Audience notes to an imagined event by Spring Garden Music

This will be the making of sounds out of an imagination of free playing that is not grounded in musical ability, concepts, compositions, or styles of playing. It extends our experience with our bodies and the objects you see on the stage to create experience we ourselves have not had, and in its specifics neither have you. Doing this reveals to us and possibly yourselves what we expect music to do and its function in our lives, in a way that affects us personally. It is as difficult for those who think themselves musicians as it is for those known as “audience.” Authentic experience however means a certain amount of confusion for oneself, and that is the direction in which we are pointed.

Those you see on the stage form a company of initiators who most often play in private sessions. Our role has been music providers and performers, but only to the extent that there is no other social category we fit in. The musician ego, which each of us has constructed over time to a greater or lesser extent, is unfortunately what defends us against experience and self-knowledge. We find it both deceiving and a burden on our desire to enter a state of playing freely. Anyone who performs develops this ego and can decide to base their sense of themselves and their activity on it or not. While the musician ego aims at getting a positive response from the audience, our aim is to see what happens when we don’t know where things will go.

You came to a performance but we will not be performing for you.  If you are affected by what is going on it will be in the course of things and is not our intent. Whatever effect this event has on you belongs strictly to you, something you can talk about later or just think about. We set the end arbitrarily at an hour and a half, followed by discussion.

Ordinarily our audience is other players and partners who are simply not playing at that time, but we are even more excited to see non-players. The audience normally observes and judges whether their pleasure equals what they expected. They are blocked from participating when they see others in a defined role as musicians, and all the traditional ritual in place, like a church service. However, if the playing is loose and open they often sense the limitations of their passive role. As happens often with young children, when they see others in spontaneous play they commonly want to join in. If you feel moved to do something, that’s fine, but move behind the audience silently, and leave the others to absorb the event undisturbed. We will probably see you back there and may be inspired by you as we are by each other.

We will not play sets or pieces of music, so no solos, duos or what have you. We play only when and if others arouse us to action, so some may just sit here and not feel that impulse at any time this evening. We are not under contract to make music or even to play freely, we play as we are stimulated to play. Those who feel they should play cannot play freely. Whatever you actually want, we will imagine you want us to take steps beyond whatever we have done before.

Sound that is the result of free play evokes feelings that are often not known to us; to call it music might be only lazy and not wanting to offend. To make sounds that are not music is a huge challenge, for today “music” can be anything one intends to be music. The better challenge is to follow the feeling of where things are going without knowing that feeling in advance. It will probably get called music retrospectively, but we’re already on to the next thing. It might enable what you don’t know is possible for you. That is our bond in common.

I don’t preface my writing with “As a musician”; rather, I’m very often in situations where I’m assumed to be one, and it carries over to the rest of my image. We all “have” an image, how others see and type us, the question is to what extent the image has us. Every bio is meant to deceive, and in making it one can easily deceive oneself; both deceptions are what the social order wants from us. Musician is a role claiming to be the essence of a person, an image of what one wants others to take most seriously, and it “owns” those who work for the title. If the title is merely ascribed to you then you don’t have to live up to it. You can try for an egalitarian upgrade (“everyone who plays an instrument”) but then there will be a separate category for the “real” musician, the recognized achiever, the virtuoso. Essence always excludes, causing suffering one brings on oneself. It is the disavowal of adventure for the sake of respect from others, on which self-respect is based. To be an adventurer, to love what you do rather than what you appear to be, is not a role, for it is universally possible…or should I say more realistically, not entirely impossible.

I write out of my own lived experience, just as fiction writers and actors are asked to do, and I observe myself and those I’m most in contact with as phenomena. These people play instruments, so I prefer to think of us as players, not necessarily musicians. All playing begins with those who want to play and admit it; that’s a hard step to take in a society where work that is self-sacrificing is the ultimate value. “Player” is not a cloak one wears to gain respect that requires social assent and credentials. We usually call ourselves musicians but are not terribly invested in it, for we have little to lose; we play equally on and off stage, with or without social approval. Though we don’t resist the musician title, it involves a certain fudging of the evidence, especially for Americans, since it implies that we earn a living from performing, similar to what “doctor” presumes. This is the case for only a minuscule number of those who call themselves musicians, the one percent–if that much. “Musician” doesn’t bring up an image of someone who, in the total accounting of one’s finances ends up paying to play. That is the case of myself and those I play with, along with the vast majority of American musicians. Since we don’t get paid more than our costs, our true economic function is consumers—amateurs, maybe hobbyists.

“Player” escapes the hypocrisy of “musician,” but also means we can do other things besides animating instruments—dancing (moving), speaking gibberish, yelling for the hell of it, building sand castles of ideas (such as I’m doing here), walking down the street funny, interrupting our lives, writing poetry for no one but ourselves—all these things are play we take seriously as play. We don’t have to take our expertise or lack of it too seriously, don’t have to prove that we have the recognized skills of the “real deal” musician. Our skill is to keep the play going, follow Eros wherever it goes. There is no tenure or tenure track for that; play only begins and lasts so long as we are playful.

The more music sounds like music the more it is fraudulent and deceptive but nonetheless tempting to accept. This might sound slanderous to music lovers, but what “sounds most like music” comes with the tag telling us the world unquestionably accepts and identifies it as signifying that word. It bears the stamp of authenticity, yet no one can pinpoint the source of authority for that judgment. If music comes with that image of broad agreement our feeling of boredom with it stands against the world, creating an alienation easily taken for granted. “I’m not part of the mainstream” is even a matter of pride.

Music with a clearly defined melody, simple harmony, obvious feeling, conventional instrumental sound is like comfort food prepared by the world and brought to our table, a free gift, yet we let these sounds pass through us or settle into the background. The weight of authority and the free gift however doesn’t mean that a huge number of people really enjoy it. For instance 19th century classical music is at the pinnacle of “real music” yet the audience for it continues to diminish without it losing its position of authority. Like so much common political opinion, few give much thought to whether they really want to listen to it or not. It is assumed that other people do, and so that is that, it’s just there, and will always be there.

The flip side of the most authentic music is “difficult” music (experimental music; modern classical composition, free jazz), supposedly intended to challenge people, however mildly. Like classical music it too does not have many regular listeners, but it comes with a tag that says it is unpopular, and so those thought to listen to it are people who choose to be outside the mainstream, or at least feel obligated to test the water. The latter are the ones who say, “I like all kinds of music” (like “I’m not prejudiced”) until confronted directly with something they really can’t stand. That would be an experience they would hope to avoid, for their educated musical taste requires not inquiring too closely what is out there.

When we as young children were taught how to make music that sounds like music, we were flattered with “good job,” for we achieved something that would be recognized as the real deal. Since we could never get enough recognition we kept trying to do a better job, get more reward, and so on up the never-ending ladder. But an anxiety can creep in with the reward, prompting a suspicion that all this could be a game of which we are the fools and victims. We’ve made music that people only pretend to like and listen to, without really making a decision about it. The question then is, how do we make music that is authentically our own, that has no imaginary authority to validate it?

Mystery is what holds people in thrall to music, as if enslaved by something they cannot resist. Analogous to religion of an earlier age the mystery of music for the audience (society) is in but not of the sound, it is beyond consumer taste, beyond entertainment, beyond words to explain it. To love music is to love its mystery, a kind of essence, the thing-in-itself beyond the surface phenomenon. To paraphrase Louis Armstrong in speaking of jazz, “If you have to ask if it’s music you’ll never know.” The two musics most considered capable of this effect are the high and low art musics, classical European and classic jazz, neither universally popular but each has its devotees and wide respect from others. For most listeners, what sounds most like music is these two genres; to identify what is truly music is to be drawn to its mystery.

The musician is the social figure with the job of regularly reproducing this mystery that binds people and its effects. In our society those most sanctioned to play such music are expected to be professionals formally trained in their respective codes. These codes are based on musical forms that have come down to us from a hallowed past, examples of the kind of work to be achieved. In order to be effective, unlike traditional religion, an element or appearance of spontaneity must be present in reproducing the code, something coming from a present person that goes beyond mechanical imitation, but only so long as the code itself is 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.

The composer was once thought to be the sole creator of music, in the form of a score that the player-musicians were trained to faithfully execute. In the traditional orchestra the conductor was the one expected to provide the creative spontaneity of the moment. When in the sixties some composers called on musicians to create their own music by improvising they resisted; they were being asked to violate their strong sense of role. However, given the slow rising tide of democratization, some jazz musicians asserted this. That was the origin of Free Jazz in the early sixties, and then free improvisation a little later in Britain. It was primarily those who were jazz entertainers who were attracted, for departing from the code was already part of their job, as well as their off-stage playing. As they got farther from the code that produced what “sounded like” music to the audience, they were accused of not fulfilling their proper role. For the bulk of the audience mystery and freeform playing did not mix. “The thrill is gone” they said, just as classical European audiences had decried Arnold Schoenberg when he abandoned his earlier romantic expressionism. The musicians however felt they were right at the heart of the mystery.

The musicians and the audience historically diverged on where the mystery of music is located. And so today. Musicians who play freely in sessions with no pressure from that audience could be said to have the most direct, hands-on access possible to it, but that is quite different from what sounds most like music. They are no longer in the role of learning and reproducing a code; they are making it all up as they go along. One might say they have usurped the composer’s role and so are illegitimate in terms of the culture. For them, the mystery behind the ritual codes is exposed; they are created by human hands, and the players have no need or wish to solidify a new code for the audience. In a sense it is their democratic right not to do so. For instance, there are certain kinds of endings for each genre that are appropriate for confirming the piece, in fact to play pieces of music at all is the confirmation that it is music that has been performed and not sounds thrown together on the spot. For free playing the ending is simply when they stop playing; they are in charge. Music is in the hands of creators who will not relinquish it.

Compared to what the audience seems to need, players are comfortable dispensing with the substantiality of what they do, its reality as “music.” Free playing is an implicit denial that they are producing music because the flip side is to assert that it is music, and that can only be determined by conforming to what sounds most like music. For the world outside the free session, mystery is a circular question that answers itself, an essence that manifests through specific instances that music lovers feel they can identify but can’t explain how. Free playing happens where there is no distance from which a question might arise, circular or otherwise. What is beyond question is the mystery, just as Louis Armstrong said about jazz. If it doesn’t sound like music it is because the attempt to make it so is in contradiction to the making of it, with no one to judge otherwise.

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.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 30 other followers