free improvisation & anarchy

It takes no great stretch of the imagination to find anarchy in free improvisation – there is no apparent sense of order, structure, hierarchy. This is a music determined to topple traditional musical structures, replacing them with noise and protest. As Christians, should we be worried about the anarchic implications of this music?

I will not take a side on whether a Christian should be an anarchist. What I write here will instead particularly focus on oppressive structures that need to be challenged.

Improvised Music & Justice

Improvised music has always been political. European improvised music was largely a response to totalitarian regimes, and the American equivalent was closely intertwined with the civil rights movement. Both are overtly political, existing to subvert oppressive hierarchies and structures. But both are statements that Christians should be quick to affirm – that all people have value, giving a voice to the voiceless, and justice to the oppressed. It is a form of non-violent protest to oppression and injustice.

Romans 13, “Let everyone submit to the governing authorities,” has often been used to justify non-action towards social injustice – including the slave trade, apartheid, and more recently, the Trump family separation policy. But Calvin stuanchly argued that the Bible does not allow us to “yield a slavish obedience to the depraved wishes of men.”[1] Where there is injustice, we must do something about it. Improvised music can act as a form of “crying out”: as the Israelites cried out in their oppression, so we cry out at the injustice that goes on today. And, as we see in scripture, God hears the cry of the oppressed. We long to see God’s kingdom come “on earth as it is in heaven,” so we cry out in anguish to the one who can do something about it. Our music becomes a call to action, a plea to act justly and love mercy: the very thing God calls his people to do in Micah 6.

Improvised Music & Power

Free improvisation often functions as a means of representing power structures. Prolific art curator Hamza Walker describes the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians [AACM] as “practicing democracy as a non-hierarchical thing, in the music, as an allegory for a model of liberational modes.”[2] It is about having a voice, not being silenced – an acknowledgement of value for all people.

Diego Chamy, an artist with an extensive involvement in free improvisation, observes that “Force and power relations are everywhere, and a collective improvisation is no exception. One can see all kinds of power relations in a collective improvisation.”[3] Anarchy strives towards an ideal where power is balanced equally – but Chamy observes that “this balance is impossible to achieve: force relations are by nature unbalanced.”[4] As soon as musicians play together, there are power relations going on. I was playing with my trio the other week, and we finished our first improvisation feeling like I had been in control and the others had been accompanying me. So, in our second improvisation, we made a decision to play like the other people in the band – and as we tried to get imagine what it was like to be the other instruments, it made us play in a way that allowed everyone to contribute much more.

We must acknowledge that power relations exist – based on things like experience, comfort, control. And from a place of acknowledgement, it is possible to lay down your power for the sake of others – to recognise when others are not being heard and allow them a space to speak. Just as Jesus didn’t use his power to his own advantage, but rather made himself nothing, as Christians we have a unique opportunity to lay down our power for the sake of our bandmates. Here, all people are given value, as people made in the image of God, and all have something of worth to contribute. No longer is the performer exalted to a place of worship – instead, we acknowledge the worth of all people.

I would argue, therefore, that free improvisation is political – yes; subversive – yes; but anarchic? Not as much as we might fear. Christian musicians have a responsibility to think about the political implications of the work they are involved in, but free improvisation as a response to injustice, inequality, and as a means of valuing all people,is a noise that will echo to the heavens.

[1] John Calvin, Institutes, chapter 20,, accessed 03/03/2020

[2] Jennie Gottschalk, Experimental Music Since 1970 (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), p191

[3] ibid., page 197

[4] ibid.

this post was first published on the UCCF music network blog, 13th march 2020.