Free playing is the most direct access possible to the mystery of music. What holds people in thrall, enslaved by something they cannot resist, beyond consumer taste, beyond entertainment, beyond words to explain it is summed up as mystery. It has been specifically mentioned about African tribal music, various Indian musics, and Western music. The musician is the social figure with the job of providing this mystery that binds people, of reproducing it and its effects. The two musics most considered “beyond words” are the art musics, classical and jazz. In our society the musician sanctioned to play such music is expected to be formally trained, like other professionals, in the respective codes, the key to producing the effects of mystery. These codes are based on the forms of music that have come down to us, which are examples of the kind of work to be achieved. In order to be effective there must be a certain element of spontaneity in reproducing the code, something coming from the person that goes beyond mechanical imitation, but the code itself must be referred to and maintained. Like the priest in Catholic religion, the mystery passes through the musician to reach the people; unlike the priest, the functionary of music is rewarded by elevation and respect to the extent that he or she is seen as the bearer of that mystery, is able to convince people of it.
The art music composer was the one thought to hands-on create music, which the players were trained to execute. Most musicians have been satisfied with their role; they enter the mystery by absorbing the code and making it their own. When in the sixties some composers asked these musicians to loosen up and improvise they said, ok, if it’s in the score, but that’s not something we would enjoy doing for ourselves or feel confident about. However, given the slow rising tide of democratization, some of these people called musicians became frustrated with their role. That was the origin of Free Jazz, which originated in NY beginning in the early sixties, and then free improvisation, beginning in the mid-sixties in Britain. As intermediaries they felt they didn’t get to actually enter this mystery for themselves; they had the instruments in their hands but not the music itself. It was primarily those who were jazz entertainers who were interested, for taking the initiative to depart from the code was always part of their job, as well as their off-stage playing.
The “free” of these two titles points to the negative, what one has escaped, but that leaves open the question of why, the motivation. To be free of aspects of the code, of one’s musician role risks exposure as a failure—why would anyone do that? So we have to ask, what is the positive side of this word? On the personal level, where ultimately such decisions are made, the positive of free playing is the desire to enter the inner sanctum of the mystery itself, to be the music, and the way to do this is be fully present as the maker of sound at the precise moment it is made. This has a further corollary: instead of music being the result of the effort to make it, music is whatever sound and silence I make. When I choose to be in the space of music, whether it is called practice, session, or performance, I am not preparing to make music, as in a rehearsal, I am music, there is no separation.
To those who want musicians to perform a function for the audience, to be the humble vehicle of music, this is a kind of sacrilege, which is why they call it self-indulgent. Indeed they are. Self-indulgence implies that one doesn’t care to satisfy the needs of the audience, or that long history of Music which needs to be served if civilization (or jazz culture) is to survive. Free playing is like the priest saying, what am I getting out of it? But the accusation also means taking the easy way out, giving up, quitting, not doing one’s homework, and so society is justified in rejecting these so-called free players.
However is that what actually happens? The paradox is, the more directly one enters the moment of making sound the more problematic it is. The burden of reproducing music is replaced by the burden of not-knowing, of being one’s own judge, and that judge can be harsh. The huge attraction of the code is that there is an external standard; one can measure oneself against it and be assured that others will do the same. For those who want to play freely but see the judge inescapably looming over them, to occasionally reference the code is an option. Another is to create their own style, or code, usually based on what might possibly gain approval from others, and stick to it. But to stay on that self-indulgent spot, to prefer it over all options, with no one to judge but yourself, threatens to be uncomfortable. It requires directly confronting that judge, and asking, what did you ever do for me? You have only taught me to distrust myself. To fully trust myself is a struggle I might lose, many times I think I have lost. The best is perhaps to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, to make peace with doubt, to know that life is inevitably trouble I cause myself. This is not the image people normally project on artists, but if we’re honest as humans this is where we are.
At this point I turn away from the screen and make a simple sound. I am not now a musician but any human, I am all humans. Do I need to do anything to turn that sound into music, into mystery, or is it already there? What is the difference? I make another sound that I think will be the same but there are slight differences in texture, pitch, duration. Then I make a sound that I think is wildly different and feel the relation of the two. I tell myself, this is stupid, I can make more interesting sounds on my instrument. So judgment enters the picture, and I’m separated from the person who has made the sound. And then I think, do I want to be separated from myself? Am I not the mystery, am I so afraid of it that I cannot bear to be it?