by Tim Hodgkinson
London, November 2010
It happens that
you show up at a gig and think 'same old faces,' and the music seems somehow
repetitive, as if trying to conform to some familiar model of what improvised
music should be, and it's possible then that you ask yourself: 'Does free improvisation
have a future?'
scientists have noted that an over all increase in global temperature comes
with an increase in the amount of variation around the norm. As it gets hotter,
the weather gets crazier. As a practitioner I wish for free improvisation to
be and to remain a 'hot' and crazy music, even if as a thinker I need to stand
back and look at it as if it were cooler than it really is in order to be able
to make any generalization at all. I start from a small number of 'normative'
but not entirely uncontroversial ideas which might apply to a cooled-down version
of free improvisation that has never actually existed.
1) Free improvisation
is an aesthetic practice1 that makes use
of a shared but implicit ear-knowledge of non-improvised musics.
2) Musical value
- connectivity and consequence - is imported from these other musics, but this
value is not taken as constitutive of these other musics within the new context.
3) It follows that
part-whole relations (i.e. how smaller bits fit hierarchically into larger bits
and ultimately into a whole piece) within non-improvised musics are relevant
to how free improvisation works: as free improvisation leans towards different
non-improvised musics at different times, significant differences in their part-whole
relations move in and out of focus.
This is of course
highly schematic. I repeat: the practice of free improvisation is almost by
definition extremely varied. There's a lot of stuff you can't really put your
finger on. Furthermore, local (national differences, coexistence of different
schools) and transitory factors (such as generational conflict) will in practice
seem to over-ride general factors. These propositions, as I hope to show, do
provide grounds for imagining possible futures for free improvisation, other,
that is, than merging into the computer-generated soundscape or giving up in
the face of the shrinking social and economic base for live minority music.
Let me expand.
The practice of
free improvisation is the real time interplay between the shaping intentions
of the players. At every moment the players intend musical shape. The intention
of shape is the responsibility that improvising musicians take over, so to speak,
from composers. This now becomes a responsibility exercised irreversibly and
in real time. It is a performed responsibility.
To maximize the
effects of real time interplay, free improvisers willingly enter a process in
which as little as possible is predetermined. At any given moment the shaping
intention of each player will be non-coincident with the shaping intentions
of other players. You have no way of sharing these intentions: all you have
is a way of sharing their outcomes - the audible sounds you make.
To this inescapable
fact are added various methods of upping the level of indeterminacy. These include
the use of unstable and uncontrollable acoustic systems and the accenting of
transitional and ambiguous aspects of sounds, as well as simply making disruptive
shape-breaking moves. So in practice, each player's shaping impulse is constantly
being modified by events, even when expressed in clearly separated interventions.
Insofar as we can
isolate it, the intention of shape communicates itself through a shaping sonic
gesture: a sound or group of sounds that suggests, projects forwards, and creates
the expectation of connections to other sounds. These connections cannot be
projected forward on a purely ad hoc basis because the total flow of events
is too unpredictable: you can only see ahead a very short way.
The exact shaping
intention of each player is constantly subject to differing interpretations
by the other players - they have only the sounds to go on. What actually develops
in the music in each moment emerges unpredictably from the interactions between
all the players. So, for a sound or group of sounds to project forward and create
expectations, the shape that a musician gives them must be at least partly dependent
on prior knowledge, and this knowledge derives from knowledge of the rule-systems
of non-improvised musics.
What free improvisation
needs from other musics is essentially musical value, that is, the quality given
to a sound element by a system of musical rules whereby that element points
to others in relationships of varying similarity and difference. To bring in
any extended logic of connectivity from other musics would be to reduce the
generative possibilities for interplay and compromise the improvisational process.
Free improvisation takes from other musics the smallest units having musical
value, that is, having a quality of connectivity, whilst generally avoiding
more extended units that would start to line up the music in a predictable direction.
For example: a pair of notes, rather than a tune; or a single chord, rather
than a chord sequence.
We begin to see
the tensions involved. On the one hand, there are the ongoing cultural tensions
between free improvisation and the particular non-improvised musics on which
it draws. These come out when, for example, improvisers use the term 'jazz'
in a loaded way. On the other hand, there are the immediate tensions at points
where, in the logics of these other musics, parts would have been articulated
into larger units. How do these articulations vary in the different musics from
which free improvisation has taken? How are these articulations handled in actual
I repeat: free
improvisation demands a particular distance from the musics on which it draws,
as well as a singular intimacy with them. This holding apart is necessary because
in improvisation the musical value of constituent elements does not confirm
larger-scale groupings and outcomes: musical value is taken purely as value
and not as constitutive of 'a music.' What free improvisation is free from is
(amongst other things) the connection between parts and whole that confirms
the integrity, for example, of a jazz piece or a classical sonata. A single
chord, clearly voiced as such, already has harmonic implications and can easily
be placed in a context in which those implications are registered in unexpected
ways by other sounds and other types of sound. A sequence of chords, on the
other hand, has both vertical and horizontal implications that could quickly
tie the music down.
If the earlier
problem was how to hold itself apart from jazz, this was because it was jazz
that was most clearly pushing towards what free improvisation became, evolving
the method of rapid breaking down and churning material on the spot: you take
a phrase and you blow it and you change it but you keep it going, and it's continuous
and melting into its own variations. But jazz also, by a process of stretching
or aesthetic loosening, clung to the constitutive value of the parts in relation
to the whole, which of course, transferred to the context of free improvisation,
would, and often did, lead to a dilution and slackening of the process. Think
for example of the relative 'vertical' rigidity of roles in jazz and in 'free
jazz,' projected onto the horizontal by the device of the sequence of solos.
Jazz, as it became 'free,' increasingly placed the accent on the psychological
aspects of a quest for immediate personal truth, rather than the aesthetic aspects.
Essentially what was being liberated was the individual psyche: an act of identification
would be required from listeners.
What free improvisation,
as articulated by Derek Bailey for example, held up against jazz, and pitted
against jazz in real improvisations, was another way of breaking down material,
the way that came out of European serialism and the breakdown of the tonal system,
but that was already (we can say retrospectively) implied in Debussy's isolation
of the chord: the way of considering each sound primarily as an individual,
the way of stripping out the grammar by which individual events are grouped
into intermediary patterns which then articulate larger structures.
approach is far different from the continuous variation process which was contemporaneously
emerging in free jazz. Bearing down on the exact shaping of individual notes
or sounds, it invites the ear to start from scratch at every moment, to consider
the possible relationships between one sound and another as being continuously
modified and rotated about varied axes of connection. There is here a possibility
of detailed listening that diverges sharply both from the kind of structural
listening demanded by the classical sonata, and from the impressionistic listening
demanded by free jazz.
Perhaps we can
identify this as the first phase of free improvisation, the phase in which free
improvisation assembles itself from free jazz and post-Webern sound individuation.
But this assemblage is conducted in a holistic way, so that the ways of breaking
down material come attached to the kinds of material that are being broken down
as well as to the residual ways in which material was previously connected and
hierarchically organized. Perhaps the work of Derek Bailey is the zone in which
the Webernian pressure against jazz2 reaches
its most acute form, a pressure which drives him beyond the problem of analytically
separating material from process.
Since the early
period of free improvisation, the taking up of musical value from other musics
has been extended from Afro-American and post-Webern traditions to non-European
'ethnic' musics, and to electronic and studio-processed sound, field recordings,
and so on.
What can be said
about part-whole relations in composed electronic music? First of all there
is an inevitable accent on poiesis: because sound is manipulated in non-immediate
ways, method becomes more interesting in and of itself, and audible results
are not necessarily predictable from method. The integrity of pieces is often
more to do with a quality that is omnipresent than with hierarchical segmentation.
For example, a piece will build up widely diverse treatments of a single initial
sound-source or sound-idea, but the results are so far apart that the common
source is not recognized by the ear, and the relations between the treated versions
of the original sounds appear as a mysterious and impalpable but pervasive connection.
This kind of fractal, rather than segmented, structure makes part-whole relations
less easy to discern.
Because the business
between the units and the grammar by which they are connected has not been resolved,
descriptions of electronic music tend to be in terms of analytical categories.
For example: spectral material and temporal form. These are analytical
categories because they can never be dissociated in any given instance. Yet
they seem to suggest, perhaps unintentionally, that the material is first prepared
out of time and only then distributed in time. This is because the spectral
aspect is identified as 'material,' and 'material' is what you start with, whilst
the temporal shaping of this material is identified as 'form,' and 'form' is
what is applied to material.
Given that the
structure of electronic music is of the pervasive type rather than the segmented
type, it is no longer possible to isolate small units as suggestive of connectivity
and consequence. What free improvisation initially takes from electronic music
is material as such, rather than material caught in the moment of segmentation
and articulation. Electronic music has been a bigger influence on the sound
of improvisation and on the development of extended instrumental technique than
on the actual process of improvisational interaction - in fact it has produced
an improvisational style, sometimes called 'reductionist,' that largely eschews
instrumental gesture, slowing down interaction between players to allow the
ear to move around inside the (as it were, timeless) spectral material. On the
one hand, this approach could be seen as a new way for free improvisation to
hold itself apart from jazz. On the other hand, it opts out of the gestural,
decisive, and intensely time-conscious processes that have been central to free
improvisation. It forgets, or chooses to ignore, that jazz brought the body
back into considered music for a good reason, not simply as a cipher of individualism,
but as the concrete source of musical action within the concrete practice of
despite this interest in spectral material, it may turn out in the longer term
that concrete actions, or rather the shadows that they cast in sound, is the
big thing that free improvisation will take from electronic music. The difficulties
I've mentioned of description and analysis of electronic music led composer
Dennis Smalley to think out a fruitful analysis in terms of substitutions4.
Noticing that listeners create 'virtual sources' whilst listening to electronic
music, he developed the idea that gestures can not only be thought of as the
movements that make and cause sounds but also as the movements that are inferred
from sounds by the listening ear. From here he goes on to suggest that electronic
music listeners make sense of the music via a series of substitutions.
On the upper level,
quite subtle behaviors of sounds, changes in texture and so on, are related
back to musical gestures, which are in turn related back to (virtual) instrumental
sound-making gestures. The most original aspect of Smalley's analysis is that
he extends this chain of substitutions one stage further back, to arrive at
a primary level of sound-making gestures that are not yet musical - such as
scratching at a piece of wood or rubbing two stones together. This is so tactile,
so visual, and so proprioceptive - as if one's own muscles were making the movements
- that it becomes, in my view, part of a continuum of human gesture that is
not limited to sound-making activities, but is defined, rather, by its quality
of eliciting a spontaneous response in us in whatever sensory mode. Because
these primary gestures are not specifically sonic, and to distinguish
them from those that are, I shall call them non-sonic.
I began by stressing
free improvisation's need for shaping sonic gestures: sounds, or groups of sounds,
that suggest, project forwards, and create the expectation of, connections to
other sounds. I argued that, to acquire these gestures, free improvisation started
by appropriating them from other musics. Perhaps part of what free improvisation
is, is a showing up via decontextualisation of the relativity of these borrowed
sonic gestures in a substitution series, so that perhaps free improvisation
is teaching us that these sonic gestures are substitutions for underlying non-sonic
gestures - that also project forwards in time, and that are also potential propositions
in an unpredetermined flow. I must stress that the actual physical gesture of
the performing musician is not the main issue here, or at least not directly.
(I am putting aside the whole question of the ergonomics of instruments and
the way in which their design nests in the possibilities of physical human gesture
and the corporeality of unrepresented knowledge.) On the contrary, the issue
here is the gesture as retrieved from the sound itself.
Perhaps the underlying
gestures were in a sense already always there from the beginning, it's just
that we didn't read them as such, we read them through their referentiality
and the destruction or subversion of this referentiality in the next moment:
is this process of elicitation followed by denial and détournement an
essential part of what the experience of free improvisation is? Or were we always
(unconsciously?) reading the underlying non-sonic gestures of the music - as
if with our mirror neurons - as an art of gesture in its own right? Is free
improvisation now ready to do without music?
But what are these
non-sonic gestures? The idea of gesture brings together movement, space, intention,
energy, shape and the organization of the human body. Non-sonic, and yet to
be retrieved by the listening ear? Culturally conditioned, or 'human,' and,
if the former, how does that sit with our interest in non-European musics? How
can a gesture, something that you 'do,' organize an interpretation of incoming
There are conventional
gestural repertoires5 developed in particular
musics and in particular compositional styles, as have been studied in Beethoven
and Schubert. Even on this level, gesture has been resistant to analysis, obscured
by the syntactic and striated space of musical notation, and seen as simply
arising in the heuristics of performance. What I am getting at is something
below that, something like the raw material from which such gestural repertoires
are built up.
In the end, I doubt
whether what I am talking about has ever been properly theorized, but it has
been alluded to in the working notes, manifestos, and ongoing commentaries of
artists working in many fields. For example: Pollock as turning painting into
dance, or the trace of dance: Roger Copeland called Hans Namuth's film on Pollock
"one of the world's most significant dance films." Charles
Olson claimed that the kinetic was the essential bedrock level of art, and that
you could not know this kinetic stuff except by enacting it, which suggests
that the stuff is untheorizable in some way, as if by nature beyond rational
analysis. And if we seem headed too deep into the basement of the mind, free
improvisation must still form itself at the level of sound, a level at which
no-one's metaphysical core will have survived intact the critique of real-time
interaction. The primary gestures arrive, so to speak, already in relation to
one another - colliding, or interlocked - on the level at which they are enunciated.
Leaving all this
open and unresolved, as indeed I should, I return to my opening question: Does
free improvisation have a future? To ask the question at all is to remind ourselves
that, like other musics, free improvisation has social, technical and economic
dimensions, from which it is not 'free.' For example, the social meaning of
free improvisation in certain political contexts has evaporated as those contexts
have flattened out. I'm thinking of Eastern Europe and Russia pre, and shortly
after, 1989. Here free improvisation meant political and social liberation from
communism. To play there was in a sense to do the same ideological work as Pollock
or the folk at Darmstadt for the CIA: we were playing them the 'free society.'
In the West free improvisation meant the freedom of the utopian anarcho-communistic
imagination to dream and try out new worlds. In a broader way, free improvisation
is deeply imprinted with the characteristics of the cultural period in which
it emerged: how much of this can and should be creatively transformed to meet
new conditions? These are questions that belong to the external history of this
practice, and perhaps anything to be defined as 'a practice', also has an immanent
history. By this I mean that it doesn't only get shaped by external factors
but filters and draws in stuff from the outside that is grist to its own mill.
The 'mill' of free improvisation is a particular aesthetic practice that generates
a very wide field of possibilities in which the ear moves between, within, and
against, not only the different things that are being sounded, but also, and
in a way much more importantly, the very many more different things that might
have been sounded but never are. A music of decision! So that if free
improvisation is to survive, it is only by feeling its way forwards, taking
this and rejecting that, according to what works best within this aesthetic
process that defines it as a practice. Neither the material nor the technology
that's drawn into the process can define the process. Neither do 'historical'
allegiances to different kinds of material. Not the music of a community, but
the community of a music.
This article draws
on previous writings:
Improvvisazione, Musica/Realtà 15, Milan, 1984.
In this article I argued that the structure of a free improvisation is a pattern
of repeated shifts in structural level, with each structural level corresponding
to groupings of sounds creating definite musical expectations. This self-transcending
type of structure is the only kind that can absorb a continuous input of indeterminacy.
& Real Collisions, Resonance 5, London,
An initial description of the aesthetics of improvisation in terms of a process.
A Rich Field
of Possibilities, Resonance 8, London, 2000
On strategies and indeterminacy in free improvisation.
My definition of "aesthetic" derives from Helmholtz: the aesthetic
is that which explicitly focuses on sensory stimuli, such as sounds, shapes,
colors, whilst implicitly focusing on the relationships between the sensations
that such stimuli excite.
Raymund Dilmans reports that during a concert at Imola in 1976, Bailey, on stage
with Paul Lytton and Evan Parker, shouted "Stop playing that jazz!"
On the other hand there is an important connotational work going on here, with
improvisation both reflecting the machine soundscape and drawing on the authority
and objectivity of inhuman sound. There is a dialectic between the presence
and absence of human gesture. This is particularly striking in the mimesis of
machine sound by acoustic instrument: that is, the substitution is more accented
where it actually is a substitution. To stand, bodily, before an audience, and
recordings to music also raises the question of the necessity of the presence
of the human in the gesture. It may be that the textural changes in soundscapes
come to articulate themselves in our perception by a metaphorical extension
of the active human gesture into the perceived patterns of environmental sound
- with animals, birds, insects, and even the weather, functioning as translators.
Dennis Smalley, Spectromorphology: explaining sound-shapes.
in Organised Sound 2(2): 107-26, 1997 Cambridge University Press.
I prefer to use the term substitutions where Smalley uses surrogates.
This is partly to avoid any connection to representation: gestures may be representations
but they don't function in relation to one another as representations in the
vertical series connecting primal, instrumental and musical gesture. He draws
on: Pierre Schaeffer, Traité des Objets Musicaux, Du Seuil, Paris,
1966. In a sense the idea of substitution is already given in the ur-myth of
acousmatics: the disciples of Pythagoras listen to his lectures from behind
a curtain: the source is hidden but inferred. More explicitly: "Nous l'avons
vu, c'est le geste instrumental qui oriente notre redécouverte de la
forme sonore. ...nous avons déjà insisté sur les liens
primordiaux du faire et d l'entendre...dans le domaine des relations entre les
fonctions auditives et les activit_és motrices." Schaeffer, p.475.
This translates as: "As we've seen, it's the instrumental gesture that
focuses our rediscovery of the sound form... we have already strongly asserted
the primordial connections between doing and hearing... in the domain of the
relations between auditory functions and motor activities."
Not wishing to disturb the ant's nest of semiology, and unlike, say, David Lidov,
my interest is absolutely not in decoding gestures. In an aesthetic context,
gestures point to one another reflexively, not outwards to ''meanings":
their motions may elicit e-motions, by resonance, so to speak. But what are
e-motions, if not internalised gestures?