I was criticized recently for merely giving my subjective opinion about free improvisation, and not taking other opinions into account. To extend the common argument, all we have are our subjective views, separated by our ego defenses. Moreover, since all such views belong to individuals of equal worth in a democratic society, to make any universal statemtent (“improvisation is…”) oppresses the other.

So let me correct any wrong impressions. It is not to be assumed that the views I express here are shared by many other musicians, nor have they been since I started writing about this kind of playing in the eighties. I am not summing up the viewpoints of those who say they improvise, am not describing “the scene,” as the academic or journalist would feel responsible to do.

Given the habit of our culture to code and shunt one form of thought into “vision” and another into “actuality” (more commonly “value” and “fact”), my writing would be tossed in the former pile of writing, condescended to as one of many “artist’s documents.” Vision is considered what one desires to be true. It is in the category of personal opinion, defended as property by those inside and outside the barbed wire of the individual, in this most privatized of all ages. For those outside, vision is just another item of consumption; those who find it entertaining and inspiring will buy “into” it, perhaps use it to develop their own property (the so-called progress of art thrives on it). This is the only way that one’s visionary desire can be said to win; the visionaries themselves, like our own desires, always collapse into sad failure. In this scheme vision is a dream based on something lacking in reality, and after flowering for a bit collapses back to the lack that was its origin.

There must be a category of universality for any society to hold itself together, however, and that is actuality, the obligation of all sane people, the metaphysical ground of truth. Humble truth is mature and responsible, the law we violate freely in our fantasies but has the hardness of death about it. “Remember Death” is inscribed above all buoyant and visionary optimism. Vision can always be brought to heel by an appeal to actuality, which wears the mask of simple truth. In this view we do not believe in actuality, it is simply identical with the world, as Wittgenstein said (“The world is that which is the case.”) We can’t live without vision, so the story goes, but we shouldn’t confuse it with the way things really are, “the real world.” Vision is tempting or at best inspiring; after all, what is the case is usually flat and boring. But it should not be taken seriously. If one is serious about one’s prouncements, one’s music, one’s livelihood, career and choice of partner, one must at best incorporate and qualify one’s moment of vision (“youthful” is often dragged into service here), adjusting it so that it fits with the big picture: that which is the case. So goes the wisdom.

My view is indeed mine but is not my possession and is not what I as an individual desire to be true. I write in the mode of the universal, and I write for all of us. It is the split of vision and actuality that is the fantasy, a belief system that joins our being to “the way things are and have to be.” We—you and I—are the unity and only fantasize ourselves as split into desire–what we lack and even should not desire–and actuality, which is what we have in front of us.

When I and others play with the motivation and intentions of free improvisation we are that unity, the desire for actuality and the actuality of desire.

I wrote the following in 1986 and in the following year I used it as a leaflet, which I gave out at the Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia to protest its exclusion of free improvisation (with an addendum particular to the occasion that I omit here). It reflects conditions that, by the end of the century had radically changed, for there appeared to have been a death and then a resurgence of free improvisation, as this music has gone through various stages. I reprint it not as a period document (it was by no means representative of then-current opinion) but in the interest of discovering where we are now, what is now the case with this kind of visionary playing:

I. uu p84/z nieys ,wifzbt4l * Is aie wor dswordswordswo rds words word swords grey into black on white, symbols out of gestures, thought (Ha!) grabbed out of electric impulses. waiting for meaning to coalesce, to let it flow past the hazards of the dam, the knife trying to cut water. Open and close, blood that won’t reverse in our veins even if we tell it

II. What does spontaneity have to do with this social order, with any social order, with the order of our self-socialized minds. There is not a word we cannot say, and reverse our saying (but not time, as the original mistake). Our mind moves by regret, shame, erasure, over its landscape. The contingent drifts into gray abstraction as we look towards The Model for guidance.

III. An axiom we know so well that we can’t experience it at all: everything is free only at the moment of creation, born free, then repeated, but never re-experienced. The memory of the moment is always a new moment, but it in no way approaches the original because its impetus is tragic, nostalgic, covering up. Attempting to recapture, it is captured by the attempting, it can only seek to perfect, that is, to socialize, improve. The recycled experience cannot strike out with the fault of boldness; it is falsified, the stylized boldness found in the Art World, that outnumbers and ridicules the original. The copy cannot explore what is unknown because it doesn’t know even where to look; it can only follow a map and discover more of what is already known.

IV. Free improvisation is, in its idea of itself, the only music that is not tragic in this way, not searching for the end, not seeking its perfection, not repeated, not corrected. It stands at the center of music because it is the insecure void between past and future, the void of choice. It puts the immediate human at the center, and that is frightening. It is neither perfect nor purposely imperfect because both of these have the Model at the center. Years ago art criticism snooped its way into the artists’ studio behind the finished work, as an elaboration in time of the dead thing in the gallery. Free improvisation goes one step better; it says there is only the working, it is begun and finished at the same moment, it is whatever is actually happening, activity not even proclaiming its nakedness. There could be nothing more ambiguous, and resistant to consistency.

V. In Western cultural history, free improvisation is the rebel child of perfection, born in that world that intertwines so nicely the dream of freedom and the life of slavery. A society’s culture is repetition, mimesis, spiraling forward, eating and shedding skins. The solid meaning possible for us, what makes communication easiest and smoothest is created in repetition, and perfectibility through development. This resounds through the culture industry, from creator to consumer and back again through market feedback, passing thru corporation and benevolent government agency. Careers are built on perfection of the product and guarantee of reproduction, and they form a synthetic, symbiotic unit with spectators. What artist can withstand the lure of feedback–acceptance, recognition, supportive community? But individuality, the supposed prize of our Western Civilization for which we are asked to suffer, does not integrate us socially, it alienates. So there is a strong tendency for free improv to call a halt to its moment and slice off a piece for consumption, to create an identity (a noun) and insert people into the moment. Improv then becomes merely the childhood sandbox of the mature artist, who has “moved beyond” it to composition, a symbol of paid dues.

VI. To the extent that free improv is seen as Art (for some, the broad umbrella of the spiritually homeless), its fate is tied up with conclusions raised about it by Criticism. It must pass through the eye of this needle to be accepted; it must be understood, given its place in the schema of the given before it can be heard and seen. Within the Art-Critical World, things are judged pseudo-historically, a never-ending Hegelian succession of triumphs, each transcending the former. In this schema free improv, by the late eighties, appears as anachronism, an island of sixties’ freedom which never seemed to find its nostalgia buffs, with its links to the continent of culture now washed away leaving a handful of stranded devotees.

VII. There are two historical reference points for contemporary free improv music. The first is free jazz, whose sixties and seventies players–the Americans at least–have by now for the most part abandoned it, while it continues minimally and nostalgically in Europe. [This was written, obviously, before the resurrection of free jazz as a niche interest at the turn of the nineties.] The players of that earlier generation, mostly black, had entered music expecting to be able to make some kind of a living from it. The market, however, could not sustain them, once the unstable waves of cultural revolution, on which free jazz had ridden, had ebbed. In its orgy of rebellion, free jazz had abandoned the repeated tune, pulse, diatonic harmonies and swing. But it still sounded like jazz because the instruments were still being played basically straight in tone and phrasing, that is, with identifiable expertise and jazz feeling. For many jazz listeners it was a nightmare they endured painfully, questioning its right to the name of jazz, and yet the free players were still close enough to traditional jazz to be considered a threat.

In contrast, some Europeans in the late 60’s and Americans in the 70s pushed their instruments thru the meat grinder, and let their imaginations out of the cage of jazz forms. The result was a sound-oriented music, that is, strange sounding and totally unfamiliar. It is this music that is continuous with current free improvisation, and is usually distinguished from free jazz as “non-idiomatic.” Its brief fame came in the late seventies-early eighties in the East Village; excitement was generated over the freedom from current definitions of music and the sheer unleashing of pedestrian sound, the breakdown of the wall between the concert space and the street outside, as in John Cage’s earlier experiments.

But what, in the late seventies, could this freedom be good for, after the collapse of the cultural upheaval, and the raging desire for freedom of the Vietnam years? How was sound improvisation to be understood? Partly as comic weirdness, titillating and harmless nonsense masked on the stage as “who let that guy up there.” Since it only thrived in the avant-ghetto of downtown N.Y. and the Bay area, it was nothing so potent in society at large as even a dirty word at a tea party. It was a magnificent, creative period, documented on a few European labels and obscure recordings put out at private expense by North Americans and a few Japanese players. Fooling people, as entertainment is want to do, we were provided with the self-satisfaction of hearing and affirming what the supposedly larger society would reject, would hate us for, material incapable of integration, as we were supposedly a breed apart. This was a cultural hangover from the earlier days of rebellion and was fueled by the anti-sixties reaction but could not withstand the Reagan years. So-called non-musical sound sources and eccentric ways of playing traditional instruments were absorbed as sound bites directly from improv into current commercial forms–classical, new music, and pop. But improv itself, the radical challenge to the ear, to “sense,” was kept at arms length. Its market strength was and still is so slight that no major label would produce an undiluted free improv album, and no one in North America could or can now make a living from playing it. Its best-known practitioners, to the extent that they are known, have tended to package their earlier style for a late-80’s remake or go into other fields in order to survive.

VIII. At the present time the conditions for doing free improv are extremely favorable. Those doing it are completely focused on it, not diverted by dreams of fame or fortune. It is a music that often divides audiences, creates trouble, questions, provokes laughter, participation. Sometimes people find themselves disgusted, wanting to leave, but unable to. Afterwards they say “why haven’t we heard this before.” Now, after Reagan and the New Morality have themselves become such laughingstocks, people want to breathe and open themselves again. The fear of spontaneity, of disobedience is, I believe, beginning to dissolve. A new void is opening and we should rush in.

The following are suggestions to that end. 1) Travel. It is possible to find musicians and dancers and venues to perform in practically everywhere in North America. Improv lends itself to finding new partners and dealing with strange environments as no other art form does. 2) We should play with anyone who wants to, including those who have never played anything, or think they can’t. Even the “tin ears” have a music we want. 3) Enjoy what we’re doing and forget the money situation as long as possible. Then wash dishes or paint houses or something else. The goal of living off the music/art leads inevitably to either its own failure or embarrassing compromise, failure by another name. Real experimentation can usually be expected to undermine its roots of support, a least we shouldn’t be disheartened when it does. 4) Find new spaces, new listeners who want to drink in the strangeness, vulnerability, passion, awkwardness of free improv. Find people who don’t have to understand it first. Play where others won’t play.

A music/dance/art that begins with what is, what happens now and then is gone cannot be threatened by inconsistency, emptiness, social isolation, box office failure. These surround anything of real value.

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