By cheyanne turions
Perhaps counterintuitively, one measure of a system’s resilience is its “redundancy.” Efficiency is dangerous because of the ways it makes a system vulnerable: if there is only one way to accomplish something that needs to get done—even if it is the quickest method or uses the fewest resources or returns the largest profit—any disruption in the process means that the system breaks down. In Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World, Brian Walker and David Salt describe this phenomenon: “Resilient social-ecological systems have many overlapping ways of responding to a changing world. Redundancy in institutions increases the response diversity and flexibility of a system (Ostrom 1999)…Totally top-down governance structures with no redundancy in roles may be efficient (in the short term), but they tend to fail when the circumstances under which they were developed suddenly change. More ‘messy’ structures perform better during such times of change.”[1] With the caveat that I am not a musician, I’d like to propose that practices of improvisation might be a method for generating resilience within social systems. The potential for improvisation to take music, musicians, and audiences to unanticipated, strange, or surprising places is itself a value, aside from the qualities of the sound produced. In the language of resilience theory, we can think of this as generating redundancy, diversity as strength.
Listening builds relationship laterally, tangentially, without regard for divisions of power. In performance, musicians occupy the stage, but the audience is their collaborator as much as the musicians are each other’s. Listening is a movement of the body, a folding of the flesh, not only an aural reception of sound waves. Listening changes you.
At 2014’s Guelph Jazz Festival, the four men of Postcommodity—Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez, Kade L. Twist and Nathan Young—performed songs from their LP We Lost Half The Forest, And The Rest Will Burn This Summer (forthcoming). Based in New Mexico, Chacon explained the album’s title in a discussion following their performance: “Where we come from, there is not a lot of rain. There is drought. Constant drought. Every summer, the few forests we have in New Mexico burn and then they grow back eventually. They burn every summer [but] they don’t have an opportunity to grow back to what they once were. This…affects animals, and some of us hunt, so we thought of these songs as hunting songs, songs to call toward animals, or songs you might make up while in the woods hunting. We composed these songs as improvisational frameworks to sing within.” Improvisation builds a way of being in the world, of being in relation.


Postcommodity performs at the Banff Centre. Image courtesy of Postcommodity.

And yet, when asked later about the nature of improvisation in their work, Chacon clarified:
“I don’t believe what we are doing is on the side of improvisation, for two reasons. The first is that we each have intentional rigs (setups, systems, signal chains, instruments) that are very limited in what they can do. We have intended this to be the case, so that each member can play a role in the song as well as give each other space when oneself cannot play beyond that role. I believe that this aim toward control cannot truly be improvisation.
“Second, and most important, is that the songs have preplanned structures or instructions. Such as ‘create blasts of loud sound’ or ‘so-and-so starts with a solo then we get quiet’. There is also a set duration. Within a structure, we are free to choose pitches or tones to complete the given duration, but I don’t think that free choices necessarily equals improvisation. In other words, we have set up enough preparations that one cannot easily steer the song to a different outcome.”
While the musicians that afternoon did not explicitly engage in improvisation, or at least not simply so, it was a part of the experience for me as a member of the audience. My usual ways of listening would not do. The music wanted something else from me, something agile, tough, and humble. Postcommodity’s Twist suggested that the music itself was action beyond sound: “A lot of the work that we do, a lot of our practice, could be labeled as Indian Futurism, or in Canada, Aboriginal Futurism. A big part of that is imagining a future that is more desirable, and being able to place metaphors, position them, in circumstances of self-determination. Reverse engineering back to the present is what Indian Futurism is about, and what we are doing with our music.” Given the ongoing process of colonization invoked in his comments, and the way that colonization produces the position of settler and Indigenous both, everyone in the room was implicated in this becoming.
In service of this reverse engineering of a cultural self-determination, Martínez articulated a method: “We take these tools that are tied to pervasive media and the rapid changes that are happening in the world and basically we hack them. Noise is a great format for that because noise is already a culture that is about repositioning tools in new and innovative ways. How do we reposition these tools in a way that allows a re-imagination suitable to ritual practice and ceremony? So we can imagine new ways of rationalizing and operationalizing the change for self-determination? Some of the protocols for this music have a lot to do with listening, which is hard. We have been thinking about dialogue and protocols, when it is appropriate to listen and when it is appropriate to speak, realizing it is more about listening than speaking. It’s a lot about relationships and how we encounter one another.”
Protocols of listening get us outside of ourselves, which somehow returns to the ecological idea of a resilient redundancy by prompting new ways of being in relation. And yet, because an ecological notion of resilience obscures the agency of human actors, the term “resilience” is insufficient to describe the work associated with protocols of listening. Postcommodity’s work is about changing the circumstances through which a diversity of cultures are supported and the reciprocal obligation of their audience, of me, is to listen carefully to the tenets of an Aboriginal Futurism. What does support look like? Sound like? Listening is humble, and yet settlers and Indigenous people alike only stand to gain from Aboriginal Futurism and Indigenous self-determination. Perhaps a term like “mutual becoming” better captures the connotations of relation, responsibility, and vulnerability that are so vital to Postcommodity’s project.
Chacon relates a poignant example: “A lot of our work speaks about the future, a possible apocalyptic future that American Indians have already seen in the past. This is history repeating itself. We came together as a response to so many contemporary artists speaking only about the past, and not enough about the future.” Aboriginal Futurism recovers the past in service of an inevitable environmental change—more likely environmental collapse—and what I must imagine to be a social upheaval that will accompany it. Twist suggests that the scale of this cultural self-determination and mutual implication will be both large and small: “There is a lot of pragmatism in the public policy arena, which is about connecting strategies one step at a time. Change comes about through increments. This is the process that Indigenous people go through: consensus building. Though we cannot speak on behalf of 565 Indigenous nations in the United States, but we can speak on behalf of that framework. It is essential. To always exercise self-determination and the sovereignty of context, to expand the context to create space for an Indian future.”
In Guelph, as guests, Postcommodity have put themselves in a position of practicing protocols of listening through their People of Goodwill project. In speaking of what they heard on their previous research visits, Martínez relates that, “one of the things that came up was the need to enhance diversity in the art community and to enhance diversity in the city of Guelph. So much thinking has already happened at the federal, provincial, and city level. We took the plans that have already been developed and are working through them with the community with the specific goal of placemaking for a more diverse population of immigrants and culturally diverse people in the art ecology. The Guelph Black Heritage Society has the heritage hall and they are stewards of the underground railroad experience and the keepers of that history, and it is the goal of that organization to re-imagine and extend that narrative and living history to new immigrants coming to Canada and Guelph as a placemaking strategy. As stewards, they are offering their history, and as artists we are offering our capacity to bring people together, to rationalize that history and to create new narratives.” In supporting these new narratives, no doubt Postcommodity will be the richer for it. And Guelph too. Not that the tactics present themselves pre-formed, but that they too unfold from improvisation, from trying, listening, re-articulating, and trying again.
This piece is informed by a public discussion that followed Postcommodity’s performance at the Guelph Jazz Festival on 04 September 2014.
[1] Brian Walker and David Salt, Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World (United States of America: Island Press),148.