Charity Chan


Collective Individualism: Legitimacy in Contemporary Improvised Music


The values most commonly associated with contemporary improvised music practice are: spontaneity, freedom, integrity, personal expression, communication, and collective production. In relating these values to those in John Ralston Saul’s conception of an alternate society, the “source of legitimacy” in contemporary improvised music is arguably that of collective individualism. The binding ideology for the practice and the social model it foreshadows is one of “the individual citizenry acting as a whole.” However, both the desire and attempt to establish or introduce such a society—a society in which the individual is a citizen rather than a disciple, subject, or function—is not unprecedented. The relationships or changes that improvisation signals are only new when viewed in light of either recent socio-historical context or the precariousness of collective individualism as a viable alternative in current society. It is not the possibility of collective individualism as a source of value making that makes the “new social relations” heralded by improvisation significant. Rather, it is the necessity of collective individualism in contemporary improvisation that makes the possibilities presented by the practice so engaging and resonant. Thus, improvisation enables us to explore and discover the meanings and repercussions of a society that has as its fundamental decisive source, collective individualism. The sounds of improvisation are the sounds of “the individual citizenry acting as a whole.”


Charity Chan is an active scholar and performer in contemporary classical and improvised musics. Her live performances focus on the evocation of alternative timbres from the piano, and the combination of these sounds with more traditional performance techniques. The immediacy of physical gesture and collaborative communication are also strong influences in her improvisations. Charity has performed throughout Canada and in the United States. Collaborations and studies include: Lori Freedman, John Heward, Damon Smith, Gino Robair, Simon Rose, Fred Frith, Maggie Nichols, Frank Gratkowski, John Heward, Jean Derome, Isaiah Ceccarelli, Nicolas Caloia, Joane Hétu, Danielle Palardy Roger, and Jack Wright. Her solo and collaborative performances can be found on Ambiances Magnétiques, Tzadik, and Innova Records. Holding a BMus (McGill) and an MFA ( Mills College) Charity is currently a PhD student in musicology at Princeton University. Her scholarly research approaches music from a socio-cultural perspective, and focuses on embodiment, social aesthetics, legitimacy, and cultural memory in contemporary improvisation.