This article has been sent back to the workshop either for repair or permanent removal. It was relatively local in focus, too quickly put together in the heat of a provocation, and, most important, did not develop the kind of analysis that I would prefer. If this wordpress is to consist of working papers leading to a book, in progress and perhaps a year from completion, then the deleted article does not come up to standard.
All music is being refitted by the new requirements of digital existence, intimately linked to survival in the most competitive field musicians have ever faced. Old-timers like myself and most of the better-known players came into music and joined up with others under different circumstances than young players today. Almost accidentally we heard music we liked and pricked up our ears, listened to a few records with maybe the suggestion of a friend, got to know others doing the same thing where we lived and gradually got in motion and made commitments. We could be motivated by what was not wholly true, the belief that whether our music caught on with others and yielded success was not up to us, merely a matter of our music and other people’s taste. There was no possibility of working for success; even professionally-oriented music students weren’t trained for it. Today however to work for success is at the forefront of the most ambitious musician’s life, with more time spent working for it than actually playing—indeed it is more imperative. One must establish an online presence, invest oneself in social media, and prepare attractive promotional material, all of which are now subsumed under the technology of algorithms, links, and feedback. One explores musical ideas but in the context of the push to be accepted by as wide a group as possible.
This has a huge impact on the actual musical content, which is now played in the context of the numbers game—how many “friends”, “likes,” and “coming to the show,” which unlike the sales of recordings is immediately known and effective. The content of what one does and what it means to oneself is sacrificed for what it means for others. That meaning is not registered in complex responses from listeners and peers but in yes/no zeros and ones. Anything messy in our relation to what we do, doubt and impulse, self-critique and caution thrown to the wind, which is still believed to be inherent and expected in art, is flattened out.
Musicians and artists often feel that at least in their creative time they are immune to the pressures of society to produce something useful—that is still part of the attraction to doing this, a kind of passive resistance to the ways of the world. But that creative time has been penetrated, shot through with a new kind of internal repression that has come to replace the old one of censorship and obscurity. It is harder than ever for an artist to imagine what it might be like to feel truly alone in their work, the only boss of oneself –“autonomous” was the older term–when one sees over one’s shoulder the judge calculating one’s position in the hierarchy of numbers. True, as often cynically pointed out, we’re never alone, always imbibe a culture, yet here that culture has a foothold it didn’t have in the past; we have less choice of resisting our social membership than ever before–or so it appears, in the fear-filled survivalist atmosphere. And this is not something the kids do that they will grow out of and become more independent later. At least none of the elders seem to be saying: we’ve got to stop playing this game and get back to making art that first of all satisfies ourselves.
There is a term borrowed from Marx that is useful here, distinguishing formal from real subsumption. The first refers to when someone hires laborers to work just as they always had, such as skilled work done by hand, with someone else providing raw materials and marketing the goods. With real subsumption laborers are hired regardless of skill, since they’re hired to work according to the technology and plan laid out by the owner. Applied to those who hope to play music in a venue in front of people, real subsumption would have as entrepreneur the music world (venues, funding agencies, curators, promoters), which now has digital tools it never had before to select who it will hire. It is able to set the term, to shape the cultural content and providers according to its needs. It pressures musicians, all the more if they want to earn “real” money, to jump through the hoops it is enabled to set up, favoring music that is well-organized, accurately categorized, targeted to an audience prepared to accept it, and standardized. Those who don’t get with the digital program and so can’t play the game will be automatically eliminated.
The time spent exploring sound, learning instrumental technique, wondering what the hell we’re doing and why, can be considered labor that is at the player’s discretion, creating the musical skills we’ve chosen to bring with us, which yield a cultural product. All that activity is now overwhelmed by a powerful external, a judge the player did not previously have to deal with, certainly not from the very beginning of their musical experience. Young musicians, “digital natives” like their age peers, will be subject to “real” subsumption when they coordinate their activities with the social media, the promotional medium bar none, as the precondition of playing music in front of others. Busking could be an exception, but then one must develop the tricks of holding an audience, hardly the focus of anything outside conventional entertainment. When in the 1940s Theodor Adorno critiqued “the culture industry” for commoditizing art he wasn’t aware of this further possibility, which gets to the heart of artists’ motivation and discipline.
This situation is part of the larger picture of how postmodern society has developed.
Gigs promising an audience of ten people may seem small potatoes, but the same kind of machinery operates as for the name players. For capital to continue to expand it must subsume creative work according to the way it organizes all social relations, configuring encounters between musicians and listeners as opportunities for commodification, and relations of musicians as moments of competition even when no profit comes from the exchange, and not a hint of antagonism between them.
Not only is labor organized this way, as in Marx’s day, and beginning in the 20th century consumption as well, but now there is hardly a meaningful life activity that is free of the internalized demands of capital—not leisure, not Sunday painting and hobbies, not children’s playtime and sports, and not playing music. A few speak to a miniscule number of others about resisting capitalist society, but they can only think of things that are to be taken seriously and possibly expand as any valued project, the way people get enthusiastic about experimental music as doing some little good in the world. An alternate list of what is possible, besides self-destructive vices, would include: working in relative isolation from the market (called self-indulgent), being carefree about “getting your stuff out there,” whatever that is, dancing for the sheer pleasure of it, playing rather than rehearsing music, and having no hopes for it, and goofing around–and doing these to excess. Sounds like a pretty good life!
“I’m not being creative until I don’t know what I’m doing” [Hal Galper at the Jazz Bridge Piano Series Dec. 2010 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I5YWHuDI1zg ]
It makes practical sense for musicians to speak of musical genres, since that is how the music world categorizes us. Before we are assigned a hierarchical position of relative value we are sorted into a category, a labeled store aisle with competing branded products. Our category (for myself it might be “experimental improvisation”) often determines who will lend us their ears and on what terms we will be judged. Thus the category is involved practically in where and for whom we get to play and the reward structure. For instance no jazz club will hire an “experimental improviser,” who will be referred to a venue more appropriate to that category. And the more familiar the category the more clear it will be where one belongs. We musicians may not think in terms of playing a genre, yet we’re called back to one or another category (including that of the advertised “genre-defying”) by the practicalities of the world we must deal with. To play “within” a certain genre and be identified as such gains the benefits of a predisposed audience and easily learned and repeated tropes. One must to relate in some way to the history of that genre and to those whom the sales charts, media and academia have determined to be prominent, treated as figures that represent it to audiences. In this system that creates partitions within “music” and among musicians, it is assumed that anyone at all playing music is attempting to represent one genre or another, and can be judged accordingly.
Genre relates to the experience of listeners, but especially that of consumers. “Listener” is a more amorphous category, overlapping but not concentric with consumers. Comparable to art collectors, record collectors are consumers but not inclined to prick up their ears at whatever they hear, a quality of listeners. Collectors are closely governed by genre boundaries and are dependent on genre stability, the hierarchy of players within it, and specialized knowledge. On the other hand, internet access has yielded the rise of listeners, who explore whimsically far outside stable consumer genres and at the expense of consumer purchase, professional musician livelihood, and the earlier business mode.
While a music genre is a commercial label directing consumers to a record bin, it is the specific within a general distribution of sound: first, what is and is not music, and then the boundaries within music that determine what musical meanings are legitimately assigned to what musical producers. The existence of a distribution system of genres is presupposed in defining what signifier—the simple sound/silence–is to be perceived as a pattern and assigned to a particular signified—a musical meaning. That link is crucial to the identity of a genre: to play a certain way means this rather than that label, the public meaning and the basis of any discussion.
As a function of now-globalized western culture, “music” is the sum of all the genres and the work of conscious creation; sound outside of music is noise and the unconscious, the barbarian at the gates. As it was for the Roman Empire, the boundary of civilized and barbarian may appear solid as a wall but is constantly under pressure and negotiation. Genres are applications of standardized codes to empirical reality, and so over time, as musicians freely explore untested ideas and put them on the market, genres are threatened with destabilization. Indeed, the representation of the genre “at its most creative level” is where it begins to escape the genre, a seeming paradox, yet part of the logic of innovation vital to market dynamics. A genre is either “innovative,” supposedly resisting its own boundaries, or else it becomes classicized and dependent on a consumer group with a nostalgic bent and an in-group social dynamic holding it loyal. The latter can also be promoted as educational, not far from the “getting hip” motif of mainstream liberal culture, which requires the stability and constructed historical certitude of genre boundaries.
Free playing, on the other hand, is an activity and not a matter of genre categorization, including the fundamental one of music/noise. It refers to the experience of playing and not how it is marked and distinguished after the fact. It is not even fully intentional, since intention usually implies an expected output, whereas setting up a meeting for free playing only opens the door. If music is that which is judged to be music, and jazz, free jazz, and free improvisation are preliminarily judged to fit their respective categories, then free playing falls outside, for it is playing prior to any terms of judgment. It is outside the partitions of music and not merely a genre presently unfamiliar to audiences, which someday will be known and accepted. A genre is one among the many, where the existence of the other determines the one. Free playing is the many before they are assigned a home as this or that one.
Play goes beyond sound or other activity considered artistic; one can play sitting quietly in the corner, making no ostensible movement. As aesthetic experience rather than an “active” activity, one can appear externally as a spectator yet be fully part of the playing, perhaps on the verge of activity. The distinguishing feature is radical not-knowing, and not-anticipating specifically what might come next. It is based on the faculty of imagination–what can be but is not yet. The player does not care what it will mean, how it will be taken, or where it will go. Playing is not artistic experiment, which aims at the artwork or performance, but surprise. The excitement is a kind of fear of what might happen, of developing knowledge that will be found to be useless, what escapes the category of art, which can happen without even noticing it. The players might have extensive knowledge of the culturally given links between the signifiers and signified–the sounds and their musical meaning—but they ignore them as irrelevant.
While contemporary art turns to the everyday, with the command to “use everything,” free playing is not done for anything else, is not used to create an artwork but is its own end. The aim is to keep the playing going, such that any ending is arbitrary, dependent more on purposeful activities and needs than even exhaustion. It threatens to extend beyond the period of time chosen for it. Taken as an object free playing is indeterminate, and the player abandons any effort to determine its meaning and effect. It is motivated without a telos, a goal used to determine whether the aim has been reached, and how well it has been accomplished. Unlike entrepreneurial activity, the motivation is self-fulfilling, fulfilled before it is begun, circular. It is neither life nor art, but has a tenuous relation with both. All this may sound like an idealization, but it is an accurate description for those who actually do it on a regular basis.
It is possible to play in front of those who do not think of themselves as playing, usually called spectators at an event called a performance, framed as a presentation of music. Without intending to be understood players lack both a strategy for “reaching” an audience and any certainty of response through a common understanding of what they are doing. They cannot resolve for others or for themselves the question of whether what happens is good or bad, whether it has meaning or whether it is just sounds in the air. The question from non-playing listeners, “what is your motivation?” is perfectly in order, for they commonly assume that musicians possess and even embody the “will-to-art,” that no one is truly an artist who does not intend to get across some meaning. This has negative implications for the reward structure built into each genre, for without displaying the will-to-art the justification for paying someone is lacking. A more positive version of this would be that free playing undermines the position of the master musician and of the entrepreneurial effort and goal to market musical meaning.
Regardless of musician intentions, free jazz and free improvisation are the specific genres of music understood as expressions of free playing. In this essay I will deal only with free jazz, which in contrast to Europe is the recognized title under which free improvisation is subsumed in the US. For instance, I will tell promoters my music is free improvisation, and give them some music to listen to that has no trace of the jazz idiom, but they will inevitably promote it as “free jazz.” The real deal–idiomatic free jazz– is firmly linked with the now fully legitimated history of jazz, its heroic forms, arpeggios, its distinct combination of sophistication and roughness. It is presented as an extension of original Free Jazz of the sixties, in fact some players advertise themselves as the true defenders of the jazz spirit. But despite some overlap with the past, contemporary free jazz is its own historical entity, with origins in the late 80s, and with boundaries far more demarcated than what originally went under its name.
As with many other genres considered marginal, contemporary free jazz is coming out of the underground and getting its place in the sun, not only in academia but in public presence. It is however being funded and rebranded as “experimental jazz” for middle class consumption (in Philadelphia, via NPR). It is then categorized under the wing of jazz as its established “outer” edge but not a challenge to it, as earlier Free Jazz was. The hope and expectation is that it will gain the publicity benefits of jazz as a classicized and stable musical form, America’s contribution to world culture, sign of the equality of the races, creativity, challenge to conventional taste, and other such promotional motifs.
Despite the careful elision of “free” in “experimental jazz,” the identity is strongly articulated, partly because its historical progenitor in the sixties still lies in the background. Wynton Marsalis and the filmmaker Ken Burns had good reason to exclude it from the jazz canon. Its emotionality, however stylized, touches on noise and threatens the stability of form that jazz has achieved. Given the strong identity and commitment, there are few borderline cases or crossovers, compared to Europe, where some players might slip into and out of the free jazz idiom depending on the performance situation. The name calls forth specific musicians and consumers, people who will not deny the jazz tradition, but will affirm free jazz as its extension. It also follows the pattern and tradition of the career jazz musician, who struggles for a place of legitimacy in the world through a music at least tinged with a resistant stance against its other, so-called mainstream music, as jazz once did. “Mainstream” conjures up the image of easily pleasured, conformist masses, whatever lacks a “cutting edge.” The long-established means of identifying what one does as art is to distinguish it from so-called “popular music” that is made for people who supposedly “do what they’re told,” the conventional philistine. As I suggest above, now the philistine is being told to take “experimental jazz” seriously. Compared to the response to the recent John Cage Centennial (another re-branding in the name of experimental art), audiences might well fall in line, for the jazz imprimatur weighs far heavier on the gutsiness scale.
As with any genre, musical meaning in free jazz is socialized. It follows a code known and recognized by a specific collectivity, a very small demographic, including of course the musicians, who are expected to communicate in that code. Such meaning isn’t literal, but a series of breathless fast runs that do not fit a harmonic scheme, plus drums and bass played heavily without strict time, a lyrical line that is not a repeated or sing-able melody, is a pattern and meaning that would be catalogued as free jazz. If today it were truly to embody the conflicted heritage of the sixties Free Jazz movement, as it seems to be claiming, then it would come close to the approach of free playing, which was how players then experienced what they were doing. (European-based free improvisation, denying any idiomatic identity, makes a more explicit claim to be grounded in free playing, but I will deal with that elsewhere.) The statements musicians made at the time (for instance the bold writing on the back of albums), and those of advocates like the late Amiri Baraka, do not indicate a genre identity but an adventure in which the players did not know where they were going. “Free Jazz” or alternately Black Avantgarde Jazz was a wide open field, different tomorrow from today. It reflected the utopian spirit of the times, the belief that the world could be turned around, that real, actual, fundamental change was actually happening through their music. That meaning of avantgarde might see further than the mass but did think they would end up as a genre. It was a movement, and like all movements it came to an end for various reasons, whereas the category of free jazz is not expected to change, in fact by all appearances its players resist internal challenge.
Despite genre boundaries, the claim to be playing freely is essential to free jazz, reflecting a feeling of exuberance and immediate presence in performance rather than following a score. As such it is claimed more widely as well. The quote at the head of this essay would indicate that a musician well-credentialed as a jazz pianist, Hal Galper, also considers the essence of his approach to be that of free playing. There is then a contradiction at the heart of any genre with a claim to being essentially improvised in the moment, and a contradiction is something that goes against the grain, potentially destabilizing it.
The free playing situation, as I’ve suggested earlier, opens the door to a radical individuality of meaning, a disjuncture from what has been socialized and understood. The individuality is not that of the specific player but is implicit in every moment of playing. It has something ascetic about it, for the individual turns away from the pleasures of repeating cultural givens for the sake of pleasure he and she does not yet know but only imagines. One attempts to uncover for oneself the range of the possible, and not only for that person alone, nor for other “experimental improvisers,” but for all who play. This is the contemporary version of the autonomous subject, not at all defeated by the postmodern turn but still alive and well wherever people trust their individual exploration and aesthetic experience.
Taken to be the work of a specific figure, the free player, and not the human situation of playing freely, this approach will be doomed to failure and illusion, for it can be deconstructed as inescapably social. Even known, supposedly heretical figures, such as free improviser or free jazz musician, suppress the possibility of free playing as an activity and motivation. Figuration establishes the place for everything and everything in its place. As soon as one re-presents the result of private experiment to others, meaning begins to be constructed, and encases the player in a web of determinations, as if that is what they were seeking all along. There is no such thing as a private music any more than there is a private language. Yet in the moment of performance (which of course can be a private recording), when despite the players’ intention their private exploration of meaningless sound turns into musical meaning, they are at the point of challenge to the given, more readily understood meaning. As with a critical politics, one publicly raises doubts—dissent–about how things can be understood and suggests another view, unrealistic from the viewpoint of the given. It is not an argument however, as politics is usually framed, but a suggestion: “Try this.” The suggestion occurs as a moment indistinguishable from the moment the players are trying it for themselves. Unlike the scenario expected of the expert and acclaimed musician, they are not doing something they know how to do but precisely what they have no prior knowledge of.
This is where “in the moment” gains its significance, if removed from its usual promotional context. Free playing does not offer itself as spontaneously arising out of a mind innocently unaware of what it is doing. It is fully aware that only at this moment, the supreme dividing line of what is and is not comprehended as music, does new meaning come into the world. The world is other but not outside. When a player says that at some point there has to be an audience, this can mean just one person, who will embody the social in its full potential, and together they create new meaning. Even though there are no buyers, no supportive venues, no grants available, there can be listeners. To assert that one musician and one listener constitute the world will seem ludicrous, hyperbolic and self-important to those who operate in terms of the music world, but it is inherent in free playing when it is offered. The doors are open on both sides of the stage, no code has been written, all are invited to write it together. And propelled into the next moment, they can leave it behind.
(The following refers back to some recent posts on my facebook page https://www.facebook.com/jack.wright.77770 , in particular, an interview with Ben Wright http://searchandrestore.com/blog/?id=83091985659)
Interviews are of course written or spoken by the musicians themselves, free to give their honest thought to the questions. And since—let’s face it–in musician fb pages and even musician blogs we are mainly talking to each other, we’re at least the potential interview subjects, not musicians other than ourselves. We’re free to offer our thoughts, yet interviews are framed and understood as being “about” us, characterizing us for a readership thought to be “the public.” It is also taken for granted that we intend to elicit a positive response, since we are not just private individuals but perceived as hoping to advance ourselves through public exposure. How many times is an interview of obscure musicians such as ourselves prefaced with “so-and-so is underrated”? Right there our words are framed as helpful to our career, regardless of what we actually say. We may think we’re just speaking our mind, but the interview is inescapably a promotional tool, and we are powerless to frame it differently.
It’s the same with reviews; a “good review” is just like in the old movies, where those with a stake in a play that just opened wait up all night to read the reviews, which will determine their fate. What was important was whether the review was positive or not, thumbs up or down. This is where critics got their power, and some still write as if they had that kind of power to determine our fate. That’s why a writer who takes a different approach, such as I referred to in my post a few days ago, is a radical and welcome departure from the tradition. There was no pretense of objectivity but a story of how the music affected one spectator, in his own words, a very different concept of the meaning of the music.
If we want to increase the size of our audience, as is assumed, then it would seem that we have little choice but to operate as entrepreneurs, selling ourselves in a market so flooded that the vast majority of us are invisible (except to each other!) It would be difficult today, given the percentage decline of performers who actually make a living from playing music, to find more than a few who are truly “established,” who can be confident of their position in the music world. And those who are established complain that there are too many of us, presumably envious of their position. The suspicion will always cling to our interviews, depending on whether we are seen as “rising” or established, that we are hoping to strike readers positively. To not care about the effect of our words indicates that we are not “serious” musicians. That word “serious” is then split between two meanings that are not comfortable as bedfellows: deeply devoted to music and working for success.
If someone like myself or many of my partners say we are not working for success, are not concerned with expanding the number of audience, happy with our situation as it is, well, is such a musician even conceivable? Isn’t this just a ploy to impress people, including other musicians, that we’re “true artists,” above the fray? Aren’t such people really just trying to attract attention to themselves? It indicates a confidence in one’s playing activity—playing first of all for ourselves–that needs no confirmation from others, which could easily be scorned as elitist self-indulgence.
In this situation we might express thoughts that go into the nature of what we share as musicians, not intentionally provocative or radical but thought-provoking, yet they will be skimmed over. Our expressions could well engage the reader’s active reflection, whether labeled a musician or not, but the interview as promotional tool will tend to obscure that. On the contrary, even things we say about ourselves can be taken not as a means to achieve “greater visibility” but as the ground for our own reflection.
One example, and what stimulated my writing here, is Ben’s response to question four of the interview with Sam Weinberg http://searchandrestore.com/blog/?id=83091985659 . He is asked what he likes about playing duo, and it could be read as his opinion, but more fruitfully it is an inquiry into what goes on between us when we’re musically engaged in free playing. He says “some concurrence of intention” is necessary, and the possibility of two players lacking that. Since this is something probably every one of us could respond to, his thoughtful response, which goes into the difference in player dynamics between duo and larger groups, could open us to a discussion that is rarely if ever attended to. Most importantly, to reflect and articulate on this could affect the next time we play, could lead to—who knows what.
It’s often thought that musicology is a sphere of classical, jazz and mainstream musics (even popular music is now being treated by musicologists)—picking apart scores and recordings to uncover musical meaning. This question, however, of how we actually relate to each other when we don’t know what the other is going to do—playing freely—is our musicology. And how much better if we do this amongst ourselves before academics start picking us apart to find what makes us tick. As surely they will.
The discussion of music available today primarily presupposes the listener’s point of view, even when the musicians themselves talk of it. This holds true for creative or art music–what musicians both make as their individual work and have little expectation of immediate reward. This essay will attempt to correct this, and take the musician’s point of view.
Musicians might say “I’m not in it for the fame or money,” yet no one makes music in a personal vacuum. Music is the most socially-oriented of all the arts, more today than ever before, functional to people’s working and private lives. By definition self-made music means something to its makers, and they have at least the long-term hope that it will mean something to others as well, that however small the audience it will evoke a response. The expected measure of audience response in a commercial society is a financial transaction and not merely the applause of friends and well-wishers. Even if money is treated as a minimal concern it is still there as a factor, a reassurance to the musician that what they create has value for others and justifies what they have committed themselves to as their most significant life activity. That audience is fantasized and may never exist, but to put time, emotional commitment, and resources into music creation depends somewhat on an expected real response. Reality however is what hits us in the face when we’re not expecting it. It is mostly out there beyond the musicians’ control–how the music and the musician gets categorized, what other music it is associated with, and what it is that listeners feel they need to hear. For all their independence (“artistic autonomy”) that reality can’t help but have a counter-effect on what they choose to create.
A very significant reality is the total number of musicians relative to the listeners able and willing to pay attention to them. In this regard, the present situation of North American musicians is one of an open labor market flooded by increasing arrivals and decreased income per player. This has been the case ever since the relative decline of live music performance and of the musician’s union, and the growth of individual entrepreneurship in a neoliberal society. The situation would have been unimaginable fifty years ago and is now in an acute stage. What might seem hopeless and depressing conditions, however, has actually produced something quite promising.
We are in the midst of a massive irony that is also a social contradiction, and contradictions are a good place to look for change. To elaborate: demand for music has increased to the point where most people’s lives are surrounded by what musicians have produced, yet consumer payment and attendance at events, divvied out among the vast number of musicians, is practically nil. On the one hand there has been an egalitarian emancipation of historic significance—music has escaped the traditional caste of musicians and can be produced by virtually anyone; similarly, it is available to all with little regard to class or income. On the other hand, and partly as consequence, the vast bulk of musicians are now basically unemployed hobbyists, as far as their creative life is concerned. This is due to many factors–the reduced cost of the technological means of supplying music, the optimistic promotion since the 90s of “the creative society,” and the actuality of a steadily declining economy. These factors are not about to go away or be reversed.
For the professionally oriented, the expectation of obtaining a net annual gain from playing music is a common joke, especially if the investment in music education, equipment, and the time organizing and promoting one’s own gigs is included. Essentially musicians are supporting each other. (A quip I just heard: “Improvisation means, I give you five dollars and you give me five dollars.”) Only a tiny proportion of musicians, walled off from the rest, earns significantly more than they pay out for their creative work. Teaching, administration, and production–not playing music–is what pays the bills. Playing music is no longer a “real” job, as it was for almost all the currently held musical heroes. It is traditional for vocational musicians to think that if their music is any good they will earn enough from playing to secure the necessities of a modest middle class lifestyle. However, hardly anyone today actually achieves the success promised by their professional training, but that hasn’t discouraged enrollments nor non-career players from pumping more music into the swelling pipeline.
As in society generally, the gap between the few and the many has been increasing, as well as the awareness of it and the reshaping of lives accordingly. For those who want to play music, the many have been dropping out of the long lines hoping to become the few. For the non-professionals the urgency to play can’t wait for the nod from above; they see no point in holding out for gigs in respectable venues that pay a guarantee or favors from the media.
As their proportion to vocational musicians increases, the submission to hierarchical values (“artistic standards”) and to the well-policed genres (jazz, classical music) has been declining. With that the high-status venues, funded art events, and critical authority have been losing the ability to enforce their protected register of the best representatives of creative music. The authority of “name” musicians inevitably suffers a loss when those who would have been mere consumers break through the mystique and start playing themselves. Especially with a non-expert music such as improvisation, they start making instruments out of junk, inventing their own techniques, and of course play and organize for each other, whenever and wherever they can.
Meanwhile, many career musicians are curtailing their professional strategies in order to play with anyone interesting to them, whether gigs or free (non-rehearsal) sessions. They are accepting pass-the-hat gigs without complaint, and touring just for the fun of it. In doing this they implicitly abandon the pretense that they represent the cutting edge of culture. This claim, common to music world promotion, has not been effective in drawing attention to themselves, given the long list of musicians competing for limited slots, the small audiences, and the arbitrariness of media attention. As in the rest of society, the promise of entrepreneurship has simply not panned out. “Dedicated musicians” can either conclude they’re just not very good or can return to their original motivation, their love of playing and need to do it for their own pleasure, if not sanity. Instead of the non-career players upgrading to career expectations, as happened a decade ago, the reverse is coming about, and the unashamed hobbyists are being reinforced by lapsed professionals.
The larger economic situation has contributed to this situation. Many career musicians have been forced out of the large cities by gentrification and the poor income from music, or the availability of teaching jobs elsewhere. They are de facto outside the centers of “serious music,” and develop a more relaxed perspective. On the income side, especially in the states, funding for the arts is being rationalized in terms of their relative contribution to the local economy, a neoliberal trend accelerated by the crash. In this formulation art is no longer idealized as a utopian or impractical extra to life (“non-commercial”) as in the more prosperous economy of yore. No more handouts; art must support the bottom line of the general economy. The City of Philadelphia, for instance, promotes art through the “Office of Art, Culture, and the Creative Economy,” and together with the corporate wealth of the Pew Foundation, very active on its home turf, the focus is on art tourism. Art that doesn’t promise a significantly well-heeled audience is not likely to thrive through funding. Henceforth it must rely strictly on its own resources—primarily the artists and musicians themselves, working collectively, and not wasting excessive time chasing grants.
In this situation, why should the player go to the trouble of securing credentials—associating with those of higher reputation, kowtowing to self-important curators, getting into selective festivals and venues, honing their music to cautious labels’ requirements, building a resume, etc.—when the success rate of supported musician per applicant is negligible? One can avoid all this and still get an audience and a wide range of willing and able partners. Those who follow this route make money some other way, replacing so-called liesure time with playing music. Moreover, labels have been appearing that operate without the caution of profitability or trying to break even but sheer enthusiasm for the music. As the trend has been gaining ground since at least the late 90s, such outsider musicians have been gaining experience and expanding their musical range and judgment. A full musical life is available to people outside the system, where one can work critically on one’s art and associate with anyone, without considering career advantage. One can be respected by listeners directly, for what one actually plays and not for music world achievement. Isn’t that what musicians today say they want most?
As a final incentive, there has been this: What works outside the hierarchy is a collectivity, and not competitive individualism.What do it yourself comes down to is do it ourselves.
Revised March 5, 2014.
Last October I put a new solo improvisation on my soundcloud page: https://soundcloud.com/jackwright/october-2013-alto-sax-solo. For a description I wrote: “The rule is, never underestimate the listener, never hesitate to offer something because you cannot imagine anyone appreciating it. You never know if the gap you imagine between your private enthusiasm and the other’s desire is just paranoia and fear of rejection. With whose ears does the musician hear his or her own music? Do our ears really belong to us privately?”
The “you” here is the musician who wonders if a recording is suitable to present to an audience and is at the point of discarding it. (And I use “musician” not as an honorable title but just anyone who plays music.) This moment of decision is common, for musicians normally incorporate artistic standards into their playing without knowing what they are, yet they must choose. Not all their recordings can be produced for distribution—there is neither the time nor the will to do so–and no one gets to perform today without recordings, which are seen to represent the musician. One’s standards are thought to eliminate poor examples of one’s performance and so operate as a form of caution. Doubt is most likely to enter the process when musicians somehow forget their role, their standards, and potential audience, recording without thinking they will ever release it. Purposely or accidentally a private space is created, protected by the thought that no one will ever hear this but themselves, a space of private searching without the complications of a public musical persona, which at least professional musicians carry around. Private exploration engages the frustration with one’s own solidity and representation, the drive to escape what one knows all too well. If it were couched as experimental improvisation the task would be: How far can I go not to be the musical self I know myself to be? What will please me as I’ve never been pleased before?
This then would be the most extreme form of free playing, where the musician is distanced from any pre-formed, ruling conception of “good music,” either general (idiomatic) or individual.
The “you” I have addressed is the player, yet in publishing this I am also purposely making it available to any reader-listener—another “you.” I’m encouraging you to put yourself in the position of the musician, rather than on the receiving side of the role division, as you are probably inclined to do. In doing this I am pointing you towards a more collaborative way of listening, a different consciousness, where we recognize our dependence on each other and can experience the music together. For the listener to perceive the situation of the improvising player is to hear with new ears and somewhat escape the passivity of the consumer. More obviously than with visual art and writing, music tends to be something we work together to make. Of all musics, improvisation (“just playing”) best exemplifies this, for without a score the player has the option to relate directly to the audience. This is true of a recording as well, where the musician imagines the listener’s presence, and inevitably gives that image some kind of content. The player listening back to a recording must confront the fact that there is no way to know what will be your reaction, and yet he or she must decide: should I let others hear this or not? What you listeners easily ignore is that the only recordings you get to hear are those the musicians have signed off on. And just maybe, the musicians are not the best judges of what you need to hear, in which case you would do well to ask them, “What do you not want us to hear?”
The questions I raise concern free, unstructured improvisation in particular:The question is:::: what happens when you listen back to something whose form you did not intend at the outset? This is like an everyday experience you reflect on, one that managed to fall outside of routine. You were playing one sound after another, paying attention or maybe not, nevertheless leaving structure—continuities and discontinuities–in your wake. Listening back, you don’t get the satisfaction of hearing a plan realized, for you did not establish its contours and parameters beforehand. In composing pre-structures you wouldn’t face this dilemma so squarely. You would have the luxury of infinite time, which seduces you into projecting into a presumed audience what you think they would like. “I don’t care what anyone thinks” is not an option. That is said to typify the autonomous artist but has never been an honest statement; even high modernist composers cared intensely for the approval of the “expert listener” (their close associates). The “anyone” is a fantasized rejection one is trying to escape; once posited it inevitably shapes the music and can easily create the rejection it presumes. But it must please some listening subject; music is not made without the fantasy of someone present or absent (perhaps God, History, the ancestors) with their ears cocked for pleasure.
Instead of the composer, who structures music in advance, in your private improvisational space you had been walking around blind, with only your own useless, pleasure-seeking intuition to guide you. Immersed in the playing you may have done things you had learned not to do, what you thought an audience would judge as negative, and you had always agreed to censor. You can get away with this by ignoring it. Listening back, however, puts you in the same seat of judgment that belongs to the creator of pre-structures, with time to think of negative reactions and with you holding the sanctioning power to prevent others from hearing it. You are then one listener among many, sharing the shoes of the listener who would also judge it. Since the sum of your musical judgments will contribute to how you make your way in the music world, you have a personal stake in your moment of judgment.
“Yes, I did play this, but it was for private amusement. It isn’t the best, and I don’t want it to represent me.” But in free playing can that distinction be made in all honesty? Can you discard what you have not tried to do well? It is not even structured by your special way of playing, the idiolect you have come to be comfortable with. Nor were you trying to escape your idiolect; it was simply irrelevant. You have not had the chance to get used to it and are in the position of possibly not liking what you hear. It can be off your own mark of good music, as if someone else has made this music and wants to stick your name on it, arousing your spirit of self-defense and ownership. If you feel your job as musician is to make something people will appreciate then in this case you are marooned on a private island, self-accused of self-indulgence, the charge that supposedly separates the good from the bad improviser.
Indeed this might be the initial reaction of horror and alienation. Yet it is necessary to clear the decks of self-congratulation (“I’ve done some great shit here…”) to make room for the next, tantalizing thought: what if those other listeners sitting beside you are sick of musicians pandering to their supposed taste and would prefer being somewhat uncomfortable? What if some part of them is tired of hearing you play your usual stuff? What if it’s not “a stellar performance” by a “master musician”? “Never underestimate the listener” encourages the thought—or counter-fantasy, if you will—of people who might well be programmed to accept or reject the music according to certain engrained ideas, but who are somehow drawn into what might make them uncomfortable or uncertain. As uncomfortable as those who are playing it, or releasing it without their full confidence.
An aside that is not so aside: By now we are outside the usual concept of the artist, and stepping into a way of thinking just beginning to appear. If technology leads the way, as Walter Benjamin might have considered, it will give the dominant concepts of art and artist a run for their money. Digital technology has allowed anyone who take photographs to become a “photographer,” snapping a ton of pictures and videos and displaying them on their facebook pages, etc. just as any artist would. Similar technology has enabled people who play music, formerly confined to the caste of “musicians,” to record everything they do as if it were all “music.” This includes field recordings while walking down the street, which then get patched willy-nilly into a performance that evening, inventing skills unknown to serious musicians. This makes obsolete the “master musician” as a title that precedes and frames one’s performance, like the trumpet blast announcing the king. Who is the king without the announcement? Musical experience is emancipated from the projection, guarded by expert judgment of the artist and music world, that one will appreciate it. What if art is what I don’t know to be art until I do it or hear it? The artist might be one whose judgment is considered non-existent, which is a reasonable definition after all, given the history of art criticism.
Speaking for myself, I have been engaged in two different but related moments of alienation. The first appeared mostly in the past. While playing a solo in certain public circumstances I would become apprehensive, and imagine listeners who were displeased and judging against me. The urge would pop up to do something that would convince them, perhaps a display of technical brilliance, such as fast arpeggios, that would confirm my traditional playing skills. To act on that thought—even the awareness that I’d allowed myself to be distracted by it—would cut into me like a knife and alienate me, making me ashamed of myself. The way out was my experience and prior awareness of this syndrome, the reminder that even fear can be plowed back into the music, making the music affirmative and bold rather than defensive. Joy in playing depends on staying as close as possible to the musical thread of what I’m doing, and that is a choice I can make.
The second alienation is the current one I speak of above, when I listen back to something I’ve done in a private space and I think, “Why not?” My image of what listeners would prefer (“good music”) comes to slap me in the face as an automatic rejection. Among my responses to this is to imagine listeners who have a perverse pleasure, avid for what has escaped my supposedly better judgment, a self-assertion on their part. They want to be allowed to make sense of what I as musician have not censored. It may start with our mutual contradiction: why do I like this in spite of myself? Inviting me into their shoes, this listener can hear the improvisation as what I never intended, a song that bears rehearing in order to “get” it. In spite of the fact that I have not consciously limited myself to a tonality, a selection of techniques, or a theme, they can see I am hammering away at something. There might even be some kind of rage going on here; it isn’t coded as rage so what could it be about? Just as the prejudiced judge seduces me into rejecting my playing, as “merely” self-indulgent, so this judge seduces me into hearing it as music. As I say, this listener is imagined, but so is any listener. Why should I deny this one for the sake of the other?
Listening and working together with this imagined listener creates a world beyond the so-called factual world of calculable success, where I make this and you buy (into) it. It turns playing into music, which can only be a shared experience, in this case emancipatory. If “the public” is what the music world selects and imagines it to be, determining what playing is to be validated as music, then independent musicians must imagine their own “public,” and work together with it as a collectivity.
The down to earth function of this work in the sphere of imagination is not to pat me on the back but rather to send me back to more playing. This is “the infinite game,” as James P. Carse calls it: the point is to play in such a way as to keep the game from coming to an end, as does the finite game, with its winners and losers. An artwork, such as this improvisation I’ve recorded, has come to an end somewhat arbitrarily, it is not an end in itself. It continues through the impetus it gives to the next time of playing, the next alienation, and the next collective celebration when “just playing” turns into “music.”
While a “piece” of music has a beginning, middle and end, this structure would have to be imposed on free playing, imagined where it does not exist. Free playing starts and later stops but it cannot be said to have a beginning, and so lacks the other narrative elements as well. This lack is usually more evident in a session than in performance, for the performance ritual seems to necessitate the narrative illusion, compelling the musicians, in order to have their music understood as performance, to adapt to what they know is expected and structure the playing as a narrative, however rudimentary. At times the session is (mis)construed as a rehearsal, so that layers import this structure unnecessarily. A recording is similar, for musicians can assume that if they are recording for later reproduction there will be listeners expecting a standard form, such that each track is coded as a narrative. One common sign of this is that each track has a different “feel” to it, much as jazz records often alternate energetic and slow tracks for variety. Furthermore, this structure is what enables critical discourse and the hierarchy of judgment. One can only reasonably apply descriptive adjectives, the core of journalistic/promotional language, when each piece is so structured, and reasonably different one from another.
The question for me is, does musical meaning necessarily depend on this narrative form? In the session it does not have to, so can it be eliminated in public as well? The problem is that in sessions improvisers have a widely duplicated model that when carried to the stage has become generally acknowledged as what listeners can expect. The form is to start quiet and sparse (“dribble in”), crescendo and become more dense, and then get quiet again, the sign that their allotted time is up. The listeners, thinking it a piece of music, take these moments as the narrative form and complain, since they are looking for creative form, and don’t hear it within the playing.
There is something correct about the complaint, though not for this reason. Improvisers themselves adopt this form without thinking, assuming this is the best way to be connected to one another, and so will break the ice gradually rather than beginning more forcefully. The assumption is that to create too great a contrast between the everyday time that precedes and musical time that follows would be the bold act of a singular individual and not the group. Like the first soldier to leap out of the trenches, he is presumably signifying that he wants to get the soloist medal. The others then can only follow in his footsteps, which is as demeaning as the bold act is hierarchical, and taboo. What improvisers prefer is to all go together, disguising their move by making it as undramatic as possible.
However, a more noticeable beginning need not be a bid for dominance in the group or for the spotlight, nor an adjustment to the demand of the performance ritual for an “interesting” piece. It need not be a matter of volume or density, nor set the pace in that direction. There is no necessary “pace” of an improvisation, players are not obliged to relate to each other by call and response, leading and following. If one merely starts rather than begins a piece, then the starting sound(s) or gesture can be anything at all to break the silence, and can be followed by a silence that is interpreted musically and not socially (as a failure to gain commitment from the others). The moves of the others follow only in time, with musically chosen timing, not as if the path has been laid out. What the other(s) do can be as dissimilar as possible, as if the first player were on another planet, in contradiction to her factual presence. Free playing does not need to eliminate such contradictions, as it so often does, it can raise them to the highest extreme. That is my preference, and I believe extreme free playing has a possibility of communicating something very different from its more moderate versions.
Here is the central paradox: the more players try to listen closely and fit their playing to the group, the more the music becomes a conventional piece of music and loses the full advantages of improvisation. To follow the group model, often perceived as the communal ethic of free playing, is intended to create greater connection between the players but actually it is only a connection between fearful and self-weakened players. The so-called strength of free playing, its egalitarianism, levels the music down to the lowest common denominator, silencing players who have more eccentric musical ideas rather than spurring others to come out with their wildest fantasies. The mistaken idea is that the ill-fitting move is necessarily competitive—it can be, but it can also be a sideways step outside the consensual group that causes a healthy disruption.
Free improvisation should open beyond the consensual ethic often assumed of it. It should be a space not for followers but for bold spirits strong enough to incite and counter-incite each other, all of us stepping outside, a collectivity that moves not into the arms of safety but where we don’t know what can happen next, playing on the edge of disaster. That’s where “serious music” provokes its greatest burst of laughter.