Improvised Music Depends on Failure

Improvised Music Depends on Failure

January 30, 2018

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Andrew Choate

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Improvised music is about failure. There is no reason to engage in the act of improvisation if you know what you are going to do and what is going to happen. Therefore, if you do not know what you are going to do nor what is going to happen, you better have made peace with the possibility that things will not go as you would like, that peace is an inherent acceptance of failure, and over the course of a performance or a career, greater or lesser degrees of failure permeate all good work. Improvising depends on failure.

The difference between good and bad improvised music hinges on the amount of failure a musician or ensemble is willing to take on. Some bands have calcified identities as improvisers: free jazzers, minimalists, dronos, noiseys, whatever. I’m not interested in those musicians because they’re not actually improvising - they’re just recreating a style of music using a pre-established alphabet of sounds. Their genre has set a perimeter for the amount of choice they have, and the result of their music is simply one of permutation within that perimeter. I contend, that can’t fail at all: the pre-existence of their genre and the decision to stay within it pre-empts the possibility.

An Extraordinary Improvisation

Photo credits: Stewart Mostofksy
Photo credits: Stewart Mostofksy
When improvising, you have to work with failure, your own and others. If you start making music and it’s perfect to begin with, why would you continue? The only reason to keep playing is to hone the micro or macro-failures, to investigate the possibility that something that happened could be made better / could be made different. (The difference between not-a-total-success and absolute-failure is often one of attitude; improvised music teaches the ability to sculpt that distinction for the advantage of both audience and performer, inside and outside the music.)

On the last night of the 2005 High Zero Festival in Baltimore, Maryland, I saw an extraordinary improvisation. The set was scheduled to be a quintet: Che Davis (trombone, conch), Mazen Kerbaj (trumpet), Carly Ptak (mind), Scott Rosenberg (reeds) and Birgit Ulher (trumpet.) Before the set, however, Ptak had found a young homeless poet named Okrah on the street. After the musicians played for a while, she motioned to Okrah from the stage and invited him to come onto it and begin reading poems out of his notebook. He did. And the musicians, seemingly dazed but tolerantly amused, continued to make music. After he read a few poems, he left the stage. The musicians continued improvising, unabated, and after a few minutes Ptak left the stage and brought Okrah back. With the musicians continuing to play, she introduced Okrah and began clapping for him. Rosenberg in particular was so miffed by this sequence that he put his instrument away, walked off the stage and refused to return. The others carried on and let the set dwindle down.

The musicians playing in this set and the organizers of the festival who put it together had some idea of what they imagined might take place. But Ptak improvised and put another element into it that changed the possibilities and expectations of the performance. Her decision to talk and clap over the music in order to recognize the homeless poet is a debatable contribution to the music. But the repercussion of her imagination to think outside the parameters of the organizers and beyond the scope of most improvisors was unequivocal: despite her local status, she was never invited to perform in the festival again.*

Ptak was failed by a silent consensus that has drawn an invisible perimeter around what is acceptable or not acceptable in improvised music. She was willing to risk total musical failure for greater aesthetic realms, the kind of realms that combine the social, the cultural, the economic, the aesthetic, the institutional, the intellectual, the scientific, the historic, the emotional, etc.

Every performance doesn’t need to go to these extremes, but the best performers make themselves deeply vulnerable and willing to go to this kind of extreme every time they step onstage. It is that willingness of the heart––to encourage and enable others’ visions for places the music might need to go––that allows the music to expand into previously unthought and impossible dimensions.

Paradoxically, the more risk of failure you take on, the less possibility it has of occurring. Because to take on that risk means you have fully digested the notion that the difference between success and failure is really one of attitude. And if you recognize a big failure, you have just made the outlines of an even bigger success that much more tangible.

Photo credits: Stewart Mostofksy
Photo credits: Stewart Mostofksy


Here’s a funny, obvious thing: both success and failure are so subjective as to be practically considered moods. When I listen to what I consider to be good improvised music, I hear struggle and doubt and pain, even if those things might register musically as clarity and confidence and beauty. Also, when the musicians are able to take the extreme risk of genuine vulnerability that improvised music demands––pushing themselves and their talents past where they know what the results will be––streams of constantly virtuosic and resonant sonics are not produced. But when the skills and the magic and the attention align, a much more powerful musical force is produced. Without that contrast between the struggle and the transcendence, the music wouldn’t be so adept at simultaneously holding the imagination captive and setting it free.

* I reached out to the organizers of High Zero and was told that she was not explicitly banned from the festival, and that many people only play once. But if you peruse their archive, you will see multiple local Baltimorians with less dedication to experimental sound practices than Ptak playing in several iterations of the festival. (Ptak herself had played in it previously, in 2002, before this event occurred.) I think most reasonable people would assume that the organizers decided it would be easiest if she was not invited back. At the same time, I also think that the High Zero festival is far and away the best improvised music festival in the United States; nothing else even comes close to it in terms of the imagination behind who is invited and the fostering of community that so many organizations talk about but that they actually succeed at. This set wouldn’t have happened were it not for their vision. Lucky for you, I’ve heard they’re taking the show on the road in 2018.

About the Author

Andrew Choate

Andrew Choate is the author of author of several books including "Stingray Clapping" and "Learning". He is the curator of The Unwrinkled Ear concert series in Los Angeles and "the world's foremost bollard photographer", according to Slate.

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