Life on the Contingency Plan
“Improvisation enjoys the curious distinction of being both the most widely practiced of all musical activities and the least acknowledged and understood.” That is the first sentence to the Introduction of Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music, by Derek Bailey. It is the single finest book on improvisation that has yet been published. There’s an obvious explanation to that quality, which is that Bailey was one of the great improvising musicians of the recording era, not just skillful but uncompromising and disciplined in a way few could match. But the book is not about Bailey and his ideas about music making (though that is an included topic), it is a series of interviews between him and musicians from a number of improvising traditions. There are chapters on jazz, of course, and Indian music, and also flamenco, improvisation in baroque music, improvisation in post-WWII avant-garde composition; Bailey talks with Max Roach, Steve Lacy, guitarist Steve Howe from the progressive rock band Yes. Though it’s not comprehensive—improvisation is, as the above quotation reveals, not just a vast subject but one that shifts constantly, every time it’s practiced, and not even a research library could explore and explain it comprehensively—the book is invaluable and enlightening for both neophyte listener and experienced improviser, and remains so though multiple readings, because it captures so many different approaches to improvisation and shows clearly that improvisation is a means to begin making music—in practice or performance—and that there are as many ways to improvise as there are first steps, and the journeys those begin.
Improvisation was originally published in 1980; it wasn’t the first book on the subject—it has a bibliography of over three dozen books, including Jean-Paul Sartre’s Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions—and thirty years later comes Contingent Encounters: Improvisation in Music and Everyday Life, by Dan DiPiero.
DiPiero’s book has a twelve-page bibliography. Academic publications on the subject predominate and there’s no entry for Bailey’s book, which shows both how the study of improvisation has expanded in one generation and how thinking about it seems to have narrowed and flattened.
Contingent Encounters is an academic book, written by an academic (DiPiero is an Assistant Professor of Musicology at Ithaca College and incoming Assistant Professor of Music Studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City) , and is emblematic of the state of contemporary academic musicology. It shows its stripes in two ways: one is via that bibliography, a demonstration of having read a good amount of the academic literature on the subject; the other is exemplified by the joke, “It’s a good idea in practice, but it will never work in theory.”
Theory is the thing here, this is a study of theories. It does gesture at practices, but in ways that show how thinking and writing about improvisation are so beholden to theory that the book is full of claims that sound like they are being made by an alien, sent to study the human race and report back on the marvelous, intriguing strangeness of all these creatures. Some are so obvious, like the argument that Eric Dolphy’s improvisations on his Out to Lunch album are “co-constitutive” of his social world (as they are for every musician, even solo artists), that the analysis is like reading a complex geometric proof of the proposition that 1+1=2. Others are aesthetically, intellectually, ethically, and morally dubious, like the claim that the “reciprocity and intimacy” of an improvised recording by Ingrid Laubrock and Kris Davis are “feminist practices” and so produce a “feminist affect.” Beyond the sensitive-guy gender-essentialist pandering of this, it reduces two of the fundamental elements of successful improvisation, regardless of the identity of the artists, to a non-musical social and political theory.
Isolating tiny examples of an enormous practice because they support theory is simplistic and diminishing. Improvised music, as Bailey understood, is vast, natural, a direct analogy to the universe itself; each time musicians improvise, the world of that music grows larger not only in scope but possibilities. Any reductive view of it encourages ignorance, not understanding. And the most vicious reduction is the bizarre erasure of agency, that somehow music happens because of theory, rather than people. DiPiero, a drummer by background, removes even himself from the picture. Describing an experience playing live with a band, he writes about playing a piece that had no improvisation in it, but at the end of the performance, he and his colleagues started improvising anyway. In his words, “something outside [the piece] … unexpectedly produced an improvisation where there was not supposed to be one.” This is extraordinarily wrong in a way that illustrates how separated this book is from practice—the musicians played the piece and then improvised, the improvisation was a result of their own choices and agency. No outside force did it, they did it.
The point DiPiero misses, perhaps because he was inside it, is that this was actual contingency, chance and the unexpected triggering new ideas and impulses. How this happened would be an important analysis of how improvisation itself happens. Improvisation works on a spectrum that goes from some kind of pre-organized plan to complete contingency. The fantastic thing about the practice is that Keith Jarrett can sit at the piano with absolutely no plan, start playing and produce standard harmonic sequences, while Cecil Taylor can use his own tried and true musical motifs and always make everything sound spontaneous—and even that the piano music of the likes of Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen can sound completely improvised, even when it’s exactly notated.
Music making is one of the oldest, deepest human endeavors, predating written language and, quite possibly, one of the original oral languages, the invention and practice of which was an integral evolutionary step in the rise of Homo sapiens. It was first improvised, and all styles of music were first improvised before they were codified in any way. Improvisation is then not just making music contingent on the circumstances of the moment, but a way to look back on history (jazz and Indian classical music, or Steve Howe soloing in concert on “Close to the Edge,” for example) and improvise as a way to comment on the contingencies of the past, improvisation doesn’t just make new music, it makes older music part of the now.
In this way, improvised music is like no other art, and, despite DiPiero’s straining arguments, different than everyday life. Life is contingent, period, it’s look-both-ways-before-you-cross-the-street, shoelace-breaking-when-there’s-no-more-time, chance events that mix with and alter all of our plans. But that’s life, perhaps we can use it as material to create something outside of it, like music, but life is not art itself, and the basic practice of dealing with the vagaries of existence only translates into improvising music through practice (there’s that word again); of an instrument, a music making process, of performances, etc. (There is a very real and powerful argument that life for marginalized people, like Black Americans, demands so much constant improvising in the face of systems designed to thwart even the most basic agency that improvised music is indeed an extension of that existence, but this is not a book that makes it.)
I came away from this book, and other recent and far older readings in musicology, with the feeling that the discipline has entered a decadent stage, that it is, like a lot of other academic disciplines in the humanities, now a hermitic guild system, meant to bring in initiates who will pass the test of entry by writing dissertations that show their knowledge of and obeisance to the work of the high priests, but with no actual requirement to bring any new understanding or thinking to the practice of making music. Ironically, this impression began with Susan McClary’s 1991 book Feminine Endings, which at the time was something of a hand grenade inside the world of musicology. Its breakthrough, at least in that world, was in putting music into the social/economic/political context out of which it came. For musicology, this was a way to move past an earlier decadent stage, where technical analysis had become so dominant as an offshoot of atonality’s grip on academic music through the middle-twentieth century that notes and rhythms existed only in relation to themselves and each other, and not even a product of a human being who thought them up. Musicology was once again about what music making might mean. Trained as a composer (all composers are musicologists because they learn by studying other music) and an improvising musician, I could not understand what the big deal was—I made music that was contingent on my accumulated experiences and that was equally contingent within my social and economic circumstances, just like every other musician in the history of the universe.
This decadence is well-illustrated by an anecdote from composer Kyle Gann, who has written several important books, including Charles Ives’s Concord, a great musicological study that opens up a new universe of ideas. The book had to overcome a few hurdles to get published, including comments by readers criticizing it for not citing so-and-so and this-and-this, which of course was impossible because Gann’s book is not only entirely original, but is almost entirely built off the primary source itself, Charles Ives. It’s a great work that ignores the guild system’s solipsism.
For an example of how musicology is rapidly becoming a study of itself, there are two recent books about minimalism—The Names of Minimalism: Authorship, Art Music, and Historiography by Patrick Nickleson and We Have Always Been Minimalist: The Construction and Triumph of a Musical Style, by Christophe Levaux—that aren’t in any significant way about the music and instead are exhaustive and exhausting examinations of how the music of La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass, came to be labeled “Minimalism” by both music professionals and the general public. Perhaps those are interesting and enlightening stories to some, or perhaps they are books about nothing other than the authors’ status within guild culture, books essentially about nothing. But not in the good way of sitcoms like Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm, which turn the basic and universal contingencies of life into something hilarious.