Going Fragile

<i>Of course it is not easy to get out of your own material, and it can be painful; there is an insecurity aspect to it. This actually is probably the most experimental level. When do you think real innovation and experimentation are happening? Probably when people are insecure, probably when people are in a situation very new to them and when they are a bit uncertain and afraid. That is where people have to push themselves. People are innovative when they are outside of their warm shit, outside of the familiar and comfortable… I don't know exactly what I want, but I do know exactly what I do not want.

Conversation with Radu Malfatti<i>

Improvised music forces situations into play where musicians push each other into bringing different perspectives to their playing. Improvised music is not progressive in itself, but it invites constant experimentation. When players feel too secure about their approaches, the experimentation risks turning into Mannerism. What I would like to explore here are the moments in which players leave behind a safe zone and expose themselves in the face of the internalized structures of judgment that govern our appreciation of music. These I would call fragile moments.

During the summer of 2003 I had the opportunity to spend time in Vienna researching the political connotations of improvised music. Not that I found a direct relationship, but through conversations, going to concerts and playing with other musicians, I became aware of some of the potential and limitations that improvisation has in terms of political agency within the space of music production. For this text, I draw from the conversations I had with the trombonist Radu Malfatti as part of my research. While Malfatti’s roots are in the chaotic-sounding improvised free jazz of the 1970s, he is currently more focused on ultra quiet and sparse playing. His approach to performance runs against the stagnation that might occur in sustained improvisation. In his quest to avoid stagnation, Malfatti looks for those insecure situations that I mention above—situations that can call into question the dominant structures of music appreciation.

How could you anticipate what you might achieve if you do not know what you will find on the way? To be open, receptive and exposed to the dangers of making of improvised music, means exposing yourself to unwanted situations that could break the foundations of your own security. As a player you will bring yourself into situations that ask for total demand. No vision of what could happen is able to bring light to that precise moment. Once you are out, there is no way back; you cannot regret what you have done. You must engage in questioning your security, see it as a constriction.  You are aware and scared, as if you were in a dark corridor. Now you are starting to realize that what you thought of as walls existed only in your imagination.

While your senses alert you to danger, you are also going to use them to deal with it. Keep going forward toward what you do not know, to what is questioning your knowledge and your use of it. Keep pushing yourself, knowing that the other players will be pushing you, replacing traces of comfort. This is an unreliable moment, to which no stable definition can be applied. It is subject to all the particularities brought to this moment. The more sensitive you are to them, the more you can work with (or against) them. You are breaking away from previous restrictions that you have become attached to, creating a unique social space, a space that cannot be transported elsewhere. Now you are building different forms of collaboration, scrapping previous modes of generating relations.

Something is happening here, but what is it? It is hard to say, but certainly there is intensity to it. These moments are almost impossible to articulate; they refuse pigeonholing, and evade easy representation.

We are forced to question the material and social conditions that constitute the improvised moment—structures that usually validate improvisation as an established musical genre. Otherwise we risk fetishizing “the moment” and avoid its implications.

<i>When we talk about stagnation and progression there is just one instrument to help us explain what we mean, and this is time, history.

Conversation with Radu Malfatti<i>

When Radu Malfatti talks about the breaks that some musicians have made from musical orthodoxy, he looks at the ways that they have dealt with these breaks. Some seek to consolidate or re-metabolize the fragile moments they have encountered; others simply return to the safety of their previous practices. Only very few manage to keep searching for fragility; it requires musicians to make multiple breaks from their own traditions. It's easier to develop coherence within one's practice: There is a fine line between being persistent in pursuing a particular line of research, and getting comfortable within one's methods.

<i>When something new happens, people do not like it. It's as simple as that… There is nothing I can do about it.

Conversation with Radu Malfatti<i>

When something different and hard to place appears within the dichotomy of the new and the old of mainstream values, attention cannot easily be drawn to it.

While nobody might recognize the importance of what you have done, you need to keep your confidence. It is difficult to be alone in working toward something and yet not know where it will take you; something which threatens to destroy your artistic trajectory, which you have worked so hard to build up. Of course when one uses music, not as a tool for achieving something else (recognition, status…) but in a more aggressively creative way, it is going to produce alienation. But what do you want to do as an improvised musician? Work toward the lowest common denominator, making music which more people can relate to?

Improvised music has the potential to disrupt previous modes of musical production, but it is up to the players to tear them apart in order to find a way in. Opening new fields of permissibility means to go fragile until we destroy the fears that hold us back.

We are not talking here about changing the labor conditions of a majority of people; but, being aware that culture, creativity and communication are becoming the tools of the “factory without walls,” we need to be suspicious of ways in which cultural practices can be exploited by capital. Because of this we must constantly question our motives, our modus operandi and its relation to the conditions that we are embedded in, to avoid recuperation by a system that is going to produce ideological walls for us. To be antagonistic to these conditions means danger and insecurity. To go through them will mean commitment and some of what Benjamin described as the “Destructive Character”:

<i>The destructive character has the consciousness of historical man, whose deepest emotion is an insuperable mistrust of the course of things and a readiness at all times to recognize that everything can go wrong. Therefore the destructive character is reliability itself. The destructive character sees nothing permanent. But for this very reason he sees ways everywhere. Where others encounter walls or mountains, there, too, he sees a way. But because he sees a way everywhere, he has to clear things from it everywhere. Not always by brute force; sometimes by the most refined. No moment can know what the next will bring.

Walter Benjamin, The Destructive Character (1931)<i>

Mattin, July 2005 London, Copyright Free