Improvising Time: Ray Brassier and all that Jazz


What follows is a reworking of material in my earlier post on Ray Brassier and Improvisation. It’s part of a longer work in progress exploring whether aesthetic creativity can function as a model for decision-making in a posthuman (or Promethean) world. All comments and criticisms will be gratefully received.




1) Introduction: Improvisation and Agency

Ray Brassier’s “Unfree Improvisation/Compulsive Freedom” (written for the 2013 collaboration with Basque noise artist Mattin at Glasgow’s Tramway) 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 the determination of an act from outside the causal order, but as the self-determination by 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.

Brassier’s proximate inspiration for this model of freedom is Wilfred Sellars’ account of linguistic action in “Some Reflections on Language Games” (1954.) Sellars distinguishes a basic rule-conforming level from a metalinguistic level in which it is possible to reflect on concepts using articulate speech. Following Kant, Sellars regards concepts as a kind of rule for connecting judgements. Genuine agency involves capacity to follow or deviate from a rule. An agent must be able to hold herself and others accountable to a rule and this is only possible – for Brassier – if we make concepts explicit as moves within a language game (Brassier 2013b: 105; Sellars 1954: 226). Selves or subjects are not sources of agency. Instead, rules and their articulation constitute the subjectivity of acts:

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 2013a)

Brassier does not provide a detailed account of its musical application in “Unfree Improvisation”. His text implies that the act of improvisation requires an encounter between rule governed rationality and more idiomatic patterns or causes. However, Brassier does not specify how such rules operate in music, what their nature is or how the encounter between rules and more rudimentary pattern-governed behaviour occurs.

In what follows I will argue that the reason he does not do this is that there are no such rules to be had. Musical rules in the sense that he requires them do not apply in improvising contexts, or in contemporary compositional practice. Brassier understands rules as impersonal “applying indiscriminately to everyone”, but claims about what is permissible or implied in musical processes index highly-context sensitive perceptual and affective responses to musical events. These responses exhibit variable degrees of tension within “the musical matter” between the sedimented expectations of a musical culture and open fields of action potentiated by musical event or act.

I will argue that this perceptual account of musical succession provides an alternate way of expressing Brassier’s remarks on the relationship between music and history in “Unfree Improvisation” – one that eschews normative discourse of “rules” in favour of a descriptive account of the processes, capacities and potentialities operating in the improvising situation.

This adjustment is of more than aesthetic interest. Brassier’s text suggests that the temporality of the improvising act provides a model for understanding a wider relationship with time: in particular the remorseless temporality explored in his writings on Prometheanism and Radical Enlightenment (See Brassier 2014). In later discussions, I hope to use this model as a clue for developing an ethics or politics that can address the radically open horizons I explore in Posthuman Life (Roden 2014).

2. Harmonic Structure and Succession

I will begin by making use of some analyses of performance practices in post-war jazz and Julian Johnson’s analysis of the disruption of the rhetoric of harmonic accompaniment in the work of Anton Webern to support this model of affective subjectivity in improvisation.

Novice jazz improvisers must internalize a large body of musical theory: e.g. learning modal variations on the Ionian and harmonic minor scale or “rules” for chord substitution in cadences based on shared tritones. This learning and habituation sculpts the musical performance by sculpting possibilities for action that are continuously re-sculpted in the course of improvisations. For example, ambiguous voicings involving tritones or fourths decouple chords from the root, allowing modulations into what otherwise might be distant keys to slide easily over a tonal center.

This harmonic know-how consists recipes for honing expectations and sensations, not the acknowledgement of of norms. The statement that tritone (augmented fourth internal) belonging to a dominant seventh chord should resolve to a tonic reflects listener expectations in diatonic environments where a tonal center is defined in practice. This is not an intrinsic feature of the tritone, however, since each tritone occurs in two dominant chords. For example, the B-F tritone occurs in both G7 (resolving to C) and Dflat7 – permitting a resolution to the unrelated key of Gflat. This provides a recipe for substituting a dominant chord at a tritone remove in perfect cadences.

However, it also allows harmonic series to modulate into unrelated keys. As jazz theorist Martin Rosenberg notes, the use of augmented dominants with two tritones by Bebop players such as Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk produce multiple lines of harmonic consequence and thus an ambiguous context that is not conventionally diatonic, even if (in contrast to free jazz) some adherence to a tonal center is preserved.

Symmetrical chords built of fourths (as used by pianists such as McCoy Tyer and Bill Evans) or major thirds have a similar effect, whether in diatonic contexts (where they can render the tonic ambiguous by stripping it to the 3rd, sixth and ninth) or in modal contexts where a tonal center is still implied by a pedal pass.

In consequence, the home key in the modal jazz developed by Miles Davis and Coltrane never prescribes a series of actions but furnishes expectations that can make an improvisation aesthetically intelligible after the fact. As Rosenberg explains, when Coltrane improvises in modal compositions such as “A Love Supreme” he deploys pentatonic or digital patterns modulated well away from the implied tonal center suggested by a bass line or by the “head” (the tune that traditionally opens or closes a jazz improvisation):

During his solos, Coltrane performs constant modulations through a series of harmonic targets or, what avant-garde architects Arakawa and Gins would call tentative “landing sites” (2002: 10) that become deployed sonically over a simple harmonic ‘home’ through the use of centered and then increasingly distant pentatonic scales from that home. In doing so, Coltrane seeks to widen what I call “the bandwidth” of melodic, harmonic and rhythmic relationships possible. He does so as he maintains the coherence of the melodic line (or narrative) through the aurally comfortable shapes (from the perspective of the audience especially) enabled by those very pentatonic scales, despite the juxtaposition of distant and dissonant tonal centers implied by this method. (Rosenberg 2010: 211-12).

This differential/transformative structure is, unsurprisingly, characteristic of scored Western art music. In his analysis of Anton Webern’s Three Little Pieces for Piano and Cello, Op 11, Julian Johnson argues that the opening two bars of the first piece allude to the framing and introduction of melody in traditional song and opera. For example, in baroque recitative the onset of a lyrical melody is frequently indicated by an arpeggiated chord. However, the high register chord that occurs in the first bar of the piece follows a single muted cello note and is followed by a descending piano passage that marks the absence of an expressive melody indicated by the chord (Johnson 1998: 277, 272.).

Culturally transmitted musical structures consist of exquisitely context-sensitive schemata – like the chord/recitative framing relation discussed by Johnson. The emergence of non-diatonic harmony, polychromaticism and atonality in modern music practice demonstrate that these are subordinate to improvisational and compositional practices. These schema exist in tension with the musical act and are transformed in exemplary performances such Coltrane’s use of distantly modulated pentatonic figures in “A Love Supreme”. Their linguistic formulations do not prescribe what a musician ought to do but describe how musical transitions are perceived and felt. The musical agent cannot be the impersonal subject of binding rules if these bend to context in this way.
It follows that if there is an equivalent of Brassier’s subject in the improvising situation, it cannot the tension between rule and application.

Brassier is arguably correct to insist on anti-voluntarism (We are not free in consequence of some acausal causal power unique to selves). But in the context of improvisation and composition, we are not free in virtue of acknowledging rules either since these are not in place.

Brassier’s impersonal conception of autonomy seems, then, ill adapted to musical contexts, even we if buy into his naturalist dismissal of agent causation (which I am happy to do). It follows that we need to formulate an alternative account of autonomy in improvisational contexts that is not predicated on the acknowledgement of musical norms.

3. The Time of Improvisation

An improvisation consists of irreversible acts that cannot be compositionally refined. They can only be repeated, developed or overwritten by 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.
Improvisation is thus committed to what Andy Hamilton calls “an aesthetics of imperfection”. Hamilton claims that an opposing aesthetics of perfection implies and is implied by a Platonic account for which the musical 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)

The aesthetic importance of the improvising situation seems to depend on a real, irreversible temporality that distinguishes it from the score-bound composition or studio bound music production. This ontology is required to make sense of the aesthetic distinction between the situation of the improviser and composer in traditional art music (or the producer of digital audio work). Composition or digital editing is always reversible. One develops notational variants of an idea before winnowing them down or rejecting them. One hits Ctl + Z in the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) when a mix goes bad.

This is never the case with improvisation. An improvisation is a unique event on the cusp of another. It thus exposes the improviser to a future outside the “living present” and to a reality exceeding her power to experience or represent it. An omniscient being would thus be incapable of improvising because its choices would be fully known prior to the event. The event would be fully represented and reversible. For improvisation to occur the agent must act alongside and in concert with things or processes that it cannot control; other agents, other things that it does and cannot fully know. Or, to cite from Amy Ireland’s discussion of Lovecraft and Michel Serres, improvisation always requires a “para-site” – a site that exists alongside the site of the notional improviser (Ireland 2014). Even the act cannot just be attributed to a single agent, because there must be something in the act that is not grasped by the agent at all, even implicitly or unconsciously.

This comports with Brassier’s claim that freedom in improvisation is impersonal since the improvising agent must be rethought as a network of things and effects, none of which corresponds exactly to a self or a deliberative agent. Improvisation occurs in networks of patterns, pattern generators, pattern detectors and pattern processors whose cumulative effect is never the will of a single agent within the network (even where the network consists of one musician and an instrument). Moreover, the patterns constituting the inputs to the detectors are always incomplete.

No single node of the network exercises decisive influence on its evolution or has complete knowledge of what is occurring in the remainder of the system. This evolution, in turn, is incomplete until the end of the final pattern.

Accordingly, the player/detector must register emerging “potentials for transformation” – open-ended evolutions – rather than static facts. For reasons discussed above, these are also rhythmically and harmonically undetermined at any point in the performance (Roden 2014: 187).

It follows that the time of improvisation is an impersonal time consisting of multiple processes interacting at different scales, distributed over many locations.

Brassier applies essentially the same model at the end of his article:

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. 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.

Importantly, Brassier rejects the claim that the agents participating in the improvising situation need be human. We can unpack this “posthumanism” in three ways:

1. While humans are agents, not all agents are human. Thus it is perfectly conceivable that there be improvisers that are not biologically human – e.g. artificial intelligences.

2. In order to understand the processes involved in improvisation it may be necessary to resolve sub-personal processes or systems within biological humans – e.g. distinguishing between fast sensory pathways in the brain that bypass the sensory cortex en route to the limbic system, generating fast affect, and slower pathways that produce considered sensory appraisals (Huron 2006: 20).

3. The sense of agency involved in improvisation does not require a sovereign subject vested with the power of creating from nothing. Improvisation, for Brassier, involves “releasing” a kind of potential that is already present in the situation.

The claim that there is a potential act needing to be “released” in a given music setting might seem to impute rule-like structure or normativity to the improvising context (something that ought to be). However, this claim does not cohere well with context sensitivity of musical material and the underdetermination of musical expectation described above. So regardless of whether agency is elsewhere constituted by the acknowledgement of rules in the domain of language, there are no grounds for positing analogous rules for music. It follows that if Brassier’s insights into improvising subjectivity are to be retained, they will need to be reframed in a non-normative idiom.

We can do this, I think, by interpreting them as a thesis about the selection of patterns from a range of possible (underdetermined) patterns whose basis lies in affect rather than rules. An affect is an alteration in an agent that makes a difference to its power to act (Hickey-Moody 2009: 273). A pain is obviously an affect; so is a mood. As Steven Shaviro points, out some affects are personal: they are more or less stable tendencies in persons that can be publicly identified within our folk psychological vocabulary. Boredom is a personal affect, as is an emotion such as fear. But more pertinent here are so-called “micro-affects” which may be fleeting, hard to categorize and barely accessible to experience, while still having implications for individual or group behaviour. An experience of a twitchy camera in a music video or the extremely short grains of sound in Xenakis composition Concret Ph are affective in this way (Shaviro 2015).

This idea of affective selection can be illustrated with the help of a field study of post-hardcore rock bands at rehearsal carried out by Alec McGuiness. It provides a vivid example of musicians using procedural learning to prime a series of musical riffs over which their conscious or intentional control is fairly limited. Song structures are laid down by associating riffs with riffs, but, as one informant explains, are varied in performance when “feels right” to do so:

[S]ometimes there’ll be moments when we’re not looking at each other but all four will either hit that heavy thing, or really bring it down […] And yeah, those moments […].. it’s priceless, when everyone just hits the same thing at the same time. […] That’s when you know that that song’s definitely going to work. ‘Cause it’s obviously sort of pressing the same buttons on each of us at the same time. (McGuiness 2009: 19)



So, here, “releasing the act”, involves an awareness of a shared affective response to some “felicitous performance” which prompts a deviation from the regular pattern. The agency, here, is also distributed insofar as it depends on a contagion of affect between the players to drive the variation. However, note that this group decision implies a judgment with a purely affective basis that is expressed through performance itself rather than by application of received folk psychological concepts or formal musical rules (of which the performers are largely innocent in any case).

Kant referred to judgements of this nature – which do not apply concepts to things but express the way in which the subject is affected by things – as “reflective judgements”. These are distinguished from more familiar “determinate judgment” – where we apply some concept to one of its instances. For example, when we categorize a thing as a cat, we apply a given concept to organize the field of perception. Judgements of beauty, according to Kant, do not apply a predicate to the object but are based on a pleasurable feeling of accord between our perceptual capacities and a beautiful thing that enlivens them.

Likewise, in artistic creation reflective judgment occurs when the creators find a pattern that enlivens the intellect and imaginations of an audience (Proulx 2011: 21). The feeling of a riff or rhythm pattern gelling for an individual or group provides a kind of micro-example of this enlivening. It may not express transcendent emotions or ideas, but the felt accord affords an assessment of its value that need not be justified in terms of pre-specified rules or canons.
Thus micro-affects can imply micro-evaluations without conformity to rules. A moment in an improvisation might feel right but be completely novel and the only test of this is how it facilitates the response of a player or an audience – spawning further affects and development. Pattern selection in improvisation implies an evaluative response to potentials that are reinforced, then, by subsequent performance. For example, leaving space in an improvisation builds tension and thus an expectation that something is going to occur sometime.

There need be no rules operating in pattern selection, but there is a value judgment, even where what prompts it is so singular that it cannot be replicated or fully described. And where there is a judgment there is agency or, if you will, a subjectivity implicit in the selection. I have argued that this comports well with Brassier’s claim in the final paragraph of “Compulsive Freedom” that the freedom of improvisation requires “an involution of mechanisms” and that it is the relationship between these mechanisms that forms the (“not necessarily human”) agent of the act. The agent of improvisation, then, is not a person – if by that we mean, a subject exercising deliberation – but an affective-selective catalyst of events open to the disruptive onset of time.


Brassier, Ray & Rychter, Marcin (2011).” I Am a Nihilist Because I Still Believe in Truth”. Kronos (March).,896 (Accessed 9 May 2015).

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.

Brassier, Ray (2014). “Prometheanism and its Critics”. In R. Mackaey and AVenessian (eds.) #Accelerate: the Accelerationist Reader (Falmouth: Urbanomic), 467-488.

Hickey-Moody, A. 2009. “Little War Machines: Posthuman Pedagogy and Its Media”. Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 3(3): 273–80.

Huron, D. B. 2006. Sweet anticipation: Music and the psychology of expectation. (MIT press).

Ireland, Amy. 2014. “Noise: An Ontology of the Avant-garde” (retrieved 30th April 2015)

Johnson, Julian, 1998. “The Nature of Abstraction: Analysis and the Webern Myth”, Music Analysis, Vol. 17, No. 3, pp. 267-280.

Limb, C. J., & Braun, A. R. (2008). Neural substrates of spontaneous musical performance: An fMRI study of jazz improvisation. PLoS One, 3(2), e1679.

McGuiness, A. 2009. Mental and motor representation for music performance (Doctoral dissertation, The Open University).

Proulx, Jeremy (forthcoming). “Nature, Judgment and Art: Kant and the Problem of Genius”. Kant Studies Online.

Roden, David 2013. “Nature’s Dark Domain: An Argument for a Naturalised Phenomenology”. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements 72: 169–88.

Roden, David. 2014. Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. London: Routledge.

Rosenberg, Martin E. 2010. “Jazz and Emergence (Part One).” Inflexions 4, “Transversal Fields of Experience”: 183-277.

Shaviro, Steven. 2015. Allie X, “Catch”. (accessed 6 May 2015)

6 thoughts on “Improvising Time: Ray Brassier and all that Jazz

  1. Arnold Davidson discusses “Improvisation” with Vijay Iyer, Composer and Jazz Pianist, and Experimental Music Scholar George Lewis in Concert at Wellesley College (Youtube, discussion begins at 36:37)

  2. That’s an extremely interesting piece. It reminds me of Metzinger’s discussion of convolved holism in BNO. Also interesting that the metaphor of the stream has gained such traction despite (possibly) being misrepresentative of the underlying phenomenology.

  3. Yes, time is the key: ‘The agent of improvisation, then, is not a person – if by that we mean, a subject exercising deliberation – but an affective-selective catalyst of events open to the disruptive onset of time.’

    This opens up to the core of Zizek’s notion of ‘Substance become Subject’ in the sense not of some substantial agency pre-existing the movement of these relations out of the matrix of possibilities, etc., but rather of the selective process itself of subjectification out of the disruptions and cracks that produce these very events. It’s through its very failure to attain agency that the as you suggest the affective-selective catalyst releases its virtualities into actuality. The very genesis of this process that emerges in time as an event proper. There is a vast difference between subjectivity and Subject.

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