Navigating the Arrhythmical: or How We Improvise Our Way Through Life.

The rotation of the earth around the sun, the seasons, the menstrual cycle, the beating of the heart, the breath (… taxes!). We experience life as patterned and rhythmical, for indeed it is. Our very survival depends on staying in sync with all the rhythms of life—look what happens when we get out of sync with the rhythms of our planet’s climate.

But life’s rhythms aren’t perfect; they come with irregularities, imperfections, instabilities. Hearts skip beats. Along with life’s rhythms come a kind of spontaneous arrhythmia. It seems that we can’t ignore this either; life’s arrhythmia must also be lived with.

An awareness of all this is hardly new. Brilliant attempts to find meaning in life’s rhythms and arrhythmia form the bedrock of the human family’s store of knowledge and wisdom. Consider these meditations on life’s arrhythmia:

The Roman poet Lucretius, who more than two thousand years ago (and riffing on Epicurus, two hundred years before that) thought he’d discovered the origins of the universe in the arrhythmia of atoms. Atoms, the idea goes, move downwards together in straight lines. But by chance, some go their own way and swerve into their neighbours—these random collisions creating solids, from which come our physical world. Aspects of Lucretius’ thinking captivated the radical Enlightenment, and radicals closer to home, like Marx, Einstein, de Beauvoir and Derrida.   

Consider Darwin. DNA is the result of millions of genes copying uniformly. Mutations result from disturbances to this uniformity. Darwin places these mutations in the engine room of evolution. The point here isn’t the detail of Darwin’s or Lucretius’ ideas, but that life’s arrhythmia has been recognised and thought about deeply for about as long as there’s been deep thought.

It’s fascinating to observe in the arts of our own time the myriad ways life’s arrhythmia gets dramatised. The 2019 film Terminator: Dark Fate has moments in its introduction when a flash of visual and sonic static shoots across the screen. Where once the technological imperative of ever more refined imaging meant eradicating all such impurities from the screen, it’s now a chic reminder of life’s disorder to reinsert them. In the fanfare that opens Joe Zawinul’s 1996 album, My People, the pitch suddenly swoops down, then returns. This isn’t modulation as such, but—in the age of digital pitch correction—a deliberate and unmotivated disturbance to the pattern of the music’s tuning. Or from earlier in the modern era: The Rite of Spring. In the section “The Augurs of Spring”, we meet the most infamous, in-your-face arrhythmia in all of western music.

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That we (mostly) stay in sync with life’s rhythms means that carried around in our species’ toolbox is an aptitude for rhythmical patterning—we’re good at getting into life’s grooves. But our responses to the arrhythmical call on a different aptitude: the ability to act or react spontaneously. Importantly, we’re good at this too.

We’ve almost arrived at improvisation. Just as the rhythmical is woven into the fabric of our lives, so are disturbances to it and our responses to these disturbances. Our responses are not, therefore, just a succession of isolated fight-or-flight impulses. But what weaves them together?

Few of us want to linger ‘in the moment’ while our heart palpitates; instead, we anxiously anticipate the return of its steady rhythm. So it seems that our response to all of life’s arrhythmias holds within it a similar anticipation: a reordering of disorder, a restoration of rhythm. And because we’ve always attached meaning to life’s rhythms, this is nothing less than a restoration of meaning and purpose. We have now, I think, arrived at improvisation. 

Improvisation = spontaneity + purposefulness.

Science tells us that the physical world and its chance events are not purposeful or directed towards a goal. While this might be ok for the inanimate world, it’s not ok for us. Humans can’t live this way; we need meaning and order, and when it’s not forthcoming, we improvise it into existence.

Here lies the genesis of improvisation. Its roots are primal and existential, deeply implicated in the way we restore, protect, preserve meaning and coherence when these are absent or disturbed in our less-than-perfectly-coherent world. 

It’s funny then (in more ways than one) that the only place outside of jazz where improvisation gets a good rap, or any kind of rap at all, is in the light entertainment of popular culture. Theatre Sports and its TV derivatives—participants thrust into awkward situations, then left to improvise their way out—are enormously popular. Here, our primal aptitude (i = s + p) is put through its paces under the glare of the cameras, albeit only as some kind of clever party trick.­­­­­

But I want to believe that our delight in this ephemera is triggered by a deeper recognition: that improvisation is a generative force in our lives. For improvisation is not just responsible for the impromptu witty words of comedians, but for the totality of the human expression we know as “language”. It’s not just responsible for the advertising ditty, but for the human expression we know as “music”—jingles and Beethoven and Coltrane. 

Marx and all the rest saw the errant atom’s arrhythmical swerve as a breaking free, the original act of liberation. What wasn’t seen was that, whether its trajectory would eventually return it to the fold or end up outlining some never-before-travelled path, that atom would be improvising as it navigated its way along.  

One Down One Up: The Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues*

While all creative artists are primed for the ups and downs of taste, recognition, income and the like — it just goes with the territory — for Australian artists who play music, this territory has become a really slippery slope. ACDC’s rock might be firmly anchored at the summit of Aussie culture, but most of us roll like Sisyphus.

This is because the rhythm of life’s changes is so fast (maybe we should call this capitalism’s “bebop” period), and because the world of work inhabited by musicians is locked into this rhythm. Its touch might be light for a few, but for most of us it’s something more akin to the thrust of the Industrial Revolution.

It’s also because, in Australia, a concerted ideological assault on an arts culture that, in doing its job well, has the audacity to express views independent of the forces of power and privilege, makes an already difficult situation that much harder.

This is not to say that the arts don’t matter here anymore. The intense reaction against cuts to Radio National music programs reminds us of just how much they do — the reaction to all the celebrity muso deaths in 2016 does the same. And the stats prove it; studies like Arts Nation (2015) or Deloitte’s “Live Music Report” (2011) document what Aussies believe about the arts and give detailed accounts of participation rates (my favourite: more Aussies go to galleries in any given year than to the football!).

But the fact remains that the pace of change in the age of globalisation, and neo-liberal reaction to it, conspire to make this moment a struggle just to hang on.

Over this gloomy scenario, the growth of cultural festivals shines a ray of light. In North America, just 10 years ago, there were 2500 festivals. In Britain 221 were music festivals — 100 up from the previous three years. There were 250 jazz festivals in 33 countries.

Festivals matter. They celebrate the assertion of a public communal spirit over the private; the triumph of the real over the virtual. In defiance of tendencies that strongly divide us — political values, religious beliefs — festivals bring us together. They have economic value, too: think, “the MONA effect” and its offshoot music festival, MOFO; think, Iceland’s strategic investment in its cultural sector (now the second largest contributor to GDP) … the list goes on and on.

The Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues has been a luminous example of this kind of success for over 25 years. Led expertly throughout by Adrian Jackson, Wangaratta has resonated loudly around Australia, the region and the globe.

What’s true about festivals for the community at large is even truer for the music community itself. Wangaratta offers Aussie musicians great audiences, a high-profile place to present new work, occasions to collaborate with peers; and, vital for any artist, the chance to “internationalise” our practice by working with artists from other countries — the benefits of which flow in every direction.

The photo shows this at work. It was taken at the rehearsal for Odean Pope’s Saxophone Choir project, which featured at Wangaratta 20 years ago this year (see the key in the bottom right-hand corner of the pic 1) Adam Simmons 2) Lachlan Davidson 3) Odean Pope — behind him on the silver tenor is Anton Delecca 4) Sandy Evans 5) Elliot Dalgleish 6) Andy Sugg 7) Julien Wilson — Ian Chaplin is out of frame).

This was one powerful gig. I still remember the energy in the green room before we went on stage! The large audience felt it, too (a standing ovation, I recall). It was an occasion to present works not heard before in Australia, to collaborate with national peers on a scale that rarely happens here, and to reach out internationally: reach out, in fact, to jazz’s foundation narrative — Pope was in Max Roach’s band, Roach was Charlie Parker’s drummer.

This gig exemplified the very best of the festival experience; but — and this is the point — gigs like this happen all the time, at every Wangaratta festival.

So, it was with well-rehearsed bemusement that we learnt on Black Friday that the triennial Federal funding sought by Wangaratta would not be renewed, but would instead be replaced by an allocation covering this year’s festival only. It would seem that — even in propitious times for the genre — festivals aren’t immune to a few ups and downs of their own. And for a quick reminder of why this funding decision is such a downer, here’s British historian Eric Hobsbawm (himself a big jazz fan):

Festivals are, like opera, not basically rational enterprises in economic terms. They cannot exist purely on ticket sales, any more than the Olympic Games or the football World Cup. Like opera, festivals, particularly costly ones, are hardly possible without public or private subsidies and commercial sponsorship.

Most recently, as if to rub salt into the wound, we learned that Jackson, the person responsible for turning Wangaratta into a Grand Slam event on the international jazz circuit, would not be invited to continue as musical director beyond 2016.

The current challenges facing Aussie artists and the great contribution made by festivals to their working life (and to the lives of local and national communities), are well-known to those charged with the duty to invest public funds in artistic endeavour. Is it too much to ask that these public servants — and the boards of our major festivals — might reflect again on Australia’s great achievements in jazz (which include the longest running annual jazz convention in the world, an illustrious history of soloists and groups punching way above our weight globally, and Wangaratta itself, a 25-year-plus success story) and not only stabilize support for the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues, but strengthen it? I hope not.

Now, back to pushing that rock …


* A version of this article was posted on ArtsHub Friday 3 March 2017. For more information on it and ArtsHub, visit

Live Music and Record Store Day

Live Music and Record Store Day

It’s a confusing time for musicians. On one hand, there’s never been more music in our lives; on the other, the profession is becoming less viable. From the ringtone to the radio, the elevator, waiting room, supermarket, bus, plane (the list is endless), our lives are saturated with music. Yet musicians’ incomes are in free-fall, venues are struggling and CD sales are shrinking.

The city might be alive with the sound of music, but it’s mostly of a crudely functional kind – atmospherics for commuting, queuing, shopping, etc. This relentless public soundtrack crowds the headspace once reserved for a different experience of music-making: live music.

The loss here is not just to musicians. Live music is intensely social and life affirming in ways that our canned public soundtrack is not, and we could all do with more of it. If it’s not looking like we’re going to get it from digitization, which so far has only shown itself good at sexing up the logic of private music consumption (think iPods, headphones, downloads), then we need to devise new ways of fostering it. How to do this is the challenge for musicians and music fans today.

The musician’s challenge is part of a bigger problem. Terry Eagleton says that we need to imagine new forms of belonging and that some of those forms will have something of the intimacy of tribal or community relations. Because live music and the culture surrounding it are so good at promoting important forms of belonging, the solution to the musician’s problem is at the same time a response to an entire zeitgeist found wanting.

And part of live music’s culture is the small, independent record store. The best of these stores bring people together, offer places to exchange ideas and contacts, circulate underground literature, and showcase music and musicians. In their quiet, unassuming way they nourish a creative community and a social alternative. They’re a “Safe House” for independent musicians.

A recent story in a European newspaper observed that there were now only 27 such stores left in the world! For example, there’s only one left in France. It is Souffle Continu (Circular Breathing), and I had the pleasure of playing there recently with Australian and French musicians (see photo). It was a great experience and I thank Guy-Frank, Théo and Bernard for their support in making this happen.

So next time you’re thinking about checking out some new music or musician, or want info on venues or events, drop in to your independent record store. If you’re in Paris, visit Souffle Continu ( And tell everyone about Record Store Day.

Record Store Day is 19 April 2014           Australia –          France –

Why Coltrane Still Matters

Everyone knows that John Coltrane was a major influence in jazz, but he died 46 years ago (this week, in fact), so in a music that prides itself on being innovative and up-to-date – if not leading the pack – does Trane still matter?

The answer is a resounding YES! He matters because of his great artistry and he matters because this artistry is expressed in and through improvisation.

Improvisation matters because we literally improvise our way through life. Our speech, our actions, even our thoughts, are in a very real way improvised. It’s not overstating it to say that the kind of life we end up having will depend very much on just how skilfully we can improvise our way through it. So an art form that foregrounds improvisation has the potential to resonate with us in a very special way; a way that other art forms cannot. While Beethoven’s notated compositions – the symphonies, say – are high-order models of planning and structure, they represent life as an ideal, life as it could be, life to be imagined. Improvised music, on the other hand, represents life as it’s actually lived.

This is why improvisation is jazz’s most enduring gift to us, and within it why Trane remains an inspiring model of the heights that improvised music can reach.

An artist is (I’m stealing from Benjamin here) both an inventor and a conserver. But sometimes the dual obligations of being true to the unique moment and of being the custodian of artistic tradition don’t sit together well. This is especially true in a music like jazz, in which the desire to “make it new” often accelerates a kind of forgetting or making redundant of its past.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. Conserving the tradition of Trane’s (and many others’) artistry means much more than simply playing his tunes, his arrangements, his lines in yet another season of gigs; it means we hear in this music not only something to imitate but something to stimulate innovation of our own. That’s how the best of the generation after Trane responded to him. And it was the innovations that this generation produced that expanded in two key directions both saxophone improvisation itself and jazz improvisation generally. Clearly outlined in the 1970s, these directions remain central to the art of jazz improvisation today.

Trane still matters because his example can still help us “make it new”. Artists like Trane are gifts that keep on giving; we don’t have to forget them.