[My starting point is the philosopher Giles Deleuze, whose concepts I am trying out in order to convey what goes on in free improvisation. Also reflecting on a negative audience response recently, and the difficulty of explaining the music I do to a sympathetic stranger on a plane trip. It has turned out to be a sequel and in some way a corrective to the earlier essay, Jacques Attali and Free Improvisation]

The first of two intentions I have distinguished for free improvisation is to be free of previously known structures. (As elsewhere I will refer to sound improvisation, although improvised movement could be substituted, with different elaborations.) In Deleuzian terms, this intention might qualify as deterritorialization, stripping sound of the ordering it receives to qualify socially as music. It is a line of flight to sound—as witness the turn to electronics, field recordings, invented instruments, microtonalism, and extended techniques—and to new twists given to known sounds. Compared to rhythm, melody and harmony, sound is relatively unmapped and it is difficult to imagine how it could be mapped. It is always mixed and cannot be categorized into homogeneous types. Sound is without borders. It is the prima materia of music, so there is something here that could be called the unconscious, or in Deleuzian terms, the body without organs, a very difficult image for analytic mapping. And if it cannot be mapped it can’t be taught. If there is no teaching possible there is no validation procedure, hence no separation of soundmaking and music. The soundmaker, which might be the correct name for the free improviser, is driven by the anticipation of experiencing what she and he have not previously encountered, either in the world, in the form of musical genres and tropes, or in their own playing. The plane of sound exploration is smooth, there are no obstacles to any direction on this plane. Any sound, break in the flow, or continuity is permissible but only one path is taken, and that one, in its unrepeatability, will have to do.

The pursuit of sound might appear to be for its own sake but cannot be separated from the pleasure of escape from the known and normative, that is, from one’s own normative as well as the world of music and musicians, product, and consumers. The players are free to experience the normative known as boring, lacking libidinal appeal, rather than the material one must work on to achieve fulfillment. Meaningful affect is found within the situation, not projected elsewhere, as if  there were anyone else present whose pleasure were at stake. It is the path of discovering and moving on rather than of perfecting and establishing a new code. It is not what is meant by innovative, which references the established other as its competitor, but if “new” is to be used it is “experience it new” rather than Ezra Pound’s dictum for art, “make it new.” For the unknown to remain unknown means staying in movement like the deracinated nomad, not the sedentary cultivation of conclusive acts that would allow judgment and comparison. It has something in common with Schiller’s play drive (Spieltrieb), in that it “annuls time within time,” is devoid of progress, and so is wasteful from the point of view of productivity and consumption. It is completely filled with itself, with no tomorrow to regret, celebrate, or modify what is done today. It is of interest strictly to those playing at the time, turned in on themselves, who form a closed circle, the only ones “in play.”

For play that is deterritorialized there is no individualization and so no possession, no special relation to the territory one covers as one’s own discovery. Strictly speaking, there are no good or bad improvisers. Each player must find the pleasure of what the other is doing as if it were her and himself doing it. Nomad-improvisers create projects known as sessions, in which they form a unit of sound-makers. Some participants might define themselves as musicians but that identity is irrelevant here, since everyone makes sound and is capable of doing so intentionally. A musical group is ideally stable; this unit is not, since players can be added or taken away, creating variations, yet the project remains the same. Even when players are carefully selected they are still drawn from a pool, hence the rule widely understood that anyone who chooses this project can play with any other that so chooses. Some may call themselves “improvisers” but strictly speaking it is not an identity, such as “jazz musician,” but rather a choice to enter into projects of free playing. Players might have expectations of creating something of value, and so might record what they do and evaluate it, but that is not the end they are working for. There is no end, neither telos nor conclusion, for this project.

This is not the work of artistic creation. In Deleuzian terms art would be reterritorialization: getting to know sounds as material acceptable for a specific piece, performance, or player-identity; creating a code, a pattern and structure that will “work,” will turn sound into something meaningful not just for the player but for the other. That meaning is intended to communicate across a gap to non-participants in a situation for music known as a performance (which would include the playing of a recording). Despite the post-sixties effort to obscure the segmented distinction of artist and spectator, there will ultimately be those who initiate and set up the arrangement (including the blurring of their role), and some other for whom it is arranged and intended. Moreover, artistic meaning is not information or command but affect, aimed at a voluntary and not programmed response. This response is a judgment; complicated and ambivalent, most often repressed (for reasons I will not elaborate here), but a judgment of the artwork nonetheless. Wherever there is music, the proposal of the artist, and an other to witness it, there is judgment.

The non-participant other is first of all what artist-subject has in mind as actual, responsive, and judging, an image that affects to various degrees the shaping and reshaping of the artwork, whether composed (pre-structured) or not. The intended meaning of the performance might be vague or even denied by the artist (“I’m just playing”) but the playing is at least intended to have listeners and to provoke some response. It is the nature of the imagination to fantasize unrealistically in constructing this other, whether in fear or in confidence, but what is fantasized above all is that the other really does exist. It might be absent at the moment, might even be posterity (more commonly fantasized in the past than today), but no less imagined as real.

The uniqueness of music, as opposed to any art with a visual component, is that sound goes around corners and through most walls; wherever there are ears to hear there is the actual other. Here fantasy that is off the mark is crushed by reality; ultimately one must recognize that as sound the musical work cannot be physically contained but is fully in the world at large. There is sound/silence in the lonely forest but no music. Even playing in one’s private studio it is realistic to think that there are others hearing it and even listening, that is, responding and judging. Music is that which invariably has an actual other beyond those one imagines or chooses; it cannot be “overlooked” as can the visual, which can hide in galleries and books. This is perhaps one reason that the musical avantgarde is closeted as much as possible from the street, its resonance as muffled as possible, whereas the visual avantgarde is trumpeted loudly, to acquire resonance beyond its too-protective walls.

The most common conception of the outsider visual artist is one who does not intend the artwork to be seen by actual others and might even make an effort to keep it private. It will be seen, that is become “artwork” only if the art world discovers it and provides access to the inaccessible. On the other hand, an outsider musician would have to play as if in one’s home alone, attended only by intimate friends and family. They would have to come not to listen and respond but out of obligation to their friend. This is a practical impossibility; one cannot intentionally play for others without the relationship to them coming into play. Even the most accepting of friends are capable of listening to the playing as music and making a genuine and not necessarily supportive judgment. And the musician knows this.

When I and others refer to the music we play as free improvisation it is this that is meant, an art music, something we shape in relation to an imagined other. Specific others might not be present and listening, but nonetheless we are creating musical artwork, necessarily relational to the world. Grounded in reterritorialized prime matter, the playing is worked and reflected on, judged by the sound-producer who, though appreciating accidents will choose and develop particular sounds and sequences. Codes, patterns, norms come into play. We might have difficulty characterizing the meaning of what we do and promoting it, and we might deny the role and title of artist-musician, but nonetheless we are that and we are producing meaning intended to reach others. Like all musicians we anticipate an other, interact with the world, an arrangement with at least some vague borders of taste, acceptance and rejection. There must be at least one non-player present for it to be a performance, or a recording apparatus as substitute. We might not care about success but we do want responsive relationship, and not just with each other.

According to the music world categories this kind of playing is located on the far edge of all art music, with the negative judgment of “least accessible,” or from the musicians’ viewpoint the most muffled. In my opinion this is because behind every performance of this music is the session, which in its rules and intentions is at odds with the cultivated arrangement known as the art performance. There is then a necessary confusion—am I playing for the pleasure of exploration here and now or am I working collaboratively with the non-players? The session might make sense to the players but is not aimed at doing that for anyone else, which would require knowing to some degree what that sense would be. The session is not a laboratory of experimental music but a space where players can at least imagine going anywhere they want, forgetting what as musicians they know about referencing a presumed audience, or even the other players. It is not a waste of time, as it would be in a rehearsal, for players to go off in lines they would hesitate to bring to an audience, or to play for hours without stopping. The session is sound that might never be shaped and disciplined into music. In one way it is like the tuning-up of an orchestra, which can be perceived from outside as a shape and can be listened to by the audience as music, even beautiful, but whose players who do not shape it as such. Unlike tuning-up the intent of the session is non-utilitarian and the players are listening to the totality of sound/silence and not simply hearing and registering a master pitch to which they are disciplined to submit.

Like the performance of music that is called free improvisation, the session too exists only in mixture. There is always the exploration of sound as well as the shaping and judging of it. It at least embodies the rule of non-judgment, rules regularly violated but without which the session would lack any form distinct from the rehearsal and performance. The violation is taken in stride, is even unconscious to the players, yet the “whatever happens” of permissiveness, the abandonment of pre-structure, is central to the pleasure sought in this kind of playing. When I describe performed improvisation as the playing situation where the session is made available to non-players, such permissiveness is modified in favor of some modicum of being-in-the-world: performance rituals such as “pieces” of music with a time limit, and a beginning and ending that would be commonly understood as such.

In the shift to performance, the closed circle of the session could be seen as broken by the intrusion of the other, a betrayal of the players’ trust and of nomadic wandering, and a decline into compromise. For the “pleasure of the text” would be substituted that of pleasing the audience-other, a displacement. The shift would be from naïve to sophisticated that risks the dependence of free improvisation on its foundational no-structure rule and of the players strictly on each other. This judgment is useful in reminding improviser-musicians of the choice and pleasure of the nomad, free to wander wherever they please. But that is to ignore that most of us are stimulated by the presence of ears that are not in play, and so we must come out of the desert and into civilization. And no matter how free our intentions in the session, we are all the time formulating musical meaning, if only for ourselves, and our tendency is to bring that meaning and the excitement of discovery to others.

That is a tricky business, since there is nothing pure about making that move. As performer one is the owner of one’s music, and must in some fashion find buyers for it. The free improviser is already deeply implicated in the world beyond the here and now, already highly sophisticated. In fact, there would be no intention to play free of structures and no ability to do so apart from awareness of structures and their contingency, and that is already an acknowledgment of the world, the other, and its power to tell us what is best, if not what is right, for us to do.

Play for yourself or play for the world—that seems to be the dichotomy. It is hegemonic ever since the sixties, when “play for your own self” first began to be validated as an expansion of consumerism (customization), as the growth industry of art (everyone their own artist), as the neoliberal creed, which rejected concern for the other as regressive. At the same time, “play for the other” became an entrepreneurial career game of the producer, to match one’s capabilities with enough others’ needs sufficiently to yield success.

The question then is to conceive the relation of session and performance that forms a whole and falls into neither of these categories, that is not a relation of ideal to real, in which the latter is a linear fulfillment of the former, nor bolted together as complement or supplement. My view is that the move from one to the other is an opening and welcoming of the world as it is, and submitting to the risk of not knowing how that world changes from moment to moment. Exactly what the player risks in this step from session to performance is crucial. It is not, as commonly inferred, the risk of one’s success, a faulty move in the game. It is rather the heart that is risked, which in the session discovers its range of possibility, its depth, its strength in movement. “I can go anywhere” is erotic, exciting, and demanding of the player to rise to the level of excitement, to accept the movement of the heart as real to oneself. The heart is created and revealed to the subject as a moving being able to fulfill its imagination. But there is no risk; one can always retreat. Only the world is a risk, for the world can be counted on to contradict and confuse that subject. For instance, it is lamented that one’s heart is “too good” but only “for this world.” One’s heart only becomes fully real when it risks itself—and it is a risk on pain of its death–and willingly leaps the gap with the world. This alone makes “I am” possible. And that world is not conceived as a territory (however minuscule and partitioned) to be organized and conquered, yielding the success of the entrepreneur musician, but is an unknown itself. The heart cannot know what will come of it in the face of judgment, ridicule, accusation of falseness, or even the achievement of one’s dream. Only such a step into not-knowing—just as the decision to improvise freely–has the right to be called the opening of the heart.

This is what I was trying to say thirty years ago when I wrote the following as publicity for my first “release,” back when I could still think of myself as a revolutionary:

What I want is this: a music that is the outer form, the appearance in the world, the reality, of feeling, of desire, need, contradiction. I want a music deep into the present time, how we truly exist now, music which defines us and gives us the future we deserve. I want a music done for the love of playing, which for this reason has to exist, is surrounded by its existence. A music of intense pleasure, polymorphous, naïve, risking itself for its own sake. This music is here for us and won’t deceive our hopes if we give everything to it.”