Improvisation in an Anti-Improvisational World

When we experience the work of a master artist we simultaneously experience the visible life of praxis. Depending upon who you ask, praxis is “thought applied to action” or “the unity of conceptualization and execution”, etc. The capacity to imagine and improvise is something that separates human beings from, as far as we know, all other forms of life; praxis also forms the bases of artwork and craftsmanship. Many guitarists are familiar with this idea through a 1989 book by Howard Roberts and Garry Hagberg called the Praxis System. Roberts used the idea of praxis to signify things like personal expression, individual style, efficiency, knowledge, independence, imagination, technique, and skill, as they relate to the creation of music on the guitar. However, if praxis and improvisation are ideals they are nonetheless capable of being dramatically suppressed. Many of our primary and secondary relationships, institutions, and various ways of acting, thinking, and feeling are structured such that praxis and improvisation, far from being encouraged or cultivated, are actually negated. In short, it could plausibly be argued that we live in an anti-improvisational world and anti-improvisation is obviously a problem since many of us aspire to master the art of improvisation.

You don't have to look far to see the anti-improvisational aspect of the world we live in. The workplace, religious worship, family life, educational institutions, and culture are all characterized by the suppression of praxis to varying degrees. Take your local fast food restaurant for example: in order to increase control of labor, keep wages low, and make the most profit, fast food chains have turned toward what has been called “Taylorism” or scientific management. Taylorism involves two things: first, a transformation of managerial practices whereby every possible moment during production is robbed of freedom and, secondly, the control of knowledge and information by technological means. Both of these aspects, the managerial practices and the peculiar use of technological powers, force a rupture in the unity between conceptualization and execution. This rupture is highly visible in the division between intellectual and manual labor.

Historically, Taylorism involved capturing the skills and knowledge possessed by workers and embedding those skills in technology owned and controlled by owners and managers. Owners (or their lap dogs) did all the thinking and the workers did all the (mindless) labor. Since the emergence of professional engineers and armies of other scientific experts, the de-coupling of praxis has involved not only the aforementioned theft of knowledge but also the creation of research and development departments where new concepts, processes, and routines are created by a class of experts responsible for intellectual labor. The whole concept of the assembly line, for example, is based on Taylorism: finding the one best way (most technically efficient) to do a job, breaking jobs down into elementary and repetitive tasks, placing decisions in the hands of machines, and driving workers faster and faster. Next time you're at McDonalds or Burger King, etc., you'll notice many decisions being made by machines issuing commands to their attendants, i.e., the intellectual aspect is stored in the machines themselves. Even the cups have lines drawn on them to tell workers how much ice to put in them. The dispensing of drinks is automated, making change no longer involves mathematical skills, and the grill tells employees when to turn the meat disk, etc. In short, the managerial dream is a workplace where workers are reduced to the status of unthinking and unproblematic machines. Why? Machines do not call in sick, do not require benefits, and can run 24 hours a day. How does any of this relate to us lowly guitar players? The dreams of machine-like people (robots) and the de-coupling of conceptualization and execution are not limited to the world of work. Take a look at the worlds of mass entertainment and music.

In a stunning essay called “The Mass Ornament” the cultural critic Siegfried Kracauer stated somewhat abstractly: “Everyone does his or her task on the conveyor belt, performing a partial function without grasping the totality. Like the pattern [formed by dancers] in the stadium, the organization stands above the masses, a monstrous figure whose creator withdraws it form the eyes of its bearers, and barely even observes it himself It is conceived according to rational principles, which the Taylor system merely pushes to their ultimate conclusion. The hands in the factory correspond to the legs of the [dancing] Tiller Girls. Going beyond manual capacities, psychotechnical aptitude tests attempt to calculate dispositions of the soul as well. The mass ornament is the aesthetic reflex of the rationality to which the prevailing economic system aspires.” Kracauer's point was that the logic of work rationalization was making its presence felt within the realm of entertainment. The “ornament” Kracauer spoke of is the organization of people, in this case the famous, dancing Tiller Girls, according to the rationale and operation of machinery. They were trained to dance as if they were programmed robots. The particularity of each individual was masked by a uniform (made to appear “sexless”) and in the sheer magnitude of the dance routine, individual dancers melted into a mass “ornament” or “mechanized” entity. Taylorism has also entered the world of ballet and the production of music is not immune from the effects of Taylorism either.

Take Igor Stravinsky for example. His vision of musical production involved a belief that musicians should be nothing more than automatons or extensions of the composer's will, with sufficient talent to be receptive to the commands of the genius. The model has three elements. First, the composer (i.e., the ‘genius’) does the thinking and dominates the creative aspects. Second, the conductor/dictator acts as a supervisor and interpreter of the overall artistic vision. Finally, the musicians (workers) whose task it is to objectify the will of the composer and conform to the interpretive directions of the conductor. Again, there exists a separation of intellectual and manual labor just as we would find in an automobile factory. Generally speaking, the symphony is still a strange place.

In a symphonic context, you find workers with fabulous skills, formal training, and (sometimes) an abundance of theoretical knowledge and yet, oddly enough, these musicians are forced to separate their capacity for conceptualization from the moment of execution. This is an incredibly authoritarian and anti-democratic model of musical production. It would not be an exaggeration to state that the symphony itself is a mass celebration of authoritarianism perhaps even charismatic dictatorship. It would appear that our entire civilization is constructed upon an authoritarian model of social relations. The family has ‘The Father’, work has ‘The Boss’, and music has ‘The Composer.’ On top of these, of course, we have The Law, The State, Morality, Customs, Tradition, etc. Each commanding: “thou shall obey!” Naturally, not all people enjoy this model of social organization and control and many feel that this model of authority is substantively irrational. Most people, in fact, feel hostile to it or are highly ambivalent. This ambivalence is what makes improvisational jazz, and, really, any form of improvisational music so important. Improvisational music is important, socially, culturally, and even politically, because it represents the re-assertion of human freedom through the recombining of conceptualization and execution. Improvisation is the celebration and manifestation of anti-authoritarianism. That is also one of the main reasons why so many people have difficulty in liking jazz and why so many record company executives dwell on issues of musical categories and audience accessibility. Think about it: the entire cosmos seems to conspire against freedom, democracy, and real personal autonomy, so when one encounters an activity that exhibits anti-authoritarian qualities, it must appear strange and unfamiliar even bad in some ways.

Now, jazz is not the only place, musically, where you will find praxis and improvisation alive and well; most experimental music is often of the same quality and a lot of what is called fusion is highly improvisational. Nor should we believe that jazz in inherently or automatically improvisational and democratic. A lot of what has and still goes by the name of ‘Jazz’ is just pop music or easy listening that wilt under established formulas. However, of all the forms of contemporary western music, jazz is the most highly developed in terms of praxis and improvisation, and relatively speaking, jazz is the least encumbered musical form in terms of formulas, preconceptions on the part of audiences, and the dead hand of the past – at least in its most interesting forms.

Jazz and other forms of improvisational music are political, as well as aesthetic, activities. Improvisation stands in marked contrast to the everyday reality that the vast majority of people experience. Hence, it has the potential to act as an educational substance.