The more music sounds like music the more it is fraudulent, deceptive, tempting. When we hear what sounds like music—whatever the world verifies–we stop listening and let the sound caress us. It is like comfort food prepared by the world and brought to our table, a free gift that makes us grateful. It lulls us like indulgent parents whom we think are protecting our innocence. The flip side of comfort music is “difficult” music (classical/new music; jazz/free jazz), intended to challenge us, but it ultimately goes to the same place, treating us as children who are given something that is good for us.

When we ourselves learn how to make music that sounds like music we flatter ourselves with “good job,” maybe now we will be loved. Since we can never get enough of that we keep trying to do a better job, get more reward, and so on up the never-ending ladder. So an anxiety might creep in with the gift, prompting a suspicion that all this could be a masquerade, a game of which we are the fools and victims.

Free playing is when we see through this game—including our “need” to be loved, respected, flattered; it is an event that occurs by accident rather than intent. Without blinking we walk right past that bundle of need to our pleasure, which is neither comforting nor difficult. “What rule do you follow?” Debussy was asked. “My pleasure,” he said.

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?

Temporarily removed for editing

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, to which it has historical affinities. The genre has a number of professional musicians who play under that title and are thought to represent it. In North America however free improvisation is not well known, or merged with structured improvisation and composed experimental music, 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, not just in numbers of players but in locations around the continent where it is welcomed.

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 that players use would still be “free improvisation.” They (we) typically engage in sessions, where we are intent on what is happening moment to moment and not seeking to fulfill what “music” should sound like, not even to come up with something we will listen back to and find interesting. It might lead to an ability to play an attractive solo but is not aimed at it, nor to expand the codes of known music. It would be of greatest interest to those who are bored with those codes or were never interested in learning them in the first place. In becoming trained musicians we think we are learning the code, but in free playing we discover aspects we didn’t notice. For instance, proper musicians are supposed to play sounds and rests, but in free playing we know that if we feel obliged to play it is not part of any instruction, merely a personal anxiety.

This approach poses the personal question, do I want to make music according to my idea of it or do it as directly as possible? In the second case musical ideas are allowed to flow from one another without the mediation of judgment. We first of all to discover our interest for ourselves and gradually we come to trust our movements, such that if and when we do perform we can resist the pressure to please others, as musicians are trained to do, and merely continue our self-trusting movement in front of them. Without the sheet or idea of music between us and a live audience we are more exposed and at the same time closer to them. Audiences expect us to deliver what we have prepared, “our music” and we don’t know what that is until we play it, so we are freeing them of their expectations. Of course, some might complain, yet others welcome this experience and want to talk about it.

It sounds like an ideal situation for players but it’s somewhat deceptive, for we soon discover there are hidden parameters—the range of technique and material we bring to the table, our experience and flexibility in using them, the specific others we play with, the acoustic situation, and above all our self-consciousness. Most free playing explores sound rather than pitch relations; if the latter, any sequence that recalls the codes of normative music is avoided. If we lack skills beyond the facility to reproduce conventional instrumental sound and music patterns then we will be largely limited to them. Frustration sends us back to private work to explore instruments in ways we haven’t imagined. Our relation to others is very different from that of score-based music, since we lack that protective mediation and are directly confronted with the other. Like ourselves the other can do literally anything at all, including something we think is obnoxious. This frees us to do what we have been trained not to do, yet these things provide a certain security which is difficult to abandon.

We relax any sense of achievement in what we’ve acquired, paradoxically, in order for our technique and musical ideas to be fully available to us in an unself-conscious way. The most experienced player is the one who knows how to be a beginner each time, in order to achieve our own understanding of what our musical knowledge is useful for.

Acoustic instruments are designed to be played a certain way, and musicians are instructed in how to reproduce this, as if the instrument itself commands a certain kind of sound and music. But in free playing we are tempted to step out of what we have spent hours of work on, so there can be a sense of loss. The alternative is to construct a practice for ourselves, where there is no sure goal, but as in playing we are following our musical interest. We can even step outside of instruments altogether. 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. As for electronics, if players 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 they prefer to construct their own arrangement of electronic devices and become experienced with them.

The tendency for people who have played freely over time is to expand into what they have not experienced, to trust but also to be ready to doubt and be influenced by who they play with. 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.

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



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