This photograph is of Evan Parker and Paul G. Smyth playing upstairs in the National Concert Hall in Dublin last month. This was part of an ongoing series of improvised duo concerts that Paul has organised in conjunction with Note Productions, and features a range of leading figures from the improv world. Evan Parker is, of course, something of a legend in that scene, and over the years has also played on records by people like Scott Walker and Robert Wyatt to boot. The gig was really great – far more coherent and accessible than I expected it to be. Fully improvised music can be somewhat hit and miss for me. I sometimes find it invigorating, as if I am up there with the players on that weird tight-rope trying to collectively negotiate a path from one point to another. The in-the-moment nature of the experience can be exhilarating and exciting and when that happens it seems like all music should be like this. At other times though, it completely loses me, and I find myself longing for a tune or a song or something else I can latch on to, and wondering what I am doing actually listening to this stuff.
A few days after photographing their concert I stumbled across a short text on free improvisation by the philosopher Ray Brassier1. It’s called “Unfree Improvisation/Compulsive Freedom” and in it he uses this concept of free improvisation in music as a jumping off point to sketch out a particular model of what constitutes a “free act” and what the underlying conditions are that would need to be in place for such a thing to occur. His conclusion is essentially that there is no such thing, or at least not in the way that we commonly understand it. I’m going to try and summarise his argument here, mostly as a means of trying to understand it myself. But first, a bit of context.
Ray Brassier is a contemporary philosopher who was initially associated with the movement known as speculative realism. This was a group of thinkers interested in moving philosophy away from what they see as a post-Kantian impasse that limits the scope of its concerns to human experience and human subjectivity. Though the people who were labelled as speculative realists differ in many ways (and Brassier has disassociated himself from it) they generally share an engagement with previously unfashionable notions of realism, an interest in and respect for scientific inquiry, and a rejection of many of the core tenets of major 20th Century philosophical frameworks such as phenomenology and postmodernism. This characterisation somehow makes them sound like reactionary throwbacks, but this would be entirely unfair because what you also get with SR, or perhaps more accurately with the broader world of theoretical investigation that it is part of, is an enthusiastic engagement with critical contemporary concerns such as technology, neuroscience, ecology and finance. (On a side note, I always find it amusing that people in philosophy circles often seem to refer to Ray Brassier simply as “Ray”, and similarly refer to Graham Harman as “Graham”. It reminds me a certain species of music fan who insists on referring to guitar virtuoso Joe Satriani as “Joe”, as if there were no other “Joe” we could possibly be talking about).
Brassier’s article is essentially a critique of one particular take on what free improvisation is, and in a broader sense, a critique of one particular take on what constitutes free acts of will on the part of the human subject. His target here is what he identifies as voluntarism – the idea that there is a unified conscious self that voluntarily decides to do particular things at particular moments. In other words, our acts are acts of this conscious will, and freedom resides in the ability of this conscious will to decide when and how to act. Under this definition, we could understand free improvisation as being a direct manifestation of the conscious will. The improvisers continually decide when and how to act, and the resultant notes and sounds constitute the perceivable traces of these free acts of will. I spoke to Evan Parker before the set and asked him if it would be divided into sections or pieces and he said that he didn’t know as the intention would be to improvise the actual structure as well as the content. So, the kind of improvisation that we are talking about here is almost a limit case of this notion of freedom, as it is not bound by any kind of pre-determined harmonic or even structural templates.
What’s the problem with this then? Well for Brassier the problem with this is that it relies on a bunch of notions of the self and the will, that are, as he puts it, “dubitable to say the least”. He suggests that voluntarism absolutizes the will into “an occult force exercised by a sovereign self”, presumably meaning that such an approach bars any discussion or critical investigation into what the self and the will actually are, or even whether there are any grounds for believing these things exist in the first place. Brassier is far from alone in questioning or dismissing these traditional notions of what we are. I’ve just started reading Thomas Metzinger’s book The Ego Tunnel 2, the central premise of which is that there is no such thing as the self. Metzinger is a neuroscientist and a philosopher, so his grounds for making this assertion are rooted both in the philosophy of mind and in cutting-edge contemporary neuroscience.
Brassier’s alternative to this way of thinking rejects the idea of the self determining its own acts and instead suggests that it is the “act that determines itself”. By this he means that there is no overall governing power that sets our acts in motion, no central controller deciding what to do and when to do it, but rather that agency lies within the acts themselves; they are self-determining, or as he puts it, self-determination should be understood as the “act acting on itself”. This suggests to me something similar to how various forms of distributed processing work in computing, particularly ones aimed at generating emergent behaviour. Instead of having one central program directing operations, processing is distributed around multiple nodes, units or objects, each of which is largely autonomous and determines its own actions.
The questions then arises as to what it is that determines or motivates the behaviour embodied in the act, that is if it is not determined or motivated by the self. Brassier offers the idea that behaviours can be guided by patterns or by rules and thus we have both pattern-governed behaviour and rule-conforming behaviour. Before explaining what he means by both of these it is useful to note his claim that an act is the result of the superimposition of both of these levels, and cannot be reduced to one or the other. It is the “intrication of these two levels” that both produces the act and gives it the complexity needed to be self-determining; and therefore not just a blind process that is switched on and off at will by the all-seeing and all-knowing self. So what are these patterns and rules?
He is a little clearer on the patterns than he is on the rules but broadly speaking patterns seem to be things that are biologically determined whereas rules are cultural in origin. The example of pattern-governed behaviour that is cited is that of the dance of the bee, which communicates information to other bees about the location of nearby flowers. It doesn’t make sense to suggest that there is intention at work here on the part of the bee: it is not consciously acting to follow a particular pattern in order to engage in communication with its fellow bees. However, it also seems unhelpful to locate intention or causality in the pattern of the dance itself: where would this pattern be actually represented or located? So what we have here is an act that seems purposeful, it is adaptive to circumstances, and it seems to be governed by a pattern; yet we have no internal or external representation of this pattern in those entities that are involved in creating it. There is some sort of biological disposition at work here: the bee has evolved to behave in this way. But it is not a free act, even though it is adaptive to circumstance.
The implication here is that all organisms are subject to these sorts of biological impulses, patterns of behaviour that we somewhat blindly follow – I don’t have to consciously decide to breathe in order to stay alive for example. However in addition to this we exhibit rule-conforming behaviour where these rules are rooted in social and cultural dispositions as opposed to biological ones. Brassier says that these patterns and rules form the “enabling conditions” for free acts. Merely following them does not constitute such an act, even if there is adaptivity involved i.e. even if the specifics of their execution varies according to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. However, they must be in place in order to provide the context in which free acts can occur. Or, as Brassier puts it, we must acquire the ability to conform to a rule before we can “become able to act because of a rule”. I interpret this as meaning that organisms may have a complex set of underlying patterns and rules that govern their behaviour but merely conforming to this program is not enough to constitute a (free) act. To act requires some sort of meta-representation of this program that allows it to be recognised as a set of rules and then, as opposed to constraints, these rules become “motivating reason for action”. If this happens, then we have something that we can refer to as a (free) act.
The interesting thing about all this is that the “voluntarist” approach, which Brassier is rejecting, might not find too much too quibble with in the outline I have given above. It might simply say that yes, of course there are rules and patterns governing our behaviour, but it is the conscious self that can transcend these biological and cultural constraints as and when it sees fit. This is what marks us out from the animal or the machine. However, this would be a mis-reading of what Brassier is getting at. He is identifying the “self” directly with this program of patterns and rules, and suggesting that selfhood is “tyrannical” as it is “merely a congerie of drives”. In other words, what we commonly refer to as the “self” is actually a set of biological and cultural dispositions. We move beyond that, and by doing so initiate truly free acts, not by using that same self to transcend itself, but by allowing those acts to initiate themselves, to essentially leapfrog the self altogether. Subjectivity then becomes rooted in these acts, not in the self per se.
The question that has to be answered here is what sorts of conditions need to be in place in order for these acts to actually happen. If the dance of the bee does not constitute a free act then is there some other way a bee could give rise to an act? Or maybe some complex system of which the bee is but one part? It seems not. Brassier suggests that the underlying conditions that need to be in place (as well as an underlying system of patterns and rules) involve the code being recognised or represented as code. So, there is some sort of meta-representation of the patterns and rules in place so that they can be responded to (or altered or broken) as patterns and rules. Metzinger associates consciousness with something like this sort of meta-representation. His concept of the ego-tunnel postulates our phenomenological experience of the world as being a complex representation that is continually being revised and updated. Consciousness only emerges with an awareness of the fact that this is a representation; when, in other words, we have a representation of the representation. This seems to be something very similar to what Brassier is saying, with his notion of the rule being recognised as a rule. However, Brassier is quite clear that his acts should not be confused with consciousness, claiming that his thesis “requires no appeal to an awareness of a conscious self”. These acts are mechanical and anonymous in nature and are compelled into being when certain conditions are in place, not when the conscious self decides to initiate them. To get back to the original question of the bee, it might be argued that the bee does not have a complex enough neural structure in order to facilitate the construction of these meta-representations. In Metzinger’s terms this means that the bee is not conscious. In Brassier’s, this means that the bee cannot initiate free acts.
So what does this mean for the concept of free improvisation? Well firstly it means that any understanding of free improvisation as an expression of the musician’s conscious self is wrong. The notes played are not free acts of will, or at least not free acts of will in the voluntarist sense. If there is a conscious self dictating what is happening, then this is a mere following of patterns and rules, and while we might call it improvisation on the basis that it adapts to circumstance, it is not “free” in the way that Brassier defines it. Secondly it means that in order to actually be free, the musician must give up his/her sense of self, as it is the self that is the obstacle to the emergence of free acts. Brassier suggests that the improviser must be prepared to “act as an agent” on “behalf of whatever mechanisms are capable of effecting the acceleration or confrontation required for releasing the act”. If this happens, then we have something that truly is free.
It’s not hard to find examples within the informal discourse of musicians that would appear to parallel this sort of thinking. For example players will talk about being ‘in the zone’, about not being entirely sure what it was that they played after playing it, and improvisers of Parker’s generation often referred to the notion of ‘egoless’ playing – though admittedly this often had political associations as opposed to psychoanalytic or philosophical ones (egoless playing referred to an aspiration to have a non-hierarchical structure in collective improvisation situations, with no one player dominating or dictating proceedings). We also find it in more formal channels. Here is Derek Bailey from his book Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music:
One of the things which quickly becomes apparent in any improvising is that one spends very little time looking for ‘new’ things to play … When the ‘new’ arrives, if it arrives, it appears to come of it’s own accord 3.
What Bailey seems to be suggesting here is that if an improviser consciously searches for the ‘new’, he/she won’t find it. His idea that it comes of it’s own accord is strikingly similar to Brassier’s contention that the free act is not initiated by the self, but somehow self-determining in itself. There is an excellent interview with Evan Parker from 1987 where he also touches on some of these issues 4. While he specifically rejects the idea of ‘egoless playing’ (particularly in the context of collective improvisation) he also acknowledges that “too rigid a sense of self can be very detrimental to the freest kind of improvisation”. He cites the example of a centipede and suggests that if a centipede had to consciously concentrate on how to walk it would not be able to do so. So, if he has to think too much about what he is playing he wouldn’t be able to continue. His process is to “take things to a certain point and get things happening and then they work best on their own” (my italics). Parker also says that “there are patterns that I refer to over and over again”. These are “fixed points” that kick off the process, a process that then seems to unfold somewhat unconsciously, and that works best “if I just allow it to happen”. This is by no means to align Parker’s approach with some sort of vague and wooly quasi-mystical tapping into the cosmic unconscious (the world of free jazz has its fair share of that) but rather to point out that it indicates something of an affinity with Brassier’s thinking: specifically a recognition of the role of patterns and rules in the process, and a recognition that the conscious self may not be the mechanism by which these are transcended in order to deliver ‘new’ or free acts.
I mentioned at the very start of this that Evan Parker has worked with Robert Wyatt. While I was writing this I was thinking about Robert Wyatt’s beautiful and philosophically rich song Free Will and Testament, which appears on his 1997 album, Shleep. Parker plays on some other tracks on this album but not this one. Free Will and Testament (which was co-written with NY musician and producer Kramer, best known for his work with Bongwater among other things) alludes to much of the above, so it seems fitting to finish this by quoting some lines from the song:
The weight of dust exceeds the weight of settled objects.
What can it mean, such gravity without a centre?
Is there freedom to un-be?
Is there freedom from will-to-be?
Sheer momentum makes us act this way or that way.
We just invent or just assume a motivation.
Had I been free, I could have chosen not to be me.
2. Metzinger, Thomas. “The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self”. Basic Books. 2009. ↩
3. Bailey, Derek. “Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice”. Da Capo Press. 1993. ↩
Thanks to Paul Smyth and Evan Parker for letting me photograph their superb concert (and for being so helpful and accommodating). Paul’s duo series is ongoing. The next one takes place at the NCH on the 27th of May 2015 and pairs him up with Okkyung Lee. Full details here. For more on Brassier, there is also a very good (and much more philosophically rigorous) blogpost by David Roden on Brassier’s text here (which is how I first became aware of it). Below is some excellent footage of Robert Wyatt performing Free Will and Testament.