As Deleuze once said : “L’Art produit nécessairement de l’inattendu, du non-reconnu, du non-reconnaissable.” Whether or not one agrees with this affirmation, it describes accurately my experience on the evening of Saturday the 10th of October 2015, when I went to the concert given by The Bridge at La Java club in Paris. The Bridge is a transatlantic network for jazz and creative music. This particular event united Mike Ladd, a Bostonian, conscious rapper and improviser ; Mankwe Ndosi, a vocalist who uses traditional vocal methods particularly whispers and shouts ; Sylvain Kassap a clarinetist, also interested in classical music and contemporary music ; and finally Dana Hall, a musician (drummer and percussionist, and composer) and an academic. These same musicians gave a conference at the University of Chicago Center in Paris on the 12th of October.
My work will mainly be based on notes taken during the concert and the conference that followed. I will also base my analysis on different academic works about improvisation and by mobilising classic social sciences references and concepts.
Gary Iseminger describes “sonicism” as the doctrine judging music only by “how it sounds”. However he contestes this idea and says that “neither non-improvised jazz nor improvised non-jazz appears to be based in the same social structures or to exhibit the same moral properties as these writers attribute to improvised jazz. To appreciate jazz improvisation, then, involves not only hearing “how it sounds,” but also understanding the social structures which underlie it and the moral significance of the ways in which its practitioners act and interact.” This is exactly the approach I would like to adopt in order to analyse this concert and conference, not only analysing sounds but trying to find the underlying social interactions and mental representations of the protagonists. Therefore I will no doubt tend to use more material from the conference because it will give me an objective base on top of which I can add slightly more subjective interpretations of their performance.
In particular I will try to analyse the intricate connexion between the individual and the collective by answering the following questions: how and through which mechanisms do the individuals reconcile their individuality with their collective belonging? I will start off by analysing how the individuals retain their individuality. The next step will be to analyse the connection between the individual and the collective, and therefore the different systems of exchanges. Finally I will study how the collective works together.
I/ Individuality : the complicated dynamics of Freedom, Life, Identity and Equality
A/ Freedom, improvisation and the concept of Free Jazz
The first and foremost expression of individuality comes through freedom. Freedom of expression (and experience) is the very meaning of Jazz because at the heart of Jazz is the transformation of music. However the question of the label “Free Jazz” is a more complicated one. As Dana Hall said during the conference:
Free jazz and free improvisation were never now, always in a particular moment in the evolution of the musician. To think about those tools in a different way, to free jazz from any previous limitations. To think about improvisation in a freer fashion. (…) Labels are not of use to me. I don’t consider myself free to do whatever I want to do.
This conception is similar to Michel Foucault’s ideas about liberty and limits, when he talks about “chercher à relancer aussi loin et aussi largement que possible le travail indéfini de la liberté”, this experience is very important as it is at the center of freedom: “comme une épreuve historico-practique des limites, que nous pouvons franchir, et donc comme travail de nous-mêmes sur nous-mêmes en tant qu’êtres libres. As Georges Lewis says : “On this view, improvisation becomes not so much a practice, but an aspiration towards freedom that, even as it is doomed to failure, nonetheless produces a consciousness that continually transgresses limits and resists their imposition. Improvisation’s primary nature is dual–agency bound up with indeterminacy–in other words, subjectivity itself, with all of its attendant dangers and possibilities for change.”
However other members of the group have slightly different conceptions of liberty. Sylvain Kassap said that :
Improvisation is to be able to play what I think (…) To be sure enough in what I play, to be totally free to listen to what others are playing. Keep my line. (…) Used to play Free Jazz, I don’t know if what I play now is free jazz, for me it’s history. (…) Sometimes it’s freedom, sometimes not. Sometimes I play lines which are not free at all but I have to keep them, because it’s going to play.
Mankwe Ndosi places her liberty in the possibility of choosing what to bring into the music, in what the individual brings as an individual to the collective.
B/ Jazz and life
Jazz improvisation also has a strong connection with individuality through the effects of Jazz on the rest of your life and vice versa. First of all Jazz entails economic, social and political values you can learn to live your life. Mike Ladd, whilst wondering about the semantics of the word creative said that in an economic context, when a big company wants to sell a new product they call in the creatives to do the job. He also says that in an economic context there are various forms of code, and “If your improvising your are trying to find ways to hack the code”. These ideas are very similar to the ones put forward by Ken Kamoche and Miguel Pina e Cunha when they show how: “the art form jazz improvisation can be applied to organizational innovative activities, focusing specifically on product innovation.” As we move from a “clearly-understood structure based on a rational-functionalist paradigm” to a new environment “it is becoming increasingly evident that this model is inappropriate in today’s highly competitive business environment. A balance between structure and flexibility seems to be an appropriate way to manage the contradicting demands of control and creativity faced by organizations in highly competitive environments.”
Jazz also relates to your day to day life. For Dana Hall, you are always at the intersection of life and art. She uses the example of having breakfast and after having fallen into a routine for a while, you can sometimes begin to experiment, and it becomes “less about just having breakfast more about creating”. She believes that what you put in one category can fall into the other.
Moreover Jazz is also connected to your whole social life. For Mankwe Ndosi, especially in a period when most people seem to be in their little bubble, it is about being receptive to your environnement:
To practise in the world and with the world. We actually make the future together. The practice of making improvised music forces you to listen and produce at the same time. Practices I like to apply also to life. (…) Also social media allows us to act together in unprecedented ways.
This is no doubt partly what George Lewis had in mind when he said that : “improvisative production of meaning and knowledge provides models for new forms of social mobilization”. Fischlin and Heble express a similar idea when they consider “improvisation as a force for community building and social change”. Finally, Daniel Fischlin, Ajay Heble, and George Lipsitz come to a similar conclusion thanks to their model of “cocreation” based on, among other things, listening. As they say “listening is a crucial form of agency that generates ethical and artistic imperatives, like those generated in an improvisation founded on the capacity to hear the other in ways that change one’s own contribution to the collective narrative”.
Another important element is that improvisation is a universal and fundamental tool in all sections of one’s life. As Mike Ladd says, it is the idea that we all improvise all the time in life because there is always an obstacle. Gilbert Ryle, also speaking about improvisation, express how this process works:
So thinking, I now declare quite generally, is, at the least, the engaging of partly trained wits in a partly fresh situation. It is the pitting of an acquired competence or skill against an unprogrammed opportunity, obstacle or hazard. It is a bit like putting new wine into some old bottles.
And George Lewis expresses, like Mike Ladd, the universality of improvisation:
In fact, improvisation is everywhere, but it is very hard to see—because improvisation is fundamental to the existence and survival of every human formation, from the individual to the community, through the postnational body to the species itself–as close to universal as contemporary critical method could responsibly entertain.
C/ Jazz as a vehicle for identity formation
Jazz also has to do with individuality through it’s importance in the formation of identity and again vice versa. For Mankwe Ndosi, your music expresses the different influences which you have accumulated from different places and situations :
But then the limitation for that is (… ) what you have been exposed to, how many scales, (…), in your memory (… ) different instruments (…) what you are physically able to do.
Dana Hall also says something very similar, but adds that the richer the experience, usually the better the music is:
Experience goes into your music. As we expend our experiences and life, our improvisations become richer and deeper, our creative practice becomes strong as we expend our life. (…) We marvel at an 88 year old musician, and 3 notes that come out because it has gravity.
This was quite clear from the performance they gave, you could see that they each had their own “style”. Whether it is Mankwe Ndosi and her particular vocal techniques, Mike Ladd’s rapper like improvisations or the 2nd guest’s much more classic saxophone style.
This is no doubt what George Lewis means when he says : “improvisative work symbolizes history, memory, agency, difference, personal narrative and self-determination”
Moreover Dana Hall expresses quite clearly that identity, life and Jazz can not be separated:
We are the people that we mould ourselves to be. The information that we consume, the ideology that we adhere to, they come out of our instruments, of our music. So if we make music in a open hearted, democratic, unified, collaborative manner, we live that way. I don’t separate my life from my music, my music is my life. (…) We are what we eat and we play what we live. (…) Taken information that is given to us and what we make of it. That’s my life, I am an improviser. It not something I set out to do and I went to school to learn how to improvise. You’re an improviser, we all are.
D/ “Le mouvement d’égalisation des conditions” (Tocqueville)
The last point about individuality I would like to make is that the conception of one’s role is heavily influenced by the social-temporal context in which we live. When Dana Hall says that:
I am never there to keep time for anyone. I am never there to provide something for other people to do whatever it is they do on top of me. That is not what I am there to do. I am there to contribute in an equal voting, functioning democratic process.
I was straight away reminded about Tocqueville’s observation and forecast : democracy is just a political system, is it a social invention and fact which influence all aspects of life. Its most important characteristic being the unavoidable “égalité des conditions,” of which this declaration seems to be a symptom. Tocqueville describes the égalité des conditions in the very first lines of the first tome of De la démocratie en Amérique:
Parmi les objets nouveaux qui, pendant mon séjour aux États-Unis, ont attiré mon attention, aucun n’a plus vivement frappé mes regards que l’égalité des conditions. Je découvris sans peine l’influence prodigieuse qu’exerce ce premier fait sur la marche de la société; il donne à l’esprit public une certaine direction, un certain tour aux lois; aux gouvernants des maximes nouvelles, et des habitudes particulières aux gouvernés.
Bientôt je reconnus que ce même fait étend son influence fort au-delà des mœurs politiques et des lois, et qu’il n’obtient pas moins d’empire sur la société civile que sur le gouvernement: il crée des opinions, fait naître des sentiments, suggère des usages et modifie tout ce qu’il ne produit pas.
Ainsi donc, à mesure que j’étudiais la société américaine, je voyais de plus en plus, dans l’égalité des conditions, le fait générateur dont chaque fait particulier semblait descendre, et je le retrouvais sans cesse devant moi comme un point central où toutes mes observations venaient aboutir.
However even if thinking about individuality is a necessary step, one must remember that we are, as Aristotle said, “social animals”. Another way to look at it is Gabriel Marcel’s concept of the “Etre-avec”. Marcel believes that we must overcome the Cartesian cogito thanks to an experience with the Other (“l’Autre”). Marcel says that I am not, I have to be, that is to say I have to Be-with (“Etre-avec”) the Other. Once I have experienced the Other I can come back towards myself. Therefore he attaches great importance to what he calls “l’intersubjectivité” or the “co-présence”. Jazz, especially improvisative Jazz cannot be analysed without this point of view which requires the answer to the following fundamental question : How do exchanges take place within improvisative Jazz?
II/ The Exchanges : “The Gift” (Mauss) and “Rifference” (Fischlin, Heble, and Lipsitz)
A/ The model of “Don et contre-don” (Mauss)
An interesting concept to analyse exchange within a group or between groups is the concept of “the Gift”. Marcel Mauss developed the idea that, in certain social conditions, social link is created by the triple obligation “donner-recevoir-rendre”. I believe this model can be applied to improvisative jazz, if you consider the words to be “gifts”, given the importance of dialogue while the music is being produced. As Dana Hall says:
I am a part of a collective and what I do is a question and an answer to that collective. I am posing a question I hope my collaborators have answers to, and I am providing answers to the question they give me. The dialogue can continue to evolve in a way that we all benefit from it and we all contribute to it.
Arnold I. Davidson expresses a similar idea when he analyses the : “creation of interactive social intelligibility” and the “real time emergence of innovative configurations of social meaning”, the fundamental mechanism being that : “creative structure formation emerges here through the interplay of expression and responsiveness, where neither one’s own self-expression nor one’s responses to others are fixed in advance of what is actually happening.”
A good example was the 4th piece they played when both Mike Ladd and Mankwe Ndosi on one hand, Sylvain Kassap and Dana Hall on the other seemed to respond at the same time to each other and to the whole group. A constant entreprise of question, communication, and answer seemed to be particularly visible.
Another clue that improvisative music is a “total social institution” (Mauss) is that there seems to be implicit rules to this form of social organisation. For example, when the new saxophone player came on stage, Mike Ladd said : “If you are going to play it like that…” which no doubt was the acknowledgment of slight transgression of an implicit code. Similarly Alperson, also analysing Jazz, describes “the social graces of improvisational etiquette” such as taking your turn to solo, not going on too long, etc…
B/ “Rifference” and exchanges between cultures
Daniel Fischlin, Ajay Heble, and George Lipsitz created the neologism “rifference” (contraction of “riff” and “difference”) to illustrate “the capacity of improvised music to invoke differential ways of being in the world across multiple contingencies that include politics, ideology, history, spirituality, ethnicity, and alternative forms of social and musical practice”. The variety in backgrounds and styles, in “roots” and “routes”, in “identité-racine” and “identité-route” (Edouard Glissant) of The Bridge illustrate perfectly the rifference.
The best example is the 2nd piece they played which mixed, among other elements, Mankwe Ndosi’s vocal techniques inspired by her african influences and a very powerful “american style” rap from Mike Ladd.
This same piece can be used to illustrate the interaction between rifference and a particular form of rifference expressed by the concept of double-consciousness.Jason Sjanyek also shows how in the ‘‘live dialogue’’ of multiple cultures Africa is not just a past, not just roots, but is central as an ‘‘improvisation which provides a welcome hearth where the sharing process can begin.’’
Highly interesting patterns of exchange therefore take place in this improvisative music. Having analysed the individuals and the exchange systems within the group it is now time to study the group as a whole.
III/ The Collective : an alternative social institution which composes individuality and collective freedom.
A/ An alternative social institution about togetherness and collective responsibility
The most striking aspect of this group is the way in which it forms an “alternative social institution” based on togetherness and collective responsibility. All the members put a very strong accent on collective responsibility. As Sylvain Kassap says:
Parfois je me donne des lignes à tenir et elle sont pas forcément des lignes de libertés je pense que c’est ce qu’il y a de mieux à faire dans ce cadre là. (…) Relationship between freedom and collective responsibility. You have to fit in with the others.
Or as Mankwe Ndosi expressed, using the elegant metaphor of the sea:
What is exciting to me is that “We”. We are making music together, and why I enjoy making music with this group of people. (…) And being responsible for the music that is becoming, that we are making together. Not making it by yourself. Also what I like, is almost like this ocean wave comes at you , times when people move forwards and times when people move backwards.
For his part, Mike Ladd insists on his feeling of responsibility towards the group. Dana Hall also expresses that: “I am always responsible towards the group” and that :
I think improvisation is often thought of to me as a space of responsibility. If you go into that space thinking you have a responsibility, your success rate goes … it’s infinite. Change the word from freedom to responsibility.
All this was clearly visible from the real sense of cohesion and togetherness the group exhibited. The intelligent dynamics they created, for example : letting everybody have a turn, or supporting what another member has decided to do. All these elements confirm George Lewis’s analysis that: “improvisation fosters socialization, enculturation, cultural formation and community development”
B/ The Collective and the Individual : a complicated but strengthening relationship
However the relationship between the group and the individual is more complicated than simple responsibility. When Mike Ladd said that: “I have never felt I have never been so supported by any other drummer. Dana Hall replied :
To me that is a level of success that I am trying to achieve every time I make music. So that other people can feel support, yet I don’t feel as if all I do is supporting.
Thus showing the necessity of maintaining individuality in the Collective. Mankwe Ndosi also expressed a very important idea that the individual can find individuality through the Collective:
Express my individuality inside the collective is to say yes or no to what other people are giving to me, and to make the music that way. When I feel that there is more chaos then conversation happening, then I train my energy on listening to what is the glue. What can I add to the situation to help it have some gravity and to come together so it can become a thing.
This confirms the analysis of Daniel Fischlin and Ajay Heble that: “the nature of the music itself and the collaboration between individuals which requires that they work together whilst maintaining and celebrating their individuality.” It illustrates Daniel Fischlin’s, Ajay Heble’s, and George Lipsitz’s affirmation that : “[i]mprovisation requires renegotiation of the social charter between individuals and groups, but it also enhances and augments the capacities of individuals.”
In conclusion, The Bridge’s concert has enabled me to help clarify the complicated relationships between individuality, exchanges and the collective, and has shown that improvisative jazz fosters mutually reenforcing social links and identity formations, while maintaining a delicate, but there again positive, balance between freedom(s) and collective responsibility. Thus proving – yet again – that improvisative music is much more than “just sound” as the “sonicists” would like to have us think.