Part I: The Ecstatic Configuration and the Dream of Utopia
The dream of utopia is difficult to find. Not always a “good dream”, it can just as well be a nightmare. More properly, the dream of utopia is a dream we cannot categorize according to the binary of nightmare and “sunshine daydream”. Yet, like a mole burrowing away, utopia can be found in the strangest of places, which once apparent become obvious. Like the hidden erotica on a Camel cigarette pack, utopian impulses cannot be unseen – or unheard, its mark indelible like ink that will never wash away.
It is my contention that there is a utopian quality in improvised music, that is to say, music that is ‘written on the spot’, or performed live - primarily jazz, rock and bluegrass music. It is music played together with the audience as active participant by its mere presence. In learning how to listen to music, one is often implicitly taught to predict where a song would go. This is the proverbial “cold stream” of music appreciation, a satisfying exercise but more Apollonian than Dionysian. The other “way of listening”, the one I am proposing here, is a utopian “warm stream” appreciation of improvisation in music. I argue that improvisation is not merely utopian, but at its best, it is the sound of revolution.
Taking as my starting point a piece such as the Grateful Dead’s “Dark Star”, in which a simple rhythm and melody gradually decomposes, but is sometimes still discernible from one of six instruments, for upwards of twenty minutes. We begin with formless music, “space” as it has been termed in the Grateful Dead lexicon, “whose complete semblance is accepted and imitated by painting” as Hegel points out about musical texture. Six instruments (two guitars, a bass guitar, an organ and two sets of trap drums) are tangential relations; the more contradictory they sound, the more complimentary the audience finds them. A pattern begins to emerge after a few minutes, perhaps a trace of a 4/4 rhythm coming from one set of trap drums penetrating a fainter 6/8 rhythm from another, the bass physically discernible as a third rhythm. Still no melody, and as soon as one seems to emerge, we have the return of the chaos, space.
As Gilles Deleuze wrote of Francis Bacon, “there are no feelings” in space, “there are nothing but affects, that is ‘sensations’ and ‘instincts’... sensation is what determines instinct at a particular moment, just as instinct is the passage from one sensation to another”. It is instinct, between the earth and sky, band and audience and, as the phrase goes “the music that plays the band” that will cause pattern recognitions in the space that may metamorphosize from sensation to instinct (in space) to feeling – comfort, familiarity and indeed relishing of the sublime, that comes with the entrance, finally, of melody. While feeling is at the forefront, essential sensation is never fully subsumed by visible feeling, they exist contemporaneously. Poetry sung melodically enters the imagistic field:
Dark star crashes, pouring its light into ashes.
Reason tatters, the forces tear loose from the axis.
Searchlight casting for faults in the clouds of delusion.
Shall we go, you and I while we can
Through the transitive nightfall of diamonds? 
The cross-sensual imagistic fragments, in words and sounds combines the Hegelian conception of music “negating and idealizing into the individual isolation of a single point, the indifferent externality of space” with poetry as “a sound develops into the Word… whose import is to indicate ideas and notions… the universal art of the mind”. We can hear space somewhere between thought and expression, but it develops into discursive melodic vocalizing which articulates the sacred image in which “reason tatters” and a “nightfall of diamonds” is the backdrop for an investigation of “faults in the clouds of delusion”.
These images are heard words and sounds, but imagistically they are also seen through an operation of synaesthesia. Deleuze has pointed out that “to hystericize music, we would have to reintroduce colors, passing through a rudimentary or refined system of correspondence between sounds and colors”. Deleuze is describing synaesthesia, the visible rendering of sound. While much of the voluminous neuroscientific research on synaesthesia posits somewhat of an “ideal type” of synaesthete, it does seem that specific image relations can have a synaesthetic essence discernible to observing agents who allow their receptors to be opened. In the case of the Grateful Dead and those within the configuration of psychedelic music, the receptors or “doors of perception” have been opened by way of use of psychedelic drugs, such as LSD or psilocybin. Indeed, the Grateful Dead, rooted in the legendary acid tests, deliberately structured their concerts with the assumption that much of the audience had been dosed with LSD. The first of two ninety-minute sets was largely comprised of more evocative verse/chorus/verse songs, to ease the transition. The improvisation and space would come in the second set. Post-Grateful Dead bands, such as Phish or Sonic Youth, continue in this tradition.
The power of these sensations and instincts returns us to the realm of the political by way of the demonstration of potentiality for democratic collective ecstasy. However seemingly removed from a rigidly defined politics, “collective ecstasy entered the colonialist European mind was stained with feelings of hostility, contempt and fear”. Barbara Ehrenreich points out in reference to the discovery of ecstatic ritual of “savages or lower-class Europeans...the capacity for abandonment, for self-loss in the rhythms and emotions of the group was a defining feature of ‘savagery’”. In referring to what can be correlated to Deleuze’s sensational/experiential model and indeed connecting it to the Dionysian Grateful Dead culture as well as political spectacle, Ehrenreich provides us with clues to what can be conceived as the ecstatic configuration, and its inherent revolutionary potentiality. From this standpoint, one can look back at the accusations of communism against rock music well into the sixties; the showing of Elvis Presley from waist up on the Ed Sullivan show ensuring that his gyrating crotch was invisible to the American den; the Stalinist banishment of Allan Ginsberg from the fermenting pre-Prague Spring Czechoslovakia; the banning of May Day rituals and invention of Labour Day. The notion of ecstatic need not be confused with fully thought out happiness or contentment. Indeed, the ecstatic experience can be jarring, even painful and confusing.
The ecstatic configuration of sensation is thereby a political configuration, parcelling out the visible and invisible, and in doing so, mobilizing the masses. That this mobility can take different forms and different ostensible motivations rests on the same foundation that mobility is required, as such, to manifest violence to the capitalist metabolic order. Thus, the fascist spectacle of bodies moving as one is a rip-off of the communist spectacle, and indeed the revolutionary spectacle, going back to Robespierre’s cult of reason. The modern masses will not be moved, as Benjamin points out, by an individual painting or even the classical didacticism of Bertolt Brecht or John Sayles.
Under the sensational administration of the aesthetic regime of the arts, all-encompassing sensation can be a motor force of ecstasy as a political factor. In turn, producers of images, in committing an act of violence in which, the revelation is the act itself. This divine aesthetic violence pre-emptively co-opts any reification by bypassing surface-level subjectivity. Instead, it is “to the dome”, arriving first at sensation and instinct, in which the affective contagion is imminent and potentially revolutionary. The extrinsic politics of this regime were best expressed in Perry Anderson’s connecting live rock music to communism. As with the Grateful Dead, self-loss could also be accompanied by self-definition in collectivity, to “wake now to find out that you are the eyes of the world”.
Part II: Utopian Art in Context
A first principle of utopian art is art that allows a glimpse at the possibility of a future as yet understood. To be distinguished from didactic art, utopian art doesn’t portend to produce a given set of politics “from above”, but rather in its very essence, discovers and examines utopian potentiality embodied in both form and content. Thus, Perry Anderson, writing pseudonymously for New Left Review and attending psychedelic rock concerts in the late sixties, posited that rock music was the world’s first communist art form. Given the time period, it is likely that Anderson was responding to an early concert by Pink Floyd. Anderson effuses that psychedelic rock music “..is the first aesthetic form in modern history which has asymptotically started to close the gap between those who produce and those who appropriate art. It alone thereby prefigures, amidst its innumerable poverties and confusions, the structure of future art, in a liberated social formation: communism”.
Anderson’s point here is imprecise and hyperbolic, that is to say – utopian. Utopia is a space between thought and expression, and articulating it discursively allows the affectee to be prone to exaggeration, if only due to the catharsis of the psychedelic experience, not unlike how the Weather Underground reportedly used LSD as an “initiation rite” for new members. Like the recently deceased internet pioneer, anarchist and Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow, Anderson saw utopia in improvisation, that is, the form that music takes in which it strays from a song in a proper sense, but it is not merely the 12 bar solo – itself an improvised form, but within much tighter parameters. The degree to which music is improvised, the way one gauges a utopian component within it, along with the theoretical axioms developed by theorists, historians and fan cultures will be laid out in a later part of this essay. The point remains: art retains the capacity to reveal a glimpse of a free society, of a communist future. This is what I am calling the utopian in art, that is, the utopia beneath the surface, which we detect from William Morris all the way to Sonic Youth, from Thomas More to Jerry Garcia. Alone among musical form, improvisation – even if, for example, practiced by a reactionary – or more often obscurantists like the Scientologist Chick Correa – is immune to any form of authoritarianism. At its best, as soon as an “authority” is sonically found, it is rebelled against.
The best, hence the most utopian improvisation, is that in which artists collectively find this utopian place in a sense that they could not as individuals. This could be improvised comedy or drama, as in the films of Christopher Guest or Mike Leigh. Most frequently, however, it is in the group dynamic of improvised music. Bill Monroe, the bluegrass pioneer, described this process as the instruments engaging in conversation, evoking Renaissance polyphony. In such a conversation one musician could ostensibly be playing one song, another a second song, and a third a third song, out of which, the utopia of something new appears out of space. Meanwhile the banjo, the guitar and the fiddle subtly switch the pieces that are being overlapped and the ear is confused, as the first bar of that little melody was played by the banjo, yet suddenly one hears the steel strings of a dobro. Jazz improvisation, even within the tight parameters of the syncopation that so confused many critical theorists, was primarily at first expressive, what hip hop now calls “freestyling”. A predominantly African American art form, from Jim Crow America could be free for 12, 24, 36 bars, blowing that slide trombone. Of course, the great revolution in improvisation, in jazz, bluegrass and rock music came in the sixties, starting particularly with Coleman’s “Free Jazz”.
John Coltrane and his contemporaries were able to channel the utopia of black liberation through their improvisation, while the Grateful Dead and pre-Dark Side of the Moon Pink Floyd, in their dissonant feedback and mellifluous guitar solos counterpoised the horror of Vietnam with the beauty of the implicitly communist hippy ideal, as shared by Anderson. Marx once wrote that “history does nothing”, that it is real sensuous human beings that make history, not some autonomous force operating outside the human will. Can this principle, thus, be applied to cultural production? On a very bare account, the answer would be yes. We can attach ‘meaning’ to a wide manner of cultural production, from the walls of the cave to the many Cultural Studies graduates working in the field of advertising. But on its own, cultural production is decontextualized, and can thus promote a decontextualized affect. Yet there can be exceptions, with the affect created by music, parcellized sound, melody, rhythm, this all combines to create a specific configuration.
In a short but telling passage in the introduction to the Grundrisse, Marx extemporizes as to the non-coincidental relation between art and the level of what we are here calling development, as in socio-economic development. His account, however, goes deeper, to examine the prevailing social ontologies that produce these forms, before finally stating that in contrast to mere historical analysis:
The difficulty is that they still afford us artistic pleasure and that in a certain respect they count as a norm and as an unattainable model…A man cannot become a child again, or he becomes childish. But does he not find joy in the child’s naïvité, and must he himself not strive to reproduce its truth at a higher stage? Does not the true character of each epoch come alive in the nature of its children? Why should not the historic childhood of humanity, its most beautiful unfolding, as a stage never to return, exercise an eternal charm?
I don’t see Marx’s use of ‘eternal’ as a throwaway at all, but rather a challenge – to himself perhaps, but to aesthetes in general (and Marx and Engels were certainly aesthetes) – to keep in mind the autonomy of that “eternal charm” of what Marx elsewhere calls “spiritual production” following Storch. It is not enough to say that a mode of production impacts the form, the vessel containing the affective qualities that constitute great art, as the content of this type of art – it’s “charm” can only be seen as transhistorical, if it has indeed developed greatness, which we can’t reduce, conceptually, to a sort of subjectivism. The problematique of the relationship between a world artistic culture and the capitalist mode of production is not unrelated to questions of interconnectedness as a whole - of the very possibility of cultural globalization. Of equal, if not greater importance to criticism, it can only provide so much understanding of art’s purpose beyond crystallizing a mode of production and what either ruling or popular classes anoint as great and good.
Artistic production, broadly conceived, predates capitalism and has developed, in a combined sense, but not towards any specific goal except to be as free as possible from the fetters of monarch, noble, clergyman, capitalist or commissar. There can be no socialism in capitalism. But there can be, due to the historically unique and under-theorized role of the artist, relatively disalienated labour, production and consumption of art in all historic modes of production. Art is a glimpse beyond the realm of necessity, Bloch’s “cold stream” of Marxism in which we scientifically analyse the passage from commodity to capitalism, from rational abstraction to unity of the diverse. It is a glimpse at the realm of freedom, of “spiritual production”. This is what Bloch called the “warm stream”, the subterranean utopian component that is the metaphysic underlying any and all sincere socialist theory and practice, and certainly that of Marx, the humanist universalism that is often downplayed, disavowed, or worse yet, written out of Marxism as the immature thought of the young Marx. Or as Trotsky put it: “All the emotions which we revolutionists, at the present time, feel apprehensive of naming – so much have they been worn thin by hypocrites and vulgarians – such as disinterested friendship, love for one’s neighbor, sympathy, will be the mighty ringing chords of Socialist poetry…”. 
Trotsky was certainly one of the first Marxists to incorporate psychoanalytic themes, and this heavily informs his eminently satisfactory conceptualization as to how art could flourish in a fully-developed communist society. The key point is that “the powerful force of competition which, in bourgeois society, has the character of market competition, will not disappear in a Socialist society….(it) will be sublimated”.  The unity of diverse capitals in competition will be the unity of diverse cultural producers, and given that the access to all needed goods, housing, food and leisure will be separate from production as a whole, and certainly cultural production, the superiority of one artist will be decided by the collective cultivation of aesthetic appreciation among the masses, just as the masses’ consumer habits are fed by and feed the reproduction of capitalist social property relations.
This is akin to Ornette Coleman’s ideas regarding the inherent democracy of music – art as the emanation of popular will, instantiated and crystallized by the artist. Coleman was as illuminating — if not sometimes more so — when theorizing his own project, as he was in the project itself. Indeed, the man was so on point that no less than Jacques Derrida comes off as humble — even insecure — in an interview that he conducted with Coleman in 1997. After an awkward mouthful attempting to make Derridean sense of improvisation’s dialectic of repetition and rupture, Coleman tells Derrida, “Repetition is as natural as the fact that the earth rotates”. Derrida clearly seemed interested in Coleman’s dictum of “harmolodics” which decenters the specificity of tone. Decentering tone, however, was grounded in what Coleman referred to as “punching the C”. 
Every musician has their own “movable C”, understood as a tone, a note, a timbre, a sound that was related to another tone, note, timbre – that is to say, a sort of determinate negation. It is through this “hidden C” – this implied structure that, to Coleman, roots the democracy of musical production and play. That repetition, that ideational presence of structure in a seemingly formless void is always-already present when sound is produced, or when social time is measured in a sense that sound becomes what we know as “music”. This is perhaps why one of the most satisfying moments for listeners of improvised music – jazz, rock, bluegrass or post-rock – is the segue or the re-entry of improvisation back into the chord pattern and metre of the composition being explored — the reappearance of the syncopation. Syncopation, along with the “movable” or “hidden c” act as the parametric determinants that create musical dialectics. The syncopation that confused Adorno exists in seemingly un-syncopated temporal parcels of social time. 
Music, it bears repetition, is no more than a parcellized period of measured time full of sound that, depending on regional, cultural and other factors, takes on a certain form or genre. A composition reclaims time in the same way that labour is alienated through stolen time. In other words, aesthetic objects are certainly commodities, yet, they are also, in Alain Badiou’s terms, “essentially finite” and the “creation of an intrinsically finite multiple”. Their use value is non-disposable insofar as memory, like energy, cannot be created or destroyed, and the labour that goes into their creation, as well as the excess, can never be entirely subsumed under capital without a trace. In turn, one does not merely consume art, rather art is affective, at its best, an exchange of affective energy between the artist and their audience, as Anderson points out.
Perhaps, in hindsight, Anderson is hyperbolic on the idea of communist art, as forms of art across the mediums had been doing so throughout the modern period, notably visual arts. Anderson’s point drives home, however, the enthusiasm with which Left intellectuals approached what was seemingly a disalienated aspect of everyday life at a time in which such experiences were previously inaccessible. Anderson’s conceptualization must stand in distinction to an intentional modality of prefigurative politics. Rather, it was the manifestation, against the backdrop of the uneven, yet storied, innovation of the sixties Left - in all its manifold contradictions - that precipitated a sort of ecstatic configuration, a glimpse at the utopia that dare not speak its name. This is the “sake” of art, so to speak. Art, in the last instance is “for art’s sake”, and this sake is a prefiguration of emancipation, of utopia, in a concrete sense. What is it, thus, about cultural production that makes such sober, non-flourishy analysts like our Trotsky, our Anderson, so enthusiastic, even visionary?
Contemporary music in general, and rock music in particular have not been sufficiently theorized within Marxism. While many of the early rock critics, notably the late Ellen Willis and her then-partner, Robert Christgau, who is still working today, were Marxists, they wrote short capsule reviews, never getting to what they planned, according to Christgau as a “theory of popular culture”, in response to Dwight MacDonald’s “mass-cult and mid-cult”. Even more so improvisation as a practice within popular music – but also even jazz. Writers on jazz, from Eric Hobsbawm to Robyn Kelley have focused on the overall political and cultural significance, without specifically focusing on technique, let alone improvisation. Writers on rock music, even the most critical, notably Reebee Garafalo, are stuck with a sense of descriptivism – they certainly engage with improvisation, yet in a vacuum and often at the expense of cultural and political significance.
Even Anderson, debating with fellow New Left Review contributor David Fernbach, best known as perhaps Marx’s best translator, argued explicitly against technical analysis of these new cultural forms. Fernbach had called for what he termed a “rock aesthetic” and Anderson felt this was unnecessary, what was necessary, rather was an analysis of rock music only in its social function and lyrical content. Anderson was right, perhaps that Fernbach was suggesting taking concepts from other forms of Marxian critical analysis and applying them to music. This was at a time in which great film theorists such as Peter Wollen were developing sets of axioms with which to engage Godard, Hitchcock et al. Perhaps what is needed, for rock music in general, and for the utopian quality of improvisation in particular, is a specific rigorous theorization as to both what improvisation is, how to categorize and analyse it in its different forms. It is only then, once we develop a “way of listening” to improvisation, that we can concretize the utopian character of improvisation. Unsurprisingly, the most rigorous theorization of improvisation does not come from theorists, but from a fan culture.
Part III: The Hose
In the early to mid nineties, particularly in the American northeast, a band known as Phish, touring since the mid-eighties started to develop a cult following. With a post-punk cultural aesthetic but a non-threatening enough stage manner for youth put off by the suburban poseur negativity of “alternative rock”, Phish belong in that odd generation of bands, including Elektra labelmates Ween, Magnetic Fields, and most famously, Pavement, that simply seemed out of wack with the emotiveness of the times. Indeed, with the revival of a quasi-hippie aesthetic in the new millennium, Phish probably would have been hipster favorites if they’d have debuted in the last decade – I recall seeing members of the National at shows back in the late 90s. What Phish did have, like the emerging cult around My Bloody Valentine, was experimental and improvisational chops. In addition to this, they have a prog-inflected compositional style, in which the untrained ear is not always attuned to what is improvised and what is composed. A song like “Slave to the Traffic Light”, a live favorite never on a studio album, is mostly composed, but within the context of the composition there is “jamming” AKA improvisation. On one hand, of course, there is traditional improvisation, whether in the form of guitar, keyboard, or less often bass or drum “solos”, or, as is often the case with Phish, “full band improvisation”, often predicated upon a tension and release repetition of the main theme of a chord pattern, sometimes double-timing one instrument or another, or subtly shifting from major to minor key for a few measures. On the other hand, there is improvisation that entirely leaves behind the composition within its embedded, like the aforementioned “space” in the music of the Grateful Dead, or in much of the improvisation engaged in by shoegaze bands. In this case, whole band improvisation takes the composition into essentially what cold be thought of as new compositions. This could be a total free-jazz style cacophony, or it could be a fortuitous formation of a particular set of ‘licks’ on the guitar (the latter, reportedly, how “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones, was written). This latter style would often leave concert-goers in a state of thinking “What song am I hearing again”?
Phish’s cult refers to these two forms of improvisation as respectively Type I and Type II improvisation. Simply put, the 90s vintage fan website Phish.Net specifies that “Type I jamming involves variations on a song's written notes and tempo, whereas Type II jamming involves additional variations on structures and keys.” And indeed, in the case of many bands, songs are written out of Type II jamming, even if Type II jamming rarely happens on stage. Three of Phish’s studio albums are nearly entirely made up of songs either based upon or edited out of recordings of live Type II improvisation. Most of Neil Young’s work with Crazy Horse involves writing lyrics for music recorded in long inebriated jam sessions in his barn studio. Most impressively, the ingeniousness of Miles Davis’s early seventies material, notably Jack Johnson and On the Corner become full-fledged songs. insofar as one can categorize Davis’ music in such a way, in which the improvisation had a semblance of Type I. Indeed, however, they are edited by producer Teo Macero out of hours and hours of Miles’s band’s improvising. Indeed, these pieces of improvisation had become composition by the art of mechanical reproduction, only to be performed live and mutate once again. A one-time improvisation is a singular work of art. Yet it is frozen in time, just one step in the cyclical parcellization of sound that is Type I improvisation.
Of course, with regards to Type I and Type II, even after these formulations were made, Phish introduced new types of improvisation that were hard to pin down within the two categories. But overall, total free jazz or minimalist droning aside, these two categories of improvisation are an excellent step towards examining the utopian politics and the dialectics of improvisation. Type I gives us a glimpse of utopia that is embedded within a given structure, yet hidden away, only to be shown plain-as-day by an act of improvisation against an existing set of parameters. To an untrained ear, this is just ‘part of the song’, not understanding that in live music, works of art in the age of mechanical reproduction rebel against the sameness that has dominated for a century and by necessity, even two minute hardcore songs are never played the same way twice. This subtle distinction is carved in stone by engaging in type I improvisation. Most readers will be familiar with when a band – any band – vamps – within the context of vamping, of merely repeating a chord progression, an infinite variation of solos, key changes, tempo shifts and the like are possible even while still playing a given song. Even some of the most well known and creative practitioners of improvisation play almost strictly Type I improvisation. The challenge of their music is precisely how they are able sonically to wrestle within a given set of parameters. Think of “So What” by Miles Davis or “Mountain Jam” by the Allman Brothers. For that matter, the section of “Dark Star” described above – this is Type I improvisation, often just one foot away from the ledge of Type II.
Type II is the entry into utopia that ruptures all semblances, the realm of freedom beyond the realm of necessity. It is the “conversation” referenced above in regards to bluegrass, in which songs mutate, with the parameters shifting with the content, which in turn further shifts the parameters. The parameters of any given piece of improvisation can become retroactively intelligible upon listening to reproduced sound, or even while watching or hearing a performance, either in real time or reproduced. Just as linguists and art critics search for deep structures in language and painting, listeners will often attempt repeatedly to listen, for example, to side II of Ornete Coleman’s Free Jazz or a live rendition of the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray”. As the bare threads of a composition decompose, the ear is attuned to attempting to find new parameters, a “hidden C” as Coleman calls it. Like Waldo, it is always hiding – if it disappears the music is no longer improvisation as improvisation is reliant upon having deviated from something to become something else – without being purely ungrounded sound, like Lou Reed’s infamous Metal Machine Music or Schoenberg. In one version of “Sister Ray” found on a bootleg recorded by Robert Quine, the song at first mutates into a sort of “Louis Louis”/”Wild Thing” 1/4/5 pattern, to land on an organ drone and fall face first into space, unstructuring and restructuring itself, searching for the main line, unable to hit it sideways. As may be expected, the Velvet’s utopia is exceptionally abrasive, almost pushing the listener away, yet when one “finds the c”, discovers the hidden parameters in the variations in Moe Tucker’s timing. You are invited to a vista where the alienation of New York countercultural and queer life in the sixties is liberated through the gunfire of two guitars unanchored by a bass (one of the great sonic secrets, used to great success by the White Stripes).
The common thread uniting Type I and Type II improvisation is the dialectic of familiarity and confusion, of being so attuned that you just – know – when the band is about to hit a certain note and return from the abysses of space. Often this return is marked by a loud plucking of an exceptionally low note on either a bass guitar or an upright bass. Type I improvisation is in the spirit of what Marc Abel has called western music’s intensive development, and again, what so confused Adorno, the primacy of syncopation, of groove. Type II improvisation often retains syncopation as the one semblance of reality underneath the aural space, yet even syncopation mutates when the rest of the musicians find a groove. And sometimes it is not the drums that provide the syncopation.
Carlos Santana, perhaps a more astute improviser than songwriter, would call the moment of peak improvisation “the hose”, of watering the audience. This was described by Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio as “where the music is like water rushing through you and as a musician your function is really like that of a hose…. the audience is like a sea of flowers, you know, and you're watering the audience”. Having been around at the time, I can attest to the fact that fans and the band alike would be transfixed, confused, often ascribing otherworldly power onto these experiences. Yet these experiences were precisely what Anderson referred to in his conceptualization of live rock music as prefiguring communism. The entire history of the idea of the “sacred chord”, the ability through sound to show the unseeable image, this is the goal of all improvisation, Type I or Type II.
The rational core of the mystification that dictates that some outside force is being “channelled” by musicians, or by the crowd as a whole, is the democratic power of collectivity, both the central collectivity of the gathered musicians and the broader power of the assembled crowd. In this sense, the music - does – play the band like the band plays the music, insofar as the creation of the affect that constitutes the combination of unpredictably parcellized sound and moving bodies does appear to both players and audience as something outside of any of their individual consciousnesses – by necessity. Truly great improvisation is when Coleman’s “hidden C”, that “sacred chord” is found, in which everyone’s “minds are blown”. There are certainly many reasons that a mind can be blown, but one cannot discount that this ecstasy is a prefiguration of the emancipatory future that we are waiting for. Once in a while, you get shown the light, in the strangest of places if you look at it right.
Dialectics, Improvsation and the Left:
I have laid out what I see as the dialectic of improvisation, schematizing varieties of improvisation and what they can potentially mean to us, as utopias. Yet why is it that improvisation in its modern form, both in terms of rock and jazz music, take as its point of entry what Toby Manning called “the long sixties”? This was at a time in which there was what I have elsewhere called a “Missed Encounter” between the hippy counterculture and the far left. Yet my contention is that it is not the counterculture that missed an encounter with the Left, as is commonly told, but it is the Left that missed an encounter with the counterculture. Yet paradoxically, the American cities with the most innovative countercultures, culturally and aesthetically, were the American cities with relatively well-put together social movements, in particular the San Francisco Bay Area and New York City. In highly conservative parts of the country, to be countercultural was to be on the Left, “long hairs and communists”, the saying went, and this is the conjuncture that produced the Allman Brothers Band, who never accepted the moniker “southern rock”.
It is less the case, of course, with jazz. The likes of Coleman, as well as Charles Mingus and Max Roach were quite conscious of the politics of their improvisation, even if the improvisation itself would only be theorised retroactively in a formal sense. African American music in general was, in its existence and its success, an act of protest. Yet protest, for the most part, for the first half of the sixties, was mostly verbal. Mingus’s “Fables of Faubus”, written as a mournful palate for improvisation, as well as with biting and angry satirical lyrics aimed at Arkansas’s governor Orville Faubus, was prevented at first, by Colombia Records, from being recorded with lyrics. It was rerecorded for a smaller label with its lyrics intact, and later performed live repeatedly – Mingus showing himself every bit as astute a vocal improviser that he was on the bass (or for that matter piano or violin).
Rock music improvisation, from 1966 onwards in particular, pertained specifically to Vietnam and anger over the limitations of the Civil Rights movement after Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights act. Take the Type I improvisation by Dylan, both in his famous electric debut at the Newport Festival in 1965, or even more successfully, his 1966 tour of Europe, with the band. To an extent, all of the songs were improvised, as new arrangements were often written on the spot. The Grateful Dead, while always claiming a distance from politics, however, this was akin to an artist whose roommate, best friend or partner was an activist. In this case, one supports one’s roommate, best friend or partner. The bass drums of Bill Kreutzman’s set had the raised fist insignia and their feedback jams – literally guitars held to speakers, organ turned up full bast, full on cacophony, seemed to deliberately invoke the bombing of Vietnam and later Cambodia. Yet they also – and this is where the Missed Encounter comes in – were able to provide a glimpse of utopia, and were able to continue to do so, in one form or another for half a century.
At the same time that the Grateful Dead’s lightness could become dark and darkness could become light, the Velvet Underground perfected a more Type II improvisational sound, as described above, the politics implied being as much about sexuality and alienated New York life than about the Vietnam war. In England, with the success of improvisationally inclined bands like Pink Floyd, a movement came together that saw itself as “progressive rock”, that eventually comprised an equal measure of complex composition and virtuosic improvisation. The use of “progressive” was not, as is often thought to be the case, some kind of accelerationist credo of using odd time signatures, it had to do with their politics – and it is no accident that, while less known for improvisation since 1972’s Dark Side of the Moon, perhaps the popular music artist with the most consistent progressive politics is Roger Waters.
Punk and post-punk music brought a wide range of improvisational music to the fore, from the Allman Bros-at-CBGBs epics of Television to the vamping deep groves of Talking Heads to the antinomianism of James Blood Ulmer. The spirit that the first generation of postpunk improvisation, from early Flaming Lips, Butthole Surfers, Sonic Youth and Husker Du is best captured by the title of a compilation of early Flaming Lips singles “What happens when the punk rockers eat acid”. In the era of Carter and Reagan, of utopian dreams defrayed, and the growth of reaction in popular culture – indeed, even in punk culture, improvisation could provide that glimpse, even if the glimpse had to be refracted through all manner of distortion, of affect and effects, the sound that was later termed “shoegaze”. Post-rock bands like Godspeed You Black Emperor (GYBE) and neo-death-prog Deafheaven continue to take Type II improvisation into places not yet head. In their hometown of Montreal, GYBE often play secret “ritual” shows for hours and hours on end, with only the bare formation of parameters within which to improvise.
By representing the dialectic of necessity and freedom, and attempts at rupture, improvised music can be a soundtrack to a revolution in our minds – not a scientific prediction, nor an aphoristic “what is to be done” statement. Rather, a work of improvisation, if we listen correctly, if we listen the way Berger suggests we see the possibilities inherent in any given set of circumstances, dialectic in art. The distinction between Type I and Type II improvisation is useful insofar as Type II often needs to start out of a scaffolding of Type I, but some musicians are capable of a proverbial “permanent revolution” and can drop right into Type II. As Frederic Jameson said of the Wire, this improvisation involves “deliberate processes of transformation, to human projects, to the working out of Utopian intentions that are not simply the forces of gravity of habit and tradition.” They can only be counted as successes and failures by their ability to articulate utopia in a sense that, if not directly understood as utopia, is directly understood as a glimpse at what scholars of mysticism call “ultimate reality”. Yet in this case, “ultimate reality”, the moment when the stars turn around, is merely the collective capacities of artist and audience, the communist breaking down of barriers into a collective production.
Perhaps most importantly, on a directly political level, improvised music militates against reaction. More didactic radical-left cultural forms are far more malleabe. Tim Robbins’ satire Bob Roberts, fascist punk rock, the list of more traditional musical forms borne out of progressive politics but ending up in the service of reaction is a long one. Revolutionary Illuminists like Beethoven were still beloved by the Nazis, while Paul Ryan could play Rage Against the Machine to pump up the crowds at his rallies. One cannot imagine the reactionary deployment of improvisation. Even classically fascist or even conservative art forms have the opposite inclination, to stamp out utopia, to impose structure and limitations. Hardcore punk, whatever its politics, is aesthetically quite conservative (and therein lies its charm). But improvisation is democracy in action, democracy leading to a glimpse at utopia, at the possibility of another world as played by bass, drums, guitar and keyboards.
To accompany this essay, the author has compiled a Spotify playlist, which can be read as a patron-only post at the Red Wedge Patreon page. If you are not yet a patron of Red Wedge and want to read the playlist, then sign up today.
 For the ‘ultimate’ version of Dark Star, readers are encouraged to consult either the 1969 live album Live Dead or the posthumously issued soundboard recording of the legendary 8/27/72 concert at Ken Kesey’s farm, Sunshine Daydream, both on Rhino/Warner Bros records. YouTube and Archive.Org are also useful for comparing versions.
 Hegel, G.W.F. (2004). Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics. London: Penguin Classics, 124
 Deleuze, G. (2003). Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. Translated by Daniel W. Smith. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 35.
 Garcia, J./Hunter, R./Kreutzman, B./Lesh, P/McKernan, R./Weir, B. , “Dark Star”, 1967
 Hegel, 234-236.
 Deleuze, 47.
 Ehrenreich, B. (2006). Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. New York: Metropolitan Books, 9.
 Anderson, P. (writing as Richard Merton). “Comment on Chester’s ‘For a Rock Aesthetic’,” New Left Review, I-59 January/February 1970, 88-96.
 Marx, K. (1973). Grundrisse. Translated by Martin Nicolaus. London: Penguin Classics, 133
 Trotsky, L. (2005). Literature and Revolution. Translated by Rose Strunsky. Chicago: Haymarket Books. 188-189.
 Coleman, O. “Prime Time for Harmolodics,” Downbeat. July 1983; Derrida, J. (1997). “Philosopher Jacques Derrida Interviews Jazz Legend Ornette Coleman: Talk Improvisation, Language & Racism” archived at Open Culture. http://www.openculture.com/2014/09/jacques-derrida-interviews-ornette-coleman.html
 For details on Coleman, see Cummings, J. “This is not an Obituary: Listening to Ornete Coleman,” Red Wedge July 1 2015 http://www.redwedgemagazine.com/commentary/this-is-not-an-obituary-listening-to-ornette-coleman
 Badiou, A. (2005). Handbook of Inaesthetics. Translated by Alberto Toscano. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 10-12.
 Type I and Type II improvisation were first formulated by fans as a shorthand and systematized on early internet bulletin boards. See http://phish.net/faq/jamming-types. The albums upon which songs are based upon works of live improvisation are on one hand, formal song-driven works, 1998’s Story of the Ghost and 2014’s Fuego. 1999’s The Siket Disc on the other hand, is based upon Macero-type fragments from jam sessions recorded in 1997 and 1998.
 See https://phish.net/faq/hose for Anastasio interview fragment.
 Jameson, F. “Realism and Utopia in The Wire”, Criticism, 3/4, Summer 2010.
Jordy Cummings has a PhD in Political Science from York University. He is a cultural critic, writer, and labour activist in Toronto, and a member of the Red Wedge editorial collective.