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Democratic Theory and Musical Improvisation

Joshua Mousie

Published: 2010-07-23

This article overviews Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau's reformulation of democratic politics, which avoids depicting consensus as an underlying commitment. Their articulation of democratic politics, which maintains that consensus politics dangerously reduce politics to 'popular' politics (excluding many and discouraging difference), is compared to musical improvisation in that its representation must maintain a sense of its practice and spontaneity as essential to identity. Ingrid Monson's definition of jazz improvisation, and the ideas of Gary Peters, provide an explication of musical improvisation as producing 'beginnings' not limited to the framework of a 'work', and the article ultimately suggests that, like Mouffe and Laclau's radical democracy, improvisation is a practice that stands apart from other forms guided by consensus.

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Improvisation is, simply put, being and living this very moment. No one can hide in music, and improvising in music is to be truly in this very moment and being completely yourself, with all your qualities and faults. It is probably the most honest state for a human being to be in.

– John McLaughlin in an interview with Daniel Fischlin.