Ray Brassier & Mattin
Unfree Improvisation/Compulsive Freedom
(ccs 29)

Recorded by Kenny MacLeod at Arika's Festival Episode 4 "Freedom is a Constant Struggle", 21 April 2013, Tramway, Glasgow.

Thanks to Barry Esson, Bryony McIntyre and Mark Wastell

"I have been thinking back to this performance.  I am trying to think about the relationship between choice, freedom and the subject… The first thing that came to mind is that: I think I disagree with Hannah Arendt about the political - she says something like that in order to be granted access to the political sphere, you have to choose to put aside unreason, irrationality and the messiness of everyday sociality, and demonstrate to the sovereign that you are a good subject or citizen. I guess then you would be granted access to society, and as such democratic choice.  This seems like begging the sovereign to also grant you sovereignty - which seem to me to cede to them way too much power.  Maybe on those terms, some of us don’t want to be subjects - or some of us don’t believe in democracy.  Maybe the political is very specifically in the messy, infinitely differentiated sociality that exists in apposition to sovereign power.  Or maybe the political is the freedom from certain choices… Or not. I’m not sure.  But I am also wondering if the illusion of freedom of choice (in the way that it captures desire and shackles it to individuality) is the earliest seduction of the western citizen - a thorn planted in the somatic field of the mind, around which the subject develops like a callosity". (Barry Esson)


The Wire (London, September 2014 by Louis Pattison)


So. Almost nothing, a bump maybe. A cough. Three minutes in, hints of activity, still obscure. Wondering if Brassier will play guitar or maybe read. Heavy rain outside, possibly blanketing any sounds from the speakers. Huh, there's also a low spattering hiss (from the disc) that's not entirely unlike the rain hitting the porch. I've raised the volume a good bit, reluctantly, anticipating damage to my ears within a few minutes, but that brief emergence of sound has subsided back into the occasional cough. ok, there you go. A loud-ish, electronic throb, possibly vocal in origin, appears for ten or so seconds. Back to the coughs.This was recorded in April 2013 in Glasgow. I'm making my first trip to Scotland in a couple of days, so haven't experienced the weather yet, but I'm imagining frigid temperatures and phlegmy throats. Very phlegmy. ooh, bee-like activity, maybe sampled strings, looped, segueing into dense traffic (coughers thus given license to let go, which they do). At this point, I'm enjoying what I perceive as the structure, though that's obviously still subject to change. There's a strong feeling of presence in space, as well, always appreciated. Voices embedded in the roar (which, I now think, isn't traffic at all), murky, indecipherable. As that roar ends, I'm thinking those voices are from people in the performance space, presumably "improvised". :-) A device is turned on, an engine of some kind perhaps, though it escalates into a very loud alarm-like whine. I've just located a series of photos taken at the event, some of which show a large fan, wondering if that's what I'm hearing. If the woman in the photo above is an indication, probably so. (here). Also note that the performance site is "tramway" and am not sure if that's the name of a space or an actual tramway. Something like that initial vocal throb recurs, hanging around for a while this time, maybe a minute. [out on the porch for a minute to inspect some cool looking clouds, disc sounds continued. Questioning the recording of this, as opposed to the direct experience, but that's an old one...] Wait. an electronic Donald Duck voice is reading, I'm guessing from Brassier. [took a couple of photos of aforementioned clouds]. The voice is intelligible but distorted, the content thus abstracted enough to be more easily heard as noise. It ends abruptly, the engine turns back on. 


Back to ancillary noises, minimal. Wondering...oh, there you go, applause (weirdly inappropriate somehow) at the 34-minute mark. I was just going to say that I appreciate not having track timings in place as, the first time through, it imparts more of a sense of being at the concert, not knowing how long it will last. I had just been wondering, while imagining the set, how they'd choose to end it. I'm still not sure, having only audio clues to work with. Curious if they'd been off-stage for a while. No matter, I suppose.For what it's worth I enjoyed the disc, was never bored, found it workable to both listen and pay attention to the small things around my table. 

Le son du grisli (December 2014)

ray brassier mattin unfree improvisation compulsive freedom

C’est une idée et une pièce « écrite » de Ray Brassier qui met le philosophe en scène avec l’un de ses partenaires d’Idioms and Idiots, Mattin. Devant public (aveuglé, et qui patiente, commente, tousse beaucoup), le 21 avril 2013 à Glasgow.

Inspiré par le thème (Freedom is a Constant Struggle) de l’Arika Festival, Brassier coucha sur le papier ce qu’il entend par « liberté » et ce qu’il entend par « improvisation ». Tout expliquer, la métaphysique même (What Is Not Music ?), l’origine ou l'intention du geste improvisé, occupe encore beaucoup d’improvisateurs valables, et en distrait peut-être davantage, mais trêve… des pas sonnent le début de la performance.

Entre les longs silences qui évoqueront les danses arrêtées de Diego Chamy, des sons préenregistrés ou des effets joués sur l’instant (soufflerie, sirènes, rumeurs animales, voix transformée qui entame un discours…) se figent, marquant les stations d’une improvisation en suspens qui, au final, brille par ses doutes et ses « absences ».

Ainsi, pour peu que l’auditeur garde la conscience tranquille après avoir relativisé l’importance (plus encore que la nouveauté) du texte de Brassier, Unfree Improvisation/Compulsive Freedom, qui offrait déjà davantage à entendre qu’à voir, pourrait ravir jusqu’à l’amateur rassasié de concepts. Tout en ne changeant rien à ses principes : n’est-ce pas lui qui toujours décidera des degrés de liberté et de vérité de la musique qui le soumet ?

Ray Brassier, Mattin : Unfree Improvisation/Compulsive Freedom (Confront / Metamkine)
Enregistrement : 21 avril 2013. Edition : 2014.
CD : 01/ Unfree Improvisation/Compulsive Freedom
Guillaume Belhomme


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                                           number   962
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More from Mattin, following his rather conceptual work from two weeks ago; but perhaps everything he does is very conceptual, and one of the main questions he asks himself is: what is free improvisation? How does it work, can it be truly free, is it really improvised and all such semantic and philosophical questions. While listening to the thirty-five minutes of 'Unfree Improvisation/Compulsive Freedom', which was performed with Ray Brassier on April 21 2013 at Tramway in Glasgow, you can read Brassier's text about it. Maybe you won't notice the music as such in the first ten minutes or so, but then you can read really well. Mattin got into the music world via harsh noise, but that's not the case here. Everything here remains quite soft. I have no idea what kind of sounds or instruments are used, no doubt none of any kind, and while reading the text, I kept thinking: does all of this lead to some great music? It is surely interesting to hear (and read), but the silence thing?
  I think
I heard that by now. I don't want to get up and having to amplify the really soft bits to see what's going on. Why not properly master this into a listenable product? Obviously because that's against any of their self-proclaimed rules or conceptual guidelines. The bits that could be heard worked actually quite well: speed up spoken words, field recordings (probably something mechanical at Tramway and something captured on tape and brought to the venue), hiss, radio static, alone or in combination with each other. It works quite well; even as stand-alone music, even when, overall, I must admit I have my doubts about it. (FdW)
Address: http://www.confrontrecordings.com/


philosophy at the edge of the human


Ray Brassier’s  “Unfree Improvisation/Compulsive Freedom” (written for the 2013 event at Glasgow’s Tramway Freedom is a Constant Struggle) is a terse but insightful discussion of the notion of freedom in improvisation.

It begins with a polemic against the voluntarist conception of freedom. The voluntarist understands free action as the uncaused expression of a “sovereign self”. Brassier rejects this supernaturalist understanding of freedom. He argues that we should view freedom not as determination of an act from outside the causal order, but as the self-determination of action within the causal order.

According to Brassier, this structure is reflexive. It requires, first of all, a system that acts in conformity to rules but is capable of representing and modifying these rules with implications for its future behaviour. Insofar as there is a “subject” of freedom, then, it is not a “self” but depersonalized acts generated by systems capable of representing and intervening in the patterns that govern them.

The act is the only subject. It remains faceless. But it can only be triggered under very specific circumstances. Acknowledgement of the rule generates the condition for deviating from or failing to act in accordance with the rule that constitutes subjectivity. This acknowledgement is triggered by the relevant recognitional mechanism; it requires no appeal to the awareness of a conscious self….

Brassier’s proximate inspiration for this model of freedom is Wilfred Sellars’ account of linguistic action in “Some Reflections on Language Games” (1954) and the psychological nominalism in which it is embedded. This distinguishes a basic rule-conforming level from a metalinguistic level in which it is possible to examine the virtues of claims, inferences or the referential scope of terms by semantic ascent: “Intentionality is primarily a property of candid public speech established via the development of metalinguistic resources that allows a community of speakers to talk about talk” (Brassier 2013b: 105; Sellars 1954: 226).

So, for Brassier, the capacity to explore the space of possibilities opened up by rules presupposes a capacity to acknowledge these sources of agency.

There are some difficult foundational questions that could be raised here. Is thought really instituted by linguistic rules or is language an expression of pre-linguistic intentional contents? Are these rules idiomatic (in the manner of Davidson’s passing theories) or communal? What is the relationship between the normative dimension of speech and thought and facts about what thinkers do or are disposed to do?

I’ve addressed these elsewhere, so I won’t belabor them here. My immediate interest, rather, is the extent to which Brassier’s account of act-reflexivity is applicable to musical improvisation.

Brassier does not provide a detailed account of its musical application in “Unfree Improvisation”. What he does write, though, is highly suggestive: implying that the act of free improvisation requires some kind of encounter between rule governed rationality and more idiomatic patterns or causes:

The ideal of “free improvisation” is paradoxical: in order for improvisation to be free in the requisite sense, it must be a self-determining act, but this requires the involution of a series of mechanisms. It is this involutive process that is the agent of the act—one that is not necessarily human. It should not be confused for the improviser’s self, which is rather the greatest obstacle to the emergence of the act.

In (genuinely) free improvisation, it seems, determinants of action become “for themselves” They enter into the performance situation as explicit possibilities for action.

This seems to demand that “neurobiological or socioeconomic determinants of musical or non-musical action can become musical material, to be manipulated or altered by performers. How is this possible?

Moreover, is there something about improvisation (as opposed to conventional composition) that is peculiarly apt for generating the compulsive freedom of which Brassier speaks?

After all, his description of the determinants of action in the context of improvisation might apply to the situation of the composer as well. The composer of notated “art music” or the studio musician editing files in a digital-audio workstation seems better placed than the improviser to reflect on and develop her musical rule-conforming behaviour (e.g. exploratory improvisations) than the improviser. She has the ambit to explore the permutations of a melodic or rhythmic fragment or to eliminate sonic or gestural nuances that are, in hindsight, unproductive. The composed gesture is always open to reversal or editing and thus to further refinement.

Thus the improviser seems committed to what Andy Hamilton calls an “aesthetic of imperfection” – in contrast to the musical perfectionism that privileges the realized work. Hamilton claims that the aesthetics of perfection implies and is implied by a Platonic account for which the work is only contingently associated with particular times, places or musical performers (Hamilton 2000: 172). The aesthetics of imperfection, by contrast, celebrates the genesis of a performance and the embodying of the performer in a specific time and space:

Improvisation makes the performer alive in the moment; it brings one to a state of alertness, even what Ian Carr in his biography of Keith Jarrett has called the ‘state of grace’. This state is enhanced in a group situation of interactive empathy. But all players, except those in a large orchestra, have choices inviting spontaneity at the point of performance. These begin with the room in which they are playing, its humidity and temperature, who they are playing with, and so on. (183)

An improvisation consists of irreversible acts that cannot be compositionally refined. They can only be repeated, developed or overwritten in time. It takes place in a time window limited by the memory and attention of the improviser, responding to her own playing, to the other players, or (as Brassier recognises) to the real-time behaviour of machines such as effects processors or midi-filters. Thus the aesthetic importance of the improvising situation seems to depend on a temporality and spatiality that distinguishes it from the score-bound composition or studio bound music production.

Yet, if this is right, it might appear to commit Brassier to a vitalist or phenomenological conception of the lived musical experience foreign to the anti-vitalist, anti-phenomenological tenor of his wider philosophical oeuvre. For this open, processual time must be counter-posed to the Platonic or structuralist ideal of the perfectionist. The imperfection and open indeterminacy of performance time must have ontological weight and insistence if Brassier’s programmatic remarks are to have any pertinence to improvisation as opposed to traditional composition.

This is not intended to be a criticism of Brassier’s position but an attempt at clarification. This commitment to an embodied, historical, machinic and physical temporality seems implicit in the continuation of the earlier passage cited from his text:

The improviser must be prepared to act as an agent—in the sense in which one acts as a covert operative—on behalf of whatever mechanisms are capable of effecting the acceleration or confrontation required for releasing the act. The latter arises at the point of intrication between rules and patterns, reasons and causes. It is the key that unlocks the mystery of how objectivity generates subjectivity. The subject as agent of the act is the point of involution at which objectivity determines its own determination: agency is a second-order process whereby neurobiological or socioeconomic determinants (for example) generate their own determination. In this sense, recognizing the un-freedom of voluntary activity is the gateway to compulsive freedom.

The improvising subject, then, is a process in which diverse processes are translated into a musical event or text that retains an expressive trace of its historical antecedents. As Brassier emphasizes, this process need not be understood in terms of human phenomenological time constrained by the “reverbations” of our working memory (Metzinger 2004: 129) – although this may continue to be the case in practice.

The Derridean connotations of the conjunction “event”/”text”/”trace” are deliberate, since the time of the improvising event is singular and productive – open to multiple repetitions that determine it in different ways. Improvisation is usually constrained (if not musically, by time or technical skill or means) but these rarely constitute rules or norms in the conventional sense. There is no single way in which to develop a simple Lydian phase on a saxophone, a rhythmic cell, or sample (an audio sample could be filtered, reversed or mangled by reading its entries out of order with a non-standard function, rather than the usual ramp). So the time of improvisation is a peculiarly naked exposure to “things”. Not to a sensory or categorical given, but precisely to an absence of a given that can be technologically remade.


Brassier, Ray 2013a. “Unfree Improvisation/Compulsive Freedom”, http://www.mattin.org/essays/unfree_improvisation-compulsive_freedom.html (Accessed March 2015)

Brassier, Ray. 2013b. “Nominalism, Naturalism, and Materialism: Sellars’ Critical Ontology”. In Bana Bashour & Hans D. Muller (eds.), Contemporary Philosophical Naturalism and its Implications. Routledge. 101-114.

Davidon, Donald. 1986. “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs”. In Truth and Interpretation,

E. LePore (ed.), 433–46. Oxford: Blackwell.

Hamilton, A. (2000). “The art of Improvisation and the Aesthetics of Imperfection”. British Journal of Aesthetics 40 (1):168-185.

Metzinger, T. 2004. Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Sellars, W. 1954. “Some Reflections on Language Games”. Philosophy of Science 21 (3):204-228.


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5 Responses to Compulsive Freedom: Brassier and Improvisation

  1. enemyin1 says:

    Cheers for the re-blog. Though is there any chance of placing quote marks round the quoted passages ?

  2. Jozsef says:

    But he’s just proliferating the supernaturalism from the once and for all of the sovereign self to the one time each of the self reflexive act. The Blind Brain Theory’s infrastructural story, its recoding of temporal finitude, in terms of information horizon with informatic closure–causally open, but whose causal history is occluded–more forcefully explains away or accounts for the form of the various phenomenalities that mark freedom (specificially its *beforelessness*) than anything like “semantic ascent”. I’d be curious to see what Sellars has written about time. I’d suspect it would be tucked away somewhere in what he has written about absolute processes. Do you have any idea about his views on time, david?

  3. dmf says:

    sure and done

  4. enemyin1 says:

    Hi Jozsef,

    I agree that there is a problem here. It is not clear how mere “aboutness” can explain autonomy. The fact that an act has a semantic relation to another act such that the first is about the second doesn’t imply anything about the ability of the first to exert influence on the second. Gary Watson makes a similar point against Harry Frankfurt’s compatibilist account of autonomy. The fact that one might have higher order desires that some lower order desire move one to action does not obviously make the lower order desire in question more properly “one’s own”. Cashing this out in terms of Sellars’ psychological nominalism does not appear to get around this.

    I don’t know much about Brassier’s views on time. He refers occasionally to Sellars idea that the fundamental constituents of the world (including acts) are processes or episodes. Insofar as he seems like a pretty orthodox Sellarsian these days, I guess that does commit him to the claim about some kind of fundamental temporality. And, as I say, I think his remarks are only specially pertinent to improvisation if a) the world is fundamentally temporal and b) improvisation is always characterised by definite time windows and thus by loss and indeterminacy.

    But then the nature of act “self-determination” seems less not more clear, now. The freedom of free improvisation is a function of a situation: the absence of constraint – e.g. from bar structures, modes or chord sequences. One’s response to a musical event is not prescribed. What counts as going on in “the right way” is not prescribed. You cannot – for example – lose your place in free form playing. You can play badly, however, by being insufficiently responsive to the evolving tendencies in the sound. Freedom, here just means that there are just more ways to screw up and also more ways to get it right.

    There may be a sense in which free improvisation is less automatic. When I’ve played be-bop pieces with very complex chord structures, I found that it’s easy to just ‘play the changes’, working through the formal harmonic structure in a mechanical way. So good improvisation, it seems, shouldn’t be formal in this sense. It should, at least, involve a responsiveness to very singular features of the improvising context – specific patterns, expressive nuances, etc. – rather than abstractly repeatable ones like whether a IV with a sharpened ninth follows a II with flattened fifth. It should lead to structures that are relatively improbable (because underdetermined) but “meaningful” (liable to prompt to further elaboration). If this all sounds lame it’s because it just increases the mystery about the processes that actually generate this order. We’re in the dark. And we’re more in the dark precisely because of the underdetermination of the sonic process by its seeding events. So – here’s a thought – maybe the seeming “freedom” of free improvisation consists in the absence of information about the formative events that produce it relative to less free contexts where we can invoke traditional harmonic or melodic structures. I’ll try to develop this in later posts.