This is a talk that I gave on the improv group AMM for a visual studies conference some time in 2004, I think. It's interesting going back to one's earlier work. Re-reading this, I can see some bad habits I had as a writer at the time. (I suspect that I will feel the same way when I go back to this work.) I have a tendency to put large sections of quotations into the work without providing the analytical work necessary. In addition, I don't think that I pushed the theoretical implications of failure as far as I could have pushed them. The paper is a little too neat for the topic at hand, and there are questions around subjectivity, collectivity, and authorship that could have been pushed further. A last note, the quotations from Prevost are drawn from his text, No Sound Is Innocent. The Chakrabarty Quote is from Provincializing Europe, and the Judith Butler Quote is from Precarious Life. This is obviously not a formal academic setting, but I thought I would cross some of my t's, at least. Here goes:
“Be reasonable—demand the impossible!”
--Paris Slogan, 1968.
“Let us speak plainly. Historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee.”
“Failure,” as Cornelius Cardew states, “is an interesting concept. He links it with goals, with intentional qualities. Intention produces failure. The products of the processes that we go through will never quite match up to the initial expectations that we have for them. The question then becomes what do we make of this gap? Do we see a lack in the situation, or do we see a lack in the forms that are used to engage in that situation? In his discussion of subaltern history, Dipesh Chakrabarty opens up a space for a need for a politics that pushes at the boundaries of known discourses, a “struggling, or even groping, for nonstatist forms of democracy that we cannot not yet either understand or envisage completely.” Chakrabarty in part links this to a politics of despair, that is to say a politics that recognizes the limitations of its own forms and looks for its own demise in its experimentation. I want to look at the practices and the theories of the improvisational group AMM as a way of thinking through what that might mean.
I suppose if I was to begin anywhere, it would be within the current situation. After all, Michel Foucault insists that all histories are in some way histories of the present. The present that haunts me is the state of the anti-war movement, a movement which flashed so brightly for such a brief moment and then disappeared just as quickly. It was a movement that was a profound failure, not because it failed to literally stop the war, but because it failed to produce a new form of politics that could deal with the current state of things. That failure, the failure to produce new forms, comes out of the fear of failure, or perhaps more precisely that the results of that politic will spin out of control of the grasp of its organizers.
This question, that is the question of the production of new forms, is one that preoccupies me. If I were to express the project for most of my intellectual work, it would be the relationship between artistic movements and revolutionary movements. This interest focuses on the question of form, or to put it another way, what I am curious about in this intersection is the way that the explosion of new forms of revolutionary movements make unspoken demands on the way art is made. We can see this in relationship to the 1848 revolution, the Bolshevik revolution, and the revolution of 1968 to just name a few examples. These movements put artists in a position where their former approaches to their craft becomes meaningless, or at least needs to be extraordinarily modified. I have no doubt that the ways they create new forms of art and of life also interfere with the formation of those political revolutions, but I emphasize the former given the radical size disparity between the mass movement of revolution and the relatively small size of artistic movements.
This is particularly evident in the 1968 revolution, the first revolution, at least on one of its poles, that started from a demand for new forms of life, rather than out of the desperation of poverty or tyranny. This revolution was not only against capital and the state, but also against the older forms of counter systemic movements. It constitutes both a great crisis within communities of artists and intellectuals, and also a great burst of creativity. This can be found in film, painting, theater, etc. Perhaps the best example is the radical shift that occurs in the films made by Jean Luc Godard, which embrace the notion of producing a cinema that cannot be recognized as cinema. Music obviously wasn’t exempt from this process.
We can draw two major sources of artistic transformation that produce the thought and practice of AMM. The first occurs in the field of modern classical music. The cultural dominant of the 1950’s in this field is serialism, which simultaneously challenges the musical forms of progression created in older forms of classical music, and simultaneously demands its own forms of crushing conformity. The response to this form primarily comes from the United States in the form an outside art that puts more and more emphasis on forms of aleatory sound, sounds that are not necessarily consciously constructed by the composer, such as Cage’s producing score on chance, etc. This trajectory also increasingly emphasizes the production of music as an arrangement of sounds rather than as notes.
The second source can be found in the transformations that are occurring within jazz at the same time. This transformation can broadly be placed under the rubric of ‘free jazz’, although it had many other titles at the time and since then, such as fire music, the new thing, etc. Within this movement, there contained the same aleatory elements, but it also had another element that one could not necessarily find in the first. This focuses on a shift in cultural politics which sought to engage in the black cultural nationalism that was beginning to be emphasized in the mid-60’s. The other interesting trend was towards producing new forms of collectivity. The most interesting and long lasting of these was Chicago’s the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, but it was only one of many such artists’ collectives formed at the time. These were not only directed towards organizing concerts, but also took on pedagogical and political functions that tied into both the civil rights movement and the new left.
AMM brought these two trends together within the context of the postwar welfare state of England. The earliest members of the collective, Keith Rowe, Edwin Prevost, Lou Gare, and Lawrence Sheaff all came out of the jazz scene in one form or another. Whereas composer Cornelius Cardew came out of the environs of the avant-garde of classical music, first working with Stockhausen at Darmstadt, and later working within the vein of the American scene. Their combination was driven by a desire for new forms on both sides of the discussion. Prevost argues that, “In 1965, AMM began a radically different kind of music-making. The prevalent notions of musical theory, practice, hierarchy, and structure…were replaced by the creation of, and engagement with, a sound world in which there was not even a formal beginning and ending. And, and from its first raucous explosions, it knew too that it was not only speaking in a new language but that it was talking about things not perceived in any musics the member-musicians had heard elsewhere.”
These are, of course, bold claims, but in the wake of Richard Wagner, not unusual ones. I think that the interesting innovation on AMM’s claim to a unique status in the development of the avant-garde was its linkage of this claim to radically new democratic practices. That is to say that AMM didn’t link its status to the position of the genius, which has haunted so much of avant-garde practice. Instead, the players produced this new form through collectivity, and more precisely, new forms of collectivity. This precisely links the concern with aleatory practices of the avant-garde with the forms of collectivity and cultural memory that are emphasized within radical jazz circles. But it takes the form of an interference between the two that produces a completely different form altogether, that will later be described by Prevost as a mode of dialogical heurism.
This notion is developed by Prevost to come up with a way of describe dialogic relations between music that go beyond the structures of call and response that are developed by folk and blues forms and later get taken up by jazz. He describes it in the following terms; “Dialogue is the interactive medium in which the products of heurism are tested. Sounds are placed: placed in contrast to, in parallel to, in imitation of, in respect of, without regard to, other sounds. Minds struggle, coalesce, defer or acquiesce. Inner debate meets outer debate. Instant decisions dictate the immediate direction of the music…” This creative dialogue is directed towards finding new sounds, new possibilities. This can only be found in open forms of dialogue.
Perhaps it would be best to give a brief description of the practices of AMM in its early incarnation. The group would play for about an hour and a half to two hours and a half. These performances were frequently defined by large sections of silence as the musicians engaged or stopped engaging with each other in any number of combinations. These concerts were free. There is some debate over the roll of the audience within this experience. Promoter Victor Schoenfeld felt that “the original relationship with the audience was dictated by AMM: “we’ll let you listen, but only if you let us play.” This presents the audience as being dictated to in a way. Whereas drummer Prevost tends to emphasize the engagement of the audience with the music, going as far as to point out the “almost proprietary relationship” that some members felt towards the music. I tend to find Prevost’s view more productive, as that it emphasizes the sense of interconnectivity that is felt within the improv community.
This is a question that Prevost deals with explicitly in an interview. He explains that new listeners of improvised music have been produced as listeners in the rules structures of their former listening experiences, whether this is classical music, rap, etc. In his words, “The suffer what I call an aesthetic mismatch.” There needs to be some way of allowing for that listener to understand the rules of the conversation that is occurring through sound. There is a “kind of specific analytical framework for free improvisation, as there is for every other kind of music. To deny this fact is in a way to deny entry for others into this world, and it also hampers the music’s development.”
Within that physical context, the musicians developed very distinct ways of engaging with each other. Prevost states, “There are, of course, no traditional roles in AMMmusic…. Decision-making and identity comes from the manner in which AMM treats its own history. It is beholden to each player to find a role within AMM. No specifics of performance are ever discussed. There is no formulated logic of direction; no particular encouragement to do a particular thing. AMMmusicians prefer not to know if a fellow musician has a strategy for a particular performance.”
This creates a condition where the collectivity of AMM is placed in hands other than the conscious wills of those involved in its production. This frees it up from coagulating into any particular form. It plays emphasis on ‘potentiality.’ There is no way of knowing whether the concert will be an enormous failure or a spectacular success. But at the same time, this music was produced in an atmosphere of a certain continuity. Unlike the practice of fellow improvist, Derek Bailey, AMM continued to work with each other over a long period of time, and that practice was dependent on a long series of conversations over matters of philosophy, religion, and politics. But, at the same time within that context, there was an emphasis of taking the music out of the hands of a sovereign individual, whether individual or collective.
This moved to produce a form of music that sounded considerably different than other forms. This frequently came out of the use of instruments in non-traditional manners, or the use of random debris within the production of sounds. Prevost points out that frequently listeners would have difficulty labeling which instrument produced the sound. This lead to a frequent negative interpretation of their project, that it was not music at all. As Prevost notes, “I was first alerted to the idea that ‘free’ or ‘total’ improvisation was different from all other music-making when told what I did was not music! (In retrospect I am astounded by so impoverished a perspective: though it hardly discouraged me or my peers; quite the reverse.)
What is so fascinating in that statement, is the ‘failure’ of AMM to produce something that would be recognized as music was considered a matter of success, even a matter for excitement amongst the members. AMM was concerned with pushing this as far as possible, introducing any number of aleatory elements to the music. “Indeed, seeking failure itself was a possible route to success! For AMM these ‘controlled accidents’ were practiced variously: through random radio frequency switching: rolling empty tin cans across (and often off) the stage: testing the bowing qualities of an unknown metal sheet.” The possibility for new sounds was no longer in the hands of the genius or even the craftsman; rather it was in the hands of the detritus produced within the context of a consumerist post-war welfare state. The material conditions of the collective are always at play within the production, and we are always aware that we do not choose the stage that we act upon.
Cardew captures the goals of this process best in a comment in his essay, “Towards an ethic of improvisation. “We are ‘searching for sounds and for the responses that attach to them, rather than thinking them up, preparing them and producing them. The search is conducted in the medium of sound and the musician is at the heart of the experiment.” This statement sets up an understanding of the production of music that cuts across the binary of the individual/collective. The individual becomes the site of experimentation and creation, but this individual, who is both experimented and experimenter can only exist within the context of a collective formation. After all, it is precisely the intervention of the unknown in the form of an exteriority that allows for change to occur, for the experiment to be meaningful.
I think that we can think about the meaning of this within two conceptual frameworks. The first is the idea of undoing the subject that gets developed in the latest work of Judith Butler, particularly in her thoughts on a politics of mourning. This may sound counterintuitive, but both the music practices of AMM are tied into a certain notion of ecstasy in the sense that Butler invokes it. “To be ec-static means, literally, to be outside oneself, and thus can have several meanings: to be transported beyond oneself by a passion, but also to be beside oneself with rage or grief.” The great joy that is desired through the collective improvisations of AMM and the mourning that Judith Butler describes both describe a situation where the subject is moved somewhere else.
The process of grief or of mourning that Butler describes is an incredibly difficult one. We can see this in her description of the process, “one starts out the day with an aim, a project, a plan, but finds oneself foiled. One finds oneself fallen. One is exhausted but does not know why. Something is larger than one’s own deliberate plan, one’s own project, one’s own knowing and choosing.” It is a process of transformation that one is never in full control of, which will bring the subject somewhere that cannot be predicted in advance. And contrary to common sense notions of mourning, it should be a process that is communal and political.
This expresses an idea very similar to Prevost in his practice of training musicians for improvisation. “No one is instructed or commanded, and the only recommendations are to put focus upon the instrument or material they are using in a fresh way…. And as a consequence each time in the moment of making music to try to do something—no matter how minor—that they have never done before: to move away from their normal habitual responses and to explore this environment. It is then suggested that they uses their own investigations in a progressive dialogue with the other musicians with whom they are playing.”
I think that both of these processes point to a vulnerability that is crucial to a genuinely radical politic, but a vulnerability that is all too often refused by those within radical politics. There is no real possibility of transforming the world, without simultaneously transforming yourself. I don’t think that this is easy. It means being swept up by your work, by the movement. It means giving up the illusion of your autonomy as an individual. The experiences of a genuinely radical movement, whether artistic or political, are at times joyful to an inexpressible level, but they are also defined by despair, paranoia, and exhaustion. What the common trope to these affects is that they cannot be contained comfortably within the logic and reason of the liberal individual.
This process is obviously not an isolated one, and is tied to collectivity. Even the loss of an individual exposes the profound interconnectedness of an individual with an other, but we are discussing the situation of music being produced in an ensemble. In her other latest book, Butler links this idea of undoing the subject to the broader topic of democracy. “Democracy does not speak in unison; its tunes are dissonant, and necessarily so. It is not a predictable process; it must be undergone, as a passion must be undergone. It may also be that life itself becomes foreclosed when the right way is decided in advance, or when we impose what is right for everyone, without finding a way to enter into community and discover the “right” in midst of cultural translation. It may be that what is “right” and what is “good” consist in staying open to the tensions that beset the most fundamental categories we require, to know unknowingness at the core of what we know and what we need, and to recognize the sign of life—and its prospects.”
The old social democratic politician, Edward Bernstein, loved to say, “The process is everything, the goal is nothing.” While I don’t think that Butler is precisely saying that, I think that it is pointing to a relationship between ends and means that sees the ends of a process being produced precisely through its means. This exists in a constant open constitutive process, one that is precisely productive because of its multiplicity, its antagonisms, its contradictions. This goes against even the contractual minimalism that rational choice insists upon. It means leaving those goals open to this in all of its ambiguity.
This dissonance isn’t something exclusively linked to a hostile outside to the warmth of the interior of the group. AMM isn’t precisely a Janus faced structure. The agonistic structure of the music has played out within group dynamics. There were extreme tensions within the production of the group itself. Lawrence Sheaff was encouraged the leave the group just after the first album was produced. There was a brief time that the group played as two units due to the conflicts between Rowe/Cardew and Prevost/Gare over Maoism and the direction to go in response to that philosophy. Just recently, there has been another split in the group between Rowe and Prevost over the very texts that I have quoted.
In this sense, we get a reflection of the very ‘failures’ that are so often found within the political practices that occur in the new left. The experimentation leads to incredible rifts and fractures between and within groups. One can only think of the many permutations that come out of the Students for a Democratic Society for instance. This is traditionally read as the weakness of the new left. While I don’t want to downplay the real sense of frustration and pain that came through these moments, I also suggest that we see this in productive terms as well. These splits represent moments of difference and experimentation as well. One should remember what Dutch Communist Anton Pannekoek said on this issue, that there is no particular reason to unite behind a losing strategy
The second conceptual framework can be linked to a notion of the unconscious. The production of the new, ‘the wonderful configurations produced by failure” come out of a collective process that linked to a structure of alterity. As drummer Eddie Prevost puts it, “Any creative act works towards an otherness. You experience it a few times and hope that it will come back, but you don’t know if it will. The playing is sometimes just a ritual and if you’re lucky you get beyond it. You have to build into the ritual the possibilities of that happening.”
The unconsciousness that is being expressed here is not the unconscious of Freud or of Lacan, although it doesn’t preclude their existence. Instead I would like to read it in terms of an unconscious of practice. This is a space in which I feel least sure of my ground. I would be tempted to focus this unconscious in a firmly Marxist footing, with the concepts of Luxemburg, Lenin, etc., and I wouldn’t be wrong. But for the members of the group, this concept is also tied to any number of non-Western practices such as Buddhism, Taoism, etc. The importance of this form of alterity is clearly important to the group and remains a horizon for my understanding.
These two elements combine to produce a sense of sociability and a politic that creates other possibilities. Prevost continually links this to the broader conditions of the society that artists and their audiences live in. He discusses “Every peer group, faction, gang, party, etc., share life experiences and ensuing expectations; they are the substance of a sense of belonging. Together with this goes a language, necessarily created to express nuances of meaning and limit comprehension to those within the group. This semi-secret language not only conveys messages to group members and excludes those not sympathetic, but it also offers an alternative to the perceived established means of expression and the cultural priorities which dominate and control it.”
This reading is in part in a sociological mode, but I think that it has more possibilities than this. I am tempted to read it back upon the practices of Prevost and AMM itself. This ‘semi-secret language’ can be a form of art, a form of politics, or perhaps something that is outside of both of those. It points to a form of opposition that doesn’t operate in the sad logic of a statement such as “in the service of”, which constitutes so much of what constitutes politics and political art today. Instead, it reads the formations of subculture as an opposition that occurs in its own modes of sociability and language. Prevost insists upon this even for groups that fall out of his aesthetic tolerance, such as punk.
Prevost reads the political possibilities of art immanently in its practices, rather than in the ways that it can be submitted to any politic. As he states, in an interview with Wire magazine, “I repudiate ‘politics first and art later’, an idea which has surfaced again understandably in these threatening times. Politics arise from our view of the world and what world and what kind of world we live in. Art is a powerful tool and a powerful cipher in making such choices. The way musicians play, the way they interact with each other, where they take their material from, their relationship to the materials for sound making, as well as how and where they place their music in the world, are all features of ‘the artwork’.
 Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe, 107.
 Prevost, No Sound Is Innocent, 9
 Ibid., 4
 Ibid., 4
 ibid., 25
 Prevost, No Sound Is Innocent, 1
 ibid., 19
 Prevost, 9
 Butler, “Violence, Mourning, Politics”, Precarious Life, 24.
 Judith Butler, Undoing Gender, 227.
 Eddie Prevost, No Sound Is Innocent, x
 Eddie Prevost, No Sound Is Innocent, 172