Improvising Politics

Improvising Politics

A key element in improvising music is the ability to anticipate one’s sound. It’s always easier to play when you know that when you go to play a certain note, it will sound right. Imagine playing a piano where all of the B-flats and the D-naturals have been reversed. It could seriously cramp one’s style.

I had a something of a similar experience last night. I changed the strings on my “pancake” bass (an instrument made by the Meisel company meant for practicing) to a new brand and it’s sound was greatly altered. While not unpleasant, I felt like I was playing someone else’s bass and had trouble making connections that, in the past, were better than second-nature for me. Fortunately, “time heals all wounds” and I’ll be able to adjust. But it places me in a dilemma that I’ll get back to later.

Today is the 100th anniversary of the fire that led to the deaths of 146 garment workers, mostly immigrant women aged 16-23, at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. In deference to the call for notice about upcoming politically motivated events, I would like to mention one of the many that are planned to commemorate the day. This one is a performance of excerpts from “Triangle Jazz” by Salt Lake City-based composer Jim Kuemmerle, who I met at my performance last night. He had just finished a successful performance at The Shrine and was invited to perform again tonight at the Triangle Fire Memorial Association event at Christ the King High School in Middle Village, Queens, 7-10 p.m. His newest CD, Our Work Is Never Done, will be available there, as well as by contacting him at his website.

While not a humanitarian concert to raise money for disaster victims, the political message of this event, as well as that of the other events planned, is rather important in a time when profit motives far outweigh considerations about worker or, for that matter, consumer safety. If a correlation between the Triangle Fire and the Fukushima reactor meltdowns seems difficult to draw, consider that on November 25 a fire at a garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, took the lives of 45 workers under conditions strikingly similar to the March 25, 1911, disaster in New York.

In “Improvising Tomorrow’s Bodies: The Politics of Transduction,” George E. Lewis notes:

In both Europe and the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, improvisation was widely viewed as symbolic of a dynamic new approach to social order that would employ spontaneity both to unlock the potential of individuals, and to combat oppression by hegemonic political and cultural systems.

Improvisation has probably been a part of music-making since the beginning of our species, but it was re-introduced into the Western art music model during the times Lewis refers to and, whether we like it or not, informs how musicians of today think about and use the technique. But the technique remains one of in-the-moment decisions about what to do next in a given situation and the parameters of the situation will, or at least should, inform the improviser’s decisions. The workers at the Triangle Factory, like their modern Bangladeshi counterparts, had to make a decision of whether to jump to their deaths or to burn to death. I know this comparison might seem unseemly to some, but it is valid and, I think, worthy of consideration if only to bring attention to the relatively unreported event in Bangladesh. To quote Charles Kernaghan, director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, “We’re racing towards the bottom”—something that I, as a bass player, can relate to.

My dilemma, while not improvisatory, is whether to change the strings on my pedigree bass today before I go to my recording session. While the sound will not be as aggressively altered, it will be different. On the other hand, there are certain effects that are best produced on a new string and the ones on my bass are almost a year old. Fortunately, the only thing that might die as a result of my decision will be my performance, which (I hope) I can get over.

The question, though, that I pose for comments (although anyone can, of course, comment in any way and on any thing) is what role, if any, improvisation might have played in the need to produce new works that rebel against the status quo in Western music.

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2 thoughts on “Improvising Politics

  1. colin holter

    Speaking as a composer who whiles away a lot of time thinking about relationships between art and society, I think it’s undeniable that group improvisation, on some level, seems to (and in some cases may actually) present a more “democratic” model for musicians to relate to one another than composition. On the other hand, I’ve certainly taken part in improvisations that were anything but democratic in which a sort of coup d’état is launched by one musician who promptly crowns himself strongman autocrat of everyone else on stage; compared to these improvisations, a collaboration between composer and performer with a strict division of labor strikes me as much more utopian.

    Improvisation may suggest new ways for us to constellate with one another, and there’s no denying the value of that – but I don’t think it’s out of line to suggest that things can happen in composed music that could never happen in improvised music, and those things can offer social insights too.

  2. Ratzo B. Harris

    Thanks for your comment, Colin. The “strongman” phenomenon does seem to be the model for most successful groups that play improvising music. The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Oregon are two groups that exemplify the rare exceptions to this. But they both turn to “composing” sets of compositions to frame their improvisations and present much less pure improvisation than those that feature a performer’s name, like Cecil Taylor or Herb Robertson.

    I completely agree with your hypothesis that pure improvisation will never produce the kind of music that is composed. But many composers have tried to capture the sound and spirit of free improvisation and I’m curious how much improvisation influences the ground-breaking works of “maverick” composers.


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