Spring Garden Music

 		

essays and thoughts--jack wright

          

----Current Writings on Music----

Anomalous Music

Pulling my head out of the business end of music

An Avant-Garde Reborn--Free Improvisation and the Marketplace--2007

Why I do this and Why it is public

PLAYING --2005

Liner notes for Up for Grabs saxophone solo SGM 12 --2005

Ears Only -- the Spring Garden Music CDR series--2004

Letter to NoNet workshops, July 17-18 and August 21-22, 2004

free improv and the avant-garde

What do we have to do with this mess?--2003

-----Earlier Writings----

This is Music--1983

Where does this music come from--1986

free improvisation as a social act--1986

Theatre of the Moment and Against Improvisation--1988

Letter to Ear Magazine--1988

on free improvisation--1992

You Know the Story This separate link includes sixteen pages of a small xeroxed book I made (I won't say "published") in 1989.

 

 

Anomalous Music

 

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.


1.

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.

Pulling my head out of the business end of music

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.


June-September 2008

 

An Avant-Garde Reborn--
Free Improvisation and the Marketplace


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!

     In North America at least, the late 90’s saw the beginnings of a sudden and unexpected expansion of the miniscule world of free improvisation, a resurgence after its decline in the late 80’s. Thanks to the internet and a horde of young new players, and to 90’s-style niche market diversification, a share of the "music world” was allotted the improviser, just like the big boys of jazz and pop music. Once ignored as an unkempt, uninvited guest, improv has been given a meager blessing, its legitimacy as music; the outsider has been invited in and chomps down on the meal with all the others (or at least scraps from the table). And obscurity, which had protected those who were not focused on increasing sales or audience size, became just another word for outsider status, a much coveted label.

          Improvised music depends hugely on the community of players, and it has been growing, and new venues becoming available, through people who are genuine musical enthusiasts and at the same time are attracted to career. The desire to become successful as musicians, rewarded ultimately by fame and good fortune, is as normal for young people as the avoidance of career is abnormal, a sign of laziness or perversity. Careers are booming as the market expands [note: this was written in early 2007, before the financial crash and the dimming of many career expectations]; there is hardly an unknown young player today who can’t, with a minimum of work and contacts, tour the east coast and Midwest, and even return with some pocket money. The number of new CD releases floods a decreasing market, yet the current optimism is such that few of these young musicians care that sales are virtually nil. And the openness of audiences and musicians to hearing what was previously uncategorized, not even “underground”, is genuine. Something of a public exists here, not spectating an Avant-Garde enshrined as past culture, as the 80’s began to resurrect it in museums, but desiring to be challenged by what is untested and unknown to the broader culture. It is miniscule in size, which is part of its attraction, and unpredictable where it will go. This is a basically happy and positive situation; a thousand flowers and ambitions are blooming with no end in sight—that is the period we are in.

    What can’t be overlooked, however, is the shift that has taken place in the relation of this music to the music market. Culture is constantly being turned into capital, and this is no exception, despite the poverty level rewards. Strictly as music, improvisation is an “infinite game” (the concept belongs to James P. Carse), in which the aim is to keep the game going, not to create winners and losers. This is generally what has attracted young musicians and audiences to this music at this point of our cultural history, part of its transgressive appeal. The marketplace, on the other hand, is the dominant finite game on the planet; only as it is expanding, with space for everyone and an endless level playing field, does it seem transparent. To the voracious marketplace nothing can be allowed to exist outside itself, and there is no art that cannot be judged according to its degree of public acceptance, that is, its price tag. This is, incidentally, the dream of both conservative and liberal market enthusiasts, the political spectrum few of us genuinely stand outside of today. The social condition in which we are enmeshed makes it difficult for us to play for others without subtly being turned into a market phenomenon. One is currently either a star or presumed to want to become one, no matter what one actually wants.

Improvised music has advanced from being a forgettable freak appendage to jazz to become a genre of Art, categorized under avant-garde, something to be taken seriously, subject to market categories as all culture is. This makes it difficult for us, as players, to judge what we do, what truly reaches us in our private spaces, apart from any gain it might promise. Our relation to listeners tends to be mediated by aesthetic categories, as if we were trying to create for a specialized, niche market, and this confuses our needs with others'. It is relatively easy to discern what sounds or looks good by standards collectively established, especially by a small in-group. It takes the skill of pleasing others, as we have been taught to do from earliest childhood. The effort to define and create good music, to communicate one's vision, to make a positive impact on a group, even by disturbing them--these all fall under this category of pleasing ourselves by pleasing others. To respond to positive response and avoid failure is what the market is all about, creating the symbiosis of happy consumer and happy producer. It might not produce much wealth but simply personal glory, achievement in the eyes of others, which is inseparable from our sense of what is art.

This is the wide path of the American Dream (shared of course by many who are not American), which in the past decade or two has added to it the dream to be an Artist, the profession that today seems most idealistic and innocent. Who wouldn't like to have a show or at least some scrap of themselves viewed and approved as an object by others; who doesn't want to present "their stuff" as performer, to have their own blog and myspace? Can we conceive of ourselves fully existing as persons today without something to show others? The suffering of this path is considered a worthy suffering, but it is the sacrifice of one's selfhood for the success of one's image, even the prized image of standing fiercely independent of such worldly concerns.

On the other hand one can choose to create out of the tension within oneself, to recognize doubt and weakness and failure, to place the self and its motivations inescapably at the center. This might only be glimpsed by others, and will never give them the same pleasure, if any. To know one is a self is to despair of being one; a dangerous enterprise of solitude and insecurity. “Artistic integrity”, a phrase used to sell art products, actually refers to being as alone as possible with one's judgment, without even self-righteousness as recompense, and this is rarely a pleasant situation. It denies the market interest—those who love our music, invite us to festivals, shower us with praise, buy our recordings or don’t—any say in what we do. It means to share what we create, to invite and welcome, knowing that the vast majority will be looking for tags and labels on us that attest to our value.

 This is the situation we are in, the options available. Those who step beyond the local scene of friends and supporters will find themselves in the marketplace, aware of it or not, where the determining factors are trends and desired image, matched with the “givens” of the performer--ethnicity, gender, age, nationality, management skills, and personality type. Compared to the machinery of matchmaking between market and person, the actual music is of minor importance. This is the dirty secret that venue promoters, matchmakers of audience and musicians, can’t reveal. As for the musician, once aware that one is in competition with every other improviser for scarce gigs, one is under pressure to subordinate music to the effort to expand the ranks of one’s consumers and increase one’s appeal. One is often expected to choose and reject partners, make decisions about cd releases, etc. with that in mind. “Be careful who you play with”; “don’t play for the door” are normal caveats. This transforms music into a product and oneself into its producer and the entrepreneur of a business.

For myself, given that my playing grew out of political engagements in the sixties and seventies, this turning of the world has presented a dilemma.  It seemed like the world was making it easier to do what I had always wanted, to share my music alongside others who were doing the same. How could I stay aloof, the "Johnny Appleseed* of free improvisation" and miss out on this resurgence of free music? So I left my obscure hole in the wall and entered the marketplace through website, extensive bio, interviews, multiple recordings and reviews, in order to engage in the work of persuasion and communication.

The problem is, those who cannot be easily matched to the market--an older white male, with no interest in playing electronics, like myself—are not going to present an attractive image, no matter whether their music is appealing or not. If I am a "legend" it is not something that attracts more people or promoters than in the past; new, truly contemporary aesthetic experience is primarily seen as territory appropriated by the young. Venues now, like the mainstream, are looking for the largest audience possible, and image is what draws people, even for the avant-garde, who claim a more advanced cultural critique.  Lacking visibility and credibility, I am required to become a super-entrepreneur, spending vastly more hours organizing per gig than I ever did in the past, and far more than those who fit the profile. These are often unaware of the market as a function of their success.  I don’t blame them; what musician would want to think that it is not their music alone that has opened the doors for them?

I have no regrets about my decision to become a career musician even if in practice I must yield to my own critique, and often find myself unsure how to handle the consequences. If I want to play for others and with the partners that most stimulate me then I must play the game to a great extent. Competition for venues and for desired partners is fierce, requiring tasks harmful to my well-being, including the psychic draining that comes from hesitating to tell the truth to promoters, and drawing away energy I would rather expend pleasuring myself with music. Actually making music often seems the afterthought, a surprise and occasional reward. After all, it is myself as entrepreneur, not the maker of music, who works to create the musical opportunities, bargaining with those who decide who will be allowed to play. In the process my own darkly competitive spirit is easily aroused, always ready to lash out at imagined foes, desires that humble me a regular basis. I curse myself for my fantasy as the shunned underdog, triumphing valiantly “in the end”, and for taking rejection personally.

In fact I have had some measure of success from my efforts, in conventional terms; I am occasionally invited, occasionally paid to play, and there are some who come specifically to hear me even when I play alone. In spite of the superior attraction of young musicians, I have been able to retain the same average level of audience I had in the 80’s. And to one who never cared about selling records and never wanted more than a handful of audience, this is an achieved goal. But the main benefit of my work is to have available for playing and touring almost all the players that I find who can stimulate my growth as a musician. I am free, as many of the more visible players are not, to play and record with virtually whomever I choose, and only them. Only my entrepreneurial labors, and my partners’ apparent interest to play with me for the sake of our music, could have put me in this position.

Contrary to the divisive spirit of music politics, a spirit I have often shared, I do not find anyone to blame for the emergence of improvisation as a genre on the market—not other musicians, not the world, not capitalism. I do not even feel I have betrayed myself for taking on music as a career, which surprises me. I see no dichotomy between those who effortlessly fit the needs of the marketplace and those who do not or do not care to. I do not value the music of the latter more than the former or vice versa. The legendary and current stars of improvised music desire to communicate their music just as much as those who play for only a handful, who have never drawn up a bio statement or pursued a touring schedule. We all play in a public space that unavoidably relates us to others, so on some level it pleases all of us to please others.

This is a contextual music, like all others. At times it might sound like I’m promoting the familiar myth of artistic individualism, the Self vs. the World. On the contrary, I conceive the self as seeing through ego’s desire to be ranked above and aloof from the world of others, a desire which the market easily exploits. At the depth of the self is not our separation and struggle against others but the opposite, an experience of universality that takes the form of what I would not hesitate to call beauty. We do not create beauty, it is through our life in the world that we receive it, work with it, share in it, and let it pass through us and others effortlessly. I would hope that as the ladder of the improv music world becomes more elaborated, as the star machinery that separates the worthy from the forgettable becomes more conventional and predictable, we could remember the common base of our interest in playing for beauty, for our own sake, individually and as the community of improvisers. I don’t think we should despair that improv will go the way of every other genre. We’re not there yet, but there is already a social logic at work of which we should be aware.

February 2007

[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.


PLAYING
 
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.

Liner notes for Up for Grabs saxophone solo SGM 12 


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.

January 2005

Ears Only -- the Spring Garden Music CDR series


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


Letter to NoNet workshops, 2004: reductionism and free playing

[For information 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.]

On the eve of these events I thought it might be good to lay down some of my thoughts about so-called reductionism or lowercase music--the music of detail, quiet, space, sparseness, and long sustains. Incidentally, I've heard that the term reductionism was originally applied to this music by Phil Durrant, perhaps without knowledge of its derogatory connotations in philosophy, where it refers to a hack, popularized, simplistic version of a theory of great subtlety ("reductionist Marxism"). Because of this, I find "lowercase" to be far preferable, though less widely known, since the word indicates better what the music is actually trying to do. It comes from Steve Roden: “lowercase is about a work that sits quietly awaiting discovery, as opposed to loudly calling attention to itself." Its origins lie with computer generated music and has spread out from there to electronics and extended-technique acoustic improvisation. It can be traced further back to John Cage, who in Indeterminacy III said. "If you run across someone who pays attention to sounds, you will find that it's the quiet ones they find interesting." As improvisation, it has been around since the sixties, represented by the English group AMM, but its influence did not spread far, partly since it needed the laptop and other electronics to develop to its present form. One might say it is more about the skill of listening than playing. Psychologically, this music is cool and feminine, in contrast to the hot and masculine free jazz and “energy music”; in fact, it has arisen partly as the antipode to its dominant predecessor. It is a music of more self-consciously chosen events, quasi-composed, than impulsive surges of emotion. As such, it could easily be called Apollonian, communicating through form, challenging the Dionysian spontaneity and energy, something jazz-based improv shares with popular “excitement” culture.

There has been much criticism of lowercase music by opponents, especially in Europe, where it has even been blamed for hurting the careers of more traditional players. Advocates have created a flurry and even a fury of debate; long musical partnerships and friendships have been broken because of it, charges and countercharges of exclusion--a kind of avant-garde cultural warfare. This conflict has not occurred in the US to any great extent, but certainly there has been a resentment among many towards the so-called "Boston school" of players--roughly, those in the BSC, which has toured on the east coast and been welcomed in Europe.

Following its origins, lowercase improvisation is more often purely electronic, or at least electro-acoustic, than purely acoustic; in fact, some labels will not produce any recordings that are acoustic only. In Europe today often the only door by which acoustic players can expect to get on stage--when they are not brand-name players--is through association with an electronics player. A river has been formed naturally by two streams of current interest--on the one hand, a fascination with the details of the smallest sounds, with the exact space between sound, explored through extended techniques on acoustic instruments. On the other, the interest to experience the widest parameters of sound, which can be done more effectively through electronics than with any single acoustic instrument. Not to be forgotten is that to the current age and younger generation, electronics signals the new and most appealing adventure. In its technological freshness it is almost as new on the planet as they are, and lends itself easily to the dominant avant-garde trend, sound exploration. Electronic music, once scorned by many older improvisers who came out of a jazz background, has now carved out a place for itself that has turned the table on acoustic improv at the miniscule avant-garde box office.

This shift in popularity signals a development in the broader culture. It was once hip to blow, to express rage alternated with tenderness, to scale mountaintops and scream and take one's stand. Now aesthetics and electronics--apolitical and technological, “nerdy” and "cool" in the McLuhan sense--are more likely to fit the current sensibility. And those who aren't hip are thrown into the bin of nostalgia--that's what the free jazz players did to the beboppers in the sixties, and another aesthetic will do with lowercase music sometime in the future.

Part of the opposition to lowercase has come from resentment of older players (like myself) and audiences to "the new thing". This antagonism is to be expected from culturally marginal players who are being further marginalized now by their "outdated" musical style--as if we were ever as in style as the younger players today! For one thing, flashy pyrotechnics on acoustic instruments, beginning with bebop and continuing in advanced extended techniques, have usually convinced audiences of musical validity, apart from any purely musical judgment of their use. Our culture generally values speed and skills that can be measured, turning musicians into competitors. Yet with lowercase music, technical virtuosity is severely limited in favor of musical judgment, which is quite subjective; one easily produced, ordinary sound might suffice, repeated several times in the piece. Musicians who need to “show their stuff” have to realize that what they are well trained to do is just not very useful here. All that practice--what good does it do in the computer age?

Antagonism towards this music therefore is not ill-founded, and it certainly enlivens (and obscures) the debate about what we are supposed to be doing when we play improv. It is exacerbated by those reductionists who speak of their music as the latest stage in the development of the avant-garde, or even Western music, as if to pose their achievement as absolute and nullify all else on the scales of History. What truly challenges traditional improv is that unlike free jazz or "plinky-plunk" English improv, there seem to be self-conscious rules here, and those who don't follow them are not invited to join. There is indeed more than a tinge of reverence, austerity, aestheticism (worship of form for its own sake), and purity in some circles, in stark contrast to the raucous free-for-all that American improv has often been. Hence the charge of elitism, violating the supposed Anglo-American democratic tradition of improv in favor of the "aristocratic" continent. Not to mention the charge of technology faddism.

Neglected by both these sides is what I have been witnessing on tours throughout the US, in meeting and playing for musicians. Certainly the Boston players have stimulated much musical thinking and changing in improv circles, but only because there is a very broad and growing grass-roots interest in a music of detail and quiet. There is no full answer to why this has appeared, sociologically, but this aesthetic is largely behind the attraction of improv for younger players in the past seven years, whether or not they have heard the Bostonians or Berliners. Improv was once a truly underground phenomenon, an unknown, and now it is definitely on the map. Audience numbers don't reflect the extent of this, but the increasing ranks of players do. And miraculously, players are coming out of the music schools, which once were on the opposite side of the fence entirely; there are now probably a dozen schools where free improvisation is featured as a form of music. As for audiences, I have been surprised time and again to find people that twenty years ago would have gone wild at loud, boisterous cacophony and are now intent and focused on a sparse whisper of sound--and I'm speaking not of the big apple but of the little apples of Lexington Ky, Austin Texas, Mobile Alabama, which, according to an outdated big-city myth, are the last to get "the latest word".

Without going too much into my own musical evolution, I would characterize myself as more a traditional improviser than avant-gardist or artist. That is, spontaneous free improvisation still symbolizes something vital for me, as it did for so many of us decades ago. It is a history of challenge to the dominant culture, open to growth in the hands of each practitioner, and not just one aesthetic on the marketplace among others. For these beliefs I am a flag-waver! Practically, improvisation for me means playing with anyone, at least as a private exploration, and boundless adventure. I cannot hold one form of free improv over another, I am open to all its forms, for I see it as a universal, and not a club.

Yet like many other "traditionalists", I have gotten bored with what I do. I’ve been searching since the early nineties for a path to explore apart from the dionysiac free jazz explosions of my past, which had turned sour to me. I had always been interested in whatever was strange, and my music no longer took me into that area. I became entranced by the intensity I found in this spacious new music, introduced to me by Bhob Rainey and Nmperign in 1998, not as a replacement for what I know so well but alongside it, a continuation of the journey. It has set up conflicts in me, because personal expression, pyrotechnic display, and exhausting physicality, have all been components of my music.

Recently I have felt more confident in the lowercase realm, that I might have something to offer to my partners--the current NoNets come out of this. Yet I would never be adequately described as a "reductionist" (a label erroneously pinned on me by an editor, and later retracted), nor would I want to be. I will always be something of a bull in the china shop, such that my quiet sounds will have something animalistic about them, growling and whispering dark secrets. I am a "dirty" player; somehow or other I will always defend "expression" and the accessible, communicable feeling I find buried in all music. Moreover, I don't think of myself as playing an aesthetic; rather, I play with my friends, and my friends play all kinds of improv. People become friends through playing together, a sharing of feeling and sound and many kinds of energies. I am a democrat and sensualist, I play with everyone and love doing this, the challenge for me is still to find a way to play with every improviser. That is not the "avant-garde" thing to do! I was once an ultra-leftist party type, in the seventies, and could not go back to that in my music by espousing one aesthetic over others. However, I do focus on some projects rather than others, and at the center is my wish to gather together those who want to explore this particular path, to find out what it feels like to share in this realm--for ourselves, and not to be hip. In fact the hipness of lowercase music is one of its main detractions for me, since it connotates a market sensibility, which may advance the music in some ways but misleads the musicians.

Lowercase music might go against the grain of many improvisers, yet there is a certain attraction for what seems to go against us, for that very conflict. Conflict, understood with an open heart, energizes. There is indeed a self-consciousness to lower-case music, but it is far from negative, for it encourages an awareness of what we do when we play. It raises the question--what do I get out of music? Release of energy--Is energy something I need to release? Do I expect respect from others for the display of my technical dexterity? If one does not naturally "fall into" this music, yet is attracted on a musical level, then something of a discipline is required. For instance, acoustic instruments were originally created to project sound without amplification, so it takes some work to find interesting things to do--details--at lower levels of volume. And what about the impulse to fill empty space--isn't this what we originally thought we were going to be doing when we picked up the instrument? Weren't we trained--self- or otherwise--to do just this?

Questions like these are vital, and open the door to new players and listeners. Challenge from every extreme level is good, such as "hard-core reductionists" who play one tiny sound only once every twenty minutes. I disagree with the arguments of those (Radu Malfatti) who say this music is called for by the noise of society, partly because I like the noise of the world and noisy music. But it is good these people are around; they have created valuable controversy.

The real question is what WE, self-respecting and experienced players choose to do at the point when we pick up our instruments--what are we looking/listening for? If it is a game of rules we want to enter, an aesthetic hierarchy, then most of us will not be winners, especially those who like playing with all sorts of people and in messy situations. My interest is not to promote an aesthetic but to explore, stimulated by these questions of value. For instance, most of us would say we value openness in our playing, even as we know it can't be defined. Well, at the next NoNet let's play that value, abandon whatever is safe for us, and openness will lead the way.


free improv and the avant-garde


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.


What do we have to do with this mess [the Iraq war]? Where does politics meet up with our music?

So far as its music goes, the segment of the avant-garde world I've been assigned to--sound-oriented, free improvisation--is not known for its social vision and political content, and I wouldn't expect it to be otherwise. To be sure, none of the musicians I know and play with have expressed anything but scorn for the current political order, and would probably say they'd welcome some kind of massive change that would transform our society away from its current path. But what can we do that our non-musician friends cannot do? In the cultural marketplace our reach is extremely marginal; our music is not reviewed by any but obscure connoisseur journals and e-zines, and our audiences normally number less than a dozen. We can voice our opinion about the war, but we have no cultural authority and would hardly be listened to; to think otherwise is self-flattery substituting for impotence. Moreover, words being the medium of social vision and content, on the rare occasions when we use words at all in our music it is only ironic or garbled, hardly meant to be taken literally. The kind of music we are committed to does not lend itself to political messages, and even if it did we would be preaching to the choir.

We do form a kind of "affinity group" which, like others opposed to the current government recklessness and empire-building [note: this is written in 2004], is emboldened by the trust of friendship to act politically in normal ways, such as to participate in demonstrations that might expose us to danger. We can form march bands, as many improvisers recently have done in various locales, that lend a semi-anarchist spirit to the demonstrations, though this does not actually engage the kind of focus we give in performance of our art. In terms of performance, Tom Djll's Mockracy in Oakland (March 2003) is a fine example of an improviser orchestra expressing a political direction through satire, simply through the (non-improvised) structure he organized for the piece. There were no explicit politics involved, and the spectators were just an extension of the players, for the objects of satire are not expected to attend. Like most political work, it was in-house. It was not without political meaning however, for such events deflate the rhetoric of politicians, curing us of lapses when we forget our distrust of them, and they strengthen the community that feels alienated and helpless in the present situation. But free improvisation, the art form, is not the motive force here, it is used in a context that advances a meaning that does not derive directly from it but from the way it is used.

Being artists who speak with sound we have nothing to verbalize in our music, can issue no declarations or insights into war, empire, or even the hierarchical star system, for that matter. But what we do is not irrelevant to the questions of social order. Creative work is so inherent to our lives that we often forget that we have chosen to pursue it not to achieve a respectable social role but because it opens us to new experience, that is, experience that we find through our own search, our creative work, and not through consumption. Anyone with whom we share this experience has made a similar choice; like us they have been engulfed in the commodified, mediated culture and have found it not only trite and boring but inhuman and oppressive. This manipulative culture of entertainment that encircles us poses as the solution to human need, but it is one of the concurrent and contributing problems. What is vital and living and fresh is what we pursue; we are experts in this field, or at least are aimed in that direction. And what is vital to human life and growth tends to challenge the forces in society that feel secure only in a cushioned, conformist atmosphere, who can only speak of tolerating dissent if it is kept at a distance from their own ears. Lost in our tiny cubicle, absorbed in our work, we forget that there is good reason why we are not given more space in this culture. If we were actually heard by society at large our voices would seem to represent anarchy, dysfunction, incomprehensible noise and cacophony. Music is expected to reinforce order and stability, not stand aside and question the nature of order, as we apparently do even if we don't say so. Our society might honor the kind of visual art that comes from the same inner sources as ours, but what we do with sound is our voice, and the voice cannot be enclosed in a museum. That is why we are marginal, ghettoized-that is, if we do nothing to counteract this.

The predominant forces in our society do not want it to be renewed by our offerings but rather titillated, fed junk, and then rocked to sleep by what the entertainment conveyor belt spews forth. It is true, as the cultural studies people tell us, that consumers have the initiative and independence to choose among the offerings, but what is clear is they do not choose what we independent artists are doing. For some reason this does not invalidate us for ourselves, who in so many ways obey the laws of the consumer. We are intransigently inconsistent, indeed hypocritical, for not invalidating ourselves when the marketplace does so. We are benevolently comprehending of the situation. Our contemporary simulacrum of democracy has been the marketplace, the invisible hand, which offers people the chance to purchase their own manipulation, to buy back their feelings, as people have been saying for over fifty years. And of course people have trouble rejecting the mediated experience; it would be painful to many not to cave in to the lyricism and romanticist diversions they are offered, the fantasy arousals that are then symbolically defeated.

Under the banner heralding an expansion of offerings over the past thirty years there has in fact been a restriction, a hardening of the cultural shell; it has been crude and calculating, and we are seeing the results. Jazz has been standardized, provided with a museum, and cleansed of its bristly free players, who often spoke with contempt of conformist society and the powers that be. The avant-garde has long been segregated from the general public, but it was not dismissed for being undemocratic, a politically incorrect offense to "ordinary people", as it is today, when it is closeted with almost obsolete classicist snobbery. In the early sixties popular classical stations even in some rural areas used to regularly include the challenging music of Stockhausen and electronic innovation; such music has been exorcised from all but the most marginal stations and programs. What Susan Sontag once called "the modern public," which expected to have its notions challenged and even upset by a performance, has all but disappeared.

Free improvisation is alienated from normative culture even further than the classical avant-garde, in that it does not require that its practitioners even demonstrate traditional instrumental competence. It sees such demonstration as problematic, perhaps even detrimental, in the creation of music at the edge of the known, and prefers to create its own discipline(s), which appear as anarchy from without. What most sets this music apart from acceptable culture is that spontaneity is at its core, and as spontaneity is so inherently elusive and yet desired it invites participation. Yet if musicians do not spontaneously break out in song form then the culture that bases its security on repeatable, reinforced experience, and counts on chords being resolved on a sweet note, feels threatened. This is a challenge to the expectations people have in all social life, including politics. The politics of the left limits itself in this regard, for instance, manipulating its followers with moral urgency, while never giving the impression that politics could be the realm of spontaneous creative expression.

What is encouraging at present is that there is a new generation of improvisers, people who have apparently come to see this obnoxious, dominant culture of ours as stifling. Improv "scenes" such as never existed before have been cropping up all over north america, something that the old farts like myself might have dreamed of but were too cynical to expect. These new ears have not been created by the diehards, left over from the optimistic era of cultural revolution, but by young people saturated with the most manipulative media exploitation and cultural somnolence. And they are not following the leadership of the older cultural centers like New York; instead they form a network of players and small audiences that have discovered and validated this music for themselves through their own music, not subordinated to others. These are good, creative players, unhindered by the bitterness of those who've seen efforts fail over decades. Perhaps they have hopes of career success, but their music is anything but conformist. More power to them, I say, this is the kind of energy we need, this is liberating for all of us.

At the same time, these young players were raised in the Reagan eighties, in an apolitical atmosphere of individual self-advancement. The following decade wasn't much better in terms of social awareness and political participation. And so I have one word of advice, and I include myself here: if we're going to stick our necks out, let's not limit ourselves to musical choices. Let's not just seek out well-wishers and supporters for an audience, and not count cd sales as personal victories-that is the trap our culture has manufactured to contain dissident culture along with the mainstream. Instead, let's make the effort to play for people we can't imagine would like us. As I said back in the 80s, let's get out of the improv urban ghettoes and into the unknown, the small towns, libraries, prisons, corner stores, where we don't know who will show interest, come in the door. Find the world, let the world find us. After all, it is the unknown response that can awaken us musically in ways beyond our imagination.

As for myself and the content of my music, I must say that I have been deeply affected by the murderous course those fools have put us on. Back in the Vietnam era I had been an activist committed to the revolutionary movement, and so when the trade towers went down I knew the political and military reaction that would come, and felt I'd have to get re-involved in political organizing full-time. I had no desire to do so, and was stunned with a long depression because of the conflict in me. Back in the eighties my politics had been transmuted into music, which expressed much of my rage at the collapse of the possibilities for revolutionary change. But gradually I felt this rage crumble; for various reasons I needed to expand beyond it, and my music with it. I eventually became drawn into the music that has been mis-named "reductionist", and now play a music often quite different from my earlier, wilder impulses on stage. Recently, however, I've been listening to solos from the earlier era, and feeling connected to the explosiveness and intensity of unrestrained passion. I don't agree with the usual notion of an artist's linear development from one style or phase to another, and so I don't feel a conflict in playing sometimes with Dionysian fervor and other times with Apollonian restraint.

The question for me and I suspect for other improvisers now is, what effect is all this disgust with the war and the growing empire, and with our fellow citizens' keep-things-normal anxiety going to have on our music. Will our aesthetics wall us off from the world, will our frustration with impotence, our rage, have no impact on what we do on stage?

----May 2003 A version of this appeared in Signal to Noise, fall 2004


Earlier writings--1983-1992

This is Music

This is Music, it is song that must be listened to, followed, listened into. It is made to be the center of your attention; without that it is an annoying interruption. It is meant to draw from you feeling in all its details. It plays with you, is a conversation with you, so open and frank it will embarrass if you try to separate your ears from how you experience reality…There is a beat here which denies the ridiculous constancy of the clock; it traces movement as it really is, finding its drive within its own needs--it taps the body not the foot….There is melody as well, identical with its process of creation, using everything as it appears, uncertainty, fear, finding its strength.…There is a delicacy and a passionate hardness, when challenged and stripped bare. It is raw but not harmful, because its rawness is itself celebration of dance, every sound an exuberance overflowing, basking in its own created luxury….It is, all of it, composed the same moment you hear it, with its birth still smelling as it is handed over. It is all growth, pushing up, running, certainly it's laughing, changing itself over, our child. This tease will ignore the yawning perfection and death of the finished replica, the cynicism of too much marketplace wanting approval before wanting itself….This music encourages your activity and your meditation. It promises to give you what you offer.

 

What I want is this: a music that is the outer form, the appearance in the world, the reality, of feeling, of desire, need, contradiction. I want a music deep into the present time, how we truly exist now, music which defines us and gives us the future we deserve. I want a music done for the love of playing, which for this reason has to exist, is surrounded by its existence. A music of intense pleasure, polymorphous, naïve, risking itself for its own sake. This music is here for us and won't deceive our hopes if we give everything to it."

--publicity for the lp Free Life, Singing, March, 1983


Where does this music come from?

I used to think--when I was just happy to have something so beautiful in my hands--that it came from my Self, the product of my life (and culturally some obscure offshoot of jazz). But when I started playing in public, I abandoned the idea that it was my possession; after all, was I just parading myself in front of others? That was not my motivation. When I was fighting for the chance to play this strange music for other people, I felt I had to clutch it closely to me for protection, as if the saxophone itself could be my defender. When this period was past, I could let it go, and then saw it as in some way passing through me to others. This sounded good at the time but was a boring dead end for understanding and developing what I was doing; it sanctified my music instead of challenging it and opening it up.

Meanwhile my music continued to evolve, partly through the influence of my friend and sax player Todd Whitman, towards sounds not normally associated with the saxophone. In fact soon all my playing became engulfed in sound. I had earlier resisted sound-oriented music [some of the New York players and composers] as being too cold, a white protestant avant-gardism, bizarre for the effect only. But I began to appropriate sound (as opposed to "real" pitch-oriented notes) through sheer sensual pleasure, which had always been the leverage point of my playing and evolving. The real notes are still there, but now in a new environment. I do not separate the sounds of my music from the universe of sound that my ears share in daily life. I am fed by the sound around me, and when I play an instrument it reappears partly as accident, that is, I find more in the sounds from the horn than what I intended. It is the perspective of music as sound environment that makes it more visual and concrete, even animalistic, raw. If and when the "good tone" appears, dressed up in suitable finery, it offers civilized comments on the melée but can't contain it!

--excerpt from Linear Notes, fall 1986


free improvisation as a social act

The following document, written in 1986, reflects conditions that, by the end of the century, had radically changed. It is reprinted in the interest of discovering the roots of current free improvisation. It is not to be assumed that the views here were shared by many other musicians.

I. 1 uu p84/z nieys ,wifzbt4l * Is aie wor dswordswordswo rds words word swords grey into black on white, symbols out of gestures, thought (Ha!) grabbed out of electric impulses. waiting for meaning to coalesce, to let it flow past the hazards of the dam, the knife trying to cut water. Open and close, blood that won't reverse in our veins even if we tell it

II. What does spontaneity have to do with this social order, with any social order, with the order of our self-socialized minds. There is not a word we cannot say, and reverse our saying (but not time, as the original mistake). Our mind moves by regret, shame, erasure, over its landscape. The contingent drifts into gray abstraction as we look towards The Model for guidance.

III. An axiom we know so well that we can't experience it at all: everything is free only at the moment of creation, born free, then repeated, but never re-experienced. The memory of the moment is always a new moment, but it in no way approaches the original because its impetus is tragic, nostalgic, covering up. Attempting to recapture, it is captured by the attempting, it can only seek to perfect, that is, to socialize, improve. The recycled experience cannot strike out with the fault of boldness; it is falsified, stylized boldness that is found in the Art World, that outnumbers and ridicules the original. The copy cannot explore what is unknown because it doesn’t know even where to look; it can only follow a map and discover more of what is already known.

IV. Free improvisation is, in its idea of itself, the only music that is not tragic in this way, not searching for the end, not seeking its perfection, not repeated, not corrected. It stands at the center of music because it is the insecure void between past and future, the void of choice. It puts the immediate human at the center, and that is frightening. It is neither perfect nor purposely imperfect because both of these have the Model at the center. Years ago art criticism snooped its way into the artists' studio behind the finished work, as an elaboration in time of the dead thing in the gallery. Free improvisation goes one step better; it says there is only the working, it is begun and finished at the same moment, it is whatever is actually happening, activity not even proclaiming its nakedness. There could be nothing more ambiguous, and resistant to consistency.

V. In Western cultural history, free improvisation is the rebel child of perfection, born in that world that intertwines so nicely the dream of freedom and the life of slavery. A society’s culture is repetition, mimesis, spiraling forward, eating and shedding skins. The solid meaning possible for us, what makes communication easiest and smoothest is created in repetition, and perfectibility through development. This resounds through the culture industry, from creator to consumer and back again through market feedback, passing thru corporation and benevolent government agency. Careers are built on perfection of the product and guarantee of reproduction, and they form a synthetic, symbiotic unit with spectators. What artist can withstand the lure of feedback--acceptance, recognition, supportive community? But individuality, the supposed prize of our Western Civilization for which we are asked to suffer, does not integrate us socially, it alienates. So there is a strong tendency for free improv to call a halt to its moment and slice off a piece for consumption, to create an identity (language) and insert people into the moment. Improv then becomes merely the childhood sandbox of the mature artist, who has “moved beyond” it to composition, a symbol of paid dues.

VI. To the extent that free improv is seen as Art (for some, the broad umbrella of the spiritually homeless), its fate is tied up with conclusions raised about it by Criticism. It must pass through the eye of this needle to be accepted; it must be understood, given its place in the schema of the given before it can be heard and seen. Within the Art-Critical World, things are judged pseudo-historically, a never-ending Hegelian succession of triumphs, each transcending the former. In this schema free improv, by the late eighties, appears as anachronism, an island of earlier freedom which never seemed to find its nostalgia buffs, with its links to the continent of culture now washed away leaving a handful of stranded devotees.


Letter to Ear Magazine--early 1988

Ear Magazine was originally a Bay Area publication that moved to New York in the late 70s and began to be circulated widely as the loft art scene became significant in the 80s. I was inspired to put this online when I heard the criticism of Wire Magazine, a British publication, that Ben Watson made in Jan. 2013 on air at Resonance FM , which then suspended his show. Resonance FM is an online radio station featuring not only music but political discussion left of center, and was created by a long-standing organization of improvisers, the London Musicians Collective. Wire Magazine is the most prestigious magazine in the world for avantgarde music, though it covers a wide variety of other categories. Watson's ten minute commentary reminded me of my own 25 years earlier concerning Ear, a similar magazine in its time, though hardly as well and widely known. Watson's text is here

Dear Ear:

I'll start this off with a whimper. I don't want to hurt the feelings of staff who've put so much into your publication. I wish I felt differently, but I still have to say that since the introduction of the new format a year or so ago, I think EAR is really bullshit. When I examine my reaction, the first thing I see is the largely promotional character Ear has acquired and the treatment of subjects as stars or wanna-be stars. It is a magazine primarily about importance, success and product identity. It is slick. It is not wrong in wanting a broader audience for those whom it represents, but trying to create importance without substance makes people look silly, like store mannequins. I object to the “Picto” section, with its innocuous quotes written in pretentious script to create an aura around the subject. And to “Edito,” which in spite of changing authorship, always seems to have the same inoffensive generalities, fluff that the advertising world has long produced to say something and nothing at the same time. And especially "New Faces," so empty of real content as to make the featured musicians look opaque and empty-headed. It is insulting to present people as "New Faces" who've been around for years. Have they arrived? Where? It resurrects the old myth of talent scout discovery, and as if the subjects really want to be discovered (maybe they do!), as if that is what their music is all about.

Probably every musician who puts him/herself on stage wants to be seen and heard, and wants some degree of acceptance and is hurt by rejection. The star hunger has its roots right here, as well as the frozen frame image, the self-importance, and living up to oneself as product. I think EAR, with its rah-rah bandwagon approach, is trying to create an atmosphere of winning, and that only leads to hierarchies of good and not so good musicians and music. You want to sort out the trends that are significant and display and identify them as such. So instead of your magazine being as broad as your editorial project, you are quite narrow and cut-and-dried, leaving little to the readers' imagination or judgment. There is no ambivalence here, but much ambition to be big for its own sake. That makes EAR good for the coffee table, but not useful for think-ing about things.

Some musicians, of course, believe they do their best in situations where they areI assumed beforehand to be important and worthy persons. Others however find that to be a hindrance, bothersome, juvenile,. flattering and a harmful diversion, which distracts themselves and listeners. Of course, these thing soften coexist in the same people, and not peacefully, either. If EAR continues, it will put the market of people who respond to promotional flattery at the top, ready to be accessed by the market of government-agency presenters. This is the political process, and no one has the money, time, will or clear ideas to counteract it.

Please do not misconstrue either the intent or extent of this criticism. I have not been provoked by any bad reviews! My grapes are not sour! Many of the issues and people you cover ar indeed interesting if the writing is nevertheless inoffensive and all-too correct.

On the whole EAR creates a kind of festival atmosphere, pre-digested expert pretensions as if written for those who don't think they have ears, who have to be told what's up next so they won't miss it, who will clap with the crowd but not alone. Like the New Music America festival, the effect of what you're saying is, this is the (representative) world, what is or should be acceptable. This is the standard. Just like in the classical music world. EAR seeks to save the notion of standards against obvious erosion by marrying it to pop familiarity, creating the image of contemporaneity, the pop eccentric pulled out from under the rug. This marriage will have to follow the laws of the marketplace. Hopefully, the music will not. Am I saying open the door wider? No, tear down the house.

Jack Wright, Philadelphia. PA

Reply: We appreciate your raising issues that are central to the development of EAR magazine and of New Music; we believe what we're doing is in the best interests of both. One thing is for certain, though: we wouldn't mind if a "million-or-so of the masses kept EAR on their coffeetables. -Ed.

Theatre of the Moment--1988


"All writing is crap. People who try to free themselves from what is vague in order to state precisely whatever is going on their minds are producing crap." --A. Artaud

The following is written before it should be written; it is a glimpse, an angry groping, intentionally lacking in sufficient experience of what it points to, not waiting for hindsight. It is both perverse challenge and shadowy direction to the present writer/player--myself!--in a state of dissatisfaction and turmoil. It is the work of a musician pushing out with his body into the space of a stage and then going further in thought and imagination than he has yet dared or may ever dare in practice. But it is still words of a common language, an attempt to find fellow adventurers, and a willingness to be misunderstood.

1. Theatre of the Moment means no rehearsal and no failure. It is practiced every time only as a real nexus of life forces, as fully there, not a preparation, not good or bad or relatively so, not improved upon, no goals, no climbing the stairs, not meant to be repeated. Each experience exists for us whether there are onlookers or not. It is a playing that goes to the heart of the matter of experience every time, even as it surpasses our perceptions of it. Our frustration with what we do is never dissolved but is carried into the next time, or perhaps only to be encountered years later, after wreaking havoc.

2. Bold in its awkwardness, hesitancy, irrelevance. It assumes we do not know for sure and never will. It does not hide our ignorance under layers of demonstrated competence. It leaves us with a bad taste in our mouths of the incomplete and the unfulfilled. Strength is trapped in its haughty disregard of confusion; certainty is undermined even as it is stomping its feet. The smallest detail rises to the surface, refusing to be submerged in the whole effect, in the gestalt of an "artistic performance".

3. It plunges into the precise instant like the knife, tearing away what is unnecessary and harmless, then it turns and runs before triumph can be proclaimed. It is the unity of time-place-action taken to its limits, no introduction, no artistic strategy, no way to understand where it all comes from, only the drowning of a struggling body. In medias res, a single act stretching the skin of measured time until it breaks open, light pouring out with nothing to be seen. All terror, the terror of not having time to think and choose in peace what would make the best impression. In the rush we abandon our good plans and find our brains taking orders from the rest of the body.

4. It is excessive and contains the fear of excess, the disgust with it, the revulsion of our deeds, that we could be so crude. Spit and sound mingle and pour from the mouth, not as gestural affectation but as overflow. We find that we are more than we can handle.

5. Theatre of the Moment gives us the tantalizing dream/illusion of release from the pain of existence, it shames us in our accommodations, disrupts the display of juggling thought-feeling-action. For a brief time we are separated from the controlling consequences of life. It releases us from the need to live for the sake of our self-justifications, to save ourselves from our past deeds and to project our lives and selves into the future. It is an enactment and mockery of what controls us. It comes from the immediate nexus of internalized forces chasing us, qualifying us, criticizing us, giving us our place in the world and thereby alienating us. It is the reaction to and integration of these forces; we eat their poison to live. It is melody and song to this chorus and refrain of suffering, the joy not of triumph over pain but the song of pain itself, which as song must always be joyful. Only in this sense is it free. It is the one hand or one eye or one cell always left alive to experience it all, (that is, to grab after it), only magnified and given the whole stage to be alone in. We are buried laughing. To be conscious of such tremendous insufficiency is as close to being ourselves as we can get. (We can even pity at this point those whose activity is based on that alienated thing called belief in yourself.) We are alone, trying to escape from our danger and failing, then plunging directly into it, the danger of having nothing but ourselves. Stuck in a world which is our machinery, that claims every cell of our bodies and validates every sickening thought of our minds, we are for the moment, for this one revolutionary moment, a ball of tears and laughter, of mockery and blood, a knife in our hand and a knife at our throat. We become the living proof of our existence, in spite of and because of the crushing monster that rules us and is us. Smell rushes at us with full force and flattens our face. We do this against our better judgment, and there is no god or divine force on which we can pass blame or to which we can offer thanks.

6. It is a most intense this-worldly experience, changing time from abstract chronology to the most specific instant at which life enters or exits. It is like suddenly finding yourself in a car accident; the routine of driving is revealed for the threat it always does contain, as "outside" and "inside" collapse. Nothing else exists but that, yet you aren't really there consciously because it is too much impact to absorb.

7. We usually fear things that are overwhelming; paranoia builds on this and symbolizes the threat as physical. Theater of the Moment is the opportunity to bite into, grind up, absorb this totality of force into our bodies rather than resisting. It can be metabolized because it is simultaneously being shat out of us. Like the soldier in the midst of bombardment who can't hold his shit, neither can we. It is shameful for its violation of our social code, but we are at this point slaves to our sensual pleasure, riding waves; giving and taking become one. To make "consistent aesthetic choices" is beneath us. Our attempts to round things off, put things in perspective, mediate between what we are doing and the expectations and perceptions of spectators, all get tangled in nets of confounding dance and laughter that have no fear of the deep.

8. Form is what we find littered behind us, the reflection of what has happened rather than a plan for the future or reason for a pat on the back. We are carving out form there and then, as consequence of our focus, not filling in details of a framework. (It is indeed a pleasure to realize a form, to create according to a guiding image, but this is not the place for it here.) When the direction of our actions appears in a guise we recognize as familiar, when the road we are on becomes a groove, we let such familiarity slap us in the face and throw us off target. We don 't know what is best until we have done it, then it has simply appeared and cannot be judged. The very best work is no more than a standard, controlling form, to be plowed under in its turn as part of its project.

9. We have put ourselves on the stage (no matter what name we give it), knowing this is the place where others will judge us, and with different rules than when we just walk down the street. Yet the moment we begin we actually lower the curtain, cutting us off from the power of others to define us. The social context of our lives wants to penetrate all our activity, even crowding the most private, and guiding our self-judgment—all this drops out of sight. We have bought the stage with our efforts, have exchanged labor power for the expectation of spectators, for the chance to turn against the internalized specter/spectator within us. “I play for myself” means I drop the normal, neurotic need to be loved and flattered, and become the full and uncontrolled center of my own love. It is others who will calculate our entertainment value for them, it is happily out of our hands. When we stop watching and judging ourselves through the eyes of spectators, when we find ourselves alone, then we can do anything, and the anything becomes precise, unique and detailed. We discover what the anything is by learning--time and again--that we can't know what it is not. In other words, it is impossible for us to play what is not music.

10. Theater of the Moment is wholly dependent on the presence of eyes and ears of others, whether imaginary or real, attentive or distracted, offended or submitted to the experience. It is the plaything of the others; it floats on the air they breathe. They are the environment created by the event, the most variable and volatile, the big question mark we plunge into. There is no safe or accurate calculation possible of any response, hostile or friendly, no definition even of a "good response". Is it good or bad if people yell at you, or say they like your work, or sit speechless, or ignore you? Do we know how an experience might affect someone even ten years later? The mystery that is in these witnesses, when that is touched, there is the stage created for it. If we try to calculate the good effect and then duplicate it, build a career on it, create a genre for it, then Theater of the Moment will run from it in horror and take up new lodgings. It would be better that all spectators be imaginary than that we manipulate their assent and respect for our gratification.

11. The real relation to spectators is this: what we have in private is hidden and secret, it is the cave of our dreams. Our acts are protected from the sight and knowledge of others, as the private truth we know would not stand the test of scrutiny. It is our version of things, not to be compared or criticized. It is crime, sex, it is secret power, hidden divinity of the body, the apocalypse of our lives. It is whatever liquid can be held in this vessel, in concentric circles of safety, the illusion and the truth of facing ourselves. What is done in public is the projection of this private body suddenly outward, thrown into the open air, and given license to fill it. We hear voices, we are told that every move we make or sound we give out will be turned inside out, and we have no control of the results. All our truth will be lies. This is the move from the safety of night to the light of day, the roaches on the countertop when we flick on the switch. We allow ourselves to be seen running when we are trapped. When we finally do stand still it is over. We choose this, as we choose ourselves.

And yet: this is not our self on stage, our self is what shakes hands politely, drives on the right side of the road, and pays our bills. And practices mundane scales, pitches, tones, just like any other musician, without which we would have no mask to remove, no control to relinquish.

12. We walk along the edge of our craziness, swing lightly over the cliff by a cobweb rope, feeling the hot breeze from the valley. Once we have had this, why should we come back? Yet, dazed, shocked by applause, we do return to the world of normalcy, of illusion: recognition, approval, financial reward, reintegration, security, superiority, triumph, the crippling embarrassment of success. Hands reach out to bring us community and we are there, honored victims. This is the necessity of death.

13. Theater of the Moment is finally the opportunity to focus all energies, to be permeated by the void, to be emptied and filled at the same time. It is the fruit tree shaking itself, it is the tree through its seasons and its lifetime. It is everything contained in the period of time, time standing still. Quinta essentia, the quintessence extracted from chaos which the alchemists were after. It stands however only on the edge of order; each time it is the last, the mad swirling before succumbing to harmony, the death rattle before the peace of death, the lunge towards knowledge, the scream of impotence and ignorance at the point that it knows it is going and cannot stop, hands on the handlebars, racing downhill, the momentum is all there is left.


Current Comment:
The above has been slightly amended but is basically the text I wrote in 1988.The reference is my experience of performing solo, and the music can only be described as free improvisation, where there is neither score nor structure given to the playing. I was touring the US extensively at that time, mainly playing solo, and even when playing with others I had not yet truly considered how to interact in groups, at most conventional duos. To my knowledge then,collective improvisation, with the heightened discipline of listening and silence it requires, had not developed anywhere in the US at that time. Moreover, in the late eighties I was the only one interested in touring town by town with this music, playing for audiences that were often unprepared and shocked by it, rather than the self-consciously sophisticated audiences in major cities. So this writing reflects my own situation and experience and is not representative of free improvisers generally, then or now.

After I wrote it I could not allow it to stand alone but felt compelled to distance myself from it; the ranter took one step offstage for a better look. I wanted to publish “Theatre of the Moment” as a small pamphlet but immediately sensed that it must be bound with the criticism of its misuse, so I wrote “Against Improvisation”. I was divided about “Theatre” but not myself, fully backing it by editing and improving it, all the while calling a halt to some of its implications. This was not out of embarrassment at self-exposure but from knowing the pitfalls that writing can lead to (Artaud’s “all writing is crap”). One voice is often not enough; there is a tension here that requires a duet.

“Theatre of the Moment” is itself theatre, an extension of the performance it points to, the thing itself. It cannot advocate itself nor by the same token can it criticize itself. Its truth is that of art, it is for-itself or it is nothing. Writing and editing it meant to enter it more fully to find the words that ring more true. This truth can be abused—it is even a test of the truth of art that it can be abused--and I come along now to warn against it. It lacks any indication of the discipline required in free playing, indeed implies a glorious liberation from all discipline, judgment and negativity. It could be seen to encourage performance as in itself validating for the individual performer, a kind of therapy releasing him and her from inhibitions and care for what they are doing, offering the spectacle of the enraptured ecstatic, the elusive “real deal” so highly prized in our world.

Below I reproduce this counter to "Theatre," while edited in the present. It still bears the mark of its time, when free improvisation was associated with sixties liberation (not only for myself), before it came to be considered a sub-genre of music as it is today, and can no longer be considered a gesture of personal or collective liberation. I pose these texts then not just in contrast to each other but also together in contrast to the present version of free improvisation, which dares neither the ecstatic moment of the performer nor the critique of freedom and so misses the tension between the two. In one sense these writings are irrelevant, historical documents not useful to a present critique. But in another sense, since few players or listeners today know what was once unleashed by free improvisation, exposure to this writing opens up possibilities in two directions, both the ecstatic and a discipline that comes not from aesthetics or from failure in the marketplace, as today, but from a critique of emancipatory energies precisely when those energies were living and vital.

It should not be hard to recognize here my own inner debate over my music of choice of the past thirty some years. As improvisers, including myself, have become integrated into the music world the terms of that debate have changed. Now the tension is not between public self-expression and a liberationist ideology of free improvisation but between the simple playing of the music and the marketplace and promotional frame around all cultural production. Whether this music will ever again be considered emancipatory, and the performer know the full terror of the empty space is to me extremely doubtful. Nor whether a discipline can arise in tension with the ecstatic. But these words can still be said.


Against Free Improvisation


Free improvisation has a bad name, or has a good name for the wrong reasons. It leads the players to confuse their first thought with their best and final thought, to vaunt their surface as all that there is, nothing worth digging for. It stands for one-dimensionality, the easy passage of equivalent values, which lose their character as values by their equivalence. As "off the cuff" or "off the top of the head" it intentionally avoids engagement between parts, what is elsewhere called musical structure. Moreover it tramples one’s internal conflicts in the midst of playing, reflection, and possible overcoming of resistance to one’s musical decisions. In principle it can't be complicated or ambivalent, can't deal with death or life or love, as do all other art forms. It is fun, simple release, stop there. It connotes a posture of not caring, of sloppiness, lack of detail. It is the bad boy we Americans love and patronize, the mirror-image of the world of striving and perfection. Especially here, in a culture where the most vaunted entrepreneurial success story is an improvisation, it is held together with chewing gum and duct tape, and cute for that appearance. It is joined with pop culture (without sharing the rewards) in its function as liberation from the serious, from anything tainted with that dread disease attributed to repressive society which is called Art.

It is associated with the naturalism of chance operations and the conscious elimination of human agency and responsibility, the postmodern death of the author, the reduction of the role of creator-genius to a corrupt ego-driven manipulator. It could even be linked through John Cage to Western moralistic distortions of Zen, as the ancient tradition is used to advance the secular de-sanctification of authority of any kind. While jazz improvisation, including free jazz, became a music of the romanticized personality, free improvisation carries the banner of egalitarian rebellion against all specific personal meaning. Whereas a jazz musician was judged as to whether he or she had “something to say” from the deepest part of the soul, and of souls meeting, free improv is a music that says nothing but a liberation that is the same for everyone. It comes originally not from prophetic religious fervor, as did sixties free jazz, but from the ideological rebellion of modernism, the desire to smash the rules, but without the harsh discriminatory eye and ear of the modernist artist. Moreover it takes the easy anarchist escape in accepting the criticism that it is not even music, for it considers all that goes by the name of music to be too well integrated, burdened with clear meanings that have become trite and nostalgic. It has barriers not so much against composition, its supposed antipode, as against congealed meaning that can be variously judged. It is enlightened out of the presumption that one has the right to be right. If it is considered trivial by mainstream culture then so much the better; it argues back as the pure, formless creative spirit whose creations cannot be compared.

On guard against the old bugaboo of sentimentality, it can’t imagine where real feeling could ever come from other than release. The player’s immediate feeling is reduced to reproducible emotion, which mimed and transferable is the grease of live performance, an available sop thrown in to display commitment but inessential to the music itself. Or it can also eschew emotion altogether, as in that improvisation which goes under the name of experiment and justifiable as imitation science.

It carries the banner of the new and unique, when it has only eliminated anything resembling a score or directive. The actual banality of one’s playing is not under scrutiny and can easily become quite static, repeatable from one performance to another, and familiar; in fact how could the new be recognized without being reinforced by repetition? There is no compositional drawing board or canvas or post-performance mulling-over in which one can face one's inadequacies, make judgments, and change. What is there to study, to work out, to think about here? Practice and self discipline is merely the way to keep in shape, the same shape, not the way to challenge and face the shape and meaning of your own music and move yourself on.

Free improvisation, which lacks linguistically meaningful vocals, is the most instrument-centered music possible. Yet it encourages a tangential and often hostile relation to the instrument, which is treated as merely an embodiment of past technique and social (music school) training to be scorned. The misleading term “extended technique” refers to sound released from the musical meaning of singular or harmonic pitch relations, and is logically the way to go for the improviser of traditional instruments. The student of extended technique cannot entirely bypass the technique for mastering the instrument, can even view such extension as an advance over that old, mysterious hunk of metal, wood, catgut, etc. This is similar to the argument of some post-moderns that they have overturned modernism rather than extended its foundations, that is, have reached the final frontier of art history in its critical deconstruction. In both cases the claim for endless newness stands apart from the actual content of what is being done, the choices one makes, as a mundane problematic. To rely on sounds rather than notes indicates newness, for at least a short span of attention, but free improvisation by itself provides no notion of what to do with those sounds. For many, simple display is enough.

This is the sad but not unexpected irony of an aged rebellion against sentimentality and form, the modernist rebellion that once promised so much. Care about form, on which the high modernists focused, is replaced by individual style, which is inescapably repeated and adhered to, just as John Cage warned about musicians left to their own devices. Improvisation becomes the very embodiment of the postmodern icon of style. There is no way in theory to force a separation of one piece or one moment from another, to identify this as opposed to that form. The playing never leaves the player; it is easier to change one's way of playing than to play a different piece, since there are no pieces. (Those went out with masterpieces). As listener-consumers we choose between styles as a matter of taste, utilizing handy media-provided categories and sub-categories. We take our music as a background and reinforcement for our lifestyle and mood, a way of thinking without thinking specifically. There is no meaning to this sound or that, no hierarchy, no mistakes, no gestalt, no indication of choice stronger than what holds our interest, not even the knife of pleasure to search out the morsel of meat among the gristle. It is the energy pumping out of the player and not the tension and expectancy—or disgust--that makes the listeners sweat, in the therapeutic game of transference called performance. How can we feel loss? How can the music get to the point when there is, purposefully, no point? , not limited by comprehension, not grabbed by any one thing, only teased and awakened by ostensible formlessness. Every time we are led to believe there is depth or shade to any feeling or perception it is passed over as chimerical.

Improvisation says there is only surface, or energy, or interest; it wants to keep its freedom from statement, from commitment, as if afraid of a trap. Yet to an extent when we listen to free improvisation we are hearing a stance, an inexplicit theory about the value of rude impulsiveness and the untrammeled imagination. It plays duet with a perceived environment of social regimentation of individual lives. It is heard as ritualized nose-thumbing at the musical canons, as anti-art, before it is heard as a fulfilling sensual/intellectual experience (as with pop music, the intellect only gets in the way, and sensuality is socially defined). It does not know what it is free for, is in fact not free to ask that question. Released from a cage, this bird flies in circles.

The situation is more historical than it pretends. This music represents the tail of the sixties anti-authoritarian rebellion in the arts, far less visible than the washing-away of the accretions of form and sentiment that experimental theatre, dance and visual art undertook at that time. That was a generation of clearing the decks, getting rid of obsolete baggage, and unlike the earlier modernist movement was fueled by a broad-based attack on all social institutions, few of which were uncompromised. But improvisation found its home mainly after the troops came home, after this project of rebellion was completed, in the mid to late seventies. (The UK was far ahead of the US in this regard, but that’s a different story.) Free jazz was not embarrassed about its ties to the parent culture of Black religion, but free improvisation had an ahistorical detachment that allowed it to cohabit with and appear to ignore the parents at the same time. It could even spawn a pop career here and there, and leave the miniscule improv ghetto one career at a time. But the price of ghettoized security is relegation to a cul de sac; improvisation stays home and tends the communal farm, feeding off mutual support, unseen by more critical eyes. It exists in various misrecognized forms as a symbol for the above-ground that there is something bohemian and anti-social in the wings of our art community even if it is told to wait interminably for its stage cue.

Free improvisation was a European experiment in the mid-sixties; for by the late-seventies it seems to have found its place here and there in the cities of North America. Is it experimental in its present form, as in the UK in the early seventies? Does it probe music itself? Does it probe us? Is it truly the art of the unforeseen (the root meaning of the word)? Unlike its political counterpart it became neither powerful nor was it crushed by repression. It has simply survived in its pigeonhole relatively unchanged, as at best an "experimental" artform, which means a music that fits the category of known experimental music.

Since the seventies the specialization and isolation of genres of music, especially these "experimental" arts, have created a subculture with built-in insulation from the kind of shock and sense of violation that dance, theatre and jazz audiences underwent in the sixties. That period has functioned, it now appears, as one of inoculation; no one, certainly not the institutionalized but largely invisible “experimental” scene, wants or expects to have their assumptions questioned. Like the older avant-garde, that has already “been done”; we’ve been enlightened, enough already. There is no truly "out" music today, which would imply a rooting in and contention with what is "in", a fight over something of value, beyond the simple civil right issue to perform at all. Today you can get permission to do whatever you want in the arts short of nudity and physical violence to the audience; there is a place for everyone and everyone in their place, the fulfillment of pluralism and doing your thing. What this means is, we are free not to deal with whatever is outside our experience. There will always be someone to throw up an alternative stage for those who need it, for some savvy few spectators, indeed maybe even some grant money thrown in from the liberal arm of the government.

This is not a time of shaking up in the arts; this is still consolidation, resting on laurels, accepting the boundaries that were new twenty [now forty] years ago, living within that new system people still feel grateful for, that broke open the old. The social world on which art rests is back on its feet, entrenched, intact, self- guarded, complacent, even academic. Any true experiment must draw new lines in the dirt, must step on some toes in a way that is not stylish. It must call attention to the alienation of the “experimental” in our new post-sixties system, thus for a new kind of comprehension that doesn’t have the smell and feel of assimilated art. It must not salivate at the hope of being included. For music, what is now called experiment must see beyond its ghetto, drive through the walls and accept the consequences, including rejection by those who feel the experimental subculture is their turf. It must make promises it can't keep. It must not buy or bargain its way into the limelight, to fit the coffeetable artbook world of liberalism—hasn’t liberalism run out of credibility yet? The grayness of these days must be shaken into color by those with nothing to lose.


Current Comment:
What astounds me now, looking back twenty years to this writing, is that I have turned a call for discipline, for humility, awareness, and self-imposed limits as necessary for artistic work, into a call for regeneration of an “outside the walls” effort. I have combined the seeming opposites of restriction and rebellion, as if the one implied the other. Since these are still both valid for me I must ask, are these two incompatible, or the most natural of allies?

It was not clear to me at the time of the above essays that free music as a cultural response, a self-enclosed and self-justifying participant of the broader alternative culture, would die, in fact a natural death, along with the cassette culture, mail art, many food coops and communes. It had to die in order for free improvisation to take on its current form, as a subgenre of the music world, inhabited almost exclusively by professionals or wannabe’s, increasingly with university encouragement. Tamed and sober, it lives under the principles of criticism and hard work, but those are allied to the functioning of the music world, where nothing succeeds like success, and individual players and groups are judged according to their market value and peer acceptance. It is indeed hard work to run a business, manipulate contacts, pile up cds and accolades, and develop a style that will draw and sustain attention, but this is not the critical work I am speaking of in the essay above. If I could join discipline and standing outside the cultural norm at the time it was because free improvisation was not considered to be of any redeeming value, and the effort (of the reductionist turn) had not yet joined together discipline (aesthetic limitation) and acceptance into the fold. I was hoping for a community of players who could be aesthetically precise and at the same time not seeking inclusion in the broad spectrum of legitimate music. This was not to be.

Most important, there is no “we” today, no bonded sense among players with something common at stake. Without that there can be no sense that we might be able to do something with our own critical attention that does not fit the framework of the neo-liberal market. I keep saying to musicians, let’s value what we are now doing for and among ourselves, but the notion that such music might not fit a performance/publicity/success system is not to be aroused. In the absence of a self-defining community of players there is no System (yes, that out-of-favor sixties epithet!) of which we are not a part or from which at least we can momentarily withdraw and reflect on, and so no conceivable place outside it. A true for-ourselves community means not a supportive, hugging community of rejects-from-the-real-world but peer groups of players, artists, writers who can find meaning to their individual struggles in a collective sense of where they are going with their work. This points not to an ideology of freedom but an effort to understand what not to do, and the huge difficulty of this in a world in which any interdiction is painted as negative. If I can choose this sound over that one, and enjoy its strength, then I can further distinguish between letting this choice fuel the next one, on the one hand, and making this choice “work” for my success. Just as technology is the application of science for use and profit and has come to control the direction of science, so in the artworld the application of art to the schema of market success has come to determine what decisions the artist makes. I strongly doubt that the arrow of these analogous historical trends will miraculously reverse themselves, but, as I said earlier, at least these words can be spoken.

One final pass at the perhaps irresolvable contradiction: how can the two essays be combined, what is the harmonic resolution of the “duet”? As I implied above, their juncture was originally impulsive, without the question being asked of their contradiction. I was a kind of solo shaman back then, blind, trance-like and experiencing something not far from religious vision. And yet I saw from outside this that it could be joined to a cultural model of rebellion against all authority, not only that of the dominant culture but of one’s judgment as well. Art is both expressive and repressive, and this is reflected in the joining of the two essays. The repressive side, presented in the second essay, is not the imposition of an aesthetic, of rules or standards of the “good” that are just another form of given structure, nor of display of one’s mastery of the instrument. It is rather a state of tension between all that could be played and the one thing that is and must finally be played (whether sound or silence) if one chooses to perform. This is a discipline that is humbling to our desire to do and be all things, which yields no art but only indulgence in non-commitment, nothing final in any way. To paraphrase Beckett, I can’t play everything; I must play something.

on free improvisation

Free improvisation, as a conscious form of music, is a relatively recent phenomenon of the last few decades and is still practically unknown. Most people seem to be puzzled by it or have misconceptions, even fear. All other forms of Western art and popular music, including jazz and other structured improvisation, tend towards a conscious identification of the composer or player with the musical choices made. Some structure (song, style, or concept) is decided upon that has an identity set apart from others and given an individual meaning. It is prior to the event and one can judge whether the idea or style has been realized or not after the event. Free improv on the other hand tends to dissolve whatever structure or notions the musicians might bring with them, once the musical moment of choosing, of the actual playing, is entered. The only structure seemingly agreed upon is that no choices are invalidated by a standard or aesthetic external to what is actually played. Criticism in free improv generally hinges on whether idioms from jazz, rock, western art music, or even one's stylistic habits are being leaned upon.

All standards of "good music" are put in question, including that played moments ago. Our attachment to clichéd formulas, our best ideas stand in the way, and we make efforts to discover and get past them. This is therefore a music constantly open to self-criticism and change, and hugely diverse, as each individual is expected to deal with his and her own evolution. Technical development on the instrument in the traditional sense is no substitute. One could even say it is optional, for some a hindrance, to the extent that it predisposes our judgment as to what we might think is musically valid for oneself.

It is common for improvisers to experience periods of severe self-doubt, wondering if the entire edifice of past playing has any value at all or is merely self-indulgent. Any music at all can be self-indulgent, which would be to rest on one's accomplishment and perpetually duplicate one's habits, whatever gets the applause. Whatever is experienced as fun, including improvisation, can be self-indulgent in this way. For free improvisation there is a particularly acute musical insecurity is possible, since it is not just a personal interpretation of a given structure that is questionable but the entire music. A careful and attentive choosing is involved but not as means to an end. Since choice can theoretically go any direction outside what is known, this music tends toward an exaggerated full ear-open listening. In fact, since you do not identify with and defend your own sound, you find yourself listening to your very own playing with interest and surprise, reacting to it as you do to others'.

Free improv opens the door to dissolution, and an immersion in sound and silence. We hear a playful voice behind us ever suggesting, "why not this, instead?" Such self-criticism would destroy the music before any sound appeared, if we were involved in compositional pieces. But love of playing is stronger; to play for the sheer joy of it is nowhere stronger than in free improvisation. It is this that drives the music, this is the energy, not the sense of accomplishment, the creation of a product that meets our standards. From the point of view of the player all products are going to be lame, at least in retrospect, which is right around the corner. Playing revives us. Ultimately, though we might get lost in resentment, criticism, or the hope for social reward, we always have to come home to the act of playing itself. Here we find a basic acceptance of whatever we do, an ironic humor, an awareness of the vulnerability of the music, and of our ridiculous efforts to create something solid and valid in spite of our commitment to openness. If we were doing this alone or in units (bands), as in the image of western art and popular music, this vulnerability would be impossible to handle. But in fact this music is the community of its players, one that is now and has been teaching itself how to be aware, to grow, to face disappointment, to ignore the public scorn that all self-conscious artistic communities have faced. In the end, we have nothing to go on except each other. And there's nothing sad or self-pitying about that.

This music reflects our disillusionment with the fundamental impulse of other modern, Western musics to organize nature, as represented in sound. We have a different way of dealing with so-called "chaos"; it is not our enemy, not even a matter to be fashioned into durable, self-validating human objects. We are "at play" with sound. Since our view is so dissident from normal assumptions, free improv cannot be expected to advance its players in the so-called music world of career and conquest. Try as we might! There are few of us who are acceptable in jazz clubs, few who have not emptied coffee houses of its patrons, to the consternation of the owners. The prejudice of our culture is towards structure--give us something, a token, a name for the piece--that is what will validate the musician. The free players who have wide recognition outside the improv community are those who also play structured music, which is of course just fine, but it does instruct us about the preferences of our culture. We don't have any "best players" to offer, any more than a "best music". The improv that is classic has already been consumed by the present community of players; what is fresh is in process, and ready to be heard!

---liner notes to the cd Thaw, 1992, revised, 2001




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