I taught my 20th century music class this morning, talking about jazz improvisation in the late 1950s (Kind of Blue, The Shape of Jazz to Come), and how free improvisation in jazz (Archie Shepp) comes to be associated with radical politics in the 1960s. And how, with people like Cornelius Cardew and Frederic Rzewski, collective improvisation becomes both a metaphor for a new society and a working model of it. (You’re making the new society right there on stage, in your musical interactions with others.) What’s very hard to talk about — but what’s really important — is how a certain existentialism underwrites the radical romance of improvisation. When you improvise you act; the action is something irreversable, its consequences unforseeable—perhaps there will be no consequences at all. But to act is the thing. You take that step off into the unknown and open yourself to the unfolding instant. You brave the void of the moment and meet it with your decision. In improvisation, as in life, to do something meaningful is to act in the knowledge that what you do may have no more meaning than the courage that went into the decision to act. None of which I said in any particularly intelligible way during my lecture.

I just read this story: on November 3, a man named Malachi Ritscher doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire to protest the Iraq war. Ritscher was an anchor of the Chicago experimental jazz scene, one of those guys who shows up for every obscure show with a camera and recording rig and who knows every musician who’s played on the scene for the last 20 years. When I used to program shows at the Weisman Art Museum there were a few people sort of like that — guys who just needed to be near music all the time. (Erik Fratzke, the bassist for Happy Apple, was one of those guys — whether it was a string quartet or progressive metal, there he was.)

The story was first reported in the Chicago Reader “Post No Bills” blog. The discussion in the comments is dismally sad — Ritscher’s estranged family expresses its entirely understandable rage and grief. How fucked up is that — to kill yourself through self-immolation? It is the most horrific imaginable way to die. Which is the point, I guess. You raise the existential stakes: you will act, though your action will be unendurably agonizing, both for you and for everyone around you. And when you’re done, the war will still be going on. The news stations won’t even report your death. They have a policy, apparently. The futility of your action, and the fact that you took that action in the teeth of that futility, will become the meaning of the act.

I don’t know why, but this story really messes me up. I don’t really want to interpret it too much: it seems like it would be disrespectful to treat this guy’s death like some kind of performance art. But it is death as performance, a performance meant to convey something.

This is the most (literally) nightmarish scene of Richard Linklater’s Waking Life.  Weirdly, I can never quite follow what that guy is saying, no matter how many times I see this movie. But the scene says something that isn’t quite what the words are saying, and it’s what I felt when I read this terrible story.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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