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Free improvisation is the title for a very small-scale music genre, most often identified in the UK, where its history began in the late sixties, and in Europe. There it is frequently described as “non-idiomatic” and distinct from jazz-based music, such as free jazz. The genre has a number of professional musicians who play under that title and are thought to represent it. In the states such music is not well known, or merged with a variety of other approaches, and no professionals play it exclusively. Given its lack of promise in the music world those dedicated to it are not oriented to the conventional career, yet there is a considerable network of players in this category, which has grown considerably in the last twenty years.

To distinguish the approach of these players from the historical genre and the hierarchy of professionals, I have been calling it “free playing,” though the public title of their music would still be “free improvisation.” They (we) typically engage in exploratory sessions, where we aim to be free from the conceptions of what “music” should sound like; we don’t even think of it as possibly interesting. It is not for those who want to develop an attractive solo or even to expand the codes of known music but only for those who want to move outside those codes or were never interested in learning them in the first place. This approach poses the personal question, why am I doing music if I don’t want to play “music”? Any ambitions to be a successful performer are secondary. The point is first of all to discover our interest for ourselves, such that when we do perform we can resist the pressure to please others, as musicians are trained to do, and merely extend the exploratory session. This is especially difficult since audiences expect us to deliver what we have prepared, “our music” and we don’t know what that is until we play it.

It sounds like a completely free situation but it’s somewhat deceptive, for we soon discover there are hidden parameters—the range of material we bring to the table, our experience in using it, the specific others we play with, and the acoustic situation. Our relation to others is completely different from that of score-based music, since we lack that mediation and are directly confronted with the other. Like ourselves those others are permitted to do literally anything at all, which pressures us to step outside of virtually everything considered “music”–normative intonation, instrument timbre, rhythm, phrasing, and (diatonic) pitch relations. If we lack skills beyond the facility to reproduce conventional music patterns then we will be largely limited to them.

Acoustic instruments are designed to be played a certain way, and musicians are instructed in how to reproduce this. But in this approach we are not playing those instruments as we feel prepared to play them, so there can be a sense of loss. In a way we start all over from scratch, in order to achieve our own, individual understanding of what they are useful for. If electronicists haven’t created their software or hardware they will be limited to the manufacturer’s idea of what most buyers would want. That’s why improvisers prefer to construct their own arrangement of electronic devices and become experienced with them. They do so to create a range capable of engaging practically anyone and in any free playing situation.

There are certainly many sounds and gestures we can make with almost no skill and no instrument but our body, such as vocalizing bursts of variable duration, timing and volume. That’s not a bad idea for a workshop, where one will quickly see how limited one is—especially non-vocalists, who prefer to hide behind their instrumental technique. The tendency for people who have played freely over time is to expand into what we have not experienced. We will likely feel the need for self-directed discipline and exercises, where we ask ourselves, what material is of greatest interest to me? and dig into it. In sessions we will shift our focus away from our own playing and towards the others. Playing with experienced improvisers exploring their own unknowns, we’ll feel challenged to do the same. Especially helpful is to play with those we find difficult to play with but still make us feel we are being drawn in rather than shut out. We might feel we have nothing that works, so we expand our range and imagination…and maybe still feel that way, but underneath the frustration something is happening. This all seems impossible but free playing pushes us beyond the imagination we started with.
On the practical level, there’s this.  We want partners who will push us in directions we want to go, and who will want to play with us. An ad hoc free session may seem generous and self-indulgent but if our playing doesn’t offer enough that is interesting to the others they will not be interested to get together again. The real world of improv is not a school, where everyone who pays tuition is necessarily included. Whenever desire is strong judgments will be made, not like in jazz cutting contests but nonetheless. Free playing is objectively egalitarian, meaning there are no higher or lower classifications, but subjectively there is a selection process going on. It is not determined by public reputation, conformity, and credentials, as in the professional music world, but strictly by each player’s musical interest, the ability to play in a way that maintains the interest of those we desire to play with.

This piece on soundcloud: is in the tradition of jazz experimentation, and jazz is my dominant lineage. More than any other recent recording of mine it is based on the kind of saxophone study I’ve been doing since ’79. My aim has been to play the greatest range possible, often leaping between registers (perhaps inspired by Dolphy) and to learn groupings of pitches as random as possible. To this end I wrote the names of all the 32 normal-range saxophone pitches on playing cards, shuffled them and played what came up. The idea was to use that as a basis for creating non-repetitive melody with a different sense than either blurred-pitch sixties Free Jazz or conventional jazz harmony would allow. In terms of jazz or other art musics, like atonality or serial harmony, to consider pitch differences and relations meaningful is quite conventional. Together with others on this path in the 80s, such as instrument inventers and other free-form adventurers, we called ourselves “free improvisers,” all learning from each other.

My interest was to build a technique capable of something different than the cultural given, which I considered lifeless, easy, and obvious. My work picked up an aspect of the 60s Free Jazz tradition that by the 80s had lost currency, especially late Coltrane, who was obsessed with scalar exploration. I had some post-Coltrane interests, but pitch work has always taken up most of my practice time, with multiphonics, timbre and embouchure variations, bent pitches, and other extended techniques appearing later and were less interesting to practice.

Recently my exercise has been a handful of short passages from Slonimsky’s Thesaurus of Scales, those with “reversals” (up, then down, then up, etc.) and register leaps. These I have scored to start on every pitch, grouping them in fives, to disturb the easier and habitual head-counting in threes and fours. I play them backwards and tongued in different ways, always aiming for absolute precision at different speeds. When I reach my limit of speed, my muscles begin to ache and I have the sense of gaining new territory. The exercises force me into fingerings and pitch relations I rarely would encounter and use, which has the potential to open up new options–technical first, then musical.

The aim of a self-created study program is not to execute something other people will immediately recognize as the cultural norm (mastery), but to determine what mastery means for ourselves—the discovery of what we alone are capable of making in relation with the instrument, and what satisfies our self-determined musical needs.

Private exploration of the instrument was essential to bebop and the entire creative period of modern jazz (roughly mid-40s to early 70s). Most musicians then lacked the weight of a jazz-school education hanging over them, which now encourages musicians to play within sanctioned, limited parameters called “the tradition.” What passes for jazz in current playing is built on imitated and practiced licks. Free jazz, originally bold and experimental, is today not much different–a series of stances and clichés, some more interesting than others, but not an exploratory or innovative music.

I’ve hesitated to make my more pitch-oriented music accessible, since interest in pitch only seems to concern the mainstream, and I’m tagged as “experimental” and “adventurous.” But there are different meanings to these words. My musical effort aims to expand the capacity for feeling, which has always been considered crucial to an understanding of what creative jazz musicians are supposed to be doing. Every expression coded and clichéd–including pitch choices, order, and note value–just as jazz has been reduced to “the tradition,” to be replicated ad nauseum, packaged, and sentimentalized. The rightly honored creative period of jazz was precisely that time when musicians preferred unpredictable and fresh over stale musical feeling.

One indispensable means was the exploration of what instruments could do beyond what audiences were prepared for—musical feeling present first to the players. New ways to work with pitch, rhythm, pulse, and harmonic combinations came from utilizing their instruments in new ways, creating tradition by disturbing the very nuts and bolts of the normalized version. The same would hold today, but carries a higher risk factor, since few can imagine jazz or free jazz outside its current strait jacket. Technical work may seem mundane and time-consuming, and for those identified with jazz will go against patterns  ingrained and rewarded, but it is still at the core of anything that can go beyond one’s present limitations.

“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.


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