Epic Fail: Intensity, Sensation, and the Eternal in Improvised Music

By Steve Tromans

“My experience is of such a high level of emotion on stage that sometimes I’ve been frightened by what I hear. It’s exploding with such intensity and feeling.” – Gerry Hemingway [1]

“We are not in the world, we become with the world; we become by contemplating it.” – Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari [2]

Epic Fail. On the surface of the matter, failure, “epic” or otherwise, may seem a depressing theme for this month’s, or any month’s, Deep Thought. However, delve a little further into the experience of live performance, and one finds a sensational quality inherent in failing to endure beyond the conditions of emergence that is essential to the nature of improvised music. To say jazz cannot live other than through failure is not to make the point too pronounced, and, in what follows, below, I am concerned to move beyond the negative associations we commonly make with the process of failing, focusing instead on a notion of the productive fail that grounds all live experience in and of improvisation.

In addition, and as a theme running parallel to the productive failure of live music-making, I also make reference to the dangers of assuming to be able to capture and locate knowledge of the practices of expert music-making in the documentary and the analytical. This is the (unproductive) failure of much research into music practices to date, and the making explicit of its failings is an ongoing concern of my music-research work, as well as certain of my writings, here. It is an issue of major importance to those interested in moving beyond older models of the knowledge pertaining to art-making (especially in performance). More generally speaking, such an epistemic move is crucial in re-evaluating our understandings of the experience of being alive, as sensing, sentient creations in, and in intimate relation to, the world in which we continue to live in and through.

1. Failing to Endure

All live performance is characterised by failure, and this is especially true of the improvised arts, including the music of jazz. The inability to endure, materially, beyond the event of its own emergence invests a peculiar quality in the act of improvising live: an intensely felt sensation of both living and dying that does not transfer to the recorded document, You really do have to be there, as and when it happens, in order to be part of the multi-sensorial experience. In the case of the improvising musician: to give birth to new sounds, to hear them ring out, reverberate in and around a venue, reach out to affect an audience (to move the listener, physically and emotionally), only for those sounds to decay, inevitably, before one’s senses, fading into memory and the anecdotal. These are the rhythms of life and death that pulsate the heart of performance.

Performers in all disciplines are well aware of the transitory nature of their craft. Events come and go, and the time between can sometimes feel endless. Such absence from the stage, however, only adds intensity to the experience of actually being up there once again. But even while under the spotlight of live performance, the tendency toward finitude is ever apparent. Sounds die away, tunes finish, applause peters out, and all gigs conclude, eventually. The failure to endure is a constant given (constant, ironically, in its lack of constancy). No matter what else may happen, you can be certain everything will cease to be – at least, that is, in the form in which it originally emerged.

2. Sensation and Liveness

The improvising musician professes her or his art in public, temporally-constituted in certain venues at certain times of the day. As such, it is an artistry having no independent reality outside of the times and situations in which it inheres. As the saxophonist Evan Parker pointed out, in interview with Graham Lock for The Wire magazine in 1991: “The music is not what you hear in analysis, it’s what is there in the real time of performance”. [3] And Parker, an artist consistently forefronting the practice of improvised music since the 1960s, is clearly in a position to know what he’s talking about. To analyse an improvisation after the event, by means of documentary evidence of one description or another, is to reduce a complex temporal entity to a mere display of spatialised elements, estranged from, and having no logical consistency in relation to, the time of originary musical becoming. [4] Taking a thing of such complexity apart, piece by piece, in order to understand how it works is always to lose sight of how the thing came about in the first (and only) instance, in the event of its performance.

But there is a failure of a far more positive nature in the experience of liveness than the failure to capture and uncover the essence of improvised music effected by analysis and documentation. [5] The failure I am concerned with, here, is bound-in with our multi-sensory impressions of a given performance. For it is in the affective dimensions of embodied experiential reactions to the actions of improvising artists that the failings of live music’s materiality find consolidation. Sounds die away but the emotions they evoke transcend the conditions of origination. The specific emotions triggered can hardly be known in advance, or even after the event, by the artistic progenitor, since audience members are each differently complex individuals in their socio-cultural, historical, musical backgrounds and passionate drives. And, of course, tastes change in all manner of peculiar ways with time, and with experiences garnered. The influence and confluence of all these various/varying factors cannot be overlooked in our understandings of music-making as a live, and living, art form.

3. Feeling and the Sublime

However, the specific details of emotional response are not necessarily so important a factor in considering music’s sensational survival post festum. As the clarinettist and composer Derek Bermel has recently argued, somewhat provocatively: “I don’t really care how the listeners feel; I only care that they feel”. [6] Whether or not he explicitly had it in mind, in the above provocation, Bermel is, unmistakably, discoursing in terms of the sublime. The sublime is not unknown in our existence. It is, in fact, a thing common to all persons open to the new, the novel, in life.

Every reader knows the sublime afterglow that is postlude to a truly affecting performance. To draw (for the purposes of elucidation) on my own experience: Returning home after Wayne Shorter’s masterful concert with his quartet at Birmingham Town Hall, November 2012, I spent a period of time sitting in the dark coming to some manner of terms with what I had just borne witness to. Having spoken to fellow performers and punters who also attended the event, I know I was not alone in having such an extreme reaction to proceedings (including, interestingly, a need to sit in quiet contemplation in the dark). The sublime nature of the music-making resisted easy categorisation, and one was left with a saturation of sensation, and an apparent “short-circuiting” of the capacity to make emotive judgment. All that I could feel (and could not help but feel), in the performance, was that something quite extraordinary was happening. Nothing more at that time, but certainly nothing less.

Wayne Shorter at Birmingham Town Hall. (Photo © John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk)

Wayne Shorter at Birmingham Town Hall. (Photo © John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk)

The above personal anecdote demonstrates a failure to categorise the sublime in our reactions to the practices of expert improvisation. Plainly, you can both score and scour a recording of the playing after the event, identifying particular phrases, voicings, intra-group interactions, fragments of composed material, and the like – that is the job of analysis, and it does it very well. But it is not what is experienced in the event itself. This truism cannot be stated too overtly. In the event, as it is still unfolding, analysis (of a musicological or any other kind) can find no foothold. It fails, and its failure is of epic proportions – as with all attempts to objectify the sublimity of life as it is still being lived: a sublimity that is collectively-personally experienced, and yet is also more-than-lived, as shall be made explicit in the next section, below. [7]

However, for those lucky enough to have been present, such failure is reflective of our experience of novelty in the world. Something came into existence that wasn’t there before. Of course, you can say this of all and any of life’s events. However, what differentiates the sublime in Shorter et al in late-2012 and, say, the mundane repetition of commuting to work in the morning, can be expressed most profitably with recourse to a concept of intensity.

4. The Eternity of Affective Intensity

Brian Massumi, in his turn-of-the-21st-century Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation, qualifies intensity in terms of suspension and the non-linear: a state of “resonation and feedback that momentarily suspend the linear progress of the narrative present from past to future … It is like a temporal sink, a hole in time”. [8] From Massumi’s perspective, then, the intensive moment is characterised by a timeless temporality: a dreamlike state of existence wherein the everyday linearity of tensing past to future through which we narrativise our life experience holds no sway. And what resonates and feeds back and forth in this eternity within the momentary? Opposites, in a “lived paradox … where what cannot be experienced cannot but be felt”. [9] To use a favourite example of the philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, this is Ts’ui Pên’s “garden of forking paths” in the short story by Jorges Luis Borges, where all “possible solutions occur” at one and the same time. [10] Given the “lived paradox” of Massumi’s opposites in complex relation, this “one and the same time” should be thought of as both a-temporal and all-temporal: simultaneously without and with time-sense. Eternity, in other words.

In What is Philosophy?, his fourth and final collaboration with the radical psychoanalyst, Felix Guattari, Deleuze theorised the sensational in terms of a curious relation between the eternal and the durative, writing: “Even if the material lasts for only a few seconds it will give sensation the power to exist and be preserved in itself in the eternity that coexists with this short duration.” [11] In the argument I am making, here, Deleuze and Guattari’s differentiation of eternity and duration proves useful. The durative is finite – it comes, it goes, as performances come and go – while the eternal is infinite, having neither beginning nor end. [12] It is always in the middle of things, beyond the scope of the document, the analysis. In the commonsensical world of the logical and the rational, the narrativised, and the analysed, such a timeless/all-time, “eternal” concept of sensational intensity is a nonsense (non-sense).

But the irony is that the paradoxical state of the intense is far from devoid of sense: it is, in fact, overfilled with sensation – albeit sensation that has yet to receive the judgmental recognition of emotive perception. “Emotion”, Massumi writes, “is qualified intensity … owned and recognised”. [13] The kinds of sensation inherent in the timeless moment of the intensive, on the other hand, are forever beyond such critical analysis. They are affective, where the prefix “a-” is indicative of the eternal suspension of a categorical determination. The affects populating the temporal sink of intensity are, according to Massumi, in a condition of synaesthesia: the senses actively, complexly, participate in one another. [14]

5. Live and Life

We experience live performance with all our senses, none of which operates in isolation of one another. The move to document, in any medium, is an attempt (explicit in intention, or less so) to isolate particular sensory dimensions – the aural and the visual being the most common – with little regard for the degradation effected on what is documented. In the absence of an adequate documentary or analytical method of providing our understanding with intimate knowledge of the experience of performance intensity, it is to the act of music-making itself that we must return, as it returns, always differently anew, in the eventful emergence we call the concert, or the humble gig.

The epic failure of music made live to maintain a material existence, following the event of its own emergence, paradoxically enables a continuation of an other-than-musical kind, but one that is dependent for its nature on the experience of liveness that is the specificity of improvised artistry in performance. Such specificity triggers affective response from those present, which can (and will) vary in multifarious, indeterminate ways according to the personalised experiential make up of individual existences. Music performance enters into complex relation with the liveliness – the “life force”, if you like – of those who are moved by, and through, the experience of live music. It is for this reason that the “failure” of improvised music to endure beyond the time of its original expression is a productive and positive fail, with our lives, and our musics, becoming all the richer as a result.


[1] The drummer, Gerry Hemingway, in conversation with Graham Lock in the latter’s book-length account of the the Anthony Braxton Quartet tour of the UK in 1985 (see Lock 1986, p. 253).

[2] Deleuze and Guattari (1994, p. 169).

[3] Quoted in Borgo (2005, p. 54).

[4] Etymologically, “analysis” has its roots in Latin as the “resolution of anything complex into simple elements” (www.etymonline.com), and this is exactly what researchers do when they approach the object “music” with a view to documenting its contents.

[5] As far as the two can be isolated, of course, since to document certain dimensions of a given performance is always to analyse, in etymological terms (see note 4, above).

[6] Bermel, writing in Zorn (2008, p. 26).

[7] The particular use I am making, here, of the recent quotidian neologism, “epic fail”, is indicative of the “larger-than-life” or “heroic” character of the term “epic”, in relation to this vital failure of live music to sustain its materiality beyond its original expression.

[8] Massumi (2002, p. 26).

[9] Massumi (2002, p. 30).

[10] Borges (1962, p. 98).

[11] Deleuze and Guattari (1994, p. 166).

[12] On this matter of beginnings and endings, or lack of them, in relation to a concept of duration and the eternal, see Deleuze’s engagement with the 17th-century philosophy of Benedict de Spinoza (1988, pp. 62-63 and pp. 65-67). The distinction made between the two terms, “duration” and “eternity”, in his writing with Guattari (1994) are indicative of the enduring importance of Spinoza in Deleuze’s oeuvre.

[13] Massumi (2002, p. 28).

[14] Massumi (2002, p. 35).


Borges, Jorges Luis. Ficciones. New York: Grove Press. 1962.

Borgo, David. Sync or Swarm: Improvising Music in a Complex Age. London: Continuum. 2005.

Deleuze, Gilles. Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, trans. Robert Hurley. San Francisco: City Lights Books. 1988.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. What is Philosophy?, trans. Graham Burchell and Hugh Tomlinson. London: Verso. 1994.

Lock, Graham. Forces in Motion: Anthony Braxton and the Meta-Reality of Creative Music. London: Quartet Books. 1988.

Massumi, Brian. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham: Duke University Press. 2002.

Zorn, John (Ed.). Arcana III: Musicians on Music. New York: Hips Road. 2008.

Categories: Deep thought

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3 replies

  1. You absolutely have to be prepared to fail in improvisation. Risk is the blood of it.
    I play music where this isn’t always necessary and everything in between.
    But where I feel the most joy is when interaction, intuition and danger sing the merry dance.


  2. One more thing, that I feel is essential…. I do not care if you love me….. I’m covered, I’m loved by music and the feeling’s mutual. If I care about such things, then I go into the realms of trying to be accepted, and premeditation gets too strong a grip on the essence of who I am, when I’m at the centre of laughter, or sorrow, or anger, or any other feeling that is in the moment.


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