior to all dialogue. Following Rosenzweig in this direction will bring the tragedy of this aesthetic more clearly into view:

    This is the world of art, a world of tacit accord which is no world at all, no real, vital, back-and-forth interconnection of address passing to and fro and yet, at any point, being capable of being vitalized for moments at a time. No sound punctures this silence and yet at every instant each and everyone can sense the innermost part of the other in himself. It is the equality of the human which, prior to any real unity of the human, here becomes effective as content of the work of art. Prior to any real human speech, art creates, as the speech of the unspeakable, a first, speechless, mutual comprehension, for all time indispensable beneath and beside actual speech. The silence of the tragic hero is silent in all art and is understood in all art without any words. The self does not speak and yet is heard.64

    This is a very Kantian passage, one that should remind us of the “tacit accord” that is the sensus communis, a sense that must itself be sensed before the work of art can begin. For Rosenzweig, the work of art provides us with an “analogy to creation,”65 a “language prior to revelation,”66 a “beginning”: “The epoch of creation is only the beginning—albeit the everlasting beginning—even as it is mirrored in the brief life span of the work of art.”67 The “true hearing of the ear” “hears” the silence of art at the moment of its origination prior to its re-presentation as a dialogical communicative form: a work. This silence, however, is not the dumb muteness of the unmarked space but the eloquent silence reverberating in art at the originary moment of transition from the unmarked to the marked. This is where Rosenzweig sees tragedy—the tragedy of the tragic hero—to which can be added the tragedy of the work, thus rendering art doubly tragic. Tragedy, for Rosenzweig, is the dramatization of an undialogical silence and solitude, to which we will add the silencing of this silence and the breaching of this solitude in the dialogical community of free-improvisation:

    The tragic hero has only one language which completely corresponds to him: precisely to keep silent. It is thus from the beginning. Tragedy casts itself in the artistic form of drama just in order to be able to represent speechlessness.68

    (p.58) Just as historically (and here Rosenzweig agrees with Nietzsche) the rise of dialogue heralds the decline of tragedy, so the emerging artwork only achieves communicative potency to the extent that it sacrifices what Rosenzweig calls its “tragic force.”69 The double tragedy of art, then, is that, rooted in a common sense that is universal but incommunicable—“no community originates. And yet there originates a common content”—the tragic silence of its beginning is forgotten in the working out of the artwork: the tragic loss of tragedy.

    Free-improvisation is the exemplary aesthetic form because it manages to offer a glimpse of this double tragedy and it does this to the extent that it resists the work of art being destroyed by the artwork. To be successful improvisation must be a form of delay, an incessant interruption of the work's desire to be a work and to speak. Watson hints at such things when he describes Tony Oxley's idea of rhythm as “continual interruption,”70 or at moments like the following: “[Robyn] Schulkowsky takes seriously the sense of singular event instilled by John Cage into modern music, so each blow seems to be delivered as if for the first time.”71

    At its best free-improvisation is not driven by a concern for the other improvisors but by a concern or care for the work itself. At its best it is by no means participatory but exclusive and excluding—collective, yes, communal, no. At its best free-improvisation is profoundly competitive, not only at the level of Rosenzweig's inauthentic dialogical “eye,” which is always looking for an opportunity to speak, but also at the level of the authentic “hearing of the ear” that concerns us here. Although improvisors have different views on the legitimacy of competitiveness as a motivation for improvisation this is always considered within the parameters of an assumed dialogical intersubjective field that is thought to be either enhanced or damaged by such competitiveness, but there is another way of approaching this, as Keith Johnstone's Theatresports clearly illustrates.

    Competition and Dialogue

    Although fundamentally competitive, Theatresports is almost exclusively focused on the work and the working of the work rather than on the performers. The competition is between one work and another, rather than one performer and another. Performers are “judged” in relation to their skill in keeping the work working, open, and mobile rather than in response to any display of individual performative virtuosity or dialogical prowess. Indeed, many of Johnstone's techniques are designed precisely to block the emergence of too easily assumed dialogical relationships (p.59) within the unfolding of the work, particularly where the quest for dialogue is driven by a fear of what he calls the “alteration” necessary for good improvisation. Recognizing that “frightened improvisors keep restoring the balance for fear that something might happen,”72 Johnstone devotes much time and space to the art of tilting, that is, of tilting the balance that is ever in danger of being achieved in an improvisation, by introducing destabilizing material into the emergent dialogue, thereby “demolishing” or “devastating” it.73 Tilting is a highly competitive sport, pitting one performer against another in a struggle for power that results in winners and losers, success and failure, but, as is clear throughout, Johnstone is not interested in personalities, only in the work. It is the shifting of the balance of power that is crucial, not who has it. It is the possibility of failure or success that gives improvisation its edge rather than who succeeds or fails:

    Players who come from show-business assume that failure has no value. If so, I ask them:

    • Which is the most famous tower?

    • Which is the most famous space shuttle?

    • Which is the most famous ocean liner?

    … Show-business pastes over inadequacies with glitz and razzamatazz, but sport displays a tug-o̓-war between success and failure. A scripted show would be wrecked if the scenography collapsed, and yet this could be the high point of an improvised show.74

    Both dialogue and competition coexist in this model of improvisation but are transformed by being stripped of their intersubjective garb. Johnstone's primary concern is with the “art of making things happen,” the happening of the artwork, which for him means regarding every moment of a performance as anticipatory, as the beginning of a future yet to come. As he says, players are “working well” when “they̓re giving the audience the ‘future’ that it anticipates,”75 which is not the same as giving them what they expect. Anticipation does not simply want fulfilment; it wants a future that is itself anticipatory, a future that retains its futurity—anticipation feeds on anticipation. To “work well,” then, the improvisor must enter into some form of dialogue with the audience, but as a listening to the silent anticipation of that audience rather than to its rowdy interjections and reckless judgments; a silence that, as the originary sense of a collective beginning, can be “heard” in the work too, as a silence that is (p.60) forever endangered by the dialogics of the work itself and the desire to make it a work. Improvisors are “working well,” Johnstone continues, when they “care about the values expressed in the work,”76 which, when stripped of any unwelcome moral overtones, should remind us that care for the work takes precedence over any intersubjective engagement, and that the “values expressed” in free-improvisation concern above all the value of ensuring that things continue to happen. Once understood thus, the competitiveness of Theatresports, and perhaps all free-improvisation worthy of attention, can be welcomed and encouraged to the extent that it is placed in the service of the work rather than of the competitors. This is why the virtuosity of the improvisor should not be measured in terms of technical mastery but, rather, in relation to an ability to create or mobilize strategies that keep the work happening, even if this requires sacrificing oneself and one's precious hard-won talents to the continuance of the work—the virtuosity of sacrifice. Johnstone would describe this as failing gracefully:

    Some people (often fervent capitalists and sports fans) condemn Theatresports on the grounds that it's competitive, but while “straight” theatre encourages competition … Theatresports can take jealous and self-obsessed beginners and teach them to play games with good nature, and to fail gracefully.77

    To fail “gracefully” is to fail successfully. It is to recognize that such failure is necessary for the work to continue. Such failure is liberatory in two ways but also tragic on account of this very dualism. The sacrifice of performers is a necessary part of the work's happening (for Johnstone, the avoidance of boredom), but this failure liberates the artist from the task of trying to gather and hold together both the origin and the event or performance of the work within the temporality of aesthetic production: the duality of creation and preservation. And the artist needs to be liberated from this task in order to fully recognize its impossibility and, thus, its significance. In this sense such liberation might be best understood as an emancipation from the illusions of success that, in their foregrounding of the artist, obscure and trivialize the origin of the work of art. The liberation of the artist releases, in turn, the artwork from the gathering grasp of the singular artist, allowing it to return to its origin, which continues to happen as the singularity of production ebbs and flows. It is the liberation of the artwork from the cramped intentionality of the singular artist that ensures the continuing presence of the origin in the unfolding of the work, and it is the graceful failure of the artist that is (p.61) required to keep this origin in play. To fail without grace is to lose sight of the origin, obscured or displaced by the success of the work.


    This way of linking failure and origin returns us again to Benjamin and Heidegger where it is the destruction of tradition that keeps it alive. Understood as a microcosmic enactment of this destruction, free-improvisation will once again be used to exemplify this predicament and help to clarify the very particular notion of origin that is being assumed here. With a view to demonstrating the interpenetration of tragedy and mourning within aesthetic practice, it will be necessary to look more closely at Benjamin's historical categorization of origin before returning to what Caygill describes as the tragic “dialectical logic of subjectivity” to be found in Heidegger's earlier thought.

    A most striking expression of Benjamin's conception of origin is to be found in The Origin of German Tragic Drama:

    The term origin is not intended to describe the process by which the existent came into being, but rather to describe that which emerges from the process of becoming and disappearance. Origin is an eddy in the stream of becoming, and in its current it swallows the material involved in the process of its genesis. That which is original is never revealed in the naked and manifest existence of the factual; its rhythm is apparent only to a dual insight. On the one hand it needs to be recognized as a process of restoration and re-establishment, but, on the other, and precisely because of this, as something imperfect and incomplete.78

    As Caygill reads it in his book on Benjamin—Walter Benjamin: The Colour of Experience—this understanding of origin has two main methodological implications. First, that “the temporal character of origin means that the meaning of a work is never fully present [as can be] revealed by a comparison of the same work with itself over time”; second, “that critique does not possess any incontestable criteria which are immune to change in the encounter with the object of critique … because these criteria themselves change in the encounter with the work.”79 But isn't this problematization of reception something quite different to the existential predicament of the artist creating the work? Is the mourning of the critic before the distorting or shattered mirror of origin's history in any way comparable to the tragedy of origination witnessed in exemplary (p.62) fashion in free-improvisation? In his historicization of origination Benjamin makes a distinction between origin as genesis and origin as becoming: “Origin [Ursprung], although an entirely historical category, has, nevertheless, nothing to do with genesis [Entstehung]. The term origin is not intended to describe the process by which the existent came into being.”80 But the question is, isn't it precisely the copresence of genesis and becoming in the aesthetic act, its creation and preservation as one tiny fragment of tradition, that separates the producer from the receiver? The problem for the artist regarding the origination of the work is not methodological but aesthetic and existential—herein lies the tragedy. This is where Heidegger's poetically inspired philosophical vision outstrips Benjamin's, entering as it does more comprehendingly into the aesthetic experience of the creative artist and the existential predicament of the originator. As critic, Benjamin receives the artwork as, to use his words, the rhythmic pulsation of an origination that has already “swallowed” up its own genesis. For him, reception demands participation in this infinite rhythm of origination, whereas for the artist, and particularly for the free-improvisor, it is precisely participation in the becoming of the work that risks obscuring the productive moment of genesis, obscuring, that is, the transition from the unmarked to the marked that gives the working of the work its necessary intensity and, Heidegger would say, its truth. Although both Benjamin and Heidegger agree that the origin is not a singular event but, rather, the infinite happening of the historicity of the artwork itself, it is only the latter that fully recognizes the predicament of the artist, suspended between beginning and ending and torn between participation and nonparticipation, dialogue and solitude, universality and singularity. This difference is rooted in the copresence of genesis and becoming in Heidegger's thought, something that recalls again his understanding of the Kantian productive imagination as both spontaneous and receptive. In this mode of thinking it is not simply that the origin is lost in the destructive preservation of tradition, and then mourned as a perpetual absence but, rather, that the “founding leap” (ursprung) of origination is always present as the call of the work's future. And again, it is the predicament of the artist to be suspended between the past and the future of the work. For Benjamin, the presence of the origin is the mark of its destruction as an originary past, now absent: remember the Angelus Novus has his back turned to the future. Heidegger too recognizes the limitations of such a “primitive” conception of origin but it is precisely the futurelessness of such beginnings that his ontology is engaged in surpassing:

    (p.63) A genuine beginning, however, has nothing of the neophyte character of the primitive. The primitive, because it lacks the bestowing, grounding leap and head start, is always futureless. It is not capable of releasing anything more from itself because it contains nothing more than that in which it is caught.81

    With wings caught up in the winds blowing out of a destroyed past, the critic can only mourn, but the artist has a different vocation and thus a different grounding in the historicity of art, indeed a grounding denied to the critic and the philosopher who are left hovering above the creative destruction of art practice at a safe distance from the existential predicament of the artist. Heidegger's thought, however, in its gathering together of the beginning, becoming, and end of the work of art, more effectively grasps the tragic logic of subjectivity as it is enacted in art practice generally and most specifically in the forms of improvisation being referenced here.

    In essence, by identifying the threefold nature of the origination of the aesthetic—artist, artwork, art—Heidegger puts his finger on the forces that play upon and, indeed, are contested within freely improvised performances or productions. If it is true that the most profound promise of free-improvisation is to be witnessed in its attempt (consciously or not) to enact the origination of the artwork, and the preservation of that origination—the preservation of the event of opening that is art—then it is always the artist and/or the artwork that ultimately breaks this promise. This, the failure of art, is precisely what makes the artist and/or the artwork fascinating at the expense of art, but then without this fascination art and its promise would remain locked up and concealed in an oblivion devoid of ontological value.

    The seductive and compelling lure of the work as an emerging and potentially finished structure or object begins the moment a free-improvisation is under way. Even the purity of the beginning of the work is tainted to the extent that it anticipates becoming a work and forgets or loses the sense of a collective origin from which the communicative aesthetic act derives. The desire to produce and/or witness the production of a work is something deeply rooted and shared by performers and the audience, a fact that can have a variety of consequences, as Eric F. Clarke observes, none of them particularly positive. What he is alert to is how it is the risk of failure in free-improvisation that is inspiring for the performer and rewarding for the audience rather than actual failure which, without a successful outcome in an emergent work, is largely meaningless and frustrating. He describes the scenario thus:

    (p.64) While all performance arts risk failure on specific occasions, for improvised performance—and in particular the extreme of free-improvisation—the potential for devastating failure in a specific performance is considerably greater. Because it dispenses with precomposed material, passed on by notation or oral tradition, and relies instead entirely on the uncertainties of construction at the moment of performance, it renounces the support and coherence that a score or memorized structure can provide. For participants in group improvisation, the challenge that this offers may be a source of inspiration and motivation, but public performance brings with it the expectation that a level of excellence and coherence will be maintained, with little tolerance for possibly well-intended but unsuccessful experiments. In other words, the requirements of public performance seem to run counter to the exploratory and experimental nature of improvisation.82

    This raises an interesting issue regarding the audience. If the role of the audience is a crucial component in the overall performance, then what exactly is this role? Keith Johnstone's audiences directly intervene in the improvisation, demanding the removal of anyone who is boring. But what constitutes boringness? Is it the emergence or the avoidance of a work that is boring? Johnstone clearly believes the former and does everything in his power to continually “tilt” performances to keep them from falling back on well-worn principles and tried and tested methods. Clarke, on the other hand, is less convinced, suggesting that the presence of the audience introduces the demand for recognizable works, thus stifling the gleeful anarchy favored by Johnstone: “Other improvising musicians certainly offer precisely the opposite opinion—that the presence of an audience and the need to avoid breakdown leads to a certain cautiousness that diminishes innovation and experiment.”83 Whichever way one sees it there remains the question of the improvisor's relation to the work. With or without an audience (and audiences can be hard to come by in the world of free-improvisation), and in spite of the oft-expressed desire to be “in the moment,” the instant an improvisation commences it begins to take on a shape, like Leonardo's reconfiguration of meaningless scribble, and it is here that the artwork and the artist become entangled.


    Why do artists make art? Why do improvisors improvise? For Hegel, as already seen, it is not the production of artworks as aesthetic objects that (p.65) is the crucial issue but the recognition of the self in such works that gives art what he would call its world-historical value. This is all well and good as long as the project of art remains one that retains the dialectic of artist and artwork as the productive motor of self-recognition, but what if, as in what we are calling exemplary free-improvisation, the intention is to disrupt the resolution of such aesthetic labor into what could be recognized as works? In such a case the dialectic of self-recognition is in danger of stalling. If it is true that art has more to do with recognition than it does with expression then it is not surprising that improvisors are still drawn to the production of works like iron filings to a magnet: there is so much more at stake than just adding another object to the world. And even when the outcome of an improvisation is in doubt—will it break down or not?—the “excellence and coherence” (Clarke) of the performance demanded by the audience already points toward an assumed integrity that reflects back on the artist as an emergent self-consciousness. In other words, the desire for the work is really the desire for the self, which is precisely why Heidegger has to break with humanism in order to clear the work out of the way in pursuit of the Being of art.

    But if the work gets in the way of the Being of art so too does the artist. However, throughout the literature on free-improvisation, and widespread among the improvising community, is a profound suspicion of any individual virtuosity or egotism that draws attention away from the collective. As Viola Spolin puts it, “Any player who ‘steals’ a scene is a thief.”84 As Eddie Prevost argues, “Clinging to the self in the hurly-burly of free collective improvisation is both an art and a cul-de-sac. As a mechanism of art the self must be thrown into the whirlpool of potentiality.”85 Thought within the context of the “star” system and celebrity culture, where show-biz vacuity, empty slickness, and flashy hypertechnique have long reigned supreme, such sentiments are undoubtedly refreshing, but they are also problematical. In truth, the deracinated humanism that continues to lurk in the mass obsession with the idols of the culture industry is by no means swept away by the codes of free-improvisation but, rather, rerooted in the dialogical soil of the collective, and thus rendered more immovable than ever. Such thinking does not attempt to think beyond the self but, instead, rethinks the self in terms of infinite transformation, the very becoming that, for Benjamin, obstructs our view of the origin. Staying with our two improvisors for a moment, Spolin's and Prevost's words are archetypical in the following two passages:

    True improvisation re-shapes and alters the student actor through the act of improvisation itself. Penetration into the focus, connection, (p.66) and a live relation with fellow players results in a change, alteration or new understanding for one or the other or both.86

    The whole essence and ultimate meaning of dialogue is transformation. Conversations and interactive processes which proscribe any shift in self-knowledge, or limit its possibility, cannot therefore be generative, or productive of whatever might be produced.87

    This celebration of alteration and transformation as the essence of improvisation in fact obscures this essence, which concerns Being and beings, not self and others or subject and object. This is chiasmal rather than ontological thinking, trapped in the interminable movement of a crisscrossing back and forth between ever-altered self and ever-altered other, sucking both into an oscillatory rhythm without genuine alterity. And one can see why: without the coherence and substantiality of the recognized (in the Hegelian sense) work, the improvising self is thrown back upon itself as the producer without a product—absolute spontaneity without origin. But the dim view taken of all self-aggrandizement within free-improvisation strips the singular improvisor of any authority such virtuosic dwelling in the now might have, resulting in a peculiar aesthetic without artist or artwork, reducing improvisation to an inexplicable anonymous process. In the face of this absurdity it is dialogue that comes to the rescue, allowing this irresolvable chiasmus to be reenacted and thus made meaningful as the infinite transformative process witnessed above. So, instead of directing the chiasmal relation of the artist and the artwork toward its essence by raising the more primordial question of the Being of art in relation to this chiasmus, such dialogical/participatory discourses simply internalize the chiasmus, thus replacing the tragedy of art with an ethics of empathic intersubjectivity. Now it is neither the artist nor the work that obscure the Being of art but the group and the entanglement in the collective that inserts the noise of incessant dialogue into the essential silence of art.

    To follow Heidegger here, one would have to say that the promotion of intersubjective empathy, dialogue, and, ultimately, communion as the goal of free-improvisation falls far short of the authentic task of the artist; indeed, by confusing the very beginnings of art with its têlos nothing essential can get off the ground. To explain: Heidegger's rejection of the philosophy of empathy in Being and Time is based on the fact that such thinking, while claiming to provide an “ontological bridge from one's own subject, which is given proximally as alone, to the other subject, which is proximally quite closed off,”88 confuses the unsociableness of (p.67) beings with the essential solitude of art, which has nothing whatever to do with intersubjectivity or social interaction. The empathic thinking that leaves its mark on so many discourses of improvisation only busies itself with the forging of links between one self and another to the extent that it has forgotten what Heidegger describes as the “being-with” or the primordial togetherness of Dasein. It is only out of this collective or shared ground that the perceived problem of social fragmentation, alienation, and singularity can arise as a secondary issue to be solved by dialogue and participation in the group. Heidegger deals with the question of empathy thus:

    Not only is Being towards Others an autonomous, irreducible relationship of Being: this relationship, as Being-with, is one which, with Dasein's Being, already is. Of course it is indisputable that a lively mutual acquaintanceship on the basis of Being-with often depends upon how far one's essential Dasein has understood itself at the time; but this means that it depends only upon how far one's essential Being with Others has made itself transparent and has not disguised itself. And that is possible only if Dasein, as Being-in-the-world, already is with others. “Empathy” does not first constitute Being-with; only on the basis of Being-with does “empathy” become possible: it gets its motivation from the unsociability of the dominant modes of Being-with.89

    Taking this view, the significance of collective free-improvisation can be better recognized if the dominant perspective, the whole raison d̓être of which is the establishment of a collective aesthetic will, is reversed or turned back upon itself. Instead of transcending the false closure of the artwork and the myopic self-interest of the artist in an orgy of mutual transformation without end, this other perspective would seek to forego the immediate pleasures of social interaction for the sake of a commonality that can be sensed but not enacted as a collective cultural task. These words are chosen carefully. Heidegger's Kantian lineage here remains in evidence: “Being-with” and the sensus communis share the same understanding of an anterior and primordial commonality that, to the extent it takes on presence as a sense, originates the work of art and the artist together. The fact that the enactment of this sense of art—the improvisation—destroys this sense and fails to achieve the unconcealment of Being does not necessarily require either the surpassing of this tragic predicament in the participatory ethics outlined above, but nor does it necessarily (p.68) require the negation of this enactment in a “lowercase” stasis that is in danger of mystifying nothingness rather than substantiating the Being of art. There is another way of addressing this predicament, one that will introduce, as promised, a very un-Heideggerian concept: irony.


    Recalling the earlier discussion of mourning, the following words of Howard Caygill's (and Benjamin's) were cited as an articulation of the latter's melancholic lamentation in the face of the interminable destruction of tradition:

    For Trauerspiel the world was empty, a place of “never-ending repetition” with no possibility of ever becoming genuine or authentic: “For those who looked deeper saw the scene of their existence as a rubbish heap of partial, inauthentic actions.” The world handed down to us by tradition is uncanny, undecipherable, always other.90

    Reading these words again from a different perspective it could be argued that this recognition of the inauthenticity of all aesthetic acts might lead to neither mourning nor tragedy but to irony. If mourning is really taken from the vocabulary of the critic looking on rather than the artist embroiled in the work, and if the tragic is, as Caygill argues, too entrapped in the logic of subjectivity, then perhaps it is irony that allows a way into the production of artworks without the mystifications of selfinvolvement, submission to the logic of the work, or communion with the group.

    Although there is nothing particularly comic about irony—in its essence it is closer to tragedy—it is in what might be called the comedic dimension of improvisation that a certain opening into the ontological play of Being and beings presents itself. One can identify this ironic thread running through, for example, the free-improvisation of musicians (Ben Watson calls them “the comedians”) such as Steve Beresford, Lol Coxhill, Han Bennink, and even the dead-pan severity of Derek Bailey where one senses an acute awareness not just of the self but, crucially, of the forces playing upon the self as an improvisation proceeds (self, work, other). Although all virtuosos in their own different ways, such performers exhibit what could be described as a reflexive knowingness that manifests itself in an uncanny ability to be able to both inhabit an emerging work while, at the same time, observing or listening to that (p.69) work as if from the outside: the inside/outside of irony. In a recent review, Derek Bailey is described, not for the first time, as having achieved a certain egolessness in his contributions to collective improvisations, as Stewart Lee writes: “[Bailey] developed an utterly individual style, at once idiosyncratic and without ego”;91 but this is somewhat misleading, not least because it fails to explain the extraordinary impact Bailey so often has on the manner in which the improvisations to which he contributes emerge. This is far from being selflessness; it is, rather, a particular deployment of the self, one that displays what the romantic ironist Friedrich Schlegel describes as the “infinite agility” of irony, a speed of movement that acts quickly to deflate the inflated, mock the portentous, and reduce the fetishism of “spontaneous creation” (as Eric Clarke aptly describes it) to knockabout anarchy. This is comic, a negative freedom-from the pretensions of the artist and the conventions and constraints of the artwork. But irony is much more than this; it is also the positive freedom-to act, to mark without further ado the unmarked space in the full knowledge that each and every mark could be other. The ironic position is not uncommitted; it is absolutely committed to the now—the moment so celebrated by free-improvisation—but committed to it in its contingency. If, as Niklas Luhmann argues, art is the “emancipation of contingency,”92 and if free-improvisation is the exemplary art form, then it is here that we will witness this liberation most vividly.

    Although it is not a word in his vocabulary, irony is everywhere to be found in Heidegger's thinking, and in particular it is the ontological movement of concealment and unconcealment that brings it into play. More than anything else it is the recognition that, at the level of aesthetic practice, the unconcealment of Being can only begin, and that while this beginning may contain its end the ontological cord that holds beginning and end together is broken by the becoming of the work. But, and this is the crucial point, as long as the occurrence of art continues to begin the beginning (so to speak), then the becoming of the artwork as a work will not destroy its origin in the Being of art—it will not destroy the “uncanny and indecipherable” truth of an authentic tradition. To the extent that it is self-conscious—“knowing”—the becoming of the work will not be destructive but ironic, and irony can destroy nothing; if it could, it would not be irony but critique. Irony does not destroy the Being of art, it brings it into view, not immediately of course, but not mediately either—it does not re-present Being in a degraded form. The irony we are speaking of is not in the form; irony is a manner of inhabiting forms, one that speaks out of that form in order to mark the boundary of its outside. Blanchot and Levinas speak of the “darkness” of the aesthetic outside of (p.70) the illuminated space of the “day.” Rosenzweig speaks of the silence of art “alongside” the world. Søren Kierkegaard, in Fear and Trembling, describes irony as a speaking without speaking:

    First and foremost he [Abraham] does not say anything, and in that form he says what he has to say. His response to Isaac is in the form of irony, for it is always irony when I say something and still do not say anything.93

    Irony, then, does not say one thing and mean another; rather, it speaks in order not to speak. It does not attempt to say what is profoundly unsayable but, at the same time, it recognizes the ontological vacuity of mere silence. The silence of irony is too silent for mere silence.

    What then is the function of the ironic work if it neither destroys nor presents the Being of art in all its truth? Perhaps, above all, it is irony that allows fascination to continue, the fascination necessary to draw both producers and receivers to the artwork again and again to there confront what Blanchot describes as the “image” that is neither immediate or mediate but rather the intoxicating distance that holds the Being and being of art apart. But fascination with the image is not fascination with a thing, an object, or a work, it is the fascination with a movement, with an “infinite agility” that indeed allows a passage through the work but not directly into the primordiality of Being. No, the movement of irony, while capable of shedding the skin of the work and of the artist, nevertheless obscures the Being of beings at the same time, hence the fascination. Without this movement art is lost, either in the being of artists and their artworks filling the world with ever more cultural artifacts, or in the Being of art that, as pure anteriority, has no need of artists or artworks, only Being. Irony is fascinating because it keeps all of the dimensions of the aesthetic in play—artist, artwork, art—but as that which is always absent from itself, dislocated and displaced: in play in fact. And it is free-improvisation, the most playful of art forms, that promises to enact this dislocation—the “permanent parabasis” (interruption) of irony, as Paul de Man describes it94—before our eyes.

    Irony and the Beginning

    So, free-improvisation is exemplary in the manner in which it begins. It draws our attention to the problematical nature of a beginning because it has no prescribed starting point or place. The work may or may not begin, but if it does (it will) it cannot be the thoughtless beginning that (p.71) kicks off the performance of a composed work at the appointed place and time without further ado. Nor can it be the thought-full beginning that, in its overdetermination, will only risk tentative or provisional beginnings on the understanding that everything can always be taken back, erased and rethought and then begun again … and again, or not at all (something like the writing of this book!). When free-improvisations begin, they begin, no turning back, a dramatization of origination that acts as an important reminder that a question mark hovers above the beginning of an artwork, not so much will it or won't it begin, but how? The unmarked space prior to the beginning of the work bears the invisible inscription of a universality and commonality that can be sensed but not decoded or transcribed into the language of the artwork. The transition from the unmarked to the marked space is not a continuous act but represents, rather, a discontinuity, break, or radical disjuncture. From the first moment of an improvisation there is potential for the emergence of irony: Why this rather than that mark? The improvisation begins, but with this body, these materials, this instrument, these words, in this language, the contingency of what is there and available. The hyperawareness of the ironic improvisor is not simply a heightened self-awareness but is, rather, an awareness of the above contingency that must be affirmed if the improvisation is to begin. But of course, by no means all improvisors are of an ironic disposition, a fact borne out by the extraordinary lengths some performers go in their attempts to either commit absolutely to what is at hand in a valiant effort to essentialize the contingent and spiritualize what happens to be there and available; or, conversely, to buck the given in devising ever more impressive strategies to overcome the limitations set by contingency. The above differences are not presented here as psychological types but as possibilities within any improvisation that, in fact, can conceivably be taken up by one and the same improvisor at different moments in an ongoing performance. In a sense these are forces always at work in improvisations, strategies that may or may not be tempting depending on the different desires of the improvisor. For example, essentializing the contingent has enormous expressive potential, while bucking the contingent will appeal to those in pursuit of innovation and originality. But without the necessary ironic distance such strategies endanger the exemplary promise of free-improvisation by reducing it to the ephemerality of individual predilection and the transience of human desire. Indeed, the fact that many improvisors consciously seek a certain ephemerality in their suspicion of the recorded documentation of an improvisation requires that they develop an ability to deploy rather than surrender to the different possibilities at work (p.72) within the work. Contrary to opinion, to repeat, ironists are not uncommitted; on the contrary, they commit themselves to the contingency of forms, recognizing that without commitment improvisations could never get under way. It is not a question of commitment or noncommitment but of an infinite series of commitments that are driven, not by the needs of the improvisor in search of self, but by the demands of the work in search of an aesthetic life beyond the instant of its origination.

    At its best free-improvisation is utterly compelling and, let us be clear, not on account of any microcosmic aesthetic utopia that is too often peddled in its name. And, notwithstanding the above reflections, the most compelling improvisations of all are by no means those governed by the knowingness of irony. In actuality it is the radically contested nature of free-improvisation and the spectacle of this contest at the point of delivery that demands attention and, indeed, allows our participation or intervention. The struggle enacted before our eyes (and ears) does, however, have only psychosocial significance at the level of the performers and their respective positions within the intersubjective space, and so is merely incidental to our central concern, which, in reality, is the more essential struggle of aesthetic forces and the ontological significance of this struggle as a moment in the existential tragedy of Being and beings. It might be remembered that the following passage was cited much earlier as an illustration of Howard Caygill's misgivings regarding the early Heidegger's “tragic” vision of subjectivity. Be that as it may, as a description of free-improvisation it could hardly be bettered:

    By introducing the dialectical logic of subjectivity … [Heidegger] transforms the paradox of tradition into the agonal and tragic struggle of the subject. The resolute subject struggles with tradition in the guise of fate and destiny, and in the struggle finds freedom…. The struggle clears the space for a moment of decision, one in which the past and future may be gathered and granted significance in the present.95

    Perhaps what resonates most here is the recognition that the freedom of free-improvisation is not something that is enacted or expressed therein as the given substance of the performance but is, rather, something the improvisation allows us to find. Free-improvisation then is not the embodiment of freedom but a search for it in the here and now of the work's becoming. In a sense it is the negative freedom that is necessary to free the improvisor and the improvisation from the forces that would devastate it: past works, the artist, the work, the other, the collective. This, (p.73) the clearing of an aesthetic space that brings the improvisor to the “moment of decision,” requires, however, more than brute negativity, which is why the concept of irony has been introduced to allow a more nuanced account of the manner in which the forces at work within the work can be identified, occupied, and held at bay. In this way an ironic positivity is introduced into the destructiveness of negative freedom, which allows the work to emerge and open out into (and this is the irony) the space cleared by the work but tragically inaccessible to it as a work. To find freedom is not to be free, not least because the space cleared by the artwork at the decisive moment illuminates the very freedom that originates the artist and the artwork and that, in its becoming, is lost. Yes, it is true that the becoming of the artwork obscures its origin, but the loss is not absolute—how could it be? Absolute loss could result in neither mourning nor tragedy but only absolute forgetfulness, a blank and aesthetically insignificant oblivion. Instead, the origin is lost and found, darkened and illuminated by the artwork: concealed and unconcealed.

    Thought ideally, free-improvisation begins in freedom and ends with freedom before it, but it is itself unfree. This observation is not critical, it is affirmative. There are degrees of unfreedom from the most ignorant to the most knowing, and to know one is unfree (the tragic knowledge of the ironist) is, perhaps, itself a kind of freedom. (p.74)


    (1.) Anthony Braxton, quoted in Dean, New Structures in Jazz and Improvised Music since 1960, 133.

    (2.) See, for example, Monson, “Oh Freedom: George Russell, John Coltrane, and Modal Jazz,” which begins as follows: “Improvisation has often been taken as a metaphor for freedom both musical and social, especially in jazz. The image of improvisation as freedom became especially pronounced in the jazz world of the 1960s when the free jazz of Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, and others catalyzed aesthetic and political debates within the jazz community and music industry. The political contexts of the civil rights movement in the U.S. and the independence movements on the African continent surely informed the accelerated conflation of musical and political freedom” (149).

    (3.) Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty, 56.

    (4.) Ibid., 16.

    (5.) Ibid., 12.

    (6.) Ibid., 16.

    (7.) Dean, New Structures in Jazz and Improvised Music since 1960, 133.

    (8.) Marcuse, Eros and Civilisation, 136.

    (9.) Kant, Critique of Judgement, 58.

    (10.) Quoted in Toop, Haunted Weather, 187.

    (11.) Toop, “Communality or Virtual Sculpture.”

    (12.) For an extended discussion of this, see my “Means without End.”

    (13.) Bernstein, The Fate of Art, chap. 1.

    (14.) Kant, Critique of Judgement, 27–28.

    (15.) Ibid., 82–83.

    (p.173) (16.) Foster, “Taken by Surprise,” 7.

    (17.) Bernstein, The Fate of Art, 60–61.

    (18.) Ibid., 95.

    (19.) Ibid., 124.

    (20.) Kant, Critique of Judgement, 181, quoted in Bernstein, The Fate of Art, 94.

    (21.) Bernstein, The Fate of Art, 95.

    (23.) Ibid., 63.

    (24.) Ibid., 65.

    (25.) Caygill, “Benjamin, Heidegger and the Destruction of Tradition,” 21.

    (26.) Ibid., 17.

    (27.) Ibid., 20.

    (28.) Ibid., 29.

    (29.) Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, Vol. 1, 33.

    (30.) Heidegger, Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics, 105.

    (31.) This is part of an unpublished passage quoted in the film Derrida, directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman (Jane Doe Films, 2002).

    (32.) Prevost, No Sound Is Innocent, 60 (emphases added).

    (33.) Bailey, Improvisation, 35.

    (34.) Foster, “Taken by Surprise,” 4.

    (35.) Richter, “Notes,” 1047.

    (36.) Johnstone, Impro for Storytellers, 34–36.

    (37.) Kant, Critique of Judgement, 152.

    (38.) Ibid., 153.

    (39.) Ibid., 152–53.

    (40.) Ibid., 153.

    (41.) Bailey, Improvisation, 83.

    (42.) Johnstone, Impro for Storytellers, 130.

    (43.) Heidegger, Being and Time, 157ff.

    (44.) Johnstone, Impro for Storytellers, 19.

    (45.) Johnstone, Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre, 13 (emphasis added).

    (46.) Kant, Critique of Judgement, 84 (emphasis added).

    (47.) Ibid., 140 (emphasis added).

    (48.) Ibid., 137.

    (49.) Caygill, “Benjamin, Heidegger, and the Destruction of Tradition,” 20.

    (50.) Kierkegaard, Training in Christianity, 152–53.

    (51.) See Bryson, Vision and Painting.

    (52.) Haring, “Untitled Statement (1984),” 370.

    (53.) Kant, Critique of Judgement, 137:

    Hence it is that a youthful poet refuses to allow himself to be dissuaded from the conviction that his poem is beautiful, either by the judgement of the public or his friends. And even if he lends them an ear, he does so, not because he has now come to a different judgement, but because, though the whole public, at least as far as his work is concerned, should have a false (p.174) taste, he still, in his desire for recognition, finds good reason to accommodate himself to the popular error (against his own judgement). It is only in aftertime, when his judgement has been sharpened by exercise, that of his own free will and accord he deserts his former judgements.

    (54.) Albright and Gere, Taken by Surprise, xv.

    (55.) Johnstone, Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre, 11.

    (56.) Levinas, “Reality and Its Shadow,” 4.

    (57.) Watson, Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation, 220.

    (58.) Quoted in ibid., 221.

    (59.) Hill, “Stepping, Stealing, Sharing, and Daring,” 90 (first and last emphases added).

    (60.) Blanchot, The Infinite Conversation, 108.

    (61.) Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption, 309.

    (62.) See Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man.

    (63.) Rosenzweig, Star of Redemption, 309.

    (64.) Ibid., 81.

    (65.) Ibid., 150.

    (66.) Ibid., 190.

    (67.) Ibid., 148.

    (68.) Ibid., 77.

    (70.) Watson, Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation, 289.

    (71.) Ibid., 294.

    (72.) Johnstone, Impro for Storytellers, 89.

    (73.) Ibid., 94.

    (74.) Ibid., 66–67.

    (75.) Ibid., 339.

    (76.) Ibid., 340.

    (77.) Ibid., 23.

    (78.) Benjamin, Origin of German Tragic Drama, 45.

    (79.) Caygill, Walter Benjamin, 58.

    (80.) Benjamin, Origin of German Tragic Drama, 45.

    (81.) Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” 76.

    (82.) Clarke, “Improvisation, Cognition and Education,” 799.

    (83.) Ibid., 800.

    (84.) Johnstone, Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre, 45.

    (85.) Prevost, No Sound Is Innocent, 67.

    (86.) Johnstone, Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre, 37.

    (87.) Prevost, No Sound Is Innocent, 67.

    (88.) Heidegger, Being and Time, 162.

    (89.) Ibid. (emphases added).

    (90.) Caygill, “Benjamin, Heidegger, and the Destruction of Tradition,” 20.

    (91.) Stewart Lee, review of Bruise with Derek Bailey (CD), Sunday Times, April 23, 2006, Arts and Entertainment section.

    (p.175) (92.) Luhmann, Art as a Social System, 309.

    (93.) Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 118.

    (94.) De Man, Blindness and Insight, 178–79.

    (95.) Caygill, “Benjamin, Heidegger, and the Destruction of Tradition,” 17.