----Current Writings on Music----
You Know the Story This separate link includes sixteen pages of a small xeroxed book I made (I won't say "published") in 1989.
First I ask myself, what is it that I and my partners have been doing the past thirty years, playing a music that has gone under the name of “free improvisation”? This music has been around since the early sixties, now the playing preference of perhaps a few hundred musicians around the world, and known to a commercially insignificant number of listeners. More than any other musical form, it is played within an egalitarian community, despite the ebbs and flows of individual careers. Anyone can play, including those completely untrained, and those who would not even describe themselves as musicians. What interests me here however is not to describe its actual features so much as to explore its internal principles, its potential that does not await realization, and its political horizon and implications.
Let me try to correct the terminology. The Greek nomos, usually taken as custom or law, also means tune or melody. That means that when we speak of free improvisation we might rather call it a-nomos, anomalous—not out of tune but out of melody—which is correct; it is music that does not form the kind of unity known as melody. Alternatively it might be called autopoietic music, self-creating, from a concept of Franciso Varela: a machine (as in Deleuze/Guattari) that is “self-contained and cannot be described by using dimensions that define another space”. This is a more arrogant version of “anomalous (tune-less) music” but at least it sets a good tone for questioning: is a self-contained space possible at all? And what is the perspective for talking about this as opposed to other musics? That its practitioners are also at a loss to answer this would make the discussion fruitful for all and not just a Q and A.
Either anomalous or autopoetic is a better appelation than “free” improvisation, the most common name it has gone by over the years. “Free” implies chaos, noise, an unassimilable Real or a mythic totality, a metaphor for what is impossible to conceive as epistemologically “real” and beyond concrete realization. This presents an image of a dream or mystery, such that when “free music” is placed alongside categories that are not totalities but discrete and distinguishable objects, the impression is given that other musics, and their players, are something less than free. To stamp our music with this word is tendentious, an unfair privileging, a kind of advertising for one’s own product that lords it over the others. It is disingenuous to disregard the categorical differences of the adjectives modifying music. That it is unfamiliar to all but a handful of the population, at least in the form of sound improvisation (such as electro-acoustic improvisation, or eai), is no excuse for hyperbole. In fact, to call it “free” has the counter-effect of disqualifying itself from consideration, by placing it on a non-comparable level above the others, which merely want to indicate their particular form as an option for choosing it. Calling it anomalous gives us the chance to enter a conversation rather than let it fall into a misconception, or make a claim that is obviously ideological. “It is what I call anomalous music.” “What do you mean by that?”
Certainly anomalous does not, like jazz, call to mind specific, identifiable traits. But to abjure melody is truly, if only partially descriptive, one of many traits known to music that can be ticked off as missing, and a firm rule of this music. In fact, this is perhaps the only kind of music that cannot be constructed in imagination from a written text, even if a transcription were to be made, but must be heard live to have a comprehension of what it is. “Without melody” means specifically that it is not cyclic; it can be melodic but not have a singular, repeatable melody as a component. “Anomalous” as “lacking melody” has the advantage of including both the more well-known subcategory known free jazz and music that, unlike free jazz, lacks any hint of a pulse, consistent tempo, “drive”, or rules concerning instrumentation.
By denying nomos as melody this kind of playing does not deny nomos as rule, to which musicians and non-playing listeners must conform. All music in some way follows a rule or constellation of rules just in order to be recognized as music even by its practitioners. The nomos of music is not completely relative to culture and history. A Balinese waving a mallet in front of a gong but making no sound is not making music; there might be long silences, but they must relate to sound perceptible to humans in some way. Sound is the least common denominator, the sine qua non. In our day however the converse has also become a rule: when we or anyone makes any sound at all we cannot not be making music, no matter what our intention or protest of lacking musical ability. This is because the rules of music now have invaded the listening as well as the making of sound. Music is both the consciously created object and the experience of sound—that is what the postmodern aesthetic has bequeathed us. The listener attending to the rustle of trees or the traffic or the coughing of an audience can hear it as music. This much is a diachronic development, an historical rule of modernity (Edgard Varese, for example) that extends through today, namely, the ever-widening expansion of listening, of the ability to hear music in all sound, the aestheticizing of sound that has paralleled the aestheticized everyday. Music history tells us of one scandal after another, and eventual listener acceptance until the next barrier is reached and breached. The barrier separating music from noise is obviously a rule meant to be broken—and rebuilt somewhere else. As soon as someone says surely that is not music, someone else will pop up and say, I can hear it as music. Similarly, you may think you are making a rational argument in prose; I might hear it as poetry, however perverse my intentions. The argument would be recognized, but an alternative hearing is possible alongside it, just as one may include traditional music and a dripping faucet in the day’s aesthetic enjoyment.
The abandonment of melody is just one step in this direction away from the effort to foreground and isolate a signal out of a sea of noise, and a step towards hearing noise itself, what was formerly foreclosed as expendable interference, as the signal. Or rather while appearing to eliminate the signal/noise dichotomy, this music re-establishes it elsewhere. Instruments can be played but they can also be simply used as tools under the formulation of “extended techniques”; all material is simply the means of making sound. The most radical elimination of all is perhaps the composer; even the player is not a composer but the one who makes sound at that very moment, without plan or forethought. Indeed it is misleading even to call it “improvisation”, to the extent that connotes a theme or melody as its base. What is or is not music is in question, not whether it is good or not (the Modernist issue of quality) and so there can be no complaint that one’s partners have done something wrong (as a rule, musicians govern their relations in playing by strict moral codes unknown to the public). There are no mistakes, but at least one absolute rule: the players are trusted to strictly follow what they consider makes musical sense, quite possibly on a level they have not previously imagined. There is no rehearsal possible; whatever the musical judgment, it is fully there each time it is played. Performance is by no means necessary, in fact the frame of performance, and all that is necessary for musicians to fit their playing into that form, can get in the way; alternately it might inspire the players to play in the presence of others, there is no way to decide a priori. This music has only artificial endings, it does not truly conclude; in fact one could say the ultimate rule is to keep the playing going, interesting and seductive enough so that no one thinks of stopping. Without the frame of the intended ending, anomalous music fulfills what is often said of music, that it happens outside of time, even that it stops or destroys time.
Besides the rules common to all music--the inevitably acquired skills and habits of the players, and the ability to make musical sense out of sound—there is also the inescapable rule that human intervention in the world of sound requires specific judgment. The rule might be as simple as immediate choice among alternatives, but to judge is to rule over sound, and not let nature take its course. John Cage's formula, "let sound be sound", is a romantic mystification that, fortunately, he was not permitted to put into practice. The necessity of judgment contradicts the claims of conceptual art, anti-art and noise music, that deny they are making art or music. There is no escape from being and playing within this transcendent rule, however much it might open the door to categorization--genre and species and all that marketing and hierarchy of players that follow. As musicians those who take the rough rode of improvisation would like a pacified relation with the world and not to be taken literally as outlaws, heroically disobeying “imposed” genre categories—that can only be a promotional posture. We do not want to play from a sovereign position outside of music, guided by superior intuition, or even, in the community of players integrated through sound, to think of ourselves as commanding our playing. To the extent that we think of ourselves as musicians--at times ambivalently--we surrender to others, that is, to the acknowledgement that we create something that might be useful to others, that is, culture.
Conceived in this way, no matter how it is judged aesthetically, anomalous music is the limit, the horizon of musical possibility, and it touches or imagines the limit of social possibility as well. In fact I would argue that, as a simple communal experience of following what is going on, like a collective conversation, it only barely fits the category of ”experimental art”, the signifier that replaces the historical avant-garde and the music world to which this music has been assigned. It does not have a musical world of its own. That would necessitate a musical object at the center, and there is no such object; whatever status and judgment of the art object might be possible is bolted on and can be unbolted and discarded— in fact that is the cyclic story of this music, were one to seek out the details.
2. The inside and the outside
The micro system of the human endeavor called music is paralleled in politics and more than that, they increasingly mirror each other in the contemporary world. Both are subsumed under an ontological order for which there can be things and people not easily comprehended or categorized but at the same time are not unambivalently outside. Like the ancient “Greek” and “barbarian”, the modern “inside” and “outside” function together as an ideological pair, dividing being between them. Today’s border is like the geographical river, presumed to separate but actually joining the two, and the two are thought to comprise the whole. This order includes the urge common to art and politics to frame and represent an “outside” as that which it is not. For left culture this self- and other-perception of an inside and an outside assumes politics and art as the dual-functioning mediator, even the intercessor between them. Music for instance is divided this way, some being considered “out”, while the “inside” is called mainstream or conventional, yet as with its counterpart, the signal/noise dichotomy, this distinction is fragile and tends to break down over short periods of time; its expected breakdown is part of what constitutes it. For the art of left culture the arrow tends towards noise, just as for left culture politics it tends towards the outside, those seen as excluded, where attention is directed. We don’t have real art, it argues, we don’t have real political value, they do. Yet sociologically those who included in the label "artist"
This dynamic has increasingly become the driving force making Art a component of the broad culture and a common ground for those who perceive themselves on the left. Art is the model for “creativity”, with negative liberty (freedom from rules) as its ideology: to be an artist you must first of all lose your chains. Art is freedom incarnate, and “free” democratically opens its doors to all. The historical tendency, which originates in Victorian times, has been for those who think of themselves as included (roughly, those who see their aesthetic as powerful in the world) to turn sympathetically toward those they identify as excluded (the depoliticized and disinherited). If asked, the included may well think of themselves as alienated, but culturally they respond as if their world lies beyond their family, neighborhood and coworkers, which constitutes the world for those seen as excluded. Even in rebellion the included take on the tradition of the wider culture and are embarrassed by their inside position, which they think of as privilege, in the face of those on the other side of the wall. They see themselves politically divided by a stone fortification from rebellious slaves and peasants, laborers, recent immigrants, the poor of the world. Culturally their outside is figured as the bohemian, the suffering genius, the mad, obsessive-compulsive artist. In the past few decades this figure has been formulated as the Outsider artist, untouched by the corruptions of the market. On the one hand the suffering multitude, on the other the suffering artist. Since in their imaginary they are divided from suffering, those self-perceived as privileged must ignore, mis-recognize and even disallow their own actual suffering. At the same time, however, the wall functions to keep those inside from getting out, which they are often tormented to acknowledge. Here art and politics diverge. Towards the outside the political inside is guilty for their privilege of not having to suffer, and is obliged to pay politically, whereas the artistic inside, the spectator especially, thinks he is missing something that is outside and envies it. The outside others are what the privileged cannot be or reach, the gap of desire.
Here then is the paradoxical desire of both politics and of art, stronger now in its postmodern development: to include the outside, which is the political project, and to be or at least to validate the outside, which is the envy at the core of the spectator of art. These are two aspects of the same imaginary, both of which involve a vision of progress and irreversibility but are ultimately non-technological or scientific. The first would be considered the thrust of liberal democracy since the 19th century (Mill and the gradual expansion of the electorate—and now doesn’t the whole world vote in the US presidential election?) The second aspect has gone under the name of avant-garde, at least since the late 19th century, and continues today as a mass phenomenon (since Warhol we’re all artists—at least the cultural left) rather than encased in the modernist “movement”. The desire which has increased in strength with globalization is to be inside at the same time as outside, at least in imagination, that is, to be the power on that threshold, the generous gatekeeper. Art enables a soft or weak politics, one which does not wish to have or be confused with Power, does not have to be hypocritical. Will to power is seen as the masculinist Old Left, a Grand Theory idea, a politics for which art could only be a kind of advertising. We don’t make, we create.
The outsider subject of such politics and art is not the self and not the collective in which one finds oneself but more generously the other, which then gets framed, colonized, and its lack of privilege reversed. This is the kiss of death, but it is impossible to accept that one has killed what one wanted to keep pure. The presumed inside, in this ontology, can only think of itself as anti-colonial, anti-racist, and necessary for the world in order to correct its ways. To hold such opinions of oneself is considered an act, in itself virtuous, and need not be transformed into anything more overt. From this point of view, as soon as one interpellates and recognizes the outside, which means to distinguish and value it, the door is at least swung open to let in the outsiders. Presumably they will, if there is a critical mass of like opinion, eventually cross the threshold.
This is as
far as I have gotten as of this writing. I have removed many loose
ends (such as whether left art and politics compensate each other,
which I suspect), and if I look through this one more time I will
find much more that needs re-examining, elaborating, or deleting.
It is not mine to do alone, but calls for our joint effort, at best
in face-to-face conversations. You may email me at jackwri444 at aol.com.
Actually, I have no right to keep this long essay online, since this apparent withdrawal was only one phase of a repeated cycle. Only a few weeks after editing it for the nth time I went back on my word and dived back into the fray of organizing tours, as if writing it were merely a prelude to reversing it. The sentiments remain, like the dregs I will some day again choke on the next time I'm drained and fed up. What I'm a junky for, and willing to prostitute myself to the "infinitely expanding marketplace" for, is probably obvious, I'm only glad it's no more harmful a substance than the next musical excitement almost within reach.
I want to leave the music business. The extent to which I can do this and still be playing music in front of others is another question. It is also a question how long I can avoid the urge to organize another tour, since the organized tour, rather than recording or playing gigs as they come up, is my preferred mode of musical experience. My business efforts have not failed, they have simply come to overwhelm the actual artistic focus of playing and developing music. In other words “work” to which I give a positive valuation in my life has been increasingly replaced by “work” that has the negative connotation of a means to an end, as in "the working world". My intention is to reverse the order, to spend my time with actual music and other creative pursuits rather than devoting my life to business.
This desire has been present for at least two years but, as a kind of junkie for musical experience, I have only gotten more deeply mired in the business of creating musical events of my choosing. The effort now to reverse the order of my work life even comes at a time when I am relatively successful in getting gigs and organizing tours. The hard work of soliciting venues and promoters, helping others (mutual back-scratching and networking), maintaining the image required of a serious musician, alongside scattered but genuinely positive responses to my music—all this has gotten me to a very good place in the music world. I have little reason to complain beyond normal grousing, not enough by itself for me to want to lighten my work load. I have thankfully not become a star; for a combination of reasons not all of my making; my name or image does not attract audiences automatically like a magnet. Yet when I perform I am known to some through reputation, and that has certainly helped my business. I have preferred listeners rather than a public, and that is largely what I’ve had. I consider it my special triumph to have been able to limit my performing partners to those whom I choose on the grounds of my musical interest in playing with them, which is often not the case for professionals who are paid decent amounts of money.
Something has changed in the music world, perhaps inevitable and foreseeable, to bring about this desire to withdraw, and I will try to explain.
“Musician” has usually been a difficult vocation that, with the recording industry now largely in control of the profession, provides a living for a decreasing number of players, with a few top sellers and many competing for their slots. The American free improvisers, who appeared in the mid-seventies and played neither composed music nor jazz, were not able to bring home the bacon, that is, could barely cover the costs of playing their music before an audience. Nor did they expect to, with rare exceptions, without broadening and adapting their music to a version of rock, jazz or other commercial music. Significantly, “improvisational” was an attractive code word for “creative” in the eighties; it was a label slapped onto any music that could hope to be marketed, mostly where actual free playing was not in evidence. Actual free playing was underground and unknown except to its players, their friends, and passers-by. Only people willing to be cast as eccentrics and exiles from normative values would enter and remain in the field. There were then not many who would jump straight from music school into this music. Such players, inheritors of some aspects of the defunct avant-garde, tended to hold a view of the artist as independent; one’s reward was not social, typically it was even perversely anti-social. One would have to sacrifice social satisfaction (such as pleasing one’s parents by choosing a reasonable career) for a quirky music fetish. The obscurity of the free improviser in the seventies and eighties was comparable to that of visual artists before the expressionist market explosion in the fifties; it kept the numbers down, discouraging all but the boldest or most reckless heretics. Like librarians, we were supposed to be compensated by doing what we loved to do, always an argument for low pay and status. Largely for this reason many defected to more promising fields by the late eighties, at least supplementing free playing with paying gigs that had decent audiences.
Beginning in the late nineties and continuing today, improvised and composed music in the avant-guard tradition was reborn as a niche interest among younger musicians, where it could be considered popular at the same time as an alternative to the mainstream. Obscurity became a semblance of cultural transgression, reversing its role in the social order, now functioning to attract rather than dissuade. Free improvisation became a minor sub-genre, a realistic possibility, an opportunity in the age when the artistic, "creative" individual merges with the socially conventional career seeker, as had happened earlier in the visual arts. Once again it has been confirmed that the twentieth century avant-garde, which had been in conflict with the dominant culture, can only be resurrected as an aesthetic and not as a critical movement. In the pluralist marketplace every niche is its own consumer group, competing for the entertainment dollar and in no way in conflict with the market system. Free improvisation has come to offer a vocation based on expectations that it would be a growing cultural field and not on real and stable income, like traditional working class musicians. Even the state and foundations have begun to give its sanction in the form of grants; universities provide courses in the proper way to improvise freely, and not just jazzily.
This trend is wedded to a broader social development, also of American origin, which encourages all kinds of personal expression in a public format and stage performance in particular. The thrust behind it is egalitarian, at the same time ego-enhancing, and even of therapeutic validation: we all have the right to the kind of self-esteem that comes from audience (social) approval. The fifteen minutes of fame, which was quite a joke at the time of Warhol’s quip, has now become a social ethic, an entitlement on the way to being a duty. The only way to be counted as a human being is to be “in public”, and the public refers today simply to people who witness you. Performance and the mania for self-presentation is a non-political egalitarian advance, a continuation of New Left “participation” by other, more available means in a conservative political environment. One can pursue one’s love of music not as an amateur in private but actually perform it; in fact amateurism and the embarrassment to reveal one’s inadequacies has been overcome by the new performance ethic. Whether professor or politician, one is judged on the basis of the effectiveness of one’s performance, not far from the applause meter in fifties games shows. Joined to Reagan-era entrepreneurial fever, in the form of DIY careers-for-everyone, the performance ethic has finally reached those with tastes familiar to the anti-social eccentrics of the eighties.
There are improvisers from the seventies and eighties attractive to the American performing market today through a reputation as legendary and once boldly creative, but none without jazz credentials, which is still the recognized stamp of authenticity in the US. These players are in demand and often invited to festivals, where they are expected to draw the best audience. Besides them are growing numbers who compete through upward-mobile determination, organizing and business skills, trend-setting intuition, and beneficient factors such as gender, age, race, appearance, etc. Such factors are not surprising, since the audience for free improv/free jazz constitutes an enclave of young, urban, apolitical but ideologically multicultural liberals, who have grown up in retreat from a conservative world. What that means practically is that if I tour with another unknown old white man like myself, for instance, my audience will generally be considerably less and gigs harder to get than if my partner is someone of more popular identity and image. This is merely a fact, however inconvenient.
Since only a handful of “in demand” musicians make enough money to be able to refuse door gigs, what constitutes a professional or vocational free improviser today reasonably includes those who simply get a myspace page and start signing up for gigs. To many venue presenters a myspace is even more attractive than a personal website, the dominant advertising medium of only a few years before. It indicates youth and social networking over the “traditional” self-marketer who presented signs of long-term commitment, accomplishment and acceptance. Audiences are likewise not required to be committed, even to pay the musicians who have entertained them. This is evident in that door gigs, which used to be scorned by performers as a mere first career step are increasingly being replaced by passing-the-hat, which makes paying for a performance voluntary. This is akin to busking in the street, literally begging, a considerable step down from the status of worker paid a known amount for a job. Yet given the new cultural situation, to be on a stage is actually considered a step up in status from any kind of wage work, even if one has to work a demeaning temp-job in order to do it.
Most gigs are available first-come, first-served, such that those who began twenty years ago are waiting in line, hustling and back-scratching no less than those who got in the business two months ago. As the flood of CD’s has driven down sales for each individual player, so the flood of prospective players, all seeking to perform as often as possible, has created a buyer’s market. The buyers—presenters, promoters, organizers—are themselves DIY’ers who have only a certain number of slots to offer, and rarely any money besides the door, if that, minus any cut from the venue. Audience growth has not kept pace with the number of performers, partly because of the in-group nature of the urban scene, which attracts a singular type of defined customer rather than curious music-lovers.
The market is where the musicians are, virtually all of them, whether they recognize it or not. If you want to get beyond playing for your friends you must have visibility and status or put in the work to acquire it. High-brow entertainment, even for an audience of five, is still entertainment and part of the culture industry. Venues are not interested to present players without something of a text or image to promote them; it is hype that brings in the audience beyond the few regulars. In this sense, these musicians are indeed workers, although reluctant to see themselves as such. Unfortunately, the adverse proportion of musician to audience means there is no possibility for collective bargaining, or even individual pressure for better pay and conditions. In this sense these players are entrepreneurs, but lacking a business that actually accounts for itself in financial terms. This is where youth comes in, for the young have visions of future success—or at least an obliviousness to the possibility of failure--which sustains them and appears positively as idealism, as American as the struggling basement band next door.
Already there are signs that free improvisation no longer holds the attraction it did even five years ago. List-serves from ’98 to ‘02 that overflowed with enthusiasm for free improv have been wholly replaced by spam for concerts and cd’s. Private sessions, solely for the sake of musical exploration, have taken a back seat to gigs and recording sessions. This is clearly not a question of money, since the gigs barely pay for carfare and the cd’s cost players more than they earn. Rather it is considered nonsensical to spend time playing music off stage when gigs, even for a handful of listeners, are available. Finally, public funding is becoming available for any music that is “adventurous”, but it must be charted notationally or graphically to qualify, and university credentials are the best authentication for funding boards. Improvisers are encouraged to put their hopes on building their resumes and possible livelihood from music with compositional elements or at least appearance. To step beyond the improv youth ghetto requires credibility in the adult culture, which requires fresh but tamed young players.
I myself have clearly taken advantage of the growth of free improvisation and greatly encouraged it. Ambition of the young, plus the current unity of business and artistic career has brought into my musical world a huge number of players who challenge and interest me. It is largely because of them that I returned East from the boondocks of Colorado in 2003 and sought out these players, who had developed a new way of playing that attracted me.
A market seemed to be opening, of musicians if not audience, and I began to pursue the route of professionalization to make myself available. I did what I had to do: created a website that would promote me, allowed an article on me to appear in Signal to Noise, reworked my resume to make myself more attractive to promoters (my earlier bio had proclaimed that I was “not in the marketplace”), released cd’s by the carload (until ’99 my project had been to make one recording every ten years—now I have over forty!), and tracked down every contact to a potential gig. As an older and obscure musician with no ties to accepted music I had to become a self-promoter, though I painted my image as close as possible to the difficult reality. I refused many common but unethical devices musicians use to promote themselves, such as listing famous musicians with whom they were no longer or never were real partners. On the non-commercial side, I organized weekend sessions called No Net of around nine players, a marathon of playing to push our development as a musical community. Yet taking on music as a career was still a big step towards conforming with the normal functioning of the world, which had always been problematic. Through all this work I gained a place that most musicians would find enviable.
The amount of work this takes is a burden common to many mid-level musicians (in the scene hierarchy, that is) like myself, and for me it has been sustainable, though with increasing reluctance. My father was a low-level bureaucrat and I always vowed I would not follow him there. This is in fact what the job entails: a large amount of office work for the small amount of actual reward of playing music of my choosing. That this proportion of non-musical work is increasing certainly contributes to my choice to withdraw from it.
There is a deeper problem for me elsewhere, an inner contradiction with the music world that would not necessarily be a concern for other players. The more successful I am as a professional the more am I limited to playing a socially determined role and fulfilling a certain image, and I find this confining, claustrophobic even, and alienating. As a lover and player of music I am in contradiction with the job I have to do and the reward structure. It is assumed, for instance, that a musician would hope for a larger audience, an appreciative public, and better pay. It is true that I am often disheartened when, as recently, I played in a huge auditorium with an audience of only two. Yet I have always preferred small, diverse, even accidental groupings of curious and hesitant listeners over a large, scene-driven self-congratulating elite public clamoring for a spectacle. The ultimate of the spectacle is the festival, and I have not generally sought them out as good playing situations or for self-validation (morale-boosting). Festivals do sometimes open the door to more gigs and more money, and so makes my job easier, and more possible to play with other musicians, such as Europeans, who expect to be paid better than Americans generally do. But my preference is the more intimate situation with a diverse audience—low pressure, minimal concept of what will happen, and a more spontaneous, authentic response from listeners (especially evident in conversations afterwards).
I have not changed with the times. I am still back there with the social pariahs, and have not rejoiced in the new market situation, only in the new players, most of whom would not have been drawn to a music without the promise of normal social success somewhere down the road. In the past I was happy with a small audience and no wide appeal, only resentful (to my later regret) of those who did find ways to manipulate promotional appeal. Now a preference for small audiences can no longer be taken as a cover for the lack of a market, instead it is an anachronism, or worse, a sign of musical failure just as large audiences and sales of cds represent musical success.
I never intended to be successful in providing a service people would pay for. My aim was to challenge myself and follow my musical path, and to do this I had to play with people who were interesting to me. Many of these people were European, and as an unknown I had to become or at least appear to be a professional in order to get the kind of gigs that paid well enough to get me to Europe and to pay the group. My musical interest was not the one-shot highly paid concert, which is the financial life blood of European players, but the serial performance possible with the tour, which requires a huge amount of organizing. I have been able to tour there because of my tenacity and ability to cultivate relationships, but as state funding decreases and competition increases there is more and more work with less result.
Whether presenters or other musicians perceive oneself as a professional, "serious musician", is crucial, and the rules for this have changed. In the 80’s to invest the money for a single record was considered enough to establish oneself, a kind of union card. It cost me a quarter of my income in 1982 to do this, but it was the only price I had to pay. As for image, an improviser was only half-considered legitimately as a musician anyway, so this was not a concern. One who only played freeform might be thought of as a kind of homeless wanderer outside normal expectations, an anomaly respected for one’s personal choice perhaps but not with any pretence of making a contribution to art or society, which requires actual followers, devotees, or consumers. For an ex-sixties politico like myself, who resisted the Reagan reaction, this absence of social role made sense. I felt I was experiencing the world more immediately, in its fullness, at least not mediated by others’ understanding of how one functioned as a supposed member of society. There was no "scene"; my audience was mostly other musicians, friends-of-friends and accidental walk-in listeners. What I played did not fall within a genre of music for which they were the consuming public. At best they wanted to hear something they didn’t quite grasp, that perhaps they didn’t even want to judge, as one normally judges Art first in order to value it.
All this has radically changed. Last fall percussionist Andrew Drury and I played in Mostar, Bosnia and got an unusual response from a woman, “…but what is your motivation?” This is a question that would not be asked in more culturally sophisticated Europe or in the US improv scene today. Our motivation is understood here as part of the profession of the musician, who normally wants an unambiguously positive audience response, an indication that he is on the right path. Such is not my desire. Back in the eighties I may have been Johnny Appleseed spreading free improvisation in America, but I also saw myself as a kind of Socrates, as if asking people, “Is this mess I just played music—if not, then what IS music? And what do you want?” This was obliquely related to other questions that were being thrown under the rug, about the boundaries we put on all our experience, political and otherwise. Improvisation for me was revolt by other means; I meant to keep revolt alive--that was my life purpose as it translated into music. As I have felt politics must engage self-inquiry and doubt, so also music—in the moment it is actually played as well as in reflection. This too is revolt, related to the periodic revulsion for one’s own music, as of one’s political choices. So I didn’t want a complacent audience of followers but listeners who were conflicted, and even in conflict with me as to the value of what I did.
Today, that one should embody revolt through improvisation is not possible to maintain and communicate. What is valued for performance in improv is the same as for other genres—not the actual process of intelligent searching but the presentation of what one has found. I play today mostly for a specific cultured public, and as an accepted musician I have a respected place in that small world. This provides a secure setting in which to present music, since the response is all but guaranteed, yet in the denial of conflict that very guarantee denies a fully spontaneous interaction with listeners. There is a conventional frame around the music which values it before a single sound is made. Performances are linked one to another, and a tour is successful if it becomes a series of simulacra, without the risk of failure. Musical failure and business failure have become identical, and without the possibility of failure—rejection of one’s own music--there is no growth, at least for me. From a musical point of view this situation is boring and alienating. This re-minted avant-garde music world is no different from other market exchanges, except that here one is buying the ideology that the end is idealized Art or expression, and not profit and personal advancement. Whatever means are necessary is subordinated to that supremely valid end, which is seen as vaguely an alternative to the dirty world of capitalism, hierarchy, repression--and to political conflict. An artist is on the right side, liberal, tolerant, etc. almost by definition, without lifting a finger to confront what everyone knows to be exploitative and unjust.
To many this is very seductive, not only as a role in relation to the world but in relation to one’s own artistic activity. It is indeed very unusual for a performer not to be enchanted when receiving attention from a consuming public or disappointed when that is lacking. A public is a condensed, singular entity, as opposed to multiple listeners, who may or may not “buy” what they are hearing; it is no wonder the former is preferred. Similar with written criticism; the performer is thrilled with a complimentary review, regardless of its lack of literary value or insight, criticism that could be very useful to the player. Today the ideology of Art reigns supreme, including the belief that the best rises to the top and is recognized and rewarded almost without hesitation. “Obscure outsider” is only a stepping-stone to the media success story we can read in the small avant-garde music press (Signal to Noise, The Wire) just as we find in mainstream magazines. The story of the unacknowledged and only posthumously recognized artist is a thing of the past; the acknowledged front-runners today are considered comparable to the geniuses that the past suppressed. In the internet age what deserving art could ever remain unheralded? This is parallel to the ideology that we (on the “left”) are at least in the process of uncovering all the oppressed in the world and are finally giving them their due, if only by publicizing them. In fact the Art world of publicity and promotion is as self-congratulatory as the entertainment industry that it seeks to distinguish itself from; its small scale seems to belie this, yet only reinforces the notion that the elite stands for something better. We can have our cake (the artist who suffers nobly from low pay) and eat it too (we are accepted in our lifetime). This validates those most favored in the hierarchy as well as those struggling upwards for recognition. It satisfies the desire to have one’s self-esteem mirrored in the world, where profession, skill, and class (musician as a worker bonded with other workers, for instance) has been replaced by one’s ability to intuit and match what the market calls for. The art world is the triumph of the same neo-liberal capitalism that artists would generally be horrified to find themselves schmoozing with.
I wish to distance myself from this, and that means distance from my own petty struggles to be included and accepted, my competitive resentments. I want my artistic ups and downs to be truly my own and not allied to what the marketplace offers me. In practical terms, pulling back from the business means I will have to minimize my aid to other musicians (mostly Europeans, who get little response when they write directly to American promoters unless they are highly visible); to stop planning grandiose tours in Europe and instead depend on my partners to do the work; to cease soliciting gigs as a daily and continuous activity. I will lose the pleasure of being considered one of the best tour organizers around, of having something to point to that validates me as a musician. I must not respond to the next great playing experience with someone by saying, “we should do a tour!”. I will have to hold back, which is not in my nature to do!
Improvisation, unlike composition, is dependent on actually playing before and with others. So I might lose a lot of what I love to do, the intensity of new musical discovery, of searching new routes of expression and influence. I might also lose the surreptitious pride I have in being something of an “international” musician, and whatever other promotional label that might be applied to me (the "Johnny Appleseed of improvised music" has served me quite well!). But I expect such a retreat, however limited, to open up a space in myself that puts me in touch with the world once again without the mediation of role or job, a place of no importance. Importance is always comparative, a social and market factor, but a player’s true, personal relation to what he or she does musically always has another track available on which to be understood. My purpose now would be such self-understanding.
This shift away from the music scene brings me closer to my self, my history of self-questioning and openness to change, which goes back to my early teenage years. It is a history of engagement followed by pulling back, spiraling and recycling from the active to the contemplative life and back again. Actually, for about ten years, from ‘89 to ‘99 I was mostly reading, writing, painting, and thinking. Now my function must again change with the times, from full-fledged booster and participant to the sidelines. Who knows what is to be found there, even musically?
I certainly expect to continue playing and even some touring in the US. I am welcomed to play here, especially outside the large cities, and so must expend little effort, but without enough pay to bring my European partners unless they can find support on their own.
I am not looking for a rest, because I am not tired; quite the contrary, I have more real energy for my own interests as ends in themselves. My first enthusiasm is to create some open space, then watch to see what will fill it.
I recently came across
something I had written twenty years ago, and it gave me a small
jolt. I was asserting my interest in playing music out of my need
and desire to play, and simply making my music available to others.
I was scornful of those who slighted their love of music for success
in the marketplace. Now, instead of pursuing that dream I see myself
thoroughly wrapped up in the means to that end, and the end becoming
confused with the means. Instead of a lover and creator of music
there is most often the conventional career musician, filling out
endless job applications--not much musical adventure in that!
[Basically this same article has been translated into French and published in the publication Improjazz, Jan. 2008 and is available here ]
Why I do this and Why it is public
A huge variety of purposes motivates the players of different musics, some hidden, some overt. Wakened from a deep sleep I might well say that I play to open the heart, mine and others in some way that joins us. As I become aware of what I just said, I want to modify and elaborate this, embarrassed and expecting misunderstanding. I could instead say that I am motivated aesthetically, which places the motivation in the mind that evaluates alternatives, and makes playing a kind of argument for a set of ideas or principles about what the content of the music should be. But in fact I am aesthetically pleased only when some break has occurred in the wall that normally stands inside me and between us. Without such walls life would not function, yet without their breaking there would be no growth of the self. This is also called love, not the sentiment of personal attachment but the deepest and original purposes we share. That is, when we make our life choices we hopefully say, this is what I love to do, and so life becomes an elaboration of that love. And, of course, also a manipulation and betrayal of it--let's not forget that!
For me, then, this is the possibility especially for the solo performance, when there is no other player to rely on; it is the opportunity, surrounded and encouraged by elements of ritual, for a mutual opening. My work, my artistic oeuvre, is not to present or represent my music to you but to progressively remove the obstacles to our full relation. For my part I must get past my own anxiety, my fears of displeasing, my embarrassment and self-consciousness in order to uncover my deepest and richest self--that is my self-opening. When I play a concert or a studio recording you are there in my mind, the one being that you are individually, as if you are the whole world. You are the one that makes my playing a public act (and more of you does not make it more public!) I am not doing this to demonstrate any principles or to gain your favor but by this self-opening to suggest a path to the recesses of your own self. This is what I really think is going on between us. I am allowing you to see, if I am able to glimpse this myself, how what seems so impossible and even disruptive to normal consciousness could be so unexpectedly simple and direct. Your part is what you bring or don't bring, whether you come to judge, to be challenged, to dismiss or applaud, or whether you come without such expectations, free to meet, to find the music as an event happening in yourself.
Free improvisation cannot be defined or understood as a series of positive propositions, like a program that can be advertised and advocated. At the heart of it is an essential conflict.
On the one hand, it is playing for its own sake, “just playing”, the activity without the intent to create any object that can be judged, not even to create musicians. It is unselfconscious spontaneity, attracting those who love risking themselves and growing out of their skins. It encourages one to play free of judgment and conclusion for a period of time that is unlimited, ended only arbitrarily. Sometimes it is difficult to tell when the playing has stopped, since all the boundaries of play are only temporary, and spontaneity inherently transgresses boundaries. This could include boundaries between sound, movement, and speech as well, everything can be brought into play. There is spontaneity in all music at the moment of playing; free improvisation however puts it at the center, as the sine qua non.
Playing with boundaries rather inside of them is the challenge of this music to our commodified culture, which requires predictability in order to function, even predictible innovation. It is what makes free playing so difficult to categorize, assimilate, market, reproduce and teach. Music in all its genres can be recorded, copied, packaged, etc. and will still convey its meaning as music, whereas this is playing before we or anyone can understand it as music.
Those who play in this sense are, to the extent they do this, not musicians seeking to fulfill a role through playing. They relate to each other as persons playing rather than as musicians. Some may have learned the musician role and take it on in their lives, even seriously without acknowledging they are playing a role, but when they play freely they leave it aside. A role is a mask intended to impress others, which all of us use in varying degrees and with varying success in order to participate in society and earn its rewards. It must be performed for those who do not share that role as well as those who do. Like actors musicians usually call themselves performers; they follow a script that non-players must be able to recognize. But in free playing there is no script; one literally does not know what will happen. One cannot predict what style or form the playing will take, and cannot promise that it will be anything like before, even if there is little variation. The skills a musician has worked on to create a certain music may be entirely inappropriate to a free playing situation compared to a player looking forward to the unexpected. Free players therefore cannot be ranked according to the amount of musical training they have received, or how fast or efficiently they play, or even their command of a vocabulary. It is even questionable whether as free players they can be considered successful or not, since there are no winners or losers here.
Free playing is defined more by what it is not than what it is. Since only what is definable can be said to have form, it is not a form of music in a catalogue of forms or genres. It is not above or below the attainment of form so much as aside from it, seeking it, one might say, only to dissolve it. As it does not involve success or failure to reproduce a form given from outside the moment, it cannot be rehearsed (the French call rehearsal a répétition). One cannot “get it right”, so it is free of that kind of judgment (as in jazz one might validly accuse the drummer of not keeping time). It does not need to be recorded; some would say it cannot be, since the recording of the playing is not the playing. As for performing, others can be present who do not participate, but if the players begin to shift their interest to performing, attempting to please, provoke or otherwise draw the attention of the non-players, then they have lost focus on the central activity of playing. Rather than call it a performative music, one could say it is simply overheard.
To the extent that players are deeply drawn to this spontaneity they will not be bothered by the cultural rejection of what they do as music, which refers to the results and products of playing. All music is played, at one time or another, but not all playing is music or intended to become music, which always involves some evaluation by a cultural standard. Free improvisation is playing that is valued by the players whether it is considered music or not. It is valued at the moment of playing or not at all.
This is not playing according to rules, nor is it making the rules as we go along. One cannot have what are called rules if no one is bound by anything consistently over the time of playing. One might be tempted to say that if someone consistently plays too loudly, too densely, or overplays they violate a rule. But we can also imagine that as simply another situation to surprise us, even a stimulus. At least it is debatable; even if we choose not to play with that person right then, there might be another context where such playing is perfect. There is no aesthetic in charge. We might wish the other would do something different, but we’ve chosen not to put any force behind that, since we want everyone to be free to do what he or she wants, not the least so that we ourselves can be free.
One might consider it a rule to suspend judgment of others during playing, as a mental act that impedes it. This is more an aid to playing well than a rule, however, and is unenforceable. Sometimes people say the one rule is non-judgmental listening, but no one can define how that is to be judged and make it stick, and a true rule would have to provide a clear idea to all players of what this means in all cases. But there is an overall intent guiding play. That is to do whatever enables the freedom of the playing, to be open to all possibilities, and to avoid creating rules for specifically how to play.
Lacking external musical and market standards, no one can be excluded from free playing. If anything goes then anyone is invited in. No one is excluded except those whose intention is not to play freely but insist on playing according to external rules, boundaries that are not brought into the play. Only the absence of rules might qualify as a consistent, defining rule; it is why free improvisation is more adequately called non-idiomatic music. If you are playing a musical idiom, however well, like classical music or jazz, then it will make it difficult for the free players to continue their playing, for someone has entered whose playing is based on what is derived from outside what is happening at the moment. It blocks others from playing, and free playing aims at an atmosphere that encourages it to continue. It is a kind of noise, like the interference of of a constant motor sound, whereas it is often possible to play freely with ambient, changing sounds, which approach the contributions of the players.
Another kind of noise comes from musical personalities, players who have developed a style for solo performance and cannot leave it at the door when they enter free playing. This is another case where musical skill and even the greatest recognized success is of negative value. It is like when the trained soloist is included in a chorus; the voice can usually be clearly distinguished, when what is desired is anonymity and blending with others.
Finally, playing cannot be determined by an aesthetic, as in the various genres and subgenres of music. An aesthetic is a rule, a predetermination of what is and is not considered valid, and is vital to presenting and marketing any music to a consuming audience. Like jazz or any other form, it can be duplicated from player to player, and can expand players’ vocabulary once they adopt its rules. There is certainly room inside an aesthetic, like the current one of quiet and minimal sounds, just as there is in jazz, a significant element of spontaneity. But true free playing has no inside or outside. One doesn‘t even play “outside the box“, when any box that begins to appear gets flattened.
These are all aspects of free improvisation that make it extremely attractive to many--the abandonment of roles, the escape from rules, acceptance of all who choose to play, the challenge to commodified music, and the focus on the present moment. It also fits well in a culture that presents itself as valuing freedom. In its modern form, after all, free playing was born during the sixties, the period of our culture when free spirits and spontaneity were valued more highly that the rules and roles of society. Significant numbers of people felt this, and it was hard not to believe that things were moving in that direction. In an age like the present, however, that spirit is often looked on either cynically or nostalgically, as something that is no longer possible. Now it is common to think that everyone is ruled by the required social roles, the only game in town. The freedom of that earlier era could easily be seen as deceptive, faulty, and naïve.
Indeed that freedom is naive, but not because of the misery of social rules and the marketplace. If it is naive, it is so because freedom requires deep self-awareness and questioning in order to get past the surface appearance. When we look closely we find that we’re not so free as we would like to think. The love of play and freedom are only one half of what is going on, one side of the story. It’s as if the optimism of “man is born free but everywhere is in chains” must recognize the pessimism of “I have met the enemy and he is us.“ That is, if there are no rules then we are always going to be able to ask ourselves what we should be doing. We might make our sounds in an environment that is free of judgment as music, yet that environment also allows the free play of our doubts about the validity of every sound we make, how we relate to others through sound. These questions arise in the course of playing and are not settled by any role or social context, or by external standards of what is or is not good music. We face only each other in the room, even if we carry that room with us onto a stage. We are stripped of a support system of which we are normally unaware, our self-esteem, that tells us that we are doing a good job. If free playing dissolves the notion of how good music would be defined then our attachment to the ability to make good music just gets in the way. When everyone is engaged in the same thing we have no one to impress, least of all ourselves.
If the effort is to keep musical forms or idioms or aesthetics from entering and dominating, then players are constantly trying to go beyond the forms of music they were and still are inspired by. The violinist trained in the classical tradition and the saxophonist originally inspired by jazz will have to work very hard to free themselves from the emblematic clichés that indicate and nuance those forms. If they play notes they will take care not to evoke musical forms in any way by the sequence of pitches, not even to take a stance of violating a form. Also, one will work to deconstruct the very form given by the sound of the instrument, what makes it identifiable. This is why so much free playing involves extended techniques, another indication that it strives to be “extra-musical”. The tendency is to play with sound rather than to play an instrument, and this is easier said than done. The question is not simply sound rather than notes, it is which sounds one chooses, just as in jazz it is a matter of the notes, and the details of harmony, etc.
If one is not given a form to reproduce nor is one given a context to determine what is appropriate, not even the direction other players are going. Listening is more a guide than a rule, another word for awareness of the moment and resonating with it, finding its pace, going where it goes on its ever-changeable way. One might even say that as players we are not free to dislike what we hear, to choose it to be different than what it is. If we do, we are outside the circle of playing, as is the critic and audience, who have opinions about the music as the substitute for direct participation. Listening, however, is a different matter, it is more important than the playing, and more difficult to know how to do.
Free playing has attracted people partly because they/we are bounded by external rules of a society that would define and order us in a particular way, and we want to be in charge of ourselves. It is associated with peace, the ending of struggle and boundaries, as if the walls ("phony rules") around us would collapse by themselves if given the chance to. But free playing cannot deliver on this; at least after the initial excitement one begins to realize freedom involves an ever fuller awareness of how we have bounded ourselves. It is difficult, hard work, chosen by those who like to deal with these conflicts that never get finally resolved. It is not surprising that there are very few who choose to do this, few who find it possible or even conceivable to play without knowing the rules.
Here then is encouragement for being children at play, but at the same time adults who are self-conscious to the point, at times, of feeling defeated. To engage in this is to learn how to balance playing with an insecurity that is inherent, for there is nothing we can do that will provide the rewards that social roles promise, such as Master Player. The actual playing will always be a huge distance from the entrepreneurs of the musical marketplace, who proudly present achievements. But there is another kind of reward for players. We have the pleasure to work alongside of sound, sharing nature, rather than functioning as engineers who create, control, and produce it as music, alienating themselves from it. We approach the silence of nature, and wonder whether entering into silence wouldn’t take us further than uttering another sound. We face a kind of emptiness, and without that, and the strength to explore it and grow through it, we have not begun the real possibilities of playing.
Jack Wright, Sept. 2005.
This essay was inspired by James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games. It is an evolution out of two essays I wrote in 1988, Theatre of the Moment, and Against Improvisation, which I issued as a single booklet. Playing has been translated by Noel Tachet and published as "Jouer" in the French publication Improjazz, jan-feb. 2004, and is available online here.
Twenty-two years ago I played the music that became mostly a solo record, Free Life, Singing, and to present it I said, in part, “I want a music of intense pleasure, polymorphous, naïve, risking itself for its own sake…”. It was exuberant, filled with the thrill of having only recently discovered free playing and musical self-expression. That untrammeled pleasure, which I felt would last my life, began to fall apart after ten years. I became self-conscious about the role I was playing, that of a performer and no longer the one fully experiencing what I was doing. As my emotions became required and useful, my music could not be spontaneous, which left me feeling I was a fraud, my music a display. I continued because I knew nothing else to do and still loved playing.
In the nineties, consequently, I put my greatest energies into painting and writing, where I felt most authentic and present. But at the end of the decade I began investigating an approach I found in the music of Bhob Rainey, and I apprenticed myself to a music that was quieter, slower, more chosen than impulsive. It felt alien to me, lacking in drive, unfulfilling and difficult, the contrary of my earlier, more emotive and note-filled expression, and I appreciated it for this reason. It was a point in my life when I needed something to go against me, to welcome awkwardness where there had been confident effusion. My second solo recording, in 2000, Places To Go, marked this period, this hesitant opening to something new.
Gradually sound began to invest my playing, to which discernable pitch was the counterpoint, the memory of what I had loved. Some trips to Berlin, Paris and London, and tours with relatively “reduced” Europeans, began to convince me that I was proceeding in the right direction, rather than just groping. This was my version of the contemporary; strange as avant-garde music often is, yet attentive to inner feeling, changing, and experience. Then in Sept. 2004 I did for the first time what I knew was always possible for improvisation: I sat before two microphones and simply played, and less than an hour later I had the music you will listen to on this disk, only broken into pieces here and there as I felt appropriate.
Here is what I wrote my son, Ben, one of my partners: “I'm more excited about music than I have been in a long time, feel like I’m playing even more from the heart, though perhaps a different relation to the heart, not just letting go or getting off, propelling it out of me as I used to. It feels like I'm holding each sound carefully in my hands, aware of when I bring in new elements and so really choosing to do so. I’m not afraid that if I’m conscious I’ll lose connection with it, because it‘s a consciousness of touching and being touched, and not thinking. It is not involved with worrying that what I do could be better; it is better than “better“.
“I saw the Andy Goldsworthy film the other night and relate to what he says about working with nature; sound is the nature for me here. It takes a lot of work (and like Andy I have a positive relation to that word!) to arrange it, or re-arrange it, in ways that let that nature come through, and not simply use it for some human purpose. In a way it's more composed, and yet because I'm working with a certain material that I respect and is given, the end result is not mine. I‘ve never liked having a claim on it anyway. I'm not expressing myself so much as aiding the material to express or organize itself. “
“None of this, however, is a criticism of my past, it's just that I feel a different energy and way of handling things, more delicate and tender, not so rough in treating the music, not so declarative. Perhaps this is a shift from a masculine to a more feminine approach, as if I don't have to assert my music as I once did, or present it, as the artist/performer thinks of it, but more truly share it with myself and others. For years, really since the late eighties, I felt there was something beyond what I was doing, something waiting for me, and now here it is.”
Inevitably, this music will be stamped with its place, its genre, as if it is a kind of music and not music. As a genre or a scene that tells us we are surrounded by people who understand us, the avant-garde turns inward on itself, a circle that encloses and is meant to protect. I could never be content here, because my ears seek out the strange and unprotected, the insecure rather than the familiar, as if only that can reveal me to myself. And we are only strange when we are in the wide world, our pleasure is breathing with it. Only this single being creates this music here recorded, out of the air breathed by all, the fingers, the body, the lips, the throat we share.
The CDR is the format I prefer over the CD for the Spring Garden Music series “Ears Only”. It is my response to the absurdity of pretending there is a market for every recording of this unorthodox music, and a rebuke to the desire to give this ephemera the presumed durability of achievement. Who needs that? But there are a few musicians today who have not been lured by the promise of acquiring legitimate status through the marketplace, which has penetrated even the once-safe havens of obscure, self-determined artists. In this age, it seems everyone wants to show they know how to deal. While ambition has often motivated musicians to greater vitality and independence, the present craze for scenes and validation from others has led to a totally uncritical merger of career and the socially normative, mystifying “product“.
The factory-made CD is such a product, manufactured in minimum batches of 500, with no one to pay for it but the musicians themselves, at least in the US (an occasional exception proves the rule). If we think of recordings as masterpieces to be enshrined, as are compositions, works produced by an artist every several years or more, then the CD makes good sense. But improvisers are experimenters, who need to share what we have done most recently, and not pass around the music of the past. The past for the player is problematic, in a very different way than for the critic and audience; we often despise what others are attached to. We have memorable high points, but the most urgent excitement we feel is for what is current; last year is the old stuff. So we can be expected to create many recordings in a year, each one of interest in its way, as our focus and thinking change, and new partners appear and offer new directions. Copies of these might have all the high quality of the best recordings, and attractive, thoughtful graphics, but to conceive of these as products is a fantasy. There are exceptions, where a recording can be realistically assessed to have enough buyers to justify the CD expense, and in Europe labels have backers willing and able to pay the cost of production. But in the US generally for experimental, and particularly acoustic free improvisation, the low-budget, more fragile and more quickly, individually produced CDR is the appropriate medium. The drive to CD production for us is not just wishful thinking, it is the dream that our music can somehow be included in the magic circle of the socially approved--on a small scale, we can be just like the big guys, the ones who sell millions. The wish is to be “taken seriously”; that is the kind of conformism that appeals to artists, however independent and avant-garde they imagine themselves, and it’s what the schools are encouraging. Hidden behind this is the distant dream of celebrity status, what the American dream has become, the hope that anonymous others will come hear us play because we are famous and valuable to the culture. I would encourage us to go the other direction.
Certainly, many excellent musicians genuinely love business, know how to promote and sell, and I would not discourage them from doing what they love to do. But there are others, like myself, who are not so suited, are only confused and shy at the prospect of being located on the market. Some of us, that is, are not thrilled by sales or audience size or prestigious gigs or grants, nor motivated by the desire to be remembered after we’re gone. For us the question is: what am I doing now, how deep can I go. What is love, suffering, my experience, my truest pleasure. Am I playing to express and project myself towards others or to enter more deeply into my human existence, my existence as nature. There is a different possibility that we are made for than to be represented by goods, with our value on the scene, our value musically, aligned with their progress. So we have to find the words and the ways to get our music to others by other means, bypassing the scene, the valuation, and the merch table.
This series of CDR recordings, spread freely among friends, musicians, and anyone who shows an interest, is another way to reach ears. Sell my music, my “releases“? Well, ok, certainly some can reasonably be expected to sell, but I’d rather say I make them available, to those who need this music as much as I do. At least for these, I say--lose the bar code, ears only.
January 3, 2005
on the NoNet workshops go here....This
essay is somewhat a matter of history, as the debate referred to seems
to be coming to a close, and was so even at the time of writing. It
is now clear that most reductionists have moved away from their aesthetic,
somewhat similarly to the way Dogma filmakers have gone beyond their
original rules. However, it is not irrelevant, since reductionism
is still the background to the present situation.]
We start with the apparently simple desire not to do something false, and we are led directly into falseness. This is the betrayal of innocence, another word for that which is not false. The opposite of the false is the truth, but there is falseness implicit in the pursuit of the truth. Better to stay with the awareness of our utter susceptibility to falseness and watch ourselves betrayed time and again.
This occurs as a regular theme in playing music. Every sound or pause we make, every moment we enter into music we are susceptible to thinking that we have done something good, have created something of value. And this is the betrayal of the innocence of what we do, what music truly is and why it exists; even to think what we do is beautiful because it is innocent is that betrayal. For music has no value that we have created, music comes from us and to us in spite of our valuing. We are right to question and doubt what we do, not because it makes us create better music, but because questioning puts us in the most open space we can inhabit, where we are most receptive and defeated in our valuations.
The weakness of the avantgarde is right at this point, that it considers and promotes itself to be the high point of its valuation of all music, as if it represents the most valuable music one could be doing. Other music is a matter of taste; the avant-garde is the critical truth. It questions all music and comes up with itself; no other music does this. There is then the danger that it has no grounds to truly question itself, that it is merely the self-promotion of those who have swallowed their own message. Since they claim to pursue the artistic truth without regard for the judgment of those who do not make such claims, if they convince only a few then their truth is only confirmed. The argument of an avant-garde is an example of pure solipsism.
Free improvisation could perhaps be the dutch uncle of the avantgarde family, that is, not really in the family but acting boldly like it is, or, instead of being grateful to be included it is a snide and disloyal critic. It is not in the family because it can never--without falseness--assert value for whatever form it takes, whether a style of a group of players (like reductionism or free jazz) or a talented individual who stands out from the crowd. But it seems to have no other category that it belongs to, so by default it takes up its home--somewhat rudely--in the avantgarde. Or it is given a home, by those who insist that every form of music, like every species of bird, must belong somewhere. In fact it lives in the moment, and the moment is nothing, not even the space between somethings.