A Chicagoan who attended a show I played recently has been very impressed with free improvisation the past year. He wrote to me:

I’m trying to understand why more attention is not given to this type of music, but what comes across to me from those who are on the “inside” is an attitude of preciousness and specialness akin to a secret society. Almost as if certain people are determined to keep the community of players and listeners small so that its not contaminated with those not fully participant in it. Not unlike a cult.

And I responded: It’s interesting to hear a perspective from outside, since you both are and are not a “cultist,” that is, you are inside but can observe yourself as if from the outside, as most devotees of this music do not. You see the free improvisation “world” function like a cult and do not want yourself to be confined. Your suggestion leads me to attempt to untie the knot of the social meaning of this music.

Musicians, like almost everyone, also have difficulty observing themselves but are more ambivalent than cultists would be. They are often defensive about their attachment to the music because of its general rejection, which means that they play this mode of music despite it being almost a detriment to their career (I’m referring to Americans here) and to their image of themselves as musicians, since “musician” is a public role requiring some affirmation from others. Most play other, more acceptable musics, from which they can earn some part-time money, though possibly only 1% of musicians earn enough through actual playing to live on it. The 99%, including those playing this music, generally wish that they could, and would like to be able to justify their existence in a commercially based society by doing so. It is an embarrassment to do something that has a public form but is not socially functional, an activity for one’s private interest that one has chosen to do without compromise (as artists are idealized as doing) yet meets neither general approval nor from one’s family, which commonly has supported the student musician and feels betrayed. As my own mother said, once she heard my music, “That’s not you playing!” Cult-like behavior is one reaction; we would like to think our miniscule world of perhaps a few hundred worldwide has some significance not visible to others.

The reasons for failure to attract? Musicians are not turning people away. Crossing the threshold to attend a performance is not simply a matter of taste, since when people are exposed to it they like it in larger numbers than become consumers of it, compared to other musics. It is the lack of pre-established structure of this music, and of the socially stabilizing effect of culturally sanctioned musical form, a lack which impinges on social order more than any other category of art.

There is a general unspoken agreement, part of the social compact to which we are all both subject and of which we are unwittingly co-creators, that the potential for instability and disorder is a danger and must be contained and categorized, at least monitored and segregated so that it will not spread it beyond certain bounds. Disorder is contagious, if not hemmed in by quarantine regulations, what anthropology would call a system or code of taboos.

It is not the music or the musicians who do this but the validated cultural frame. For instance, this music has been cast as “difficult,” and the musicians “serious.” The label “serious” has been hijacked to refer to a sacred and specialized order of priest-artists, gate-keepers to a higher realm. The main form of cultural regulation in a “liberated” society like ours is to designate some activities and products as art (to which the everyday can be elevated), and assign certain of these products to the liberal social and more highly educated elite as their preserve and pride. This has been easy enough to do in our society with theatre, dance, visual art, and poetry. (By way of contrast, in Russia it has been poetry that must be controlled, since by a social-historical compact it is agreed to have a potentially destabilizing effect). But sound cannot be contained on a page or in a gallery, for it can be experienced around corners and projected everywhere there are ears to hear it. And especially is this true of sound that is not enclosed in the narrative meaning available to language. Such sound, deriving from human will and desire, has the potential to penetrate the whole of society. It is almost completely contained within certain consumable genres, such as “art music,” both classical and avantgarde, which despite tensions and borrowings from its alter ego, the genres of popular musics, maintain their distinctions from them.

In Europe free improvisation is classed with art music and supported by the state, in other words, it is acceptable as entertainment for a (usually young adult) segment of the educated and professional middle class. In the US, however, which can claim to be the world-historical root of cultural liberation, no music that lacks at least a perceptible intention to fulfill a pre-given structure is so supported. Thus free improvisation here inhabits a kind of no man’s land, neither art nor commercially popular. Especially musicians who do not seek to assimilate their free playing to the genre of jazz, nor to composed (avantgarde) music, play in a way difficult to classify and situate comfortably in the music world. It is not balanced by a recognized hierarchy of practitioners supported by the state or, as with jazz, sufficient numbers of record-buying fans and cultural visibility. Sociologically free playing would be categorized as a hobby or more respectfully as an avocation. Its players are certainly industriousness but yield nothing that could be called an industry, humming along with others in a productive society, as ours is still essentially assumed to be.

The individual who hears the music performed is never merely surrounded by the immediate others but by the larger social world, and at least unconsciously knows its judgment. That being: A music that by its own ideal does not know where it is going has something potentially upsetting and destabilizing about it, first of all for the meaning that music is expected to communicate. Jazz and avantgarde music, to take the closest examples, are sanctioned by an assumption that there is a plan in the minds of players and/or in the composition, containing it within specific borders. The communication of such musical meaning has an objective reference, a standard somehow above the musician. That reference can be to a score that is in fact little more than an improvisation, or to the standard of technical skill, which is often used to justify a taste for free improvisation. Yet properly understood, this music has no reference other than what has happened, and so is difficult to compare to any external standard. One can be attracted and not be able to relate the attraction to any cultural given. For some this prevents it from being considered music at all, barely tolerated and unworthy of inclusion in surveys of music except as a thankfully minor offshoot of jazz.

Our social structure cannot appear to function without people doing, or appearing to do, what they are assigned to do, and subsequently receiving validation as a reward and expectation for roughly the same future behavior. Just so, a pre-given structure and the intention of musicians to realize it is key—necessary but not sufficient—for them to be validated, as most of us hope to be, beyond our personal need and interest in playing. The link between respect and respectability is vital for any modern society trying to maintain itself.

If one can play a music without attempting to replicate and exemplify a specified structure, if one is free at any moment to step outside what appears as the intended form, then any music at all could be so dissolved. It raises the question, what binds us to our intentions? Unlike the strait jacket of genre categories, this particular can be interpreted as universal. This would have to be valid for the audience as well. If they started scraping their chairs on the floor, vocalizing (anything other than cheering), clattering their glasses sympathetically with the players, or spontaneously moving the chairs around, the musicians of this music would be hard pressed to defend the traditional performance decorum. In their own way, they’re just doing what we’re doing on stage! Such music is a universal solvent. The freedom to follow impulse, however mediated by skill and experience in listening, is then a possibility for everyone, and how could this be confined to music? People, including those called musicians who instigate this activity, instinctively know this danger and pull back from the brink, which is feared as chaos. The theatrical frame is a great aid in this. Safely “on stage” one acts out the social freedom that all of us desire (whether remotely or openly) and at the same time fear.

It’s fascinating for me because my immediate impulse is to scream from the rafters “This music is amazing and everyone needs to hear it, and as they hear it, be transformed”. Not unlike the evangelist who has seen the light and wants to seek as many converts as possible. Yet I am hesitant, since I enjoy the small attentive crowds and wonder if the magic would be either diminished or impossible on a larger scale.

Well, large numbers could hear this in small-audience settings if it were easier to get gigs and there were enough players to go around, and more players would follow the increased opportunities. Especially in the current economic climate and in cities, where most of the musicians live, venues are for good reason wary of music that does not draw enough patrons to cover the increasing overhead of business. Yet there has been a growth of opportunities for this music recently, especially outside the urban centers. This is a resurgence different from the one fifteen years ago, and I would attribute it to a loosening faith in the social order, following the collapse of neoliberal business optimism.

For the musicians it is primarily a music that is not only best played in the presence of others but entails a more intimate relation with them, just as the relation between players is closer, more dependent on listening, than any other musical mode. The small audience event makes it more possible to sense the possibilities of free interaction than the large, more conventional one. The more people in attendance the greater the tendency for both players and audience to think they are at a significant spectacle in which something of social value is to be witnessed. As does all “serious” art, considered worthy of support and attention, this opens the door to conventional judgment and behavior. Like opinions collected by an identified pollster, what one thinks to be one’s own judgment is mediated by what one imagines to be collectively held.

For either player or non-player to get “into” a music that is of questionable structure (only vaguely known to the musicians, figuring out what to do next), it must be possible for one to not-know, even to be confused about what is going on, and on balance to feel somewhat ok with that. It’s not that few people are capable of this (that would categorize this music for a cultural elite to patronize, which is not the case). It’s that under the pressure of a spectacle, especially supported by art-institutional benefactors, it is more difficult to recognize and accept that one does not know what is going on. The music must be in some way socially and culturally devalued in order for it to be heard in its full implications.

That said, however, I see no justification for keeping it confined to those already drawn to it (or caught in its snare, as you seem to be!) This music does not need the formality of a space pre-defined as a stage. After all, free improvisers are doing little more than opening the door to a session. It makes its own stage, undermines the formal stage as a place where the performance arts are confined. It will get attention to the extent that we (including myself) are constantly bothered by the question: to what extent can we structure ourselves meaningfully and to what extent must we rely on forms mediated by social norms? We agree to drive on the right side, but to what extent must our existence be defined by such norms? This is not far from the question radical youth (including myself) were asking fifty years ago, which had such explosive political implications. Anyone who appears to be doing this music, especially without the hierarchy, validation, and quantification of results established by the music world, will be suggesting that “chaos” is merely a fabrication made out of fear of the consequences that our desires might have if acted upon.