Compulsive Freedom: Brassier and Improvisation


Ray Brassier’s  “Unfree Improvisation/Compulsive Freedom” (written for the 2013 event at Glasgow’s Tramway Freedom is a Constant Struggle) is a terse but insightful discussion of the notion of freedom in improvisation.

It begins with a polemic against the voluntarist conception of freedom. The voluntarist understands free action as the uncaused expression of a “sovereign self”. Brassier rejects this supernaturalist understanding of freedom. He argues that we should view freedom not as determination of an act from outside the causal order, but as the self-determination of action within the causal order.

According to Brassier, this structure is reflexive. It requires, first of all, a system that acts in conformity to rules but is capable of representing and modifying these rules with implications for its future behaviour. Insofar as there is a “subject” of freedom, then, it is not a “self” but depersonalized acts generated by systems capable of representing and intervening in the patterns that govern them.

The act is the only subject. It remains faceless. But it can only be triggered under very specific circumstances. Acknowledgement of the rule generates the condition for deviating from or failing to act in accordance with the rule that constitutes subjectivity. This acknowledgement is triggered by the relevant recognitional mechanism; it requires no appeal to the awareness of a conscious self….

Brassier’s proximate inspiration for this model of freedom is Wilfred Sellars’ account of linguistic action in “Some Reflections on Language Games” (1954) and the psychological nominalism in which it is embedded. This distinguishes a basic rule-conforming level from a metalinguistic level in which it is possible to examine the virtues of claims, inferences or the referential scope of terms by semantic ascent: “Intentionality is primarily a property of candid public speech established via the development of metalinguistic resources that allows a community of speakers to talk about talk” (Brassier 2013b: 105; Sellars 1954: 226).

So, for Brassier, the capacity to explore the space of possibilities opened up by rules presupposes a capacity to acknowledge these sources of agency.

There are some difficult foundational questions that could be raised here. Is thought really instituted by linguistic rules or is language an expression of pre-linguistic intentional contents? Are these rules idiomatic (in the manner of Davidson’s passing theories) or communal? What is the relationship between the normative dimension of speech and thought and facts about what thinkers do or are disposed to do?

I’ve addressed these elsewhere, so I won’t belabor them here. My immediate interest, rather, is the extent to which Brassier’s account of act-reflexivity is applicable to musical improvisation.

Brassier does not provide a detailed account of its musical application in “Unfree Improvisation”. What he does write, though, is highly suggestive: implying that the act of free improvisation requires some kind of encounter between rule governed rationality and more idiomatic patterns or causes:

The ideal of “free improvisation” is paradoxical: in order for improvisation to be free in the requisite sense, it must be a self-determining act, but this requires the involution of a series of mechanisms. It is this involutive process that is the agent of the act—one that is not necessarily human. It should not be confused for the improviser’s self, which is rather the greatest obstacle to the emergence of the act.

In (genuinely) free improvisation, it seems, determinants of action become “for themselves” They enter into the performance situation as explicit possibilities for action.

This seems to demand that “neurobiological or socioeconomic determinants of musical or non-musical action can become musical material, to be manipulated or altered by performers. How is this possible?

Moreover, is there something about improvisation (as opposed to conventional composition) that is peculiarly apt for generating the compulsive freedom of which Brassier speaks?

After all, his description of the determinants of action in the context of improvisation might apply to the situation of the composer as well. The composer of notated “art music” or the studio musician editing files in a digital-audio workstation seems better placed than the improviser to reflect on and develop her musical rule-conforming behaviour (e.g. exploratory improvisations) than the improviser. She has the ambit to explore the permutations of a melodic or rhythmic fragment or to eliminate sonic or gestural nuances that are, in hindsight, unproductive. The composed gesture is always open to reversal or editing and thus to further refinement.

Thus the improviser seems committed to what Andy Hamilton calls an “aesthetic of imperfection” – in contrast to the musical perfectionism that privileges the realized work. Hamilton claims that the aesthetics of perfection implies and is implied by a Platonic account for which the work is only contingently associated with particular times, places or musical performers (Hamilton 2000: 172). The aesthetics of imperfection, by contrast, celebrates the genesis of a performance and the embodying of the performer in a specific time and space:

Improvisation makes the performer alive in the moment; it brings one to a state of alertness, even what Ian Carr in his biography of Keith Jarrett has called the ‘state of grace’. This state is enhanced in a group situation of interactive empathy. But all players, except those in a large orchestra, have choices inviting spontaneity at the point of performance. These begin with the room in which they are playing, its humidity and temperature, who they are playing with, and so on. (183)

An improvisation consists of irreversible acts that cannot be compositionally refined. They can only be repeated, developed or overwritten in time. It takes place in a time window limited by the memory and attention of the improviser, responding to her own playing, to the other players, or (as Brassier recognises) to the real-time behaviour of machines such as effects processors or midi-filters. Thus the aesthetic importance of the improvising situation seems to depend on a temporality and spatiality that distinguishes it from the score-bound composition or studio bound music production.

Yet, if this is right, it might appear to commit Brassier to a vitalist or phenomenological conception of the lived musical experience foreign to the anti-vitalist, anti-phenomenological tenor of his wider philosophical oeuvre. For this open, processual time must be counter-posed to the Platonic or structuralist ideal of the perfectionist. The imperfection and open indeterminacy of performance time must have ontological weight and insistence if Brassier’s programmatic remarks are to have any pertinence to improvisation as opposed to traditional composition.

This is not intended to be a criticism of Brassier’s position but an attempt at clarification. This commitment to an embodied, historical, machinic and physical temporality seems implicit in the continuation of the earlier passage cited from his text:

The improviser must be prepared to act as an agent—in the sense in which one acts as a covert operative—on behalf of whatever mechanisms are capable of effecting the acceleration or confrontation required for releasing the act. The latter arises at the point of intrication between rules and patterns, reasons and causes. It is the key that unlocks the mystery of how objectivity generates subjectivity. The subject as agent of the act is the point of involution at which objectivity determines its own determination: agency is a second-order process whereby neurobiological or socioeconomic determinants (for example) generate their own determination. In this sense, recognizing the un-freedom of voluntary activity is the gateway to compulsive freedom.

The improvising subject, then, is a process in which diverse processes are translated into a musical event or text that retains an expressive trace of its historical antecedents. As Brassier emphasizes, this process need not be understood in terms of human phenomenological time constrained by the “reverbations” of our working memory (Metzinger 2004: 129) – although this may continue to be the case in practice.

The Derridean connotations of the conjunction “event”/”text”/”trace” are deliberate, since the time of the improvising event is singular and productive – open to multiple repetitions that determine it in different ways. Improvisation is usually constrained (if not musically, by time or technical skill or means) but these rarely constitute rules or norms in the conventional sense. There is no single way in which to develop a simple Lydian phase on a saxophone, a rhythmic cell, or sample (an audio sample could be filtered, reversed or mangled by reading its entries out of order with a non-standard function, rather than the usual ramp). So the time of improvisation is a peculiarly naked exposure to “things”. Not to a sensory or categorical given, but precisely to an absence of a given that can be technologically remade.


Brassier, Ray 2013a. “Unfree Improvisation/Compulsive Freedom”, (Accessed March 2015)

Brassier, Ray. 2013b. “Nominalism, Naturalism, and Materialism: Sellars’ Critical Ontology”. In Bana Bashour & Hans D. Muller (eds.), Contemporary Philosophical Naturalism and its Implications. Routledge. 101-114.

Davidon, Donald. 1986. “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs”. In Truth and Interpretation,

E. LePore (ed.), 433–46. Oxford: Blackwell.

Hamilton, A. (2000). “The art of Improvisation and the Aesthetics of Imperfection”. British Journal of Aesthetics 40 (1):168-185.

Metzinger, T. 2004. Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Sellars, W. 1954. “Some Reflections on Language Games”. Philosophy of Science 21 (3):204-228.


6 thoughts on “Compulsive Freedom: Brassier and Improvisation

  1. But he’s just proliferating the supernaturalism from the once and for all of the sovereign self to the one time each of the self reflexive act. The Blind Brain Theory’s infrastructural story, its recoding of temporal finitude, in terms of information horizon with informatic closure–causally open, but whose causal history is occluded–more forcefully explains away or accounts for the form of the various phenomenalities that mark freedom (specificially its *beforelessness*) than anything like “semantic ascent”. I’d be curious to see what Sellars has written about time. I’d suspect it would be tucked away somewhere in what he has written about absolute processes. Do you have any idea about his views on time, david?

  2. Hi Jozsef,

    I agree that there is a problem here. It is not clear how mere “aboutness” can explain autonomy. The fact that an act has a semantic relation to another act such that the first is about the second doesn’t imply anything about the ability of the first to exert influence on the second. Gary Watson makes a similar point against Harry Frankfurt’s compatibilist account of autonomy. The fact that one might have higher order desires that some lower order desire move one to action does not obviously make the lower order desire in question more properly “one’s own”. Cashing this out in terms of Sellars’ psychological nominalism does not appear to get around this.

    I don’t know much about Brassier’s views on time. He refers occasionally to Sellars idea that the fundamental constituents of the world (including acts) are processes or episodes. Insofar as he seems like a pretty orthodox Sellarsian these days, I guess that does commit him to the claim about some kind of fundamental temporality. And, as I say, I think his remarks are only specially pertinent to improvisation if a) the world is fundamentally temporal and b) improvisation is always characterised by definite time windows and thus by loss and indeterminacy.

    But then the nature of act “self-determination” seems less not more clear, now. The freedom of free improvisation is a function of a situation: the absence of constraint – e.g. from bar structures, modes or chord sequences. One’s response to a musical event is not prescribed. What counts as going on in “the right way” is not prescribed. You cannot – for example – lose your place in free form playing. You can play badly, however, by being insufficiently responsive to the evolving tendencies in the sound. Freedom, here just means that there are just more ways to screw up and also more ways to get it right.

    There may be a sense in which free improvisation is less automatic. When I’ve played be-bop pieces with very complex chord structures, I found that it’s easy to just ‘play the changes’, working through the formal harmonic structure in a mechanical way. So good improvisation, it seems, shouldn’t be formal in this sense. It should, at least, involve a responsiveness to very singular features of the improvising context – specific patterns, expressive nuances, etc. – rather than abstractly repeatable ones like whether a IV with a sharpened ninth follows a II with flattened fifth. It should lead to structures that are relatively improbable (because underdetermined) but “meaningful” (liable to prompt to further elaboration). If this all sounds lame it’s because it just increases the mystery about the processes that actually generate this order. We’re in the dark. And we’re more in the dark precisely because of the underdetermination of the sonic process by its seeding events. So – here’s a thought – maybe the seeming “freedom” of free improvisation consists in the absence of information about the formative events that produce it relative to less free contexts where we can invoke traditional harmonic or melodic structures. I’ll try to develop this in later posts.

  3. Improvisation already implies a sense of time and history, and of a retroactive interpellation of the given as measured through the performative act itself. It requires a decision and a stance against this object or structure through which its improvisation is an almost counter time, or time of the Subject itself. It seems the freedom is this very movement between the classical time of the score, and the improvisational time of the immanent act in its movement or emergence: the performativity itself is this freedom enacted.

    “Freedom” is thus inherently retroactive: at its most elementary, it is not simply a free act which, out of nowhere, starts a new causal link, but a retroactive act of determining which link or sequence of necessities will determine us.1

    In this sense improvisation is this retroactive movement of determination by the musician in the pure act of choosing: the act of music and subject emerging in unison in the free act this self-reflecting movement.

    Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 4963-4965). Norton. Kindle Edition.

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