“Free” in the titles free jazz and free improv has no rightful claim to represent the freedom sought through radical, emancipatory political struggle. Emancipation originally meant the freeing of slaves, the moment they were no longer the property of an owner. Since then it has been understood as freedom of the entire society from the chains of the social order known as capitalism, the demand of the radical left. The attraction to playing free, which is inherent to jazz improvisation and subsequent forms, does not imply that the players or audience are doing anything of consequence for such emancipation, or even laying the groundwork for the agency it requires. On the other hand, they are not blocking or diverting it, which is the by now tacit left assumption that all art is self-indulgent (the general philistine view), elitist, and even complicit unless it explicitly or implicitly serves left-critical political views.

What “free” does relate to is the frustration of individuals with social and cultural norms, which fueled the sixties rebellion, including initially the political struggle. The same desire to escape the norms of orderly, managed postmodern culture fuels today’s free playing, at least in the states. However, what has motivated the political and cultural left did not, and does not now bring individuals bearing these respective identities into mutual relation or even consideration. Radical left activists and critical thinkers, on one hand, and the musicians and followers of “free” musics on the other, have shown no inclination to collaborate in such a way that their identities would be involved. At best, like the rest of the cultural left, the musicians advertise protest and criticism on their facebook pages, which engages only others of similar opinion and confronts no established power. And it is rare for political activists to show up at concerts where musicians go beyond a display of rage, or words that indicate a political stance. Rage can accompany political activity and critique but can also just be a personal feeling with no such ramifications, and can even get in the way of the clear thinking essential to political activity and analysis.

That segment of the political left that aims at full emancipation (which would exclude liberals) is as obscure and miniscule as those of the cultural left engaged in free playing (which would exclude those who pay it lip service). The former might accuse the latter, if they even heard of their existence, of using “free” as a substitute for political struggle, such that to engage in free playing means that one has made that substitution. It does not; the cultural left might make this substitution, yet it valorizes “free” and “spontaneous” and “improvised” without wanting to go beyond that valorization to the actuality of what these words might mean for a musical experience. The words are empty symbols, otherwise the mass of those with left-cultural opinions would show up at concerts. And free playing is not a very solid advertisement for itself, for it involves rare moments of feeling that something spontaneous has actually occurred. That same rareness and contingency is what radical leftists experience when they have achieved something of what they aimed at—this they have in common.

If the cultural left were pre-political/radical and the radical left had ears for its free playing analogue we would by now begin to see some evidence of actual crossover. Musicians, under the influence of emancipatory politics might not cringe when they see the word “capitalism” but would dig into the ways the music world constructs their own turf and implicates them. They would refuse its power on political grounds without a thread of envy for the 1% who are culturally respected. And if the radical left (activists and theorists) were interested in a form of group behavior that seeks to ignore cultural and social guidelines they might take seriously the invitation of free playing. They would pick up instruments (or just use their voices) and learn how to materialize solidarity and democracy here and now in their own ranks rather than just pointing to it symbolically. That might be a step towards overcoming their sense of powerlessness and meager accomplishment in a depoliticized world. Similarly the musicians would adopt a perspective that views their position within the whole of society and escape their self-approving shelter. And by abjuring the false promises of the music world they would get a sense of real risk—even excitement–in place of the “risk-taking” and “transgression” that is positively ascribed to all left culture. They would cease signifying, as the avantgarde has since the Cold War, the dream and realization of freedom proclaimed by our social order.

The politics and aesthetic interests of the cultural left and those of the emancipatory left are two separate worlds. Their separation is key to the present stasis of both, and their mutual engagement is crucial to advance.

Feb. 27 – March 1 Holyoke Massachusetts

Free improvisation in the Northeast has become heterogeneous and available, compared to its earlier lower-case incarnation in Boston, now largely dispersed. This region has drawn together  electronic and acoustic enthusiasts beyond anyone’s expectations, in fact the best illustration of the near-merger today of free improv and noise that’s found elsewhere. It seems that free playing and amorphous inclusion (everyone welcome to try their hand) belong together, rather than high art exclusiveness.

Massachusetts is the home of XFest, a player-organized event now in its seventh year, where this trend is concentrated. It is the largest festival of “outside music” (some might call avant-garde) in the country, certainly in terms of participants. This year, Feb. 27-March 1 (whatever the weather!) there will be around 70 invitees from the Northeast and 30 from outside the region. One-third of performances will be  groups of players more or less known to each other; the rest are completely ad hoc, combinations determined by the three players organizing the event. There will also be an afternoon of workshops, attended by musicians themselves as well as audience.

The first five years of this festival were in Lowell, with an audience made up almost exclusively of other musicians, and not at all dismayed at this. In 2014 it moved to Holyoke in what’s called Pioneer Valley, a corridor of universities and resistant counterculture in Western Mass. Here for the first time there was a significant audience of non-participants, many of whom could imagine themselves as players; some possibly did so as a result.

XFest is significant in terms of the broad history of free improvisation, an extension of Baltimore’s High Zero (still going strong) and London’s Company Week earlier. In fact Derek Bailey would be right at home at XFest.

Xfest main page

Press release

visiting artists

local artists

The final schedule


Free playing is an activity, not a music; a verb rather than a noun. Music is the culturally defined result of playing in more or less acceptable ways, a claim usually made by musicians. To play freely is not like playing free jazz, or so-called innovative, risky, transgressive, experimental music, or even what is titled free improvisation. It is most commonly found in a private session, whereas a rehearsal has the goal of making music, something that can be presented. If those who do it are not taken seriously it makes no difference; they are not dependent on making something demanded by either the mainstream culture or avant pretenders. Nor must they play with those whom people claim to be the best players; they play with whomever they want, who become their friends. To be marginals on the way to inclusion is not their goal; in fact playing has no goal. They find other ways to pay the bills and still play what is in their hearts and minds to do. If that makes them the true outsiders today that is not even a claim they would bother making.

Capitalism reproduces itself by integrating its surplus, or excess; the name for this surplus is traditionally profit, but increasingly with globalization it has become all social and cultural life, including art. That it cannot allow life and culture as a separate sphere is not due to the will to dominate or the greedy ego but to the essential working of this phase of capitalism.

Art is one form of the cultural surplus; people create and respect something that is not the direct result of capitalist production and consumption. The very character of outside-ness, its extra-ordinariness, is what has risen to become the true marker of art, and that character is epitomized as the avantgarde. (Note: I use a non-hyphenated spelling to distinguish this as a sociological/ideological category rather than the varieties of historical Avant-garde movements.) The avantgarde is institutionalized as Art (high art) not merely to demonstrate a liberal, all-embracing toleration of eccentricity and criticism, but to appropriate it as the ultimate model of creativity, reflexivity (self-critique), and innovation, key tools in the reproduction of contemporary capitalism. If capitalism maintains itself through self-revolutionizing it must harness those who are most inclined to operate through imagination, criticism, and vision, normally called artists.

Art considered advanced once operated under the concept of autonomy, artists independent of social norms and controls. Now that figure is nominated by experts of the art world, to which artists are expected to apply. The expert that operates or serves the institution functions as an academic rather than a bureaucrat, thus carrying the mantle of judgment and truth. This version of truth is first of all objective, which masks the subjectivity involved in selection. Yet selection is guided by an originally academic concept that art, the lead of which is taken by visual art, is a symptom of the trends and meaning of the wider culture and society. To select this artwork and artist over that one is to determine social meaning under the guise of discovering it, to be able to say where things are going, to “send a message.” The very first message is that art is self-revolutionizing, the paradigm of a properly functioning capitalism, on the forefront of opening doors and changing consciousness.

Yet the very reason for this mediating operation is that art can escape its handlers. Art as the free pursuit of people making it is problematic in neoliberal society, a surplus whose integration through financed, institutional control is always at risk.

For one thing, all the talk of the beneficial merger or functional interrelationship of art and popular culture, “borrowing from each other,” is testimony to the continuing tension between the two. Popular culture operates on the level of market consumption: if you get pleasure from a particular source you have to pay for it, thus maintaining the livelihood of the producers and the cultural mediators–the music biz. Those providing the most pleasure are successful and acclaimed for their success, and the social need is satisfied. There are scouts out there, experts in discerning what performers have the best chance to capture the “vote” of consumers, just as experts are necessary to assess the chances of political candidates and guide them to stardom. The market is justified as the paradigm of democracy, defined as representative—those who satisfy the projected needs of the people rise to the top.

On the other hand, since the full development of industrial and consumer capitalism art has arisen that does not provide the pleasure of fitting nicely with one’s decor, or slipping smoothly down the gullet or into one’s iPod rotation. Art is even defined as intransigent, resistant to “easy” pleasure. Its disturbance can be genuine and not the pleasure of the horror film, which promises to “frighten you out of your skin.” When people say the art they prefer is “difficult” and provides an intellectual pleasure this is what they are euphemizing. Like anything, it can only be sold to people on the basis of providing a pleasure, yet it is not pleasurable to have one’s fundamental assumptions undermined, only those which one is already prepared to reject, and/or can be projected on others. As a commodity sold first to institutions and then by them to an audience, this is how an avantgarde is expected to function, to attract those who accept the critical, reflexive and “aware” perspective and to turn away those who do not. The avantgarde thus establishes an other, which it is one’s pleasure to demote and patronize as ordinary and unenlightened (what the NYTimes called recently “the low-information consumer”), compared to one’s presumed contemporary consciousness, that of a progressive minority. Of course there are many drawn to avantgarde art who lack these pretensions, but they are not the target audience being served.

Those artists are successful who can best fill this institutional need, and they are scouted and selected by publications, critics, galleries and museums in the same way as pop stars are by market analysts. This, the art world, targets and constructs an audience that, at least in one segment of their lives, rejects what they are told the populace consumes. All dissent from the institutionalized avantgarde gets projected onto this other (the mass, the mainstream, etc.) including the disavowed ordinary consumer this audience also is. Rejection is perceived as the natural resistance of ordinary humans to change and self-criticism (reflexivity). The self-critical avantgarde audience never has to reflect very deeply on itself; the “we” commonly employed in criticism, taken as responsible for the plight of the world, effectively refers to the other.

Of course much marketable art provides images of harmony and beauty, but the prominent avantgarde has undermined this as “easy” and assimilated to popular pleasure, derogating beauty as secondary to the critical function of art. Beauty without a reflexive framework is viewed as naïve, a thing of the backward past. For the avantgarde to be marketable it must show signs of the contradictions and dysfunctionality of the social order, a certain ugliness. That such art is provided by government and wealth-funded institutions advertises that power itself is reflexive and is doing something positive to correct its own evils. The established avantgarde art world, its selected artists and its audience are posed as the effective force of change–reflexivity is the hallmark of philanthropy. However this naturalization of contradictions in the social order, such as increasing impoverishment and the superfluousness of people except as consumers, is only necessary because otherwise these contradictions would appear to be insoluble within the framework of capitalism. Visual art framed as avantgarde is advertising, often cleverly disguised, mirroring advertising itself, which has been disguised as art for some time.

Outside art music, sometimes called avant-garde music, is supported institutionally to provide a similar pleasure to a self-satisfied progressive public, but very minimally. It is difficult to argue that it can impact people’s consciousness in the directions that visual art does. Unlike a visual image it cannot provide an unambiguous message, not even a message of ambiguity. Only lyrics can do this, and then the music merely supports the message of the lyrics. Outside art music tends instead to treat words as empty signifiers, as useful for sound quality as the sounds of frogs and insects. On a pragmatic level, music outside commercial taste is simply offensive to more people than comparable visual art; it is virtually unknown by comparison. There is nothing in music comparable to the exhibition opening, where people can socialize the entire time while paying scant attention to the artwork. To think of oneself as an appreciator of the visual avantgarde one is not obligated to spend an inescapable hour or more in semi-isolation with it.

Avantgarde art music can’t be dismissed for the reasons commercial music can be–that people don’t like it, or that it violates popular taste. Those are the very principles on which it is marketed. As for all music, marketing does aim at increasing attendance at events, however avantgarde music has a contradictory backup justification when that fails, that it is not supposed to acquire a large audience. Institutional support (the art music world) thus manages to succeed in its mission when it fails in the marketplace.

There is an active outside to the institutionally accepted music avantgarde, an underground that is not simply waiting in line for eventual acceptance. An institutional hierarchy of visual art makes it possible for artists and trends to move up the ladder and get exposed to wider public view, opening new taste markets and innovative to some degree in relation to what came before. By comparison the art music world is stuck with those artists it has sanctioned, and there’s only room for a limited number. The hierarchy is not a ladder of institutions but of the musicians, or rather their representation as brand names, and the function of brand names is to be irreplaceable. The reasons for this difference with the visual art world can be further explored, but the point to be raised here is that without institutions seeking musicians who can be tagged as the next stage or significant new development of the avantgarde there is stagnation, and the claim of innovation rings hollow.

Those whom the visual art world would be scouting for to provide a fresh approach, and would sanction as the innovative avantgarde reproducing itself, are, for the art music world, an excess of players that cannot be integrated. There is no good reason for these players to apply to the music world institutions that claim to present the best of avantgarde music, since it is structurally impossible for those institutions to accommodate them.

This excess of players works under various genre titles—free jazz, free improv, experimental, noise—but without the promotional benefit of legitimized names representing avantgarde music or the imprimatur of institutional backing. They are quite obviously the majority of outside-music players. Since they are also active players they cannot be confused with the other of the supported avantgarde, the philistine populace. They are instead a potentially subversive other to the art music world, which must dismiss rather than embrace them, and that dismissal sets them free. They are independent, free of the financial and prestige contract that binds legitimated musicians to the institutions and to each other exclusively. Whether these excessive players take advantage of their situation is up to them; they are at least free to choose.

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.

The kind of playing I refer to here is not the game, with given rules, but aesthetic experience. This category also would include most objects framed as art, although for some, for instance didactic and ethically correct contemporary art, the aesthetic experience is of minor significance, used merely to entice the spectator to accept the artist’s message. The one who plays, the subject, is not a musician or artist but simply a player. The “artist” is a specific figure, an idealized abstraction; “player” is simply one way to speak of the human being, homo ludens (playing) alongside homo faber (maker). “Musician” and “artist” are titles, social roles for those with a recognized knowledge and skill sufficient to produce music and art. Players are going after their own aesthetic experience, often shared; they leave any title they hold at the door. To think in terms of usefulness, of rehearsing for a performance, even of expanding one’s knowledge, only gets in the way. If one follows the Anglo-American tradition of utilitarianism, which divides life activities into functional and dysfunctional, free playing would be the latter.

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.


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