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Gary Peters: It Gives: The There and the Given in Improvisational Space

Music is commonly thought of as a uniquely temporal art, unfolding in time, on the edge of a future always about to arrive. It is the anticipatory art par exellence, full of expectation and thus the most perfect vehicle for the infinite longing and yearning of humankind. Interestingly though, musicians rarely speak of their art in these terms, often exhibiting what might be called a spatial rather than a temporal imagination. Here are some examples.

On listening back in the studio to some of his late electric work in the 80’s, Miles Davis (with his characteristic modesty) remarked upon the unique way he placed his synthesiser chords and interjections within the musical space. Not at the right time, but in the right place. And this is very typical of jazz musicians, who constantly talk about the space of the music, ‘giving each other space’ and of the failure to create space. Sun Ra took this to one extreme; here is a typical fragment from a review of his work:

Sun Ra, who claimed his hometown as Saturn, was infatuated by space. He was fascinated by the endless possibilities of the cosmos and their subsequent spirituality, but he was also captivated by the space within a song. To Sun Ra, music was an infinite space with no boundaries for his musicians. On the aforementioned albums and others such as We Travel The Spaceways Sun Ra pushed a song’s space to its outermost limits.

Less intergalactic, the country songstress Emmylou Harris in a recent documentary - Down from the Mountain - speaks of allowing music its ‘living room’ thus neatly encompassing both the quasi-spiritual space typical of much jazz discourse with the domestic down-homeness associated with (or imagined by) bluegrass music. Speaking of which offers me the opportunity to describe a performance by the Del McCoury Band (a fine bluegrass outfit), one that offered a visual, not to say balletic, illustration of Emmylou’s drift.

A family band - father and sons - perform around only one central microphone, a symbol of one-ness and unity contra the separation and fragmentation of close mic-ing and individual monitoring more typical of concert performance today. The microphone is set at an optimum height for both singing and instrumental soloing, thus offering a vertical as well as a horizontal spatial structure within which to perform. The visual result is as follows. Del, father and lead singer/guitarist, standing in the middle of the semi-circle that curves back to embrace and locate the other family members, must stoop slightly in order to sing into the mic, thus staging a subtle descent to the level of his accompanists (of which he too is one: guitar) thus visually articulating an assumed equality that informs (or beckons) such music: a familial ethic. On completing his vocal line, Del straightens his back (he’s quite tall, about six foot?), steps back, thus allowing enough space for one of the family members to step forward in order to contribute an instrumental interjection. Approaching the mic, the individual sons must––contra Del––raise their bodies up so as to amplify their instruments (mandolin, banjo, etc), thus echoing the descent of the father with an ascent of their own. At the same time as this process of equalization takes place a balletic rotation of bodies is set in motion, where each individual member participates in the weaving of a visual space that allows the free movement of each body within the necessary confinement of such an amplified domain: the perfect representation of domesticate space: ‘living room’. Not the interstellar space preferred by certain jazz and rock musicians, but the cramped intimacy of the hearth and home.

What is interesting here is that it is precisely the moment of improvisation that articulates this space by setting it in motion. The dialectic of rehearsed given structures––the song––delivered from known static locations or positions on the one hand, and extemporized passages––improvisations––visualized as a transition from one location to another and then back again on the other, brings into play a reproductive and productive process, respectively, that, if considered, might help us understand better how the artwork (music in this case) allows, to use Paul Ricouer’s terminology, a ‘world’ to ‘unfold’ before us.

But of course I am not talking about the visual world that unfolds before us, beautiful though it may be in the case of the Del McCoury Band, but the world of the work that is, in a sense, analogous to the visual traces just described. But what is this world?

It is true that the thought of an aesthetic world unfolding does suggest temporality rather than spatiality, but such a linear mode of thinking ignores the fact that what unfolds, or is unfolded by the musician, is always already there, unfolding being closer to Heidegger’s notion of ‘unconcealment’ than it is to spontaneous origination. It is the sense of being situated within what Hegel in his Aesthetics calls the ‘there and available’ that might help explain the spatial sense of the musician, one that has only been seriously resisted by so-called free improvisation which in its purest form attempts to produce a space to inhabit rather than reproduce a habitable space. The success or failure of this project will be put aside for the moment but what is clear is that the musical space for most musicians, their ‘world’, is already ‘there and available’. But this there-ness is not simply given, in fact I would like to make a distinction between the there and the given: everything is there but not everything is given.

A way of approaching this, which I’m going to try out today, is through a comparison of the German ‘es gibt’ (preferred by Heidegger) and the French ‘il y a’ ( the ‘there-is’ preferred by Levinas). Where the latter is concerned with an anonymous there-ness that rumbles in an absolute alterity, the former suggests a link between being and the gift which brings forward and offers up what is there. Thinking visually, the Levinasian ‘il y a’ would be ground without figure, while the Heideggerian ‘es gibt’ would suggest an interpenetration of figure and ground where the there undulates with the approach and retreat, the opening and closing of what is given and what is not––always the same, always different. This final thought will run through the following somewhat tentative reflections.

I would like to start by mentioning some comments made by the flamenco guitarist Paco Pena in a conversation on improvisation with Derek Bailey. To begin with, Paco Pena speaks of his music as an idiomatic space ( he never mentions time, but speaks instead of place, weight, height, direction and movement) this space is, for him, a totality, as he says, he would consider it a failure if he wasn’t able to ‘resolve’ what he wanted to do within flamenco.While accepting there is an outside, it is the occupation of the inside of this musical space and the ‘responsibility’ for it that defines his conception of the improvisor’s task. His idiom is always there but the manner in which it is given is endlessly transformed through improvisation. Pena’s primary aim is to ‘maintain authenticity’, as Bailey puts it, the authenticity of the music that is, not the musician––this is not a humanist existential aesthetic. In other words, the idiom is ‘there and available’ but that is not its authentic being, pristine and untouchable, rather, its authenticity can only be given, again and again through an ever-changing series of movements that repeat and transform simultaneously. Paco Pena puts it like this:

I…consider improvisation to actually change the weight of a piece from one place to another. Change the direction. I mean you might play roughly the same piece and yet because you are feeling quite different, you are producing a completely different piece of music––really and truly.

To give the weight due to them here; yes, ‘really and truly’, it is in the real and the true that authenticity must be located which, for Pena, is in the production of difference through repetition, a concatenation familiar to Deleuze:

…we must distinguish two forms of repetition…The first is repetition of the Same…; the second includes difference... One is negative…; the other affirmative, occurring by excess in the Idea…One is static, the other dynamic…One is extensive, the other intensive. One is ordinary, the other distinctive and singular.

Once again, I will pick up on these final words as an arc back to Paco Pena: a repetition that is ‘distinctive and singular’ is the reality and truth of the authentic (or authenticating) improvisation. On the one hand, the repetition of the same leaves the there in place, on the other hand, the repetition that ‘includes difference’ and alterity is, as Deleuze observes affirmative and excessive, indeed, the affirmation of excess, one that awaits the infinite over-spilling of the there into the given. As Derek Bailey describes it, the improviser awaits the arrival of what is given:

One thing which quickly becomes apparent in any improvisation is that one spends very little time looking for ‘new’ things to play. The instinctive choice as well as the calculated choice is usually for tried material. Improvisation is hardly ever deliberately experimental. When the ‘new’ arrives, if it arrives,it appears to come of its own accord.

‘Es gibt’, it gives. The improviser does not give. Improvisation is not the giving of what is there. The there gives what is there, the improviser does not give, the improviser accepts.

But, to be clear, this is not a mystification of the creative process, the acceptance of what is given is by no means a passive process, one has to learn how to take what is offered, snatching is by no means a sign of bad manners in improvisation, it is essential. The virtuosity associated with much improvisation has a great deal to do with speed, but not, as is commonly thought, speed around the instrument (although this might have an important secondary role to play). No, speed has a different function, it concerns the speed of thought, of the ear, eye and body, both a mental and physical agility that is able to grasp what is given. As the French organist Jean Langlais says:

The most important thing for an improviser is to be able to think quickly. Fast. …any exercise for improvisation should allow less and less time for its performance so that the improviser is obliged to think faster and faster.

The ability to take what is given, the movement of acceptance that, as repetition and difference, re-animates and re-mobilises what is there, suggests a mode of improvisation that shares little with those, perhaps more familiar models, which make no distinction between what is there and what is given and thus wage war against both. Deleuze offers a perfect example of this in a discussion of Cezanne:

An entire battle takes place on the canvas between the painter and these givens. There is thus a preparatory work that belongs to painting fully, and yet precedes the act of painting…Now this act, or these acts, presuppose that there were already figurative givens on the canvas…more or less virtual, more or less actual. It is precisely these givens that will be removed by the act of painting.

As he proceeds, Deleuze, in turning his attention to Francis Bacon, and in an interesting move, collapses the given and the cliché, suggesting that improvisation, as it relates to chance and accident in Bacon’s modus operandus, must first clear away all those clichés that clog up aesthetic space and which constantly threaten to re-invade the virgin territory of pure creativity.

Clichés, clichés! The situation has hardly improved since Cezanne…even the reactions against clichés are creating clichés. Even abstract painting has not been the last to produce its own clichés…Every imitator has always made the cliché rise up again, even from what had been freed from the cliché. The fight against clichés is a terrible thing.

As can be seen, the prior removal of the given and the cliché is part of an aesthetic strategy intent on critiquing the act of imitation and the (disgraced) figure of the imitator. But, what would the artwork be without imitation? And, while we are at it, show me an artist who isn’t an imitator! Yes, to read him contrary to his intention, the fight against the cliché is a ‘terrible thing’, in that it would, if successful, destroy the very substance of the artwork and obliterate the ‘world’ of the work that can only ‘unfold’, as Paul Ricouer rightly insists, by passing through three related stages of mimesis.

There is not time or space to go into detail now, only to say that what is significant here is that unlike Deleuze and Bacon, Ricouer’s conception of imitation is active not passive. As he writes:

…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…I shall be defending the primacy of the activity that produces plots in relation to every static structure, achronological paradigm, or temporal invariant. This…excludes any interpretation of…mimesis in terms of a copy or identical replica. Imitating or representing is a mimetic activity inasmuch as it produces something, namely, the organization of events by emplotment. (my emphases)

Thought of in terms of narrative structure, mimesis here is concerned with the organization of time into a series of identifiable and identifying events (Ricouer’s perspective), but thought in terms of emplotment, mimesis can also be conceived as a placing of the self within a circumscribed space, within a plot in fact, one that gives itself up for mimetic representation. In this regard, and contrary to Deleuze/Bacon, all aesthetic production is imitative to the extent that what is there can only be given by taking up again the available interpretative structures the make the world meaningful as a ‘world’.

I would now like to make some links between the mimetic process, improvisation and the desire for authenticity expressed by Paco Pena.

For Deleuze/Bacon the there and the given are collapsed into each other, thus resulting in the clichéd clichés that must be removed before the art-work can begin. To repeat such clichés is indeed the epitome of inauthenticity, rightly giving the cliché a bad name and leaving dead forms dead in spite of their after-life as the all-too-familiar that clogs up the world of art. Here the work, as there and given, does not unfold, it arrives pre-packed, pre-pared, ready for use. The authenticity of a work - its ‘truth’ - has little or nothing to do with its status as an aesthetic object or its value as an authenticated document of an originary and originating gesture. The authenticity of a work concerns rather the space it allows for the moment and movement of repetition, thought mimetically as the imitation of what is there. The act of imitation - mimetic action - does not take what is there, it accepts what is given, quickly! The urgent snatch of the authentic imitator should be distinguished from the somnambulant embrace of the inauthentic imitator. What is given can be taken away in an instant, what is there is there, always, even while we sleep. One demands speed and agility, the other allows lethargy and laziness.

The space opened within the authentic work of art is the space within the same. Everything is the same but it sounds different. It is not the ‘same sameness’ spoken of by Kierkegaard in Repetition, but a different sameness, one better thought of in terms of Nietzsche’s ‘eternal recurrence of the same’, where the same contains a difference that endlessly returns. Thought thus, the improviser’s task is not primarily the production of difference in the face of the same, but the articulation of the difference within the same, the difference between the there and the given. This, of course, is precisely the role of the ‘repeat’ in classical music, something not normally associated with improvisation. But listening to Glenn Gould for instance (an extreme case) where repetition is used precisely to intensify the experience of difference, the improvisational space opened up between the there and the given is only too apparent. This is a space shared by Paco Pena as well as Emmylou Harris and the Del McCoury Band mentioned at the outset.

To return to the beginning, a living room is not simply somewhere where one lives, it is a living room, somewhere that is alive. But this life, while there, is only potentially given reliant as it is on (to use Walter Benjamin’s vocabulary) ‘illumination’ by the artist, the musician, the inhabitants of this all-too-familiar space. I think of a pinball machine, where it is the movement of the ball and its collision with what is there that illuminates the space in an ever-changing way, in spite of the circumscription of this movement. Collision is putting it too strongly no doubt, but in coming upon what is already there, by inhabiting the musical space in a manner that is attentive to what is there more can be given, more can be illuminated through a process of infinite differentiation that remains, nevertheless, imitative. What keeps a space alive is our attempt to live what others have lived, the taking up of these other lives left as traces to be re-illuminated and allowed to ‘flare up’ in what can be seen and heard all around us. Benjamin would call this ‘redemption’, the calling back into life, into a living space, of all those who have been sacrificed to time’s passing. This is the resonance of space, re-sonance, the re-sounding of what has always already been sounded. Improvisation is not then concerned so much with the endless creation of the new, of pure, originary sonance (so to speak), but, in allowing the there to resonate, allowing it to give (or illuminate) itself again, through the resonator to be sure, the musician.

Speaking of resonation, a crucial figure in British free improvisation, the drummer John Stevens, used to describe himself as ‘the Ear’, a resonating organ, a tympan, to echo Derrida’s discussion in Margins of Philosophy. But what did he, and those educated by him, and the ‘scene’ of which he was such an influential part, hear? In my experience (I played with Stevens on a number of occasions) above all else he heard the moment, he heard what was given at the instant of its emergence. The space of the improvisation was a terrain marked out as the articulation of a ‘now’, the product of a listening almost terroristic in its erasure of the past, an imposed ‘active forgetting’ more extreme than anything imagined by Nietzsche who coined the term, and himself an accomplished improvisor.

Notwithstanding the spatial language Stevens shared with other improvisors, this was, and is a profoundly temporal model of improvisation where giving the other ‘space’ is really to give them time, time to listen and respond to what is given, one to another in the ‘occurrence’ (Heidegger) or ‘event’ (Derrida) of the work as it erupts (Rosenzweig) now.

What I am grasping for today is something different to this, something that suggests another mode of listening. The John Stevens model conceives of time dialogically as question/answer, call/response, yes/no…and so on, a listening, to be sure, but, perhaps, closer to what Rosenzweig called the ‘listening of the eye’ rather than the ‘listening of the ear’, a listening, that is, where the interlocutors are always looking for an opening in which to respond and, more than this, for a way of speaking even when silent. Rosenzweig’s concern is my concern here today, he puts it like this:

… 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 actually 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.

This other listening, this ‘hearing of the ear’ will here, in conclusion, be related to improvisational space.

As with Deleuze/Bacon, the ‘hearing of the eye’ must remove the there in order to give and give again––­­even taking is giving, as listening is speaking. An obsessive giving where the gift becomes monstrous––Stevens was in fact a tyrannical ear! Hearing become hellish! A giant orifice swallowing everything up, lording it over a totalitarian regime of terrorised and terrified responsiveness.

The ‘listening of the eye’ fills space with sound even when there is silence, while the ‘listening of the ear’ , as Rosenzweig understands it, hearkens to the silence of art. The ‘listening of the ear’ is a double listening hearing both the sound of what is given and the silent presence of the there: sotto voce (beneath the voice). Within this situation the improvisor must be responsive to, must hear, not only what is given but what is given to the giver (whether self or other) through the ever-shifting unconcealment of what is (silently) there.

Without improvisation, the given collapses into the there, reducing music to the re-presentation of dead forms, immured in the bedrock of an untouchable origin: bad clichés, bad repetition, dead space.

With improvisation, of the kind promoted by self-proclaimed ‘improvisors’, the there collapses into the given, reducing music to the re-sonation (or, better, re-verberation) of a hyper-life, immured in the instant of its production: fear of clichés, fear of repetition, living time.

With the model of improvisation I am groping for today the there and the given coexist as a resonation which roots the instant of production in its authenticating ground understood both as a past time and a present space, a time that remains alive to the extent that it makes itself ‘available’ within the space in which the improviser moves. This is the crux of the matter: improvisation as a movement, an endless transition within the same eternally differentiating space, a mimetic act that, in the repetition of what is always already there, in taking up again and again what the there gives, raising it up to the mic, like the McCoury boys, as the gift of the there; this is where the authentic silence of the artwork, the silent presence of the other resonating in those familiar sounds (good clichés), this is where that silence surrounds the improviser and ensures that the familiar is never familiar enough, never owned but borrowed over and over again, a strange gift that must be taken and re-taken quickly before this silence is silenced by the there or the given in their separate existences and there separate musics.

The space of improvisation, like all space is un-owned: property is owned, not space. Indeed the primary task of the improviser is the separation of space and property, the protection of space from the proprietor (including oneself). The ‘world’ that ‘unfolds’ before the improviser is not his or her world, in fact there is no space of improvisation per se, it is the other way round: it is improvisation that makes space possible as a ‘world’ to ‘unfold’.

To borrow the phenomenologists notion of a lifeworld for a moment, to live in a world that is alive, one that is infinitely unfolding rather than held in place by proprietorial rights, is a task rather than a gift. The there is given, to be sure, but it is knowing how to take what is given that is the secret of the improvisers art, an aesthetic act that must contain speed (as we have seen) and attention in equal measure. That is, the attentiveness to sense when something different is happening within the repetition of the same, coupled with the presence of mind and heart to put this difference to work within the work. An agility that allows the ‘world’ of the work (and the world) to unfold differently, the same work but with a different weight, breadth, depth, height even (Paco Pena speaks of height remember), another direction, another destination. These changes resonate in the music, not in (or only in) the virtuosic transcendence of the ‘improvisor’, giving him/herself as a gift, but in the silent or barely audible movements beneath the voice where what is there is given differently. Such difference can be held momentarily, not held still but grasped in its movement by the improviser, thus resonating in an infinite number of ways: a breath, a pause, an attack; a sudden liveliness or calm; an intensity, an intensive movement where, as Deleuze detects in the nomadic thought of Nietzsche, movement takes place ‘on the spot’, in a place where the same eternally returns as the same difference. Adorno says somewhere that it is impossible to express joy in music, only grief is expressive.

But the joy of the improviser is prior to expression being the enjoyment of a world that is alive with the infinite differentiation of the there and the given. The improviser expresses nothing, (or nothing of importance), their task is to improvise, not give. To be sure improvisation can be the most expressive of arts, but only to the extent that the improviser is sacrificed to what is given…the ‘it’. Derrida grasped this better than most, we will conclude with his words:

It’s not easy to improvise, it’s the most difficult thing to do. Even when one improvises in front of a camera or a microphone, one ventriloquizes or leaves another to speak in one’s place. The schemas and languages that are already there, there are already a great number of prescriptions, that are prescribed in our memory and our culture. All the names are already preprogrammed. It’s already the names that inhibit our ability to ever really improvise. One can’t say whatever one wants, one is obliged, more or less,to reproduce the stereotypical discourse. And so I believe in improvisation, and 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.

Derrida is right, we may well not find ourselves there–at the place of improvisation–or if we are there, bearing down on this space enraptured by a dubious autonomy, perhaps it will be necessary to absent ourselves in order for improvisation to be itself: the peculiar resonance of a silent oblivion stretched-out across the persistent formulas and clichés of human longing.