In early 2009 I attended a panel discussion entitled “Improvisation and Ethics.” The goal of the panel was to define the importance of freedom, as a philosophical concept, to Jazz, as an improvised collaborative activity and therefore circumscribed by ethics, or vice versa.
Of the five panelists, all were distinguished professors of philosophy and three were specifically focused on the philosophy of music–a specialization that I did not, until then, know existed. The discussion had piqued my interest because Arnold Davidson, the Foucault scholar and English language editor of Foucault’s Collège de France lecture series, was one of the participants and also giving the keynote address.
I was an ardent reader of Foucault at the time, but mainly of the above lectures that, unlike his mitochondrially dense written style, read almost rhythmically and with a less constant acceleration of ideas. I had marked this talk on my calendar some months in advance and began inventing conversations with professor Davidson, always stopping and starting with some alarming question I might pose. These inquiries, stirred up in me on long dinner-less subway rides from Morningside Heights to Fort Greene, had left little room for reality when the evening finally came.
Davidson’s speech began fluently and proceeded to draw connections between Foucault’s theories and the demands of an artistic practice in a manner alternately methodical and expansive. The focus of his argument was on what he called “the improvisatory attitude,” and the specific relation to oneself that such an attitude implies:
With respect to the ancient care of oneself Foucault said, ‘To concern oneself with oneself is not a simple, momentary preparation for life. It is a form of life. One has to be for oneself, and throughout one’s existence, one’s own object.’
Here I might also cite Foucault’s famous remarks in the preface to the second volume of his History of Sexuality: ‘But what therefore is philosophy today, I mean philosophical activity, if it is not the critical work of thought on itself? And if it does not consist in undertaking to know how, and to what extent, it would be possible to think differently, instead of legitimating what one already knows.’
With this last part Davidson shook his finger in emphasis bringing attention to the sling and orthopedic glove partially immobilizing his left side, both of which, it is said are a kind of principled self-mutilation and as such permanently installed on his person.
More often than not the quotation of these remarks regarding the possibility of thinking differently avoids taking seriously the difficulties of exercise, of askesis, of the modifying test of oneself; as if thinking differently were not a matter of slow sustained and arduous work. To bring into effect the practice of thinking differently, to modify oneself through the movements of thought, we have to detach ourselves from the already given systems, orders, doctrines, and codes of philosophy for example. But we have to open up a space in thought for exercises, techniques, tests, the transfiguring space of a new attitude, a new ethos, the space of spiritual change.
That is why Foucault’s relentless pursuit of knowledge revolves not around the mere acquisition of knowledge but around ‘The value of losing one’s way for the subject of knowledge.’ A losing one’s way which is the price of self transformation.
What I remember most from this event was not actually this address, nor the hour-long discussion that followed, but a rude interjection by a man who turned out to be the Jazz musician and inventor of conducted improvisation, Butch Morris. I had no idea who he was at the time and judging from the reaction of the panel neither did they.
I remember him walking in somewhat absurdly late accompanied by a man who would later introduce himself as Velibor Pedevksi, a.k.a. Hardedge. There was a small arrangement of food and drinks at the top of the auditorium that Mr Morris helped himself to, uncovering the vegetables and dip and preparing himself a plate, while the discussion below proceeded undeterred. I glowered back as he and his companion took a heavy seat behind me, eating and snickering until Mr. Morris stood up and addressed a question directly to the panel, breaking up the attempt at a definition of ‘freedom’ that was taking place.
“I have a question.” he said, “How can we ever talk about Music itself, if Music, since its inception has only ever been talked about in terms of metaphor?” With that Mr. Morris sat down and the panel found a way to graciously ignore the question.
It was, in fact, the first thing I had understood all night. I looked back again to make sense of what had just happened. At the end of the event, as people started filing out, I introduced myself and asked Mr. Morris what he meant by his question. He explained that calling Jazz a kind of freedom was no different from calling a song spicy or a style flat-footed. “These are all metaphors,” he said, from which I gathered that the sophistication of a metaphor is no promise of its aptness, or descriptive potential.
Reviewing this experience today, I am struck, firstly, to find video recordings of the entire event readily available, and secondly, to see that the documents bear no trace of Mr. Morris’ question.
Thirdly, in returning to the records it became clear to me that one of the participants, Lydia Goehr, voiced a concern that I had since attributed to Mr. Morris, namely that some metaphors serve to describe a viewer’s narrative, while other’s a performer’s with no necessary overlap.¹
When in January, I heard on the radio of Butch Morris’ death, I thought back to the first concert of his I saw, at The Stone, a month or so after our meeting. It was a small venue with thirty or so seats tightly packed and almost as many musicians on stage.
I use the term musician lightly as some of the performers were reading texts, while others were making sounds with everyday objects. There were traditional instruments and notes staged between machine sounds, voices, non sequiturs and a handful of noises that matched nothing I could see.
Looking around I knew no one but Mr. Morris, who stood with his back turned warming up his instruments. At what point exactly this transitioned from the preparation of music to the playing of it was unclear to me. I was lost, in fact, and it was Mr. Morris who had shown me how to get there.
1. Furthermore she made the very good point that aligning ethical or political values with specific creative processes falls prey to a “social categorization of music,” whereby, to use Goehr’s example, Classical music is seen as authoritarian and Jazz is seen as democratic, when in reality one can be improvisatory or conventional in either form.