A Second Subterranean Ethics:

An exploration of the political and ethical connotations of contemporary improvised music

Mattin 18.9.2003


During the summer of 2003 I spent some time in Vienna researching improvised music. Having spent six years in London involved in the improvised music scene, aware of how it has developed, I was interested in finding Musicians who were challenging the approaches that I was used to. In London I could see how this music can get stuck in its own aesthetics. At the same time there has been a lot of discussion about the political potential of this music. My research in Vienna consisted of interviewing musicians, organisers and others people involved in the improvised music scene there. At the end of the process I was interested in two particular musicians for whom the political potential of the music was immanent to their practice rather than stated before or after the fact.

This essay consists of three parts: an introduction to the way this music has developed in Britain, an enquiry into potentiality and problems of its development, and an exploration of my experiences in Vienna with the musicians Radu Malfatti and Hiaz ( from the group farmersmanual). This final section takes the form of diary entries, as I wanted to communicate my discoveries as they happened: As a living process, thought in practise rather than a consolidation of the music and its possibilities (a problem which I will show to have affected the playing and reception of improvised music in the UK.)  











Part 1

Improvisation as a term: Attempting to break with traditions


Improvisation, a huge term came to be a loose name for a genre of music in the 60’s. It is true that many musicians and non-musicians have been improvising for a very long time. But it was in the 60’s that some musicians breaking up from jazz and contemporary music were developing a kind of music that would counter traditions and make playing as free as possible. Musicians, in trying to break with conventional models of playing, were looking at their instruments in a more material way. They wanted to find ways in how to bring their creativity across without the restrictions of history.


Some examples: Keith Rowe (part of the group AMM), inspired by Jackson Pollock’s action painting started to play the guitar on a table and to play things on top (i.e. radio through the pick-ups); Derek Bailey explored the guitar on the margins of notes dealing with a strange harmonics and rough-cords playing.  Eddie Prévost brought a wine barrel to the performance space and rather than invite people to drink from it he started drumming on it as if it was a percussive instrument (I guess he emptied it out on the way). As you can imagine, when this music started to be performed in public, it provoked a variety of reactions and forced redefinition of terms (the distinction of “noise” over music). At the beginning there was not a network for this music to be presented by itself. As a consequence AMM would share the bill with bands such as Pink Floyd or Cream.[1] As time passed, the audience got more specialised. Networks & promoters helped to consolidate a terminology and classification for this kind of music. This would impede the more direct confrontation that this music could have on unfamiliar audiences. It might be that the terminology and the specialised atmosphere that this music developed helped to suppress its wider political potential.


This is the issue that I would like to discuss in the thesis.  The openness of the music, that could have reached new audiences, gets over exposed by having to deal with a (recent) history.  These musicians created a scene, but they also created its limitations. Because of this, it is difficult for the coming musicians to brake completely with their ancestors; they are more likely to follow their deconstructive methods.  I do not mean to depreciate the creativity of the new musicians. What I am saying is that once improvisation became a genre it also became easily pigeonholed: When certain stylistic approaches get consolidated, others are put aside and so hierarchies are created.


Effervescent times exceeding Politics


During the 60’s there was an agitation in the atmosphere, issues like art and music were constantly questioned in relation to politics.


Any alteration in the modes of music is always followed by alteration in the most fundamental laws of the state. [2]


It is interesting to pose this quotation from Plato in view of the English avant-garde composer, improviser (part of AMM), and later member of the Communist Party, Cornelius Cardew.  Cardew grew up with an interest in a politics in which there was no room for activities that did not have an interest for the industrial working class. In the introduction to his book ‘Stockhausen serves Imperialism’ Cardew says:


In fact this whole polemical attack, including this book, takes place outside the working class movement and is therefore politically relatively insignificant.[3]


We have to say here that Cardew stopped improvising and composing avant-garde music in order to write popular liberation songs against capitalism. [4]

Eddie Prévost instead recognises that the interaction between improvising musicians is a possible space for socio-political consciousness. It is up to the musicians to recognise this or not. 


The meta-musician must put music aside or else be consumed by music. All meta-music’s aesthetics priorities arise from the direct relationship of player with materials, player with player and players with audience. A meta-aesthetic only emerges when performers perceive their engagement with the socio-political consequences of these relationships.[5]


Prévost has devoted his life to improvisation, being part of the group AMM for almost 40 years, running the Matchless Recordings label, organising workshops, writing on the subject and so on. His theory of the “Meta-musicians” states that the practice of this kind of music cannot be limited to music. 


What I am questioning here is if Prévost, in defining the way socio-political relationships occur in improvisation, is not in fact contributing to the generation of a style? So with this paper I am putting myself in the impossible gap of trying to articulate the political and ethical connotations that occur to improvisation, with the awareness that this can fall in to stylistic rethorics.


For Cardew, the political consciousness cannot be raised just from micro gestures. You need have a global view, an opinion about the exploitation that is going on throughout the world. If you do not clearly state and denounce this within your practice you are not being political. What I am interested in showing with this paper is not the political consciousness that might be applicable to improvised music, but to bring articulation to the smaller gestures that emerge out of this practice. The hidden or imperceptible social aspects that can grow out of the interaction that the ‘freedom’ of improvisation offers: What potential do they have, or is there is a  “meaning of resistance”?  By this I mean that in the practice of improvisation (perhaps because it is simple, primitive or straightforward) there is a social interaction, which has not yet found its full potential in language. And this is one of the qualities that makes improvisation exceed or still resist commodification. 

The intensive creative course of action in which the musicians are involved makes the situation a laboratory in which the audience is able to continually grasp results but not consume them as products. The musicians giving all their desires, passion and creative process open themselves to the response of other musicians that can easily exceed understanding and assimilation. This response cannot be isolated as a one-off gesture. Therefore the response that comes after is not just an individual one, but is melted together with the various responses the situation has provoked. The performance space can be the place in which according to the intensity of it, new subjectivities might arise.


I call ‘subject’ the bearer [le support] of a fidelity, the one who bears a process of truth. The subject, therefore, in no way pre-exist the process. He is absolutely nonexistent in the situation; before; the event. We might say that the process of truth induces a subject.[6]


The players, by pushing each other to an “open permission of possibilities” are forced to question their customs, to see if they can take something out of them or to find new ways of dealing with the performance.

Cardew mentioned that political consciousness does not arise from one moment of inspiration. He might be right that you are not going to realise in one second how fucked up the worlds is. But you might be able to bring out those creative elements that the fuckupness of the world normally suppresses. And this is the reason for the title of the essay: “ A second subterranean ethics”. This ethics might emerge once the improvisation is taking the players into areas of intensity that question their modus operandi. The musicians are there but they cannot apply their well-rehearsed ritualistic approach. Once the performance reaches this point (of no way back, even if you wish for it), any gesture which is not as fragile as the intensity of the performance is exposed as an stylistic cliché. Surprise, and the necessity to react to this moment simultaneously with the other musicians can create a creative feedback. But as I mentioned before the surprise is not an isolated event, it comes from an awareness of what has been done before and how it can be disrupted. It is a constant challenge to the notions of cause and effect.

The ethics that I am talking about here are not the sticker that you carry as a nice human being, nor the ethics that you are conscious of and you behave according to. They are the ethics that emerge out of the collaboration with the other musicians. It is here that the intensity of the situation gets to question anything that tries to fence in its potentiality. In improvisation, collaboration is to work together in order not to achieve anything apart from the dissolution of egos into one another.  This music does not sell many CDs.



Strong individuals

Improvised musicians were desperately trying to get away from music history by creating new ‘argots’ with the instrument.  Improvisation has been related to strong individuals, as each of the musicians had to find his or her own path within the instrument. It is not just the players that need to be persuasive. Usually festival organisers, record labels, and critics of this music are very motivated in order to remain in this field of music, which is still very marginal.  Record label runners are happy to cover expenses in order to keep putting things out (the first time that I asked Eddie Prévost of Matchless Recordings the number of CD’s he produced of each release, I was very surprised to hear that just 1,000 copies were manufactured). Another aspect that also reinforces the idea of strong individuality is the multitasking way in which musicians and promoters have to work; in fact, musicians are often promoters, record label runners, critics and so on.  The idea of the strong individual also gets reinforced at the beginning of each performance, as no one at that moment knows how and who would start.


In the moment just before a performance begins, his fingers poised, the meta-musician does not know what to play. He knows that he will play, and has some reasonable expectation of what might develop. But there is no certainty. Yet the moment the first note is negotiated then all else will follow, seemingly out of control and at the same time inevitable. The meta-musician makes not false stars and plays no wrong notes.[7]


This moment of uncertainty in which any of the players can break the silence prior to the performance, in which no language has determined the first action, forces the music to be always at the border of what has been done in the past and what you can add or subtract from it.  But of course our knowledge about the musician and his or her music can work as a score for our expectations. Or in some cases the musician himself can be a slave to his own trajectory, this is something that I will try to discuss later on: how style can work as a limiter of freedom. Or how working within a very narrow space for intervention can lead to surpass the clichés that this music often provokes .



Destroy all forms !

 Perhaps I have given the impression that there is no forward planning, no overall structure, and no ’form’. Adverse criticism of free improvisation –– pretty nearly the only kind available ––almost always aims itself at the same two or three targets and the clear favorite of these is ‘formlessness’. As the criteria for assessing a piece of music, any piece of music, is usually inherited from the attitudes and prejudices handed down by the mandarins of European straight music, this is to be expected. Nowhere is the concept of form as an ideal set of proportions which transcends style and language clung to with such terrified tenacity as by the advocates of musical composition. ‘The necessity for design and balance is nowhere more imperative than in music, where all is so fleeting and impalpable – mere vibration of the tympanic membrane’. Although written many years ago, that is still probably a fairly accurate indication of the importance attached to form by those people concerned with composed music. Even in those parts of contemporary composition where the earlier types of overall organisations no longer serve, a great deal of ingenuity is exercised finding something upon which the music can be based. Myths. Poems, political statements, ancient rituals, paintings, mathematical systems; it seems that any overall pattern must be imposed to save music from its endemic formlessness.[8]


Derek Bailey in his book ‘Improvisation’ tries to explain how this music challenges previous notions of what music can be from the western perspective. As we can see from this quotation, improvisation has been trying to escape any term that is not related to freedom.  Once something becomes formal and easy to identify, it can be appropriated by the establishment (something that improvisation has always tried to evade). It is true that the abstraction of this music makes the audience engage in the process of participation (as they are working out at the same time as the musicians what is going on).  I presume that the constant encountering of differences must be exhausting. Miscellaneous tastes, rather than emerging into one final product (here I am thinking of a pop-rock group working together on a song and then delivering it in public) are continuously presented in juxtaposition with each other. The constant encounter of different personalities in a performance obviously dissolves the idea of the author, giving the audience more points of view to relate to or actually to bring to. But I must admit that I am suspicious of  “this free flowing amazing amount of creativity trying to evade any categorisation”.  As a listener of this kind of music I have discovered that you can find a diversity of approaches (that are not necessarily compatible with each other) and they actually can become very narrow. This is fine if its intention is not to have a ‘politically correct’ ethos that everybody can join in with, and there are no hierarchies. Another problem is that in this music the stardom system can work in a similar way to how it does in the mainstream.


As festivals of improvised music have been established, there are some musicians who are participating in many of them and others that never participate. Trends are also important in this kind of music (not that this is so wrong but it can actually counter the idea of being open to the risk of the unfamiliar). This might be a difficult field and it can easily said that the musicians asked to participate are the best improvisers. But in improvisation there is not just one way of doing it, as we mentioned before there are many personalities in this way of making music.

Often in different places musicians develop a certain style of playing and so-called “schools” are created: London school, Berlin, School, Japanese school, Vienna School, New Zealand school and so on. They all have their particularities but not in all are so clear. Other ways of playing improvisation can be very loud (“noise”), very quiet (“reductionism”), fast and active (“plinky-plonk” or “salad music” as Radu Malfatti calls it), slow gradual changes, drone-like…. At the moment we could say that the Japanese school (which is quite reductionist) sells more CD’s that let’s say the NZ one for example (which is lo-fi and drone-like).


The meta-musician looks for meaning, and for a music with meaning, and looks to invest as much meaning as possible in the music. The intention is to transcend all previous experience of music production and music consumption. The intention is making music, and listening to it, as if for the first time. [9]


As we can see in this quotation by Eddie Prévost, there is a necessity to break with any previous understanding of music. The meta-musician is not just a player/composer/listener at the same time, he or she is a revolutionary and consumer of the others player’s revolution. Is this not too much to ask of a human being?


So what I want to say by bringing together the specific styles that have emerged out of this music and “the radical new-creative-self” that Prévost is talking about is that the romantic aura that can be wrapped around this kind of music, is sometimes put forward to reinforce a specific understanding of politics (and perhaps as an example of social understanding) and in others it is hidden and not so clear within the aesthetic choices of the musicians (but then perhaps there it occurs more naturally, without pretensions). But what does happen is that the freedom of this music creates its own limitations.  Exercising freedom in a certain way makes it stylised and sterilized.


If improvisation does not become a method, an aim, a genre, if it is not seen as a specialist endeavour through which virtuosity can re-emerge, if it is seen as a continual accompaniment to our everyday lives in which meaning and responses do not always emerge instantaneously, if it is heard as that which contains the phases of its own construction and carries the emotions to which it gave rise, then it can operate as a "practice of self-invention" that is spurred-on by negotiation between the determined and the undetermined, between pleasure and displeasure.[10]





Part 2

Considering the problems in the development of improvised music in London


Oh, I love freedom but what is it?


I) Being beyond "music," it is noise.


ii) Being beyond "rules," it is free.[11]


Free improvisation as its name suggests has a relationship with freedom.  The sounds originated in its practice have a relationship with noise.  If we follow the above quotation from Bruce Russell we might think that improvisation is by itself progressive.  There is nothing implicit in improvisation; it is what the musicians make out of the performance that can have potential.  If the musicians bring an openness to create common spaces or ways of understanding, is more likely that the improvisation can take unexpected and interesting paths. By common spaces I do not mean to try to find the lowest or more common denominators, which would mean to actually bring what they have from the past. 


As I mentioned above, to try to articulate the potential of this music might also be to constrain the spectrum in which one can act. This attempt is bound to fail. Similar to what happens to improvisation once you try to see it as the final result. This would mean to contextualize it and give it a purpose - to think of it only in formal terms (this was fine here or that worked there).


One of the biggest problems during the course of this essay is thinking of improvisation in temporal terms. There is some potential in short fast disruptive actions, but they will always be subjected to what happened before. This would be a nihilistic self-destructive gesture rather than a long-term commitment to finding alternative ways of dealing with the way that we are determined by power. To see how this emancipatory transition can happen is the purpose of this section of the essay.



Obeying what?


Gilles Deleuze in ‘Spinoza: Practical Philosophy’:


In every society, Spinoza will show, it is a matter of obeying and nothing else. This is why the notions of fault, of merit and demerit, of good and evil, are exclusively social, having to do with obedience and disobedience. The best society, then, will be one that exempts the power of thinking from the obligation to obey, and takes care, in its own interest, not to subject thought to the rule of the state, which only applies to actions. As long as thought is free, hence vital, nothing is compromised.



I am afraid that thought is not free in the present conditions. Capitalism, in order to reproduce itself, needs to produce workers and consumers. This what is has been called “production of subjectivities”. With the convergence of material and immaterial production capitalism has dissolved into people minds and habits: a subtle infiltration blurring the distinction between one’s own desires and capitalist desires.  How can the production of noises disrupt the production of subjectivities?


Musicians, in constructing a dialogue out of an empty score (which actually makes more transparent the social condition as there is no final responsibility attached to an author or score) are showing that the effects of their choices induce a responsibility. This responsibility (which actually gets its meaning diluted by the musicians’ interaction and their subterranean understandings), introduces further responsibility. The musicians, in having a past (time passing, sounds created/listened to) are able to choose the way they deal with the present according to their decision-making.


This decision-making might simply reproduce aesthetic choices from the past, an act of consolidation rather than discovery, unless it is adapted to the nature of the new improvisation, which relies on careful listening and an awareness of the precedence of the music. This does not mean that ready-made sounds are not welcome, but that your choice gives them a reason to be there. The musicians and listeners are giving a new context to them.


The production of communication does not mean just to talk better but to struggle with getting the most out of its possibilities.  In capitalism, communication means transaction of knowledge and information. In improvisation what is produced and distributed are momentary gestures of sound, what they induce is a response.  Capitalism works towards a directional interest (reproduction of itself.) If it gets responses, it learns from them in order to infiltrate and produce better. Improvisation is antagonistic to this process, because while it appeals to the audiences’ desires, it then invites a dialogue.  Notions of good or bad get deformed because their general meaning is not used in order of an interest outside the situation. Because improvisation is not aiming for finality, fixity becomes flexibility. Flexibility in improvisation does not mean “free flowing” but instead implies an ability to accommodate difficult sounds you do not find inspiring and do something with them. In doing this, conventional ways of listening are transformed for the musicians to amplify their scope of action.  The general meaning of these notions are appropriated for that moment in which musicians decide to play with them, but then they are only used for specific occasions which you cannot take away with you.




Human freedom, thought not free will, amounts to the power that one possesses actively to select one’s encounters rather than suffer chance associations.[12]


John Cage managed to open the parameters in which music was thought of. But actually the chance pieces in Cage’s work (e.g. ‘Music of changes’) are always subjected to strict rules. The difference with improvisation is that the musicians are always exposed to its determination and response without having rules to back them up. Improvisation challenges the notion of divisions. Cage’s compositions have the finality of showing what is possible in music and our preconceptions of it. He might perhaps not be in charge of the content of the form, but it is still a very strict way of defining a spectrum of action. What improvisation does is to show that there is not an outside to its practice. There is a big difference in hearing a Chance piece by John Cage and an improvisation. Even if the sound might be similar, the approach comes from a different angle.


In John Cage’s pieces there is a clear division, the chances encountered within them are the purpose of them. They stop being chance. In improvisation chances remain the whole potential to be taken in to account or not.  Let’s say that some loud sound comes from outside. While in more general music it would be a disturbance and excluded, in Cage’s music it would be anticipated.  In improvisation it would be listened and questioned and if someone thinks that he can do something with it, used.  Usually the performance spaces can be extremely varied and with different acoustic properties. In no other music are these qualities explored more. What I want to get at is that improvisation is able to understand that it is part of a bigger context, and is able to do something with it. The rules in John Cage’s pieces seal the interaction of the musicians.  Improvisation recognizes that there is no division between the conceptual approach and constant intervention within it. In improvisation, there is neither a concept to save, nor a rule to be applied.




Just as, in a game, the victory of one of the players is not (with respect to the game) an originary state to be restored, but only the stake that doesn’t pre-exist the game but results from it, so pure violence – which is the name that Benjamin gives to human action which neither founds not conserves law – is not an originary figure of human action that at a certain moment is seized and inscribed in the juridical order (just as for speaking man there is no pre-linguistic reality which, at a certain moment, would fall into language.)[13]


Once we understand that we are embedded within a system in which contradictory social relations are played out, we can also see that the contradictions contain aspects that exceed constrictions or law.  Improvisation as pure praxis; You cannot be outside of the game, but you don’t have to be subjected to the rules in order to play the instrument, and create convergent moments of communication. This can be similar to when the musicians use instruments in ways that were not anticipated before. Exploring without conceptual restrictions the material aspect of the instrument does this. In making and listening to the results, the musician is able to develop a personal approach to music making.  This is not done in isolation, but within the appreciation of other musicians and listeners. In having a positive reception for that which  “Marketed music” tries to exclude, improvised music manages to give meaning to the residue without making a statement nor a question that it needs to answer.

When sounds are thrown in improvisation, this pushes the temporal-spatial understanding that we can have about sound and its place in reality. Later on I will explain how the trombonist Radu Malfatti is pushing this notion to the limit. The inner rules that we bring prior to the performance as listeners become ridiculous once musicians manage to show a different way of playing. This moment in which you realize that you had a “limiter” on music shakes other notions and will bring fragility to your understanding. As in many cases those inner rules or parameters in which music can be acted are the ones that hold other notions. If we understand politics in terms of their potential in social relations, we can see that in the exploratory element of improvisation there is a politics involved.  By making the most of its interactions, the musicians project their subjectivities and their desires within it and discover other people’s receptions of it.


So it appears that the common notions are practical Ideas, in relation with our power; unlike their order of exposition, which only concern ideas, their order of formation concern affects, showing how the mind “can order its affects and connect them together.” The common notions are an Art, the art of ethics itself: organizing good encounters, composing actual relations, forming powers, experimenting.[14]


Deleuze describes the way a common notion can be put into practice in order to develop its own powers. But the nature of the way in which subjectivities are developed with it is conditioned by its future use. It cannot become a rule unless it becomes a style that other musicians can be infected with.  And unless you are able to bastardize this style it will become another template in which rules can be applied. In that case its political potential ceases:


 The more the body politic, that individual of individuals, develop its own powers, the more the real-imaginary complexity of social relationships as Spinoza conceives it is revealed as a principle of mobility. Obedience itself (and its correlative representation, the “Law”), as it is institutionalized by the State, region and morality, is not an immutable given but the fulcrum of a continual transition? Or, more precisely, since progress is never guaranteed, it is what is at stake in a praxis (a struggle?) whose decisive moment is the transformation of the mode of communication itself.[15]


Unconstituted praxis


In an essay entitled ‘Pioesis and Praxis’, Giorgio Agamben explains how the terminology of praxis has been modified through time to finally aim at finality. In ancient Greece, work was the lowest on the rank between the terms: work praxis and poesis. The slaves executed work in order to achieve something concrete. We live in time in which this has inversed, and now any production has an end. 


Agamben continues that in the Greek understanding of the making an artwork it did not include that the artwork would be finished and by itself would come into essence. Rather the artwork would be identified with process, therefore it could not be put together to an end or a limit. 


It is important to acknowledge that the making of products (or decisive endings) makes its parameters easy to identify and this means that you are able to appropriate the work of art (I’ve got it! I understand it).  This also gives consumption a clear-cut meaning.  For the Greeks, making art was concerned with creation: Out of nothing make something. Now we can see that praxis would be the medium in which you make a specific work. Is to have an end; to have a deadline, a limit to your potentiality. Improvisation instead brings back the act of making as the main focus of artistic praxis. But praxis understood by the Greeks had a different connotation to pro-duction. Pro-duction has its limits outside itself; praxis is self-contained and reaches its limits through action. Therefore it is not pro-ductive and it can bring itself into presence.


In improvisation, thought and action are brought together in an unconstituted praxis. By this I mean a praxis, which is not exterior to it but neither is it finally constituted. It needs of other listeners to actually get an effect; it needs the interaction to fulfill its main purpose. This is similar to Agamben’s  use of the concept of means without end,



In improvisation the gestures made require a response in order for the dialogue to continue.  But as the other players cannot anticipate a concrete response the gestures are like giving birth to the conversation, and from there on something develops. But as we mentioned before, with Cage’s pieces the concept works as an end; but in improvisation each gesture can be as single concepts, forced to coexist. The gestures are never left alone because even the silence has a meaning; there is not such a thing as neutrality in improvisation. Meaning is constantly produced and never isolated from its context.


Politics is the exhibition of a mediality: it is the act of making a means visible as such. Politics is the sphere neither of an end in itself nor of means subordinated to an end; rather, it is the sphere of a pure mediality without end intended as the field of a human thought.[16]



As Agamben suggests later on the essay in his notes on politics that Praxis and political reflections are operating today exclusively within the dialects of proper and improper, which means inclusion and exclusion. And if we are able to perform acts which are indifferent to this dialectics (therefore impossible to be categories and exclude), we are able to bring a politics in which the notion of the common gets its meaning without being based on concept of appropriation and expropriations. If improvisation is able to work outside this dialectics and function as pure mediality then is able to show its political potential. 



Because of the lack of functionality outside its context, improvisation cannot reproduce ideologies concerning product as finality (“reproduction of capital). The functionality in improvisation works for the moment in which musicians are struggling to find common notions. This struggle is itself the aim. It is in trying to find a language within spectacle, in which musicians can for that time stop reproducing ready-made clichés. In making an argot within the brutal and cold capitalist production, one starts to leave behind what rules for obedience were put into the musicians. Obedience, points of reference disappear as you contract the object not out of form, but with the awareness that we are embedded with in this system. It would be ridiculous to think that we are not determined by it, but also to think that by default we cannot stop reproducing its negative connotations.





The age in which we are living, in fact, is also the age in which, for the first time, it becomes possible for humans to experience their own linguistic essence- to experience, that is, not some language content or some true proposition, but the fact itself of speaking. The experience in question here does not have any objective content and cannot be formulated as a proposition referring to a state of things or to a historical situation. It does not concern a state but an event of language; it does not pertain to this or that grammar but- so to speak to- the factum loquendi as such. Therefore, this experience must be constructed as an experiment concerning the matter itself of thought, that is, the power of thought (in spinozian terms: an experiment de potentia intellectus, sive de libertate)[17]


If we are conscious of how these systems are able to cut off or actually introduce our objects of desire, we can be able to find ways of how to produce moments of resistance to this aim. It would be difficult to actually aim for a clear situation in which you think everything would be fantastic (What happens once you achieve? You stop?). The situation emerges out of a practice, a modus operandi you should be aiming at. Once the capitalist producers know what you are looking for is easy for it to deal with. But if there is nothing clearly positioned, it cannot apply satisfactory responses to it.


Argot, not being a proper language is difficult to institutionalize.  It is a good analogy to bring in the concept of argot here, even though music and language work in different registers. Argot has the aspect of appropriating a language and making it personal (sometimes it is used to do secret trading, or obscure business). [18]


Languages are the jargons that hide the pure experience of language just as people are the more or less successful mask of the factum pluralitatis.  This is why our task cannot possibly be either the construction of this jargons into grammars or the recodification of people into states identities, On the contrary, it is only by breaking at any point the nexus between the existence of language, grammar, people, and state that thought ans praxis will be equal to the tasks at hand. The forms of this interruption – during which the factum of language and the factum of community come to light fro an instant- are manifold and change according to times and circumstances: reactivation of a jargon, trobar clus, a pure language, minoritarian practice of a grammatical language, and so on. In any case, it is clear that what is at stake here is not something simply linguistic or literary but, above all, political and philosophical.


Pure language for Benjamin is irreducible to grammar or a particular language. But its purity is not that it comes out of nothing, it is still language, but not subjected to particular rules. Its indetermination makes it difficult to appropriate.

As this music is produced by the combination of the exploration of the instrument against its intended purpose and a personal way of responding with other musicians, the musical language that is created serves only the communicability of that moment. It cannot be exported elsewhere.  You can take ideas but you will also you will also have to contextualize, in that way each element of the music is there to be activated by the consumer. By this I mean that that the decision-making is more prominent in the process of the consumption of this music, as opposed to other genres in which stages of it are more clearly defined (i.e. composing, presenting, getting recognition). This music works like elusive liquidity in the hands of the musical grammar in order to keep reaching other people’s ears.


As there is not much interest in the general audience with this music it is only the musicians who make the most out of it. The marginality of this music functions at both levels, one which exposes the idea of the spectacle and the other, how to live within in it and yet be antagonistic to it.  It can just fall into a dead end, and we all know that it is difficult if not impossible to make a child out of sodomy. But there can be a lot of pleasure in doing it.






Part 3

Diary from Vienna


An exhibition of great importance opened yesterday in Vienna (Abstract art now at the Kusthale Vienna), as you can imagine computers and their pixilation where there. farmersmanual (all lowercase, for internet use), a group of male individuals (transgressing definitions, how can you define them? computer programmers, musicians, artists, researchers) from Vienna but based in different cities (Berlin....) have a project there which questions aspects of improvisation.  A huge metal-ball-structure was in one of the big rooms of the Kunst hale. At the opening members of farmersmanual started a performance consisting of moving the ball. The movement would trigger some loud sounds. The sound generated through the network within the computers of farmers manuals.  This approach had been developed when some of the members of farmersmanual left Vienna and had to find ways to keep collaborating together without the need of sharing the same physical spaces. This led them to explore the possibilities of Networks.  So they started to use networks as a sound source (through some Max programming).

Their approach uses improvisation as an operative system to discover new ways of interacting with technology.   It is interesting to see that there is no such thing as final stage of the work.  In bringing networks, and communication (which they are always working, file sharing and so on) there in no point in which you can say you have a representation of it.  These days their projects exceed what the concert venues can accommodate. They bring their networks, video and usually they perform for 3 hours, in which the audience is not just asked to sit down and listen but to actually walk around and look the work and their activity. In fact they just released a DVD in which they document all their performances in mp3 format. As people would think of a DVD for music, farmersmanual reverse our preconceptions of its possibilities. It might be a product, but one that challenges your notion of consumerism.  farmersmanual do not come from an improvisation background, they are not subjected to any particular method or ideology that we mentioned above, instead they push technologies without restriction, focusing on different aspects of what can you do with them.

To just listen to farmersmanual as formal music is missing its political potential. It is the way it is made which could counter the production of subjectivities. Some of the projects of farmersmanual have included inviting anybody through the Internet to improvise with them. The situation becomes special, on the one hand because they are using technology to create creative subjectivities and on the other because the openness invites you to be a listener, or even producer.  Its instant character gets reinforced through the possibility of intervention, you are not constrained to maintain silence or a socially respectful behavior (you in your room might be enjoying an orgy and you’re having a break from it to search different avenues of ecstasy). Another project, which I found interesting, was in the Venice Biennale 2001. They were invited to it but a week before they were told that there was no space. Hiaz (the only one of FM who considers himself an artist) went there and tried to find possibilities and spaces for interaction.  As Venice is full of canals and there was no space on dry land it made sense to do something on a boat. After a really intense process of dealing with the owner of the boat (every minute asking for more money) FM were able to have their huge PA and their noise networks ready for improvisation. Here the concept of the audience and how to present your work was completely challenged.  Venice is a really quiet city (no vehicles) but does not have any rules for the amount of noise you can make on a boat, so FM were free to push their energy through the speakers. It created a great deal of confusion and some people thought there were some weapons, fireworks.  During the opening of the Venice Biennale there so many events and openings that is difficult to attract an audience to your event. But with the boat they were able to do the opposite: We could go wherever the people were (I could not stop laughing thinking of all this arty-fuckers-object-observers running away from these Viennese-freaks-boaty-noise-makers.)


We were able to produce very loud volumes and the first people to call up the water police were the Italian navy marine school next to the Giardini, because they has the impression that some of their gun ships had been stolen.[19]



Radu Malfatti (trombonist)


Including silence in order to exclude staganation.  Malfatti has been concerned with the problems of style in improvisation. He criticizes those players that he started to play with in the 60’s and 70’s for sounding the same now as they did at that time. If this music is about constant renewal, reinvention and breaking new grounds, you should do it constantly, not just once. He is famous for doing ultra-silent performances which many people he has played with, find too much to take or boring. What is it about silence in an improvised context that till a certain point is fine (and at the moment it suits the trend) but after a while people cannot cope with it? Do they find themselves being cheated (you can listen to silence anytime, I do not need to pay for that!)?  The questions that the inclusion of silence raises for me are:  Virtuosity gets reduced as not everybody can be active, the audience is more exposed and by default more included with in the performance, the same about the space and its acoustic qualities. Everything becomes for fragile and exposed. Certain criticism that this music has taken is that is dogmatic (almost exclusive).


The work of Radu is the opposite of the work of Hiaz. Radu is concerned with his own interests, taste and history.  Radu believes in the idea of constant self-renewal but this is different from the idea of self-invention that Prévost talks about. Radu is more interested in what is actually being produced rather than how it is produced (as Prévost or Hiaz). It is not a matter of making a product (as he would be one the few consuming it) but rather as musicians to put yourselves in a situation in which you feel something is happening but do not know how to describe it. (I guess here Eddie would bring one stick and hit it; Radu would do nothing or breathe and wait). I shall try to explain what it is that affects me about the Radu’s playing. One is that he is pushing the limits of minimalism (and here it’s not a matter of bringing John Cage’s 4’33’’ as he comes from a different angle. He is still interested in playing, but also in extending the fragile moment of nothingness with what the context does. What happens in between is listened to and appreciated, actually very close to real time field recordings. For example, ‘Dach’, a CD documenting a performance in a trio in which Radu was involved: At the beginning it was raining and you can hear the raindrops better than the playing. What you get is context eating or actually becoming the ego of the players.


Democracy comes into play, but is so obvious that audience do not want to deal with it (in the long silences that Radu performs you can hear people squickling, stomachs, siliba, sacricition). The only possibility is leaving the room, which obviously will become a statement.  We could also consider here the information overload that this time is bringing us, but Hiaz is already doing something productive about it. What fascinates me about Radu is his radicalism (as in the second definition that comes out in this Microsoft word program dictionary: Far-reaching, searching or thoroughgoing. Let me bring you also the 3rd definition: Favouring or making economical, political, or social changes of a sweeping or extreme nature).  The fragile moment of encountering difference (and you being involved in producing it with other musicians): This is improvisation. But obviously not everybody is trying to achieve the same differences (some are not even trying to achieve anything except filling their pockets and their big tanks of ego with the constant presentation of the one difference that they have achieved in their lives as musicians.) Here is where Radu does not fit, as what he has achieved with his constant renewal is a very unmarketable music (I am actually going to record with him in a proper studio, which means money, and what about if he does not play more in total that 5m. in the period of 3 hours?)




Criticism to Eddie:


Eddie Prévost on Wire 231. May  2003,  critisizing Radu’s approach to improvisation, said

“If Radu Malfatti is the Pope of the New Orthodoxy, Keith Rowe is Christ.”


Prevóst as we mentioned before has been doing this music for a long time. In fact he could be part of a particular way of dealing with improvisation (temporarily expansive, as opposed to the fast playing of free jazz). In consolidating this way of playing, perhaps intentionally he is putting himself on the top of the hierarchies of this way of playing (and defining improvisation that he has been pioneer of). In his criticism of Radu Malfatti, he mentioned that silence must come out of a catharsis, and that then there is no possibility of interaction with other musicians. For me the problem is this: How can you put limiters in a music that a calls itself free improvisation? As we mentioned above Eddie asks for an awareness of the socio political implications of this music. But the way in which he is asking us to do this is by trying to bring common denominators to the performance, rather than our most idiosyncratic elements.  There is a contradiction, then, when he criticizes others for sampling his sounds.

He sees the music as hermetic. How can you see this music as hermetic when what it does is to appreciate the context it is made in? As Cage already proved there is no silence, and as I mention above musicians in improvisation are able to appreciate and integrate aspects outside of the music production. I feel in Eddie’s response a certain fear that his approach might be overcome by a perhaps more concise, different mode of listening to and creating sounds. He criticizes this music for being formal, but he comments about Keith’s Rowe playing at the begging of the article:


 Hiwh hwi

“Essentially what Keith (Rowe) does now is not that far away from what he did in 1966. What’s changed? The world of music.”


And even if Keith Rowe’s radical approach stays up to date, his way of interaction has not developed. How long can his Unorthodoxy and Radicalism last? 

I think there is more heremeticism in trying to cover up for the situation, not letting or getting the most out of the situation, rehearsing gestures for 40 years, than actually questioning the whole way the music is made (its cause and response) and its structures. It is true that Radu Malfatti is the precursor of a way of playing which has inspired many musicians but it is also true that he is the one that takes the situation the furthest. Other musicians in Vienna appreciate very much his work and his attitude towards risk but they do not easily get into it (it might become boring if you listen to it 15 times).

Perhaps I have not listened to him that many times, but the impression that I have listening/not listening to him is that it makes me question: Why activity? It is not silence for it own sake (again it is not a nihilistic gesture), it is an understanding of the placement of the sounds and how they can produce tension and effect. Unfortunately I could not go, but Klaus Filip organized ‘chess & music’ at the rihz in Vienna and apparently the concert featuring Taku Sugimoto (Japanese quiet guitarist) and Radu was an amazing disintegration between the sounds of the clocks and the pieces moving and their sounds’ implementation.

It seems to me that in Prévost there is certain fear to be noticed or heard, my problem is this might become an end in which the music is contingent on this. Or more problematic, that this music challenges the notions of what Prévost has been writing about for so long. What is contemporary about Radu’s approach, is observation to that which Eddie actually finds dull sound (which in doing exposes his hierarchies of sounds developed through the years): attention to that which usually gets unperceived or thrown away. Radu is bringing another level of radicalism to this music, which Eddie is not interested in. But we should not think that the amount of action and its volume level restrains its responsibility. It can very easily be the contrary; allowing more space to uncover that which is a gesture (by this I mean an already rehearsed one) or actually a fragile moment of praxis in which you throw yourselves and your past in other to get somewhere you have not been, somewhere where you have to respond differently to the way that you are accustomed.


I have been playing quite a lot with Eddie and I respect him for his music, thoughts and generosity but this does not let him off from my criticism. In his Mute magazine article about sampling Eddie criticizes the idea of processing or taking his sounds somewhere else. As if his sounds were the only ones put at the right place at the right moment, as if his sounds have characteristics only applicable to his hands and his long history. It’s a long time now since the idea of the author has been dissolved into the text.


His recreation of sounds might have been done with the idea of self-inventiveness. Nothing wrong in being creative but what is ridiculous these days is to try to be self-preserved.  It is all right for Eddie to produce sounds that provoke thought and reactions and events, better if he produces conversations about the sounds (how beautiful it was!!) but what is not fine is to actually make music with them. The placement and the use of them for sure are going to be different to the ones that Eddie gives, it is then when Eddie exposes his love for form and his fetish for his own sounds. His ego trip about the music, not everybody can do this music if you do not have your sounds; you are not allowed to borrow in Eddie’s improvisational ethos. I am not really sure if Eddie has heard about open sources but then he really is missing a way in which information be treated.  As he said, with technology things get more mediated and we have two choices here; we take the most out it, or we can do like John Zerzan: believe in primitivism (and if before language the better). But Eddie is not really making a decision that matches his original approach: full of self-invention. Which as Radu suggested actually should be self-inventions (and not be so profoundly frozen by the first one.)


Again another problem: his beautiful wine barrel, which he uses very interestingly, but there is an aspect of this which again shows his fear of attention to the context, the little motor which rotates a piece of plastic which hits the barrel.  The motor might be wound by him but obviously its hitting is not done by him, is this as far is his understanding of the changes of time can go? 




























Adorno, Theodor. Prisms. MIT Press, Cambridge 1990.


Agamben, Giorgio.  Etat d’exception. Seuil, Paris 2002.


Agamben, Giorgio. Means without End. University of Minnesota Press, Mineapolis 1996.


Agamben, Giorgio. The Coming Community. University of Minnesota Press, Mineapolis 1993.


Agamben, Giorgio. The Man without Content. Stanford University Press, California 1999.


Attali Jacques. Noise: The Political Economy of Music.  University of Minnesota Press,

Mineapolis 1999.


Balibar, Etienne. Spinoza and Politics. Verso, London 1998.


Bailey, Derek. Improvisation : Its Nature & Practice In Music,

Da Capo Press 1993.


Badiou, Alain. Ethics: An essay on the understanding of evil. Verso. New York. 2000.


Bonefeld, Werner (ed.) Revolutionary Writing: Common Sense Essayss In Post-Political Essays. Autonomedia, New York 2003.


Cage, John. Silence. Calder Boyars, London 1968


Cardew, Cornelius. Treatise Handbook. Hinrichsen Edition, London 1971


Cardew, Cornelius. Stockhausen serves Imperialism. Latimer New Dimensions, London 1974.


Deleuze, Gilles. Spinoza: Practical Philosophy. City Lights Books, San Francisco 1988.


Negri, Tony. The Savage Anomaly. University of Minnesota Press, Mineapolis 1991.


Prévost, Edwin. No Sound is Innocent. Copula Press, Essex 1995.


Prévost, Edwin. Free as Air: On sampling in Mute 23, March 2003.


Sakolsky, Ron (ed.) Sounding off ! Music as Subversion/Resistance/Revolution. Autonomedia/Semiotext(e), New York 1995


Slater, Howard. Stammer Language: Some thoughts on improvisation prompted by

Eddie Prevost: No Sound Is Innocent. Available at http://daisy.metamute.com/~simon/mfiles/mcontent/impro_v.html



Spinoza, Baruch. Spinoza’s Ethics and On the Correction of the Understanding. J.M. Dent & Sons, London 1956


Watson, Ben. Free Improvisation Actuality in Mute 19, April 2001.




Web sites:


www.paristransatlantic.com/magazine/ interviews/malfatti.htm

Interview with Radu Malfatti



Website of farmersmanual



Eddie Prévost’s record label’s website














[1] In fact the first AMM  “AMMMusic was released by the big label Elektra.

[2] Plato. Republic Book IV

[3] Cornelious Cardew. Stockhausen Serves Imperialism.. P.8

[4] A couple of years ago there was a memorial for Cardew  (he was run over by a car in 1979.) at the Conway Hall in Holborn. AMM played alongside the revolutionary popular songwriters. It was surprising to me that while AMM got from the audience an average response, the popular songs produced so much euphoria (here I perhaps should motioned that I was probably the youngest person in the space and may people were close to half of a century old). For me the popular songs sounded so dated and stank of nostalgia while AMM somehow retained some contemporaneity.


[5] Prévost, Eddie.  No Sound Is Innocent, p.103

[6] Badiou , Alain. Ethics, An Essay on the Understanding of evil. P.23

[7] Prévost, Eddie. No Sound is Innocent. P.115.

[8] Bailey, Derek. Improvisation. P. 111.

[9] Prévost Eddie. No Sound is Innocent. P. 9

[10] Slater,  Howard. Stammer Language. Available at: http://daisy.metamute.com/~simon/mfiles/mcontent/impro_v.html


[11] Bruce Russell, Free Noise Manifesto. Available at: http://www.corpushermeticum.com

[12] Spinoza, Baruch. Ethics. p.116

[13] Agamben,  Giorgio, Etat d’exception. P.103.

[14] Deleuze, Gilles. Practical Philosophy. P. 119

[15] Balibar, Ettienne. Espinoza and Politics. P. 96

[16] Agamben, Giorgio. Means without Ends. P.116.

[17] Ibid. P.115.

[18] Ibid. p.70

[19] Hiaz, on a  talk “ see with your ears and listen with your eyes, on a sounds workshop held at the center for contemporary art (cca) Kitakyushu ( japan). 29th July – August  3th 2002. Published on Substantials. CCA. Japan. 2003