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Does Free Improvisation Have A Future?

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?'

Global warming 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.

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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 improvisations?

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.

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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.

This individuating 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.

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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 music making3.

Paradoxically, 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.

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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 sensory experience?

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.

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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 music.

Every artistic 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.

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This article draws on previous writings:

Sulla Libera 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.

Sampling, Power & Real Collisions, Resonance 5, London, 1996.
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.

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1 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.

2 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!"

3 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 become.. inhuman?

Comparing field 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.

4 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."

5 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?

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