«Improv's not dead, it just smells funny»
(Frank Zappa, Roxy and Elsewhere, 1974)

A contribution to the controversy about improvised music, initiated by Thomas Meyer's essay Is free improvisation at an end? (dissonance 111, Septembre 2010)

Read more about the controversy

Steve Buchanan

Theories in general (art/music particularly) do not interest me on the whole. That said, theoretical models are undeniably determinate factors both in the re-writing of history and its predilections. Thus with great interest I followed the «improv scandal» of winter 2010/2011. The article of Thomas Meyer conjured up a storm of near hysteria, especially in the blog responses which followed. The fervor of many of the responses confirmed (unintentionally) some of Meyers arguments – or at least demonstrated that there is much that needs to be examined and discussed.

The structural base of this article uses several sources to feed into the main point then comes back to the problem. This should be thought of simply as a feedback loop. I use several approaches, because I think that improvisation cannot be comprehended within the confines of conventional musical criticism.

Reference to genres such as: jazz, new music, modern dance, europrov, el-acoustic etc., are here solely for convenience's sake. I neither accept empirical authority nor recognize the artificial semantic divisions which are endlessly spewed forth year after year, often from dubious origins. He who names claims. I name and claim my own, especially regarding the confluence of genres.


There is a certain dogmatism relative to music improv recently. Several factors contribute to this. The acceptance of musical improvisation as a «serious musical form» within official academia, and the adapting/grafting of Art History theories onto musical improv, virtually guarantee that improvisation will be covered in the dross of antiquated value systems which are anointed, appointed and controlled from the top down – with a tendency towards stasis, for improvisation is self making, therefore self governing, requiring neither validation nor external directive «law». The potential of improvisation as an instrument of both individual and social change is great. But its proximity to the stultifying values of cultural academia, which reflect and reinforce the present system we live under, can only curtail this growth. Conflictual and deviant views are welcome (they prove after all the objective liberty of the system) however the field of conflict must take place in accordance with the systems agenda.

One of the main points I believe Meyer was getting at is the lack of revolutionary spirit in much current improv. This is of course a generality, but certainly there are justifications for it. One blog response stated that improv still remains a music of contestation. Unfortunately for the most part contemporary musical improv can be defined by the following: «Potemkin was a revolutionary film, but October was a film which talked about revolution.» (film director Alexander Dovzhenko)

It's pathetic indeed watching a new generation of Berklee-Boppers playing Donna Lee ad infinitum, and certainly we have heard enough free jazz screams reflecting long gone revolutions. Isn't it equally pathetic watching yet another generation of prepared guitarists or miscellaneous object improvisers playing retro versions of re-chewed el-acoustic and new music ideas from 40 years ago?


Terminology is indispensable in defining ideology of form, especially in the arts. Several phrases and terms currently used in defining improv: extended techniques, aleatorics, non-referentiality, etc., are worth examining.

Non-referentiality is interesting, especially with regards to quantum physics. Feynman's «Sum over Histories» theory shows that both non-referentiality and referentiality are equally possible (see Stephen Hawkins' description in The Grand Design, Bantam Press, 2010). In any case the term non-referential in improv usually refers to a form which reflects in its practice ideas derived from earlier ideas (thus making it in fact referential).

Juxtaposition of previous elements gives birth to new elements and new forms. In music it is the internal movement/intention of a given form/choice which determines whether it is referential or not. In improvisation both the position of the participants (players and audience) relative to the activity and their respective ability to assume and adapt to that activity determine its point of reference. The emotional state of participants plays no small part in this.

«Biological cognition is not representation of the world out there but rather a bringing forth of a world through the very process of living itself.» (Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, The Tree of Knowledge, Shambala Press, 1987)

Cultural forms and terminologies often become ideologies, which in turn become dogma. A need for priest and apostles... At a certain point this individual or group's taste becomes verbatim truth, acquiring a subjective religiosity which is presented as serious objective thought. Thus time is frozen into monuments, myths, land heroes. What place does the living force of improvisation have in that necropolis?


There is a strong smell of «whitewashing» on the improv scene, especially relative to historical perspective, «white» here meaning an ideological state of mind/perception granting superiority and right of privilege to its adherents.

The near religious adoration of John Cage and his subsequent deification shows much
about the mechanics at work within «the spectacle» of Western culture (this by the way being no indictment of either Cage or his work, his positional importance being undeniable). Historically, however, I find this importance exaggerated, particularly in terms of American musical and improvisational innovations of the 20th century. Simply put, he was only one part of a much larger movement. His positional importance was/is created and maintained by the segregation and isolation primarily of modern jazz from new music/contemporary music. This is not to say that he was exactly welcomed or particularly wanted for that matter. Still, although he was/is an easier pill to swallow in the face of so much black inventiveness and innovation, this successful manœuvre also allowed for such excesses as the laughable tirades of Adorno against jazz to be taken seriously.

Eugenics began in the late 19th century, with Western culture's need to justify the pillage and destruction they were inflicting on 85% of an essentially non-white world.

«The ruling elites of Europe felt the clear need to project their power backwards in time, giving it a history and legitimacy that only tradition and longevity could impart.» (Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, Vintage Edition, 1994) A major intellectual movement was undertaken to create a Nordic base for Western civilization This required considerable scholastic gymnastics, especially relative to the purge of African and Semitic roots from Greek civilization.
«We belong to the superior race and civilization, and our dignity rests on the qualitative fact of our moral superiority, and it is this which underlies our right to direct the rest of humanity.» (Jules Harmond, a French advocate of colonialism in 1910, Ibid.)
With the receding of Western civilizations power and dominance are we not perhaps witnessing a corresponding backlash seeking to maintain a cultural dominance? A dominance predicated on illusory projections of its own cultural eminence, that which Guy Debord called the «Society of the Spectacle». (Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, Zone Books, 1995)

(Warren Harding, 29th president of the USA, quoted by Ishmael Reed in Mumbo Jumbo, Scribner Fiction, 1988)

One of the most powerful and definitive forces of cultural change in Western culture during the 20th century was what is usually called jazz. Of its many contributions perhaps the greatest was the re-introduction to Western culture of spontaneous creation as social ritual, with the power to dissolve boundaries such as class and race. A true cultural revolution of the people, it created a reaction of fear and consternation among ruling elites everywhere, those for whom there is nothing quite so disturbing as the «great beast» moving through their own volition. (Noam Chomsky, Chomsky on Miseducation, Rowman and Littlefield, 2000)

Fear in Western «democracies» was driven primarily by racist concerns, while in the new Soviet Republic it was the fact of being a true people's movement, not needing or wanting a dictatorship of the proletariat. Try as they might, the Soviet rulers never succeeded to abolish nor create «a mass dance which would enable every couple to vent energy in free improvisation but within a morally and ideologically acceptable context.» (Anna Zelenko and M. Lazarev, Massoviye Narodniye Tantsy ("Mass Folk Dances"), RabPros, 19271, quoted in Stephen Frederick Starr, Red and hot: The fate of jazz in the Soviet Union, 1917-1980, Limelight Editions, 1985)

Dance «jes grew» as a Dionysian ritual (Ismael Reed, Ibid.). Spontaneous music created spontaneous dance which, in turn, inspired more spontaneous music. This phenomenon in neurobiological terms, is referred to as «autopoiesis.»  (Maturana and Varela, Ibid.)

What was/is the influence of jazz dance on musical improvisation? Relative to recent improv what effects have, say, Cecil Taylor's enormous influences from dance had on the unique language of his improvisation? What effect has Sun-Ra's dancers had on the sensibilities of improvisors, or the work of David Moss and Steve Paxton, Derek Bailey, Min Tanaka, Milford Graves, etc.?

What effects also did/do the deliberate segregation of black rhythm dances from so called «modern dance» have on cultural perception and improvisation? Isadora Duncan's bogus Hellenic dances, for example, quite fit the sensibilities of wealthy patrons who naturally embraced the dogmas of Manifest Destiny. Her ideology also must have been equally reassuring.

«It seems monstrous that anyone believes that jazz rhythm expresses America. Jazz rhythm expresses the primitive savage.» (Isadora Duncan)


Considering the importance of economics in relation to the ability to do artistic work in the present system (or even just to survive!), it's ludicrous to talk of cultural or political opposition without economic self-determination.

In one of the improv blogs someone stated that improvisational music is not a commercializable product. Nothing in fact is further than the truth. Even the very molecules from which we are constructed are patentable. Anything that can be labeled (trademarked,copyrighted) can be sold. The actual content is simply irrelevant. Improvisational music's unsaleability is exactly its saleable characteristic. The star system, the trademarking of generic forms, and the many pedagogic applications give full evidence, in modern improv, of an assimilation into, and not a rejection of, the dominant system.

Culture is big business, anything within its fold will be tamed, bought and put under the glass jar of collectibility. One needs think only of 300$ fluxus books, the ridiculous specter of Dada revivals, or the sad image of situationist manifestos safely under glass in a Geneva Foundation.

«By imagining (artists, critics, musicians) that they have got hold of an apparatus which in fact has gotten hold of them, they are supporting an apparatus which is no longer (as they believe) a means of furthering but has become an obstacle to their own output, as soon as it follows a new an original course which the apparatus finds awkward or opposed to its own aims.» (Berthold Brecht, Brecht on Theater, Methuen. 1988)

«Art in its period of dissolution, as a movement of negation in pursuit of its own transcendence in a society where history is not yet directly lived, is at once an art of change and a pure expression of the impossibility of change. The more grandiose its demands, the further from its grasp is true self-realization. This is an art that is necessarily avant-garde; and it is an art that is not. Its vanguard is its own disappearance.» (Guy Debord, Ibid.)

by moxi