Broken Families: Collectivism, Violence, Imagined Utopias and improvisation

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Can we afford to be so innocent? Can we afford to give in so uncritically to the desire to see utopias? […] The denial of violence and its potential, and the silence around unequal access to power, may themselves hinder us from building better practices and structures.

—Han-earl Park

Sonic Arts Research Centre, Belfast

An ‘interdisciplinary’ symposium: after a day and a morning in which words such as ‘family’ and ‘community’ are freely voiced in the contexts of presentations and discussions about group improvisation, a group of improvising musicians are assembled in a loose circle. The improvisers present are, given the limits of academe and the institutional context, varied in background and experience. Some of us know each other in overlapping networks of working relationships, but pick any two improvisers and you’re just as likely to pick two strangers. We’re instructed to improviser in a series of overlapping duos in round-robin fashion.

A duo starts, the chain moves, when viewed from above, clockwise. I’m somewhere near the middle of this chain. Seated behind his drum-kit to my right, anti-clockwise in the circle from my position, is Steve Davis. Seated to my left, clockwise in the circle, is flautist Ellen Waterman. Steve, I’ve known and worked with over the past several years, Waterman, by contrast, I have not even had the opportunity to speak with.

In addition to the cascade in improvising duos, unbeknownst to me at the time, there are emerging a cascade of errors. These errors, misunderstandings and mistaken embraces emerge from both uttered and unspoken assumptions and dogmas surrounding group improvisation, and the limitations of ‘open’ forms of musicking.

The duos proceed in orderly if predictable fashion with momentary trios emerging as one duo configuration shifts to the next overlapping configuration. I desire to hear greater variation in orchestration, and so I refrain from joining the previous duo (Steve and a bassist unknown to me), refusing the trio, and instead letting it play out so I can hear Steve solo (the first solo since the solo that kicked-off of this round-robin).

It is, I think, a friendly move. Despite Steve’s call for me to join him in play, I’m enjoying his solo inventions, and I believe in his creative capacity, and I feel our trust in each other’s choices holds the music (and attendant relations) together strong. It’s play. (But can we ever be so innocent?)

But what I am in this moment of real-time, interactive orchestration, in this moment of tactical and relational pleasure, is not cognizant of the effects down the round-robin. I am not cognizant of how this moment of refusal may be read (heard) by others; to those who don’t know me, don’t know Steve, don’t know our relationship and (overlapping) histories.

In presenting improvising ensembles uncritically as ‘communities’ and as ‘families,’ we were never given the space to question this trope (are ensembles—essentially professional associations—ever really families?), nor acknowledge that ‘communities’ and ‘families’ may not be stable, durable, peaceful, equitable entities, and that they may be sites and sources of violence, pain, abuse and trauma.

Exploratorium, Berlin

Berlin, two years ago: Jean Charles Francois is speaking about improvisative practice, positing the relationship (necessity? inevitability? desirability?) of the democratic in improvisation.

My mind is a cascade of questions.

Which element or dimension is correlated: is it the practices, groups, cultures, structures, or institutions, say, that perform, enrol, embody or surround improvisation? That perform, enrol, embody or surround democracy?

Is improvisation necessarily democratic? Are all improvisations democratic, or only certain forms of improvisation? Is it, however defined, an ideal, or desirable in all cases, for improvisation to be democratic? Does the presence or absence of the democratic in an improvisation affect the quality, however defined, of the music?

Does the improvisative model the democratic, or is the improvisative itself democratic? What form does this democracy take: is it a specific, concrete form of democracy, or an abstract or idealized notion of democracy?

I tend towards the view that (musical) improvisation can be a way of modelling and experimenting with social structures and behaviour, but then why limit that to the democratic?

Demarco Gallery, Edinburgh

I still remember vividly how I felt after my first encounter with The Mob. Angry. Hurt. Upset. Confused.

I was a novice improviser who was confused by the encounter; unable to process what I had been witness to, what I had been in the middle of, what I was a part of. Confused by my sense of betrayal that was, in retrospect, perhaps irrational. My anger was also confused, and directed without reflection. My anger was aimed at (what I felt at the time to be) the egoism of those behind the loud instruments (trumpets, horns, etcetera) whose playing had drowned out the quieter voices (the ’cellist, flautist, vocalists, and others). My anger was aimed at Nigel Osborne for giving, as the instigator of the event, tacit permission for The Mob to be The Mob, and as an elder performer for participating in The Mob. My anger was aimed at one of the participants who, after the performance, in celebratory mode, remarked how uplifting the experience was, framing it as ‘The Collective’ silencing the symbol of Power (gesturing to my small solid-state amplifier).

I was angry at the violence I witnessed (had been in the middle of, what, through my inaction, was a part of), and was seemingly unable to resist.


And there’s the gender dynamics at play. The entire first part of this sequence of duos is populated by, as I remember it, cis men, and Waterman is the first woman to play. And, like The Mob in Edinburgh, there are racial dimensions: This is an almost-all white group with no black improvisers in which I am the first person of colour to play.

How do we appear to others? How do others recognize us? How do others read our actions?

I fail to anticipate the power-play, the way the ground-work has not been carried out in which people can feel safe. From my perspective—partial, situated—I’ve been thinking in the abstract about improvisative strategies focusing on, say, orchestration and densities and contrasts. I’m basing my choices on those that have already been made without necessarily the same kinds of concerns for their effects down the chain. I’m asserting control, I’m delineating boundaries and domains of responsibility, but at what cost to the structures and systems that are emerging in the wake?

When I step in to join Steve in duo, in order to create contrast to the more gradual, tentative entries by the previous players, I make the choice to make a clear-edged entry. I also take this opportunity to bring the music up in volume. I’m aware that my next duo partner will be performing on what I assume will be a quieter instrument (the flute) with a comfort zone that is lower in volume to the drum kit. And one of the (few) advantages of playing an amplified guitar is that, despite the poor dynamic range at the phrase level, globally going from loud to quiet is a matter of turning down. So I aim for drama, assuming that this may be a rare opportunity for this ensemble to experience a vertical volume drop from loud to quiet; a musical Wile E. Coyote moment.

But that doesn’t happen. I’m momentarily startled by the volume and ferocity of Waterman’s entry. But I adjust my playing: I adjust by not adjusting. So instead of Wile E.’s drop, the Coyote keeps moving, gravity be damned.

And I never know the nature and motivations of Waterman’s choice at that moment, or whether she ever saw this as a choice? I wonder if she did not trust my ability to modulate my dynamics and densities of playing.

And in retrospect one of the problems with that circle of improvisers was that trust was never established, and consequently, the dynamics of power and the inequalities of interaction remained matters that were left unexamined.


It’s not the first time that someone has correlated improvisation and democracy, but during that talk, it occurs to me that that correlation has, in some circles, almost become dogma. Proponents of correlating, in some way, improvisation and democracy rarely explore whether and how, for example, ‘freedom’ (however defined) and ‘democracy’ (however defined) might under certain circumstances be in conflict, nor explore the vulnerabilities of such systems to abuse and violence. I think that those who posit a link between democracy and improvisation idealize both, and in the process ignore, for example, violence and destabilization that sometimes occurs in improvisative performance. And I would argue that, desirable or not, such violence and destabilizations are, or can be, very real parts of the improvisative process.

Although I think broader notions such as desire, agency, diplomacy, negotiation, conflict, and (however defined) freedom may be more fruitful in examining improvisation, looking at improvisation as a democratic process could open up interesting discussions about consent.

Can we afford to be so innocent? Can we afford to give in so uncritically to the desire to see utopias? Given my experiences with The Mob, I argue that there is nothing intrinsically utopian about improvisation. Furthermore, the denial of violence and its potential, and the silence around unequal access to power, may themselves hinder us from building better practices and structures.


I could not have articulated it at the time, but looking back on it now, I think my confusion and sense of betrayal stemmed from having, as a young, novice improviser, bought-into the utopian rhetoric of so much free improvisation.

I could not have articulated it at the time, but this was possibly my first experience of the awesome power of improvisative play.

And its potential for violence.

* * *

These are stories about failures. Failures of imagination, of peoples and groups, of how lofty goals can be deceptions. And those deceptions can be limiting, and affect violence. I want to move to a point where we can discuss, critically, both the utopian promises of the practices, processes, tribes and communities surrounding improvisation, and their destructive and violent potentials.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the above stories of improvisation-in-crisis are from events with self-professed lofty goals (one to bring light a humanitarian crisis in Bosnia, the other from an event about family law). I think, in both cases, those of us involved took community, solidarity, resilience, trust and empathy for granted. It’s not just that the groundwork of trust and safety was never established for the group (although that’s part of it), but that we lazily subscribed to the dogma that the nature of improvisation would itself somehow save us.

There are comfort zones and comfort zones, safety and safety, disruptions and disruptions, assertions, destabilizations, interventions, misunderstandings and mistaken embraces, violence, resilience, power and power. In each case, there are the possibilities of revolutionary and fundamental change: profound, radical, creative. And in each case, the possibilities of regression, hegemonic power-play and abuse.

We, as improvisers, must not turn away, and must work to see (hear) what this failure looks like—its nature, its effects, its causes. We do this work to both explore, unflinchingly, the violent and anti-social (perhaps anti-democratic) impulses and acts within the (never truly safe) space of the on-stage laboratory, and to sketch the world as it could be: desirable or not, utopian or not.

* * *

In writing this piece I’m indebted to exchanges and conversations with several improvisers. Big thanks, in particular, to Caroline Kraabel, Corey Mwamba, and Lauren Sarah Hayes.

Han-earl Park is an improviser, guitarist and constructor. He has performed with Wadada Leo Smith, Evan Parker, and Ingrid Laubrock, among others, and is behind Sirene 1009 and Eris 136199. He coaches guitar and/or improvisation and is based between Berlin and Cork.

Follow: @hanearlpark

Photo credit: Just Improvisation: workshop performance (Belfast, May 30, 2015). Photo © 2015 Translating Improvisation.
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