Fischlin, Daniel and Eric Porter (eds) Playing for Keeps: Improvisation in the Aftermath. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2020.
In his book The Future as Cultural Fact: Essays on the Global Condition (2013), Arjun Appadurai revisits his earlier ideas ‘about globalization, about flow, circulation, region, imagination, and nation’ (2). From this retro-engineering of his arguments, he considers how anthropology and the social sciences more broadly, ‘can assist in the victory of a politics of possibility over a politics of probability’ (3). He proposes that this victory ‘can be arrived at by many paths’ and that ‘the future is ours to design’ even if, following Marx, we do not do so in the circumstances of our own choosing (ibid.). He further observes:
“My own view is that a deep trend of the last twenty years, doubtless with its own longer history, is the broadening of risk-taking and risk-bearing as properties of human life that link distant societies, cross national and market boundaries, and connect both the institutions of power and the agencies of ordinary human beings worldwide.” (3)
For Appadurai, the social sciences have to reckon with how humans construct their cultural futures, with their notions of human welfare and of the good life, both in the present and ‘in our archives of the past’ (5). They should, moreover, be alert to the growth of risk-based orientations ‘to everyday life among ordinary human beings in many different locations (4). Appadurai examines the workings of these dynamics in the struggles of housing activists and other civic society activities in Mumbai; he also locates the endurance of the politics of possibility versus the politics of probability in the non-profit research collective that he helped found (Partners for Urban Knowledge Action and Research), which is energized by the argument that democratically conceived research ‘should be a human right’ (2).
Daniel Fischlin and Eric Porter’s Playing for Keeps: Improvisation in the Aftermath (2020), is in many ways a musical response to Appadurai’s concerns. As Fischlin notes in his capacity as the editor of the series Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice, of which Playing for Keeps is a part, the book’s aim is to present musical improvisation as a model for ‘imagining and creating alternative ways of knowing and being in the world’. It, like the other books in the series, is a result of collaborations among performers, scholars, and activists from a wide range of disciplines. They study ‘the creative risk-taking imbued with the sense of movement and momentum that makes improvisation an exciting, unpredictable, ubiquitous, and necessary endeavor’ (my emphasis).
Like The Future as Cultural Fact, Playing for Keeps is also concerned with concepts such as globalization, flow and circulation, across various spaces and through different kinds of cultural practices. The essays in the collection traverse the globe, including: the United States of America, South Africa, the Canary Islands, North America, Beirut, Egypt, Palestine, Israel and Northern Ireland. As this is a book about improvisation rather than about jazz, the essays foreground improvisation as a mode of musicking. Thankfully, there is little here about chord progressions, or rhythm changes, or the accoutrements of ‘jazz improvisation speak’ that have fetishized improvisation and have helped to sustain what Vijay Iyer, elsewhere in the book, calls ‘the jazz culture industry’ (84). Rather, we are presented with improvisation as a working out, if not a victory of, the politics of possibility. Musicians from across disparate regions of the world appear in the book taking creative risks, and taking risks creatively. The latter – taking risks creatively – is hinted at in the book’s subtitle, Improvisation in the Aftermath. For, alongside the commonality of improvisation as practice is also the commonality of the crises induced by societies structured in dominance. As the Editors note in their introduction:
Playing for Keeps explores the emergence and development of musical improvisation in settler-colonial, postcolonial, postapartheid, and postwar societies, with particular attention to the uses of it, successfully and otherwise, in negotiating lingering violence and uncertainty, and in imagining alternative futures, addressing trauma, sustaining resilience, and modeling, if not inspiring, solidaric relationships. (1)
The essays fulfil this aim. Matana Roberts, Vijay Iyer and Kevin Fellezs, explore the dynamics of dominance (probability) and creativity from the margins. Roberts, a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, frames her ‘Manifesto’ as an improvisation on the preamble of the US Constitution. The piece imagines a more humane nation and because the US remains a world power, implicitly suggests how a humane US may lead to a better world – not through a mission of benevolent imperialism, but through genuine collaboration, co-creation. For her, ‘IN ORDER To live free/ we know we must first see what afflicts us and destroy its/ song (25).
For Kevin Fellezs, the practice of Kī Hō‘alu (Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar) provides an opportunity to study improvising as a Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) strategy of adaptation. Fellezs considers how these musicians’ ‘performative improvising’ (293) as well as ‘extramusical improvisation’ in a social sense (292) shape their response to their physical environment and to settler colonialism in the region. He analyses three moments in the history of slack key guitar. The first moment is of the ‘early history and origin narrative of kī hō‘alu’ that enables the reader to ‘think about improvisation as indigenization’. The second moment involves the Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970s, which saw ‘the revival of slack key [guitar], along with a number of cultural practices, including use of the Hawaiian language’. For Fellezs, this moment reveals ‘improvisation as a process of renewal, meaning the active and acknowledged “(re)inventing” of tradition by indigenous tradition bearers’ against efforts to eradicate Kanaka Maoli and their culture.
Finally, his third moment ‘involves the Grammy Awards, in which slack key’s domination of the Best Hawaiian Music Album category raised questions in the Hawaiian music community about whether or not slack key was truly representative of Kanaka Maoli culture’. Riffing on the notion of accommodation – is it ‘unprincipled’ or is it also a form of improvisation as adaptive strategy? – Fellezs spurns moralising charges of selling out. He points out instead that these musicians were caught between ‘indigenous priorities and capitalist prerogatives’, and had to negotiate their way between them. Improvisation, he cautions, should not be lauded only when it fulfils our desire for revolutionary dissent.
Vijay Iyer’s interview with the book’s editors echoes Fellezs’ caution in stronger terms. This chapter is a wide ranging conversation that discusses his collaboration with the wordsmith Mike Ladd and American war veterans of color, Holding it Down, as well as its precursors: In What Language? (about the experiences of black and brown people in airports post-9/11), and Still Life with Commentator (about the expansion of social media). Most instructive in this interview is Iyer’s caution against ‘the use of the word improvisation to stand in for freedom or liberation’. He reminds us that US president Donald Trump’s use of social media only seems shambolic. To borrow again from Appadurai, Trump’s politics of probability only seem cloaked as politics of possibility: he follows through on the threats contained in his social media announcements.
Iyer and Ladd’s trenchant critiques of US power through their collaborative work are a welcome injection of notions of globalized power. Their concerns are echoed in the arguments of those scholars whose case studies involve examining the risk-taking and risk-bearing work of indigenous populations: Mark Lomanno, Kate Galloway, and Daniel Fischlin’s reflective essay and interview with Al-Mada’s Odeh Turjman and Reem Abdul Hadi. Fischlin’s essay and interview is a poignant and oddly also hopeful examination of how the community based arts organization ‘Al-Mada’ negotiates the Middle East crisis in the Occupied Territories. Fischlin’s essay captures the hegemonic oppression he encountered in travels and also ‘a range of improvised small acts’ that, even in the writing, emerge as spaces to exhale in the midst of overwhelming, suffocating, subjugation. The arts activists he interviews neither fulfil the common need to encounter those in struggle imbued with an indomitable spirit, but neither are they mired in gloom.
Kate Galloway’s work focuses on Inuit throat singer and cultural activist Tanya Tagaq’s experimental collaborative work with Canadian composer Derek Charke and the US ensemble Kronos Quartet. These collaborations emphasise how such work may promote cross-cultural understanding and indigenous survival in the face of continuing violence against First Nations peoples and their environment. Much like Fellezs’ argument about performed indigeneity in the cultural industry, it is interesting to read this chapter against the recent controversy that in April 2019 saw Inuit singers cut ties with the Canadian Indigenous Music Awards when the show nominated the Cree singer Connie LeGrande, because they, including Tagaq, argued the latter uses throat singing improperly. For the Inuit, as Galloway shows, knowledge of and facility in throat singing is embodied knowledge; it is a ‘performance ecology’ that articulates (to) a regionally specific ‘indigenous modernity’.
Mark Lomanno’s richly enjoyable study of Afro/Canarian jazz shows that how music is viewed is entangled with how we view ourselves and those we have exiled as our ‘others’. He shows how Afro/Canarian jazz entails ‘improvising with and in spite of epistemic violence’ (71), and in the midst of a ‘dismissal of commonalities’ (57) that is itself dismissal of Afro-Canarian identity. More than this Lomanno warns jazz scholars who are involved in recuperating non-African American jazz cultures against hegemonic assimilation and domestication to African American discursive frames. As he writes:
“I am not suggesting, though, that Afro/Canarian jazz should be viewed first through the African diaspora, African American jazz, or “the cut” [via Fred Moten]. Rather, as a peripheral group within the diaspora, Europe, and the world more generally, Afro/Canarians cut “the cut”: while Afro/Canarian improvisational musicking and ideas of fusion relate to Moten’s cut and his ideas of montage, Afro/Canarians riff on these, demonstrating how adopting diasporic and globalized musical practices—even mimetically—can create new meanings and worldviews tied to emergent conceptions of indigenous and hyperlocal identity. These recontextualizations are alternate visions of Afro/Canarian culture and history, improvised, contestatory responses that simultaneously implicate and work around the dominant epistemologies and normative scholarly practices that have looked past them for centuries. For this reason, hearing Afro/Canarian jazz only as a localized form of global jazz culture or Afro-diasporic culture not only betrays its own history and present but also reifies the Afro/Canarian as a muted subject unable to articulate without recourse to more legible referents.” (59, my emphases)
How we may avoid this domestication (and I include myself in this) involves more than proliferating case studies from different parts of the globe (or even from different parts of South Africa). It means radically rethinking our scholarly practices. Lomanno walks the talk because he positions himself first as a pianist, something that enabled a different kind of engagement with these musicians, and that allows him to advocate for a practice-based approach to research. He also calls on researchers to rethink what he calls ‘phonomethodologies’ (allowing for alternate modes of listening) in jazz studies (75). The arguments forwarded by these essays – community work in the face of oppression, performance ecology and indigenous modernity, as well as practice-based research and phonomethodologies – hold much promise for South African music studies. Equally suggestive is how these essays trace the discursive foundations to what we may call the colonial encounter, each of which has led to successive erasure or distortion of various people’s origin stories. It is this that, in part, lends credence to the editors’ observation that the book is also animated by a decolonizing impulse, that playing for keeps is ‘to erase erasure’ (20).
This decolonizing impulse is perhaps most stark in those societies where the hangover of dominance is keenly evident in urban-based musics of South Africa (Stephanie Vos), Beirut (Rana El Kadi’s nuanced case study on irtijal – Arabic for improvisation – that focuses on a group of musicians to show its social importance even though some consider the group’s music abstract, elitist and inaccessible), Egypt (Darci Sprengel’s fascinating work on Tarab read through feminist politics of the body, and of tarab culture as an emergent political form of ‘affective politics’), Israel (Moshe Morad) and Northern Ireland (Sara Ramshaw and Paul Stapleton). Taking on board the long (and continuing) history of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, Ramshaw and Stapleton offer the potential of attentive and ethical (non)listening as a possibility for the creation of fruitful dialogue. For them, ‘the ethics of (non)listening promotes multivocality and being-with-difference, rather than falling back on polarized dominant narratives. It teaches us when to listen and when not to, and it encourages cocreative, improvisatory solutions to unproductive conflict’ (313). Although at first seemingly counterintuitive, one might recall here that even in the context of ensemble playing or group improvisation, one cannot respond to everything. Nor should one. The notion of dialogue is in this way rescued from being anodyne, or from necessarily signifying consensus. Response can be challenging or contrary, and silence can be a form of response.
Morad’s study on ‘Silsulim (Improvised “Curls”) in the Vocal Performance of Israeli Popular Music: Identity, Power, and Politics’ is an example of the complexity of dialogue and its imbrication with power. He shows mizraḥit/yam-tichonit music’s improvised vocal elements (the ‘curls’), has been coded as Arab/Israeli, black/white, Ashkenazi/Sephardi, as its acceptance in Israel grew. The music became a touchstone for conversations (dialogue) about the place of Jews from the Muslim world in Israel and a vehicle for Sephardic Jews’ struggles against Ashkenazi cultural and social hegemony. As he writes,
“This acrimonious controversy … is not just semantic, since “musical genres are contested sites in which people negotiate their identities and territorial claims.” This West-versus-East, Ashkenazi-versus-Sephardi, European-versus-Arabic, or even “white-against-black” music war has been going on for more than half a century in Israel, and continues to acquire new expressions, in spite of continuous institutional and national attempts at integration and assimilation.” (251)
What remains unclear is how Morad sees muzika mizraḥit as a possible bridge in this conflict, particularly after he shows that sales of the music in Palestine fluctuate depending on the scale of the conflict at any prevailing time. For example, he notes that sales of the music declined during the second intifada, because listening to the music was seen as akin to consorting with the enemy. The idea that fans from across the militarized border can now download their music, despite continuing and deepening conflict cemented by the Netanyahu-Trump pact, is hardly the stuff of bridge building.
Bridge building, this time in the colours of the rainbow, is tackled by Stephanie Vos’ delicately argued essay ‘The Exhibition of Vandalizim: Improvising Healing, Politics and Film in South Africa’, which reads the musical and visual implication of the destruction of the late saxophonist Zim Ngqawana’s Zimology Institute in 2010. Vos’ essay ruminates on the artistic response to the burglary: a live concert and its filming by Aryan Kaganof, and how subsequent performances built on the initial response. She shows how this response partook of ritualistic cleansing, although it might have added to the argument to note that quite a few black South African musicians, for example Madala Kunene begin their performances with a cleansing ritual (Kunene, forexample, usually burns impepho). The cleansing ritual, interestingly, does not banish those who desecrated the Institute, they emerge and become part of what is improvised, both visually and in the sounds the mangled instruments are now able to emit. For this reader, the invaders’ haunting of this space, despite the attempted exorcism, recalled Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist – with its inconveniently resurfacing corpse that invaded the superficial complacency of Mehring’s farm (1974), and of J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace – where a farm invasion sets off a series of events that result in the main character David Lurie having to improvise new ways of being in post-apartheid South Africa (1999). The disturbance and destruction of Ngqawana’s site of his ‘highly personal, aesthetically expressed project’ (48) – we may call this his jazz pastoral – should surely lead us to question the presumption that led to its erection: that because it involved music it would be immune to the ravages of post-apartheid inequality Vos unflinchingly describes. It would, for example, have been instructive to learn how the Institute was funded and to learn more about its activities, successes and controversies; that, for example, it was funded by a huge telecommunications conglomerate. This might have shown how a musical practice that thrived on improvisation – of spaces, identities and the music itself – could, post-apartheid, be fruitfully aligned with a neo-liberal entity, and why that entity chose to enter into this alliance. Ngqawana’s bemoaning of the destruction of his Institute is powerful, but it is its seeming retreat from ‘risk’, that could have borne further scrutiny.
What is most engaging in this last discussed group of essays is the riffing on notions of ‘post’, including how these work with temporality and the ordinary versus the spectacle. For the Editors, ‘post’ in this book signifies ‘not the end of but rather changing contours of terror and domination and a failure to address the pervasiveness of systems that rely on disproportionate wealth, modulated forms of enslavement, and technologies of alienation and disempowerment’ (2, my emphases). The aftermath – the consequences or after-effects of terror and domination – becomes ‘a site of emergent potential’ (2), where improvisation is a ‘tool to create flexible, site-specific strategies that connect the creative and the critical—that negotiate stricture and unrealized possibility’ (11). It leads this reader to ask one question: in the (post or late) modern world of permanent war and of economic and environmental crises, can we speak of ‘the aftermath’?
As Stephanie Vos cites and concurs with Zim Ngqawana, part of the error is longer than the partial success of post-apartheid South Africa; for the Inuit, the environmental devastation continues and, for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, the future cannot even be viewed darkly. For aftermath to make some sense in and of these essays, the ordinary and everyday should be accounted for, as Appadurai has advised. For example, Vos describes the vandalism that provoked the creation of Vandalizm as ‘but one instance’ of this kind of occurrence in post-apartheid South Africa (29); Lomanno advises us to take ‘localized contexts’ seriously (58); Galloway’s performance ecology reminds us that what we hear emanates from embodied knowledge and the environment, as do El Kadi Spengler and Fellezs. Randy DuBurke’s visual essay of Nina Simone illustrations takes us through this in beautiful ways. From them, we learn that civil rights struggles for African Americans wedded political freedom with economic freedom from their inception. That racist white America responded in dialogue with this call, seeking to Keep Alabama white. That the death of Evers, much like the recent death of George Floyd among others, was ‘for you’. On page 126, we shown ‘ground zero’ of racial strife, as Simone with her microphone looms over a devastated landscape. But then, on the following page, we are confronted with ‘CHURCH BOMB KILLS 4 GIRLS’. The girls’ photographs are simply juxtaposed atop the presumably bombed church, calling on us to view both with equal attention. The ordinary and the spectacle.
When one takes the ordinary or the everyday into account, there is no aftermath, really. As Vijay Iyer says of his 2006 project, Still Life with Commentator, ‘it actually feels as relevant now as it did then’ (82). The terror of the relationship between the ordinary and the spectacle is indeed brought home in Iyer’s story about the war veteran Lynn Hill, who served in Iraq:
“So, she was a very new kind of veteran. The world was just learning about what it means to have the kind of experience that Lynn had—to pilot planes in a combat environment from an office in Las Vegas. She’d go on breaks, and she’d go to Starbucks and stand in line, after dropping bombs on people and watching the aftermath. She’d drive home every night. So, every day she saw combat, and every day she had a veteran’s experience of returning to civilian life.” (83)
And … each bomb, each day, had its own aftermath. It was Hill’s participation in Holding it Down that led to some kind of expiation of this terror. But, this was facilitated by a musician of Iyer’s stature. It is Iyer’s self-awareness of his particular subject position (rather than, for example, the activists of Al-Mada), that leads to his professed scepticism of the use of the word to stand in for freedom or liberation because, as he notes, ‘there’s almost nothing we do that isn’t improvised … Improvisation is actually quite quotidian’ (87-88).
Writing this review in the midst of a global pandemic is an exercise in utopian thinking. Reading the book reminds one of humanity as a reservoir of hope. Robbed of our usual spaces of assembly, dialogue, collaboration and co-creation, musicians will have to improvise their (and our) ways back into a musical commons. This is because, Vijay Iyer sagely observes,
“There’s still the possibility of things falling apart at any moment, and sometimes that does indeed happen and people have to recover.” (89)
We have to recover.
Appadurai, Arjun, 2013. The Future as Cultural Fact: Essays on the Global Condition. London: Verso.