The Fierce Urgency of Now: Improvisation, Rights, and the Ethics of Cocreation


The Fierce Urgency of Now links musical improvisation to struggles for social change, focusing on the connections between the improvisation associated with jazz and the dynamics of human rights struggles and discourses. The authors acknowledge that at first glance improvisation and rights seem to belong to incommensurable areas of human endeavor. Improvisation connotes practices that are spontaneous, personal, local, immediate, expressive, ephemeral, and even accidental, while rights refer to formal standards of...
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The Fierce Urgency of Now: Improvisation, Rights, and the Ethics of Cocreation

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The Fierce Urgency of Now links musical improvisation to struggles for social change, focusing on the connections between the improvisation associated with jazz and the dynamics of human rights struggles and discourses. The authors acknowledge that at first glance improvisation and rights seem to belong to incommensurable areas of human endeavor. Improvisation connotes practices that are spontaneous, personal, local, immediate, expressive, ephemeral, and even accidental, while rights refer to formal standards of acceptable human conduct, rules that are permanent, impersonal, universal, abstract, and inflexible. Yet the authors not only suggest that improvisation and rights can be connected; they insist that they must be connected.

Improvisation is the creation and development of new, unexpected, and productive cocreative relations among people. It cultivates the capacity to discern elements of possibility, potential, hope, and promise where none are readily apparent. Improvisers work with the tools they have in the arenas that are open to them. Proceeding without a written score or script, they collaborate to envision and enact something new, to enrich their experience in the world by acting on it and changing it. By analyzing the dynamics of particular artistic improvisations, mostly by contemporary American jazz musicians, the authors reveal improvisation as a viable and urgently needed model for social change. In the process, they rethink politics, music, and the connections between them.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"The Fierce Urgency of Now is a groundbreaking and, in many instances, breathtaking book. Its focus on the ways that musicians from many backgrounds and genres think about and enact improvisation as linked to issues of human rights, community, and freedom is innovative, and the argument that human rights are expanded and valuably reconceptualized by improvisational practices is even more inventive and generative. This book should be read by scholars and students working on social justice and the political, social, and visionary importance of expressive cultures all over the world."—Tricia Rose, Professor, Brown University, and author of The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop—and Why It Matters
<I>Times Literary Supplement</I> - Lou Glandfield

“This is a book which deserves to be widely read.”
The Wire - Brian Morton

“A rather important book that seeks for the first time—or the first time with quite this level of intellectual rigor—to make clear the defining connections between improvisation and rights, and to suggest that improvisation’s basic heuristic, which is the capacity to discern potentials in any given situation, has a powerful social function.”
Journal of Popular Music Studies - Jason Robinson

The Fierce Urgency of Now is both a testament to the veracity of the rapidly growing field of improvisation studies, but also an impassioned, far-reaching, interdisciplinary investigation into ways that musical improvisation can activate new perspectives on rights discourses.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822354789
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 6/7/2013
  • Series: Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice
  • Pages: 328
  • Sales rank: 1,252,905
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Daniel Fischlin is Professor and University Research Chair in the School of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph in Ontario. He is coauthor (with Martha Nandorfy) of The Community of Rights – The Rights of Community.

Ajay Heble is Professor in the School of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph and an editor (with Rob Wallace) of People Get Ready: The Future of Jazz Is Now!, also published by Duke University Press. He is the founder and artistic director of the Guelph Jazz Festival.

George Lipsitz is Professor in the Department of Black Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of many books, including How Racism Takes Place and Footsteps in the Dark: The Hidden Histories of Popular Music.

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Read an Excerpt


Improvisation, Rights, and the Ethics of Cocreation


Duke University Press

Copyright © 2013 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-5478-9




Improvisation, Black Mobility, and Resources for Hope

In his remarkable book on the influential musicians' collective, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), the African American scholar and trombonist George E. Lewis tells us that "the insistence by blacks that music has to be 'saying something' [is] part of a long history of resistance to the silencing of the black voice. Indeed," Lewis argues, "as might be expected from a people whose genetic, historical, and cultural legacies were interrupted through sustained, systematized violence, every effort was made by the musicians to recover rather than to disrupt historical consciousness" (Power 41). Lewis is writing about African American experimental musical practices, and, in such a context, his reminder that "black musicians felt that music could effectuate the recovery of history itself" serves as a vital corrective to some widely held and oft-institutionalized assumptions about improvised forms of music-making (42). After all, despite being the most widely practiced (and perhaps the oldest) form of music-making in the world, improvisation, as numerous critics have noted, is also the least understood and most maligned: its cultural significance, in particular, tends to be ignored or in dispute both in the academy and in the broader public understanding. Think, for example, about how, in the context of pedagogies, criticism, arts funding policies, and support structures, improvisative music is often looked at askance, seen as involving adherence to neither convention nor protocol, as tolerating no system of constraint, as requiring no prior thought, as coming out of nowhere, simply being made up on the spot. Think about the fact that since improvisational musical practices are central to many marginalized communities, the resultant failure of scholars to pay serious and sustained attention to improvisation has led to a broader failure to recognize the extent to which improvisation provides a trenchant model for flexible, dynamic, and dialogical social structures that are both ethical and respectful of identity and difference. And think about the fact that, in Lewis's words, "improvisative discourses disclose the extent to which musicians have a vital stake in the ongoing dialogue concerning the future of our planet. Music becomes a necessity for existence, rather than merely a pleasant way to pass time" ("Teaching Improvised Music" 98).

Improvisation as Social Practice

A necessity for existence, the future of our planet, the recovery of history: large claims, these, we admit. These remarks from George Lewis, whose own stewardship of improvisative musicality has done so much to generate new critical perspectives, signal a profound shift in long-held assumptions about improvised music, and they offer a provocative commentary on how musical practices in which improvisation figures prominently are, indeed, social practices, a commentary central to our book's focus on key sites of creative activity, sites in which improvisation as a musical practice intersects with rights and social justice discourses. They point, moreover, to what's at stake—culturally, socially, institutionally—in a music that so many anointed narratives of jazz history would have us summarily dismiss as inconsequential, elitist, eccentric, or incomprehensible. One of the most enduring lessons in Lewis's work is precisely this: particularly for music-makers whose explorations question settled habits of response and judgement, improvised music has the potential to inform and transform contemporary cultural debate. It can do so by deepening and reinvigorating our understanding of the role that improvising artists can play in activating diverse energies of critique and inspiration, and of the difference they can make (and have made) in their communities by using modes of working together to voice new forms of social organization, to "sound off" against oppressive orders of knowledge production, and to create opportunities and develop resources for disadvantaged people. In short, the working models of musical improvisation developed by creative practitioners have played a powerful role in recasting the identities and histories of aggrieved populations and in promoting self-representational counternarratives that enable an enlargement of the base of valued knowledges.

There is a long and illustrious (if too often underrepresented) history, especially within the context of African American creative practice, that links jazz and improvised music with struggles for civil rights and social justice. Much can be learned from performance practices that accent and embody real-time creative decision-making, risk-taking, and collaboration. Robin Kelley, a historian and scholar focusing on black culture and radical social movements, has done important work on the role that hope and the imagination play as revolutionary impulses for social betterment. Key strands of jazz and improvised music-making might be understood in this context. In an era when diverse peoples and communities of interest struggle to forge historically new forms of affiliation across cultural divides, the participatory and civic virtues of engagement, dialogue, respect, and community-building inculcated through improvisatory practices take on a particular urgency.

Lewis's claim about black musicians and the recovery of history does more than simply counter long-standing myths and assumptions about improvisation. It should perhaps also put us in mind of Frantz Fanon's argument in The Wretched of the Earth about how imperial powers sought to manipulate and eradicate the subject people's past in an effort to instill feelings of inferiority. For Fanon and many of the black cultural nationalists who followed his arguments, especially during the 1960s, what was critical in countering such institutionalized systems of erasure, what was particularly germane to such efforts to reclaim the past, was the need to develop a sense of self-worth. Iain Anderson, a jazz scholar, suggests in his book This Is Our Music: Free Jazz, the Sixties, and American Culture that "this 'revolution of the mind' required a positive reevaluation of blackness in order to shatter the hold of white psychological and cultural oppression" (97).

Kelley, too, reminds us in his book Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination that this "idea of a revolution of the mind has always been central ... to black conceptions of liberation" (191). However, he is absolutely forthright in his insistence that a revolution of the mind is "not merely a refusal of victim status." Instead, he tells us "about an unleashing of the mind's most creative capacities, catalyzed by participation in struggles for change" (191). Addressing "anyone bold enough still to dream," Kelley argues that "the most radical ideas often grow out of a concrete intellectual engagement with the problems of aggrieved populations confronting systems of oppression" (7, 9). Attracted to a model of artistic practice that, in his words, "invites dreaming, urges us to improvise and invent, and recognizes the imagination as our most powerful weapon," Kelley encourages us to see (and, picking up on his lead, we would add to hear) "life as possibility" (159, 2).

Life as possibility: isn't this, after all, one of the most enduring lessons embodied in, and exemplified by, improvised music? Isn't there more than a little allure in the snap of the new and untried, in the sparkle of provocation, in the itch and prod of a relentless spirit of inquiry, of intuitive knowing, in the right to dream, in the right to embody improvisatory creativity publicly? And if oppositional politics often takes as one of its most salient manifestations an allegiance to forms of artistic practice that cannot readily be assimilated or scripted using dominant frameworks of understanding, then to what extent might improvisatory performance practices themselves be understood as activist forms of insurgent knowledge production? To what extent might improvised music be understood in the context of aggrieved communities struggling for access to representation, legitimacy, social recognition, and institutional visibility, let alone to real access to resources with the potential to transform material realities?

Improvised music, at least in some of its most provocative historical instances, ought to be seen and heard in precisely such contexts. Musicians' collectives such as the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and music curators and festival organizers who present and promote improvised music have a vital role to play in the development of new theoretical and organizational models and practices for the creation and nurturing of alternative pedagogical institutions. By providing alternatives to the taken-for-granted course of things, by creating new knowledges and opportunities, by generating alternative ways of seeing and hearing the world, such organizations have much to teach us. They too, in other words, should be understood to be part of Kelley's argument about radical ideas emerging out of "concrete intellectual engagement with the problems of aggrieved populations."

Life as possibility: the creation of new opportunities, the nurturing of new sources of hope for disadvantaged peoples, these have long been hallmarks of the AACM. The flautist and president of the AACM Nicole Mitchell suggested in a keynote talk for the Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice (ICASP) project, under whose auspices this book was written, that a central context for understanding both the musical and social impact of the aacm is the role that improvised and experimental music has played in creating a kind of utopia in sound for African Americans, during a time when they couldn't have it in reality. In an interview with the music scholar and flautist Ellen Waterman in Critical Studies in Improvisation / Études critiques en improvisation, Mitchell speaks explicitly about musical improvisation as a form of social practice that allows her to dream of "other worlds." Riffing on a phrase in a poem written about her by Kalamu ya Salaam and included in the liner notes to her recording Black Unstoppable, Mitchell suggests that the line "I dreamed of other worlds" suggests the ability "to take blankness or nothingness and create a combination of what's familiar and what's unknown, or what's never existed before, with creativity." She explains, "That's why I love to improvise. Because improvisation is a practice that allows you not to be focused on the smallness of who you are and your reality, but to actually experience the greatness of possibility and surprise and spontaneity."

The greatness of possibility and surprise and spontaneity: there is an activist edge to this assertion, a belief that improvisation can teach us to enact the possibilities we envision. The activist edge is there in Mitchell's belief that music can be transformative, even visionary; it's also there in the title of her recording Black Unstoppable, the phrase itself suggesting a strength and determination of purpose. But the activist slant is also registered, perhaps most profoundly, in her belief that hope (a term that comes up throughout the interview) resides in the capacity, indeed in the power, to dream. Again, we're put in mind of Kelley's comments: "We must remember," he writes in Freedom Dreams, "that the conditions and the very existence of social movements enable participants to imagine something different, to realize that things need not always be this way. It is that imagination, that effort to see the future in the present, that I shall call 'poetry' or 'poetic knowledge'" (9).

Social movements play a crucial role in generating new ways of knowing, new ways of being. The AACM has been a vital social movement that has given rise to a wide range of emancipatory hopes and practices. Now, if Mitchell is particularly attracted to improvised music-making because it enables an expression of utopia in sound, because it allows aggrieved peoples a place for the sounding of unscripted futures, then it's also worth noting that, for her, as for George Lewis and other members of the AACM, improvisation can also be a vehicle for the rehistoricization of minoritized communities: "I also reflect on history and reality in my work," Mitchell tells Waterman in their interview. One pertinent example she gives has to do with her understanding of her own role as a female jazz improviser in what she acknowledges is a "male dominated field." She explains that this understanding has shaped her own practice of using her voice in playing the flute: "I sing into the flute. I sing with the flute. I sing and then I just play the flute. So I have all of these combinations of the relationship between the voice and the flute. Part of that comes from the desire to leave evidence that a woman was here. Because, you know, it is a very male dominated field. Even without a video or picture of that music, I want to leave that mark, that aesthetic of whatever is coming through me as a woman, as a channel for that feminine energy" (qtd. in Waterman). Mitchell's insistence on leaving evidence, on embedding traces of history and forms of memorialization into her improvisatory musical practices, is part of a project of sounding truth to power, of supplying a dissenting voice in a field that "has not exactly been known for its gender equity" (Tucker 260).

In evidence here are musical strategies that might contribute to our understanding of how improvised musics play a role in the so-called politics of hope, which is so often deemed a key aspect of struggles for rights. By invoking the controversial phrase "politics of hope" in the context of improvisation as a social practice, we underline the degree to which hope is often predicated on the possibility of real, lived alternatives to hopelessness. Is it possible to think of improvisation as embodying the public expression of multiple forms of alternative expression, multiple forms of creative enactment that instantiate and restore the possibility of hope to the everyday?

Changing the Stories We Live By

If the conventions associated with fixed genres "contribute to an ahistorical view of the world as always the same," and if the "pleasures of predictability encourage an investment in the status quo"—indeed, if the fixity of genres has often functioned as a locus of racialized and gender-based forms of power—then the use of extended techniques in music, the use, that is, of unfamiliar performance techniques on familiar musical instruments to expand the sonic vocabularies conventionally associated with those instruments, may be indicative of improvisation's insistence on finding new kinds of solutions to familiar problems and challenges (Lipsitz, American Studies 185). The extended technique of Nicole Mitchell's using her voice as part of her flute playing becomes a way both of engaging with histories of struggle (in this case, engaging questions of gender equality and women's agency in improvised music) and of changing the stories we tell about those histories.

After all, as the Nigerian storyteller Ben Okri puts it, "if we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives" (46). Other writers, such as Kay Schaffer and Sidonie Smith, have written wisely and eloquently about the role that stories and testimonies have played as essential catalysts "to affect recourse, mobilize action, forge communities of interest, and enable social change" in relation to rights and social justice claims (3). But what is improvisation for? What's at stake in the stories we tell about improvised music, and for whom is it at stake? How might the stories that are told and circulated about improvised music make a difference in relation to pressing matters of public interest and consequence? Why, in short, does improvisation matter?

In asking such questions, we've discovered loosely connected but coherently focused strands of an emergent narrative about powerful and historically resonant ways to unsettle orthodox habits of response and judgment, and we've seen how such a narrative has had (and will continue to have) a profound impact on a wide range of pressing matters for scholarship, critical pedagogy, and activism related to civil rights, alternative-community formations, and transcultural understanding. The profoundly interconnected discourses of improvised musicking and social justice ought to be understood as complex and multidimensional fields of endeavor that intersect in ways that have energized new networks of possibility, and inspired resources for hope.

Excerpted from THE FIERCE URGENCY OF NOW by DANIEL FISCHLIN. Copyright © 2013 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS....................     vii     

PRELUDE "The Fierce Urgency of Now": Improvisation, Rights, and the Ethics
of Cocreation....................     xi     

INTRODUCTION Dissolving Dogma: Improvisation, Rights, and Difference.......     1     

CHAPTER 1 Sounding Truth to Power: Improvisation, Black Mobility, and
Resources for Hope....................     33     

CHAPTER 2 Improvisation and Encounter: Rights in the Key of Rifference.....     57     

CHAPTER 3 Improvising Community: Rights and Improvisation as Encounter
Narratives....................     99     

CHAPTER 4 Improvisation, Social Movements, and Rights in New Orleans.......     141     

CHAPTER 5 Art to Find the Pulse of the People: We Know This Place..........     171     

CHAPTER 6 "The Fierce Urgency of Now": Improvisation, Social Practice, and
Togetherness-in-Difference....................     189     

CODA....................     231     

NOTES....................     245     

WORKS CITED....................     263     

INDEX....................     281     

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