In Columbus last March I performed in a bookstore room with a small stage for poetry readings and otherwise used by patrons as a reading or internet room.  As I was unpacking my instruments I had a familiar depressive feeling that people were thinking, “Who is this old guy we’ve never heard of, coming into our café and disrupting our reading?” In other words, I assumed they had low expectations and were prepared to dismiss the music. It was completely my imagination at work, I had no reason to think this. Then in St. Louis, despite extensive email publicity just a handful of people came in, almost all of whom were musicians scheduled to play, the organizers, and a couple with whom my wife and I would be staying. I felt belittled, that this was not truly a public situation, and that my music deserved better, that more widely recognized and legitimated musicians would have gotten a true audience, and so once again I was clearly not in that respected category. Whatever buzz the organizer had tried to create had fallen on deaf ears, and this was the normal situation for me, after thirty years of performing. Those who came were those who had to be there, whereas a “public” refers to those who have selected an event they will find interesting and are not obliged in any way. It is such an audience that musicians assume to be our common goal and ground for self-respect.

Driving to St. Louis earlier I had talked over the Columbus situation with my wife, such that in St. Louis I found it possible to simply reverse my negativity. I could see I had been working unconsciously for just that situation, despite my evident longing for the approval offered by an anonymous “public.” I had once grimaced at a reviewer calling me an “undergrounder by design,” yet that is what I have been, wanting to make my music available but not as an effect of the spotlight, a perhaps impossible wish. With a reversal of perspective I could perceive the performance situation that audiences respect and musicians generally prefer as exactly what I find stifling, and even personally embarrassing. (I have never had stage fright but rather stage embarrassment at being caught in the spotlight.)The public audience comes expecting to witness someone considered significant, as represented by the number in attendance and the respectability or hipness of the venue. In the presumed ideal one is honored before actually playing, reputation preceding and validating the player, casting a glow of approval emanating from beyond those immediately present. These are the situations in which musicians are typically most proud to play, like festivals, where they feel they will do their best and achieve legitimate status. For me these are the most difficult, because I must work hard to overcome the predisposition of spectators to approve of the music.

The particular talents and efforts of players coordinate with the well-trod paths laid out by the music world, and this situates certain players in an iconic circle and denies such space to others. But there is also the performance situation itself, and this is equally taken for granted in the fantasy of the music world. In the frame I find appealing the features of theatrical performance (which are heightened in the festival/event) are minimized. What I aim for is a gathering of people within auditory range who sense that they have the option of attending to what I and my partners play. They will understand that we intend our sounds to make musical sense and that they might make sense of them as well, but there is no assurance of this. This is a situation where there might or might not be a coincidence of player-intended and non-player-comprehended meaning, not where communication is necessitated by the surrounding frame. The players have made their choice to listen; non-players are not obligated, partly because how one is to listen to it is unclear. It is a situation of listening and constructing sense out of sound, which is where freeform improvisation begins for player and non-player alike, and is our common bond. [Briefly, by “freeform improvisation” I refer to music made in the moment of playing and not improvisation in its common usage, which would include structured, stylized, or compositionally based improvisation. The lack of intentional form is directly related to the immediacy of the playing.] The situation is one of ambivalence and perhaps confusion: the non-playing listeners cannot be quite sure of the meaning, yet there are the players, who surely must have some sense of what they are doing.

This is the frame neither of entertainment, in which the spectator comes prepared to laugh, cry, or applaud on cue, nor of art, where the spectator is educated by masters on stage who present “difficult” compositions and ideas prepared in advance. The audience is not cautioned to have done its homework, as Cecil Taylor once said, like obedient children, but enters as it were through the back door. In some ways this is an absurd situation, and when prodded the audience often expresses puzzlement over the motivation of the players to be doing what they do. Especially is this true outside the urban cultural centers, where it is assumed the players are on a career path, and that informality will be followed by the more formal art performance framework when they achieve greater recognition.

The improviser as a player, one who plays, is distinct from the role of performer. Those who would think of themselves as improvisers are strongly motivated to perform in the broad sense of playing in front of others but not to become identified as “performers,” who would seek the maximum conditions to convince an audience. A performance, whether ritual, theatrical, or even a social role, must rely on illusions that are at least convincing for the duration. For one improvising in front of others, however, only the minimum of the performance ritual need be retained. The lighted stage area, arranged seating, quiet surrounding the playing, laudatory introduction, applause, entrance fee, an arrangement of sets, however impromptu can even be too much. In the situations of most improvisation these features are token, often meant ironically and made transparent. Right in front of the audience the organizer of the venue or show will ask the players, “what lights do you want on?” People wander in and often the one responsible for collecting money, who is often the most avid listener, forgets altogether.

When taken too seriously the formal elements of stage setting overdetermine the audience focus. At the same time they distract those improvising in that moment from focusing on the act of playing, since theatre is the presentation of what already exists in the preparations of the actors and anticipations of the audience. The minimization and ironization of theatrical convention puts players in a better situation for simply playing music in the presence of others, where the effort is not to persuade others of their music. This reduction says, we don’t need more than our playing to convince us, or to aid our valuation of it, and there is no certainty that we will be convinced. (In fact, often a spectator will be more convinced than myself, and I will let them in on that secret; to which the consolation comes: “Well, it sounds great from where I’m sitting.”) The essential of performance comes through all the more when the machinery is not overbearing, it is to play where others may be not just present but can recognize at least that we have chosen to open the door for them. We signify that they are our inspiration, and we don’t need numbers to be inspired. (In fact when three or five show up I often joke to them that each gets a larger share of the music.) The stage is still there and absolutely necessary, an imaginary door protecting the circle of players and listeners, without which there is no “other” to what is happening. It is this otherness of a special occasion, the presence of those not playing, which turns what would be just another session into music possibly beyond the imagination of those within the circle.  

This is not some lower level but the pinnacle of musical experience for the player. Musicians who feel they need a prestigious venue, a flattering intro and publicity, a clique of followers, a scene, and institutional stamps of approval come into the playing situation riding on these externals. They are missing out on a grand opportunity, distrusting or simply unable to imagine the unique possibilities of this situation for their own experience of music; they assume that to create a relation to listeners requires more than their immediate playing. They need to be prepared, to know their lines, and play music that can be readied for the stage—the prepared solo and the rehearsed band. And they might be appreciated for what they do, but will never be appreciated for presenting music in this alternative way.

The small audience for freeform improvisation is no accident; it is the way things are supposed to work, separating musicians into separate classes. Listeners in their guise as consumers put myself and most of my partners in a category where the event may be appreciated, discussed and praised or critiqued, yet it is considered a private matter for the individual judgment of those immediately present and limited to that performance. Our music is irrelevant to art music history or the future projected by the avantgarde; we might be respected but not as part of the “big picture.” That is for another category, those who are discussed, compared and applauded even in their absence, away from the immediate event, and automatically respected. These either presently have or will have some place in the hierarchy of official significance. They set the terms of all genres of music, including what is commonly called improvised music today, just as surely as Cage, Feldman, and a few others did for avantgarde composition beginning at least in the sixties, continuing the tradition from at least the 18th century. Apparently, music cannot be taken seriously apart from these figures.

However limited among the entire population may be any awareness of some of these genres, their status is that of public figures. Their existence indicates a stable, objective reality that can be assumed generally. Especially the Americans are often heroicized through a melodramatic rags to riches, American Dream narrative: once known only to their partners and a small coterie, now they have acquired recognition and worthiness and are on their way to academic canonization. By honoring them we supposedly honor our own possibilities, at the same time self-justifying our failure to achieve. What is essential is that spectators can consider themselves participating in this narrative by their very presence at a concert or purchase of a recording. Furthermore, as an ideology this situation is universalized; it is imagined that it is a necessary function of the artist to aspire to the condition these players have achieved. This includes of course those of the first category, who are seen as given the opportunity to achieve but, however much they might be appreciated, are not lauded as successful artists. The music world and its hierarchy of players, venues, genres and critical apparatus is built out of this material, defends and promotes the categorical differences, even though there is almost no criticism of it.

These two categories can be represented by two arrows pointing in opposite directions, options of motivation and decision for the players. One aims at acquiring more of the conventions and framing appropriate to each genre that alone legitimates one’s music, makes it available for comparison and assessment, and makes oneself as a player market-friendly. This arrow points to becoming a figure with a conventional public and acquiring an audience of spectators prepared to be approving. There is another arrow that goes towards the stripping of such conventions and diminishing that aura. What is hard for performers to swallow is that for this direction to be achieved listeners must be completely free to reject the music, to dismiss it as noise or self-indulgence, and unworthy of attention. Such an event would not be something spectators could to drop into a conversation with folks “in the know” about music. Attendance at a performance of an iconic musician, on the other hand, legitimates a spectator who is unsure how to judge the music, for it includes him and her in a network that transcends the immediate moment and others present, a network provided by the music world. The motivation of the performer is easily understood and assumed: to gain recognition, to fill a performance space with as many spectators as possible, to acquire a name whose aura will attract followers. This is the whole point of publicity. The arrow of the player who finds iconic status a troubling distraction (such as being called a “legend”!) has no common motivation, for we don’t understand why one would play music in front of others and not hope to be framed as significant.

By no means do I mean to discourage interest and attention to music heard in prestigious venues or framed by an au courant and arty label, or to musicians who are or desire to be classed as significant, some of whose livelihood depends on such success and are unambivalent about their status. To turn my back on the music of public figures would be to exclude the bulk of music I myself have found valuable, and influential for what I play, as well as to deny the solidarity I feel with all musicians. I only want to open a small space for another kind of experience, which might shed light for some on what music could be apart from all the hoopla, which seems to engulf us and deny us the right to private experience and judgment. All musicians must participate in this game, actively or passively, if they wish to play in front of others, yet there are hints all around, if we have ears to hear them, that there is more to music than that.