This will be more like a blog entry than the others, which were prepared as essays that have passed the first test of judgment: Is this truly what I want to say and would defend? Until that judgment is made the writer is refusing to listen to criticism, letting thought resonate in a room of one’s own. It is what one must say, married to what one can say, free of correction and restraint. It is allowed to drift, hands off the tiller.

Like much free improvisation this risks being the indulgent refusal of self-criticism, with the excuse of spontaneity—first thought, best thought. First thought of course there must be; the best thought is comparative and takes reconsideration. The preference for the former is grounded in the opinion that in spontaneity we access a blunt truth more valid, or at least more striking, than what has been thought through and sharpened. This lies not far from the pop-Freudian suspicion that when stirred to expression the unconscious trumps the ego and superego-laden conscious thought. After a point however the writer (and musician) gets trapped in a pristine eggshell; by refusing to crack open one’s inspired outburst and mess around with it, one ends up with an “expression.” It only points back to oneself, refusing to engage others or accept their rejection graciously.

On the other hand, one can imagine what one must and can say, as against what one has good reason or taste to say, as obliquely useful to others. It might uncover in the other a passion and motivation that has escaped notice. All willed activity, all commitment, has a spontaneous first cause in us, and that cause is off-center, outside normative life, with which it must find its accommodation. I have specific arguments to make, about music and improvisation, history and culture, but the I is motivated, it is a land under cultivation for its own sustenance first of all, and self-indulgent for good reason. As I plough this field then let me proceed.

With regard to reading and writing I have been for four decades a recovering academic. Like AA members who affirm their identity as alcoholics long since they have had their last drink, this implies a continuing ambivalence. Their recidivism is only a shotglass away. I left the academic world in 1972 after twelve years of higher education and teaching partly because I found the form into which all “serious” thought must squeeze itself to be stifling. I was too serious for its seriousness. It was and still is a safe cocoon, a protective Mother, who knows all her children’s names and has a place for them at the table. The academic model of science aims to put into words what is the case of the world, in a form that can be argued and assented to or dissented from by anyone concerned about the matter. Yet I did not discover in myself the rebel artist who would substitute his personal fantasy for this. In fact, I have acquired enough distance from the academic perspective and standards to value them, as one cannot value what one is dependent on and can only bow to. The academic work is an authority deserving my respect and critique, and so is my own perspective outside it as student of “whatever is the case,” and as a musician with one foot outside the music world, which parallels the academic. There is conflict but it is not a personal fight, it’s something we can think and talk about.

The conflict is in part between study guided by desire, what I seem to need to shape into knowledge and interpretation, which governed my choice of interests while in academia, and study that follows the requirements of discourse with those outside the shell of my motivations. With no institutional or social support for my projects I am left with the questions: why read this book, why study this author, why write my thoughts on this? Why stay on the job when there is no ostensible reward? What possible reward would command that I spend the days of my life committed to a project?

What follows is one tangent of this direction. As a recovering academic I attempt to read innocently, as if unharmed by the layers of discourse and judgment that I and others have wrapped around a topic or writer. My habit is to take those layers into account, so that in order to read afresh I must discipline myself to excuse myself even momentarily from the knowledge and judgment that has piled up. It is similar with music and visual art: the discipline is to listen and view with the beginner’s ears, eyes, mind. “To be fully present” may be a cliché and therefore a joke to think this can be done, but still a good joke, one that resists the finality of sophisticated cynicism. It keeps thought alive. The child’s innocence can never be recovered, but the adult’s innocence is there as our option, to experience as if for the first time, without the aid of categories, all the while witnessing from a distance the discourse of others and one’s own standard judgments. I refer here to what one has fitted together into a consistent aesthetic or set of opinions, whether cloaked as knowledge or not, which provides one with a defensible persona to face others’ personae. The adult’s innocence is one of knowing full well that one has developed positions and tastes and has a strong personal stake in them, and yet can step outside them with impunity. Others might attempt to punish those who presume such innocence, to declare them inconsistent or fraudulent, but one can choose whether to heed the accusation or just smile at it and defer self-defense. Then comes the return to one’s familiar judgment, reaffirming or revising it. This is done for one’s own sake.

From the Latin we can extrapolate that “innocent” means unharmed. The adult has been harmed but recovers by the discipline of self-remembering: right now I am the only one here with this reading, this writing, this music, this playing, this self-responsible self. I can read this as if I have never read anything like it before. I can listen without the protection offered by genre and judgment, can allow the music to touch me.  I can even be free of my positive judgment, that this will be music that at one point I decided I like. And I can play as if I have no identity, no reputation, no relation to listeners that I must defend. I can even perform without having to impress anyone.

Let me go even further: I can play not as the purveyor of music that goes under my name, intended to reach others, but as one who is touched by his own playing. That is a betrayal of the normative performer role (as promoted by Performance Studies), but it is also the refusal of self-betrayal: I must be present in what I do. But a caution: my internal court of criticism, sense of failure, and frequent rejection of what I play is that very presence, is right there with the triumph. That is the discipline which I allow to judge me. By this I can fail and must fail if triumph is ever to appear and my own judgment reach fulfillment.

In the ostensibly self-centered wish not to betray one’s love lies a hope to preserve the object from one’s individualized and socialized self, which is the constant lure of objectivity. The other is an object for oneself the moment one recognizes that it exists apart from one’s judgments of it, that what moves the other does not have to move oneself. To allow music to touch me that would not otherwise do so I must remember that all music either touches its immediate maker or is expected to, and that the infinitude of ways of being touched extends beyond what I know and have experienced. When we listen outside our normal pleasure/pain system we allow ourselves to step over our socially adjusted fences onto the others’ turf. To do this we need not imagine or heed the others’ intent, verbalized or not, we need only assume that music is rooted in feeling in its broadest possibilities. This includes the cursing of sentiment; the apparent flatness of affect of some music springs from the same soil as the lushest and most transparent melodies.

The listener who leaves the room in the middle of my playing honors me by recognizing the objecthood of my music. I feel like bowing to them, and not ironically: thank you for having experienced what went against your grain. Close up, objects can hurt one’s sensibility and face one with a choice. This object-character is true of all “out” music, including improvising freely. The freedom of improvisation is not the creator’s but that of sound. Both player and non-player are faced with the reality of sound as object. All the sounds that one has developed the capacity for making stand as a miniscule token for all the sound that can possibly be made. To be present as the improviser is to absent one’s preconditions for music. “Everything I do is music” is a humbling and not a self-glorifying statement, for it expands the meaning of “music” to the universe of sound. Free improvisation begins when we hear the footfalls of the tenant upstairs, played against the rise and fall of morning traffic, as music. The improviser does not put forth a concept of music meant to compete for judgment with every other concept, rather he and she submit to sound, to the object, and watch where it goes, trying to keep up with it. Musicians and academics often try to moralize improvisation as a social good in order to defend their work and taste, but this is a music that can only erase the name of its creator and so any such defense. That is why we would best see this music as in its infancy, for people still think to frame it, like all other contemporary art musics, with a promise for the individual to make his or her mark and meaning in the world. In working to that end we oppose the tendency of the sound-object, which is there in its possibility as object before we stumble upon it.