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Improvisation and the Unnameable: On Being Instrumental

Daniel Fischlin

Published: 2009-12-05

This editorial frames the problem of improvisation as both an embodied social practice and an "unthinkable" event-horizon of the possible. If this observation approximates a truth about improvisation, we may well ask, how musical improvisation in the forms it has taken in the last century, aligns with other social practices in which similarly high stakes are in evidence. The editorial addresses how emergent rights discourses (especially in the latter half of the twentieth century) coincide historically with the arrival of radical forms of free improvisation (think John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Albert Ayler). Are there ways of thinking about the aesthetics of improvisation that overlap with re-invigorated notions of civic engagement that move us closer to meaningful forms of social justice and progressive change? Can musical improvisation in its most achieved forms lead to enacting other forms of human potential?

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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.