The normative essential for Western music is that it consists of distinct pieces, composed or traditional, individual models determined by specific pitches arranged in a linear pattern. The piece must be either notated or capable of being transcribed such that it can be “played,” meaning duplicated any number of times, or “played with” as in jazz. Whether on a page or fingered correctly the playing must communicate and recall a piece of music with a unique, bounded identity; the piece “has” something of its own that resists confusion with others. The model, or work, is similar to a Platonic idea; like a theatrical play it exists as an eternal, ideal form, while as played it is known through its many versions and only in mundane, ephemeral time. Each playing differs as an intentional interpretation of the original idea, or through the errors of performers, who represent the faulty human in comparison with the composer (or “the folk” for traditional pieces), the genius close to divinity who creates the ideal form. How many wrong notes would it take for a particular sonata to no longer be considered that sonata? This applies to jazz improvisation as well, though far from the strict adherence to the score of classical music. Jazz students are taught that there are no wrong notes, but this means that they can correct any “wrong” note through creating its surrounding context. The tune that is called for on the set list is still the tune, stretched to its limit. Wrong notes are simply categorized as bad jazz, which assumes that good jazz is the intent of the players.

Some variables apply to all normative music and are considered matters of interpretation. Speed and volume are variables of the unique idea, the work, that occur in every realization of it; a sonata played fast or slow, loud or soft will have the identity of that sonata if the notes are close enough to the model. Timbre is somewhat different as a variable. It is understood in acoustics as the distinguishing sound of each conventional instrument as played normatively and in comparison with all others, and called the color or tone of a note for that instrument. However, a range of sounds is always possible for each instrument, and timber can be a variable, as in shades of named and standardized color. A soloist will be a player who can play the notation perfectly but whose shade or coloring goes beyond the perfection of the norm. When timbre leaves the instrumental norm it often expresses and evokes feeling that is mildly subversive and cannot be resolved as the dissonance of pitch and melody can be. It threatens to be “off the chart,” within the province of the player, and cannot be indicated or controlled by the composer’s model. The audience-effective soloist can play practically any piece and make it work, through emotive phrasing and other variables but also through individualized sound, seen as the idealized persona of the soloist. However, timbre is still dependent on the norm, the standard “good” tone of the trained player, the specific combination of harmonics that will make the saxophone sound different from the trumpet to the trained listener. Even a note played with a timbral variation in the worst taste, when played in a piece of music and of sufficiently discernible pitch, will not stand in the way of musical identity of that piece.

Sound however is the full range of the auditory field and not just intentionally created on pitch-based instruments, and is of course far broader than timbre. Sound is outside human control and cultural containment as music. Whereas visual art since the Renaissance has celebrated the natural world as a partner in beauty to human works, the border where music meets non-musical sound has been carefully policed. Outside of certifiable music, sound threatens to be classified as noise; the constant chatter of sparrows outside one’s window might be birdsong but is also noise. From the point of view of normative music sound that threatens to cross the border of conventional timbre is unmusical, unless included as a minor element for specific, perhaps shocking effect.  To consider it as a variable of essentialist music like speed or volume one would have consider the pitch of, say, a passing car or a dripping faucet as musically meaningful. Of course the pitch would have to be determined in the first place, and would have to be stable enough to be notated, and harmonically related to other pitches. Generic sound is not only highly mixed in pitch but often sliding around too much to put it down on paper.

Jazz has many features that assimilate it to essentialist music, which have aided it in becoming categorized as “classic.” As far as sound is concerned, individualized soloist-sound and non-pitched sounds are at the core of standard jazz history and a large part of its attraction. Yet even in free jazz non-traditional sounds are used as timbre for a specific emotive effect and do not detract from the substantially pitched orientation of traditional instruments.

Now specifically the saxophone. In accordance with a model of progressive mastery most saxophonists, while still children, are instructed (as myself, sixty years ago) to imitate as best they can the preferred “good” sound of the instrument, which I call the central tone. This is a concept that is not conscious but is culturally determined, and is as unlikely to be challenged by a child as other common assumptions. Though a concept, it cannot be represented precisely in words; after some elementary instructions it can only be imitated through control of the embouchure, the musculature surrounding the mouth. It is presented as what the instrument was designed and manufactured to make, the inherent property and teleology of the instrument. It is what conventionally signifies “saxophone” at its achieved level. To master this tone is to submit to a cultural norm that is not dictated by the instrument as a simple material object. As with all other culturally circumscribed tools, we will never know what is its sound range free of our preconceptions. Society (by which I mean the collective, normative version of “we”) will define a beginner partly as one who has yet to successfully reproduce this sound. Embouchure control is at least as important to the goal of training as control of the fingers, yet it is almost impossible to tell someone how to make the sound, since it involves muscles that are involuntarily adjusted by the ear rather than directed by the brain and motor nervous system, as are fingers. To achieve the sound one must be able to coordinate ear and embouchure, which, apart from this singular cultural goal is a most useful skill for creating a variety of sounds.  This coordination favors some players over others, discouraging those with a different kind of ear, whose tone might otherwise be interesting to the individual but not what the largest number of listeners wants to hear.[1]

The motivation for enforcing a cultural standard in instrumental training is to assure that at its very foundation music as an art form will have continuity with normative society, which requires a coded sound as the most essential ingredient in the appreciation of its many validated musics. This enables the cultural authorities to determine those areas of acceptable discontinuity and individuality, to be understood as variations within the safe boundaries of the standard. Even for music considered the most extreme those players trained and tested in traditional sound are favored. Even if they do not use it, the standard, central tone is somehow understood as “there” located in the player’s potential, registered within the disciplined body through training. While presenting itself as essentially open, the most diverse of all, Western—“our” — culture, including its cynical and repudiating avantgarde, operates as a controlling concept.

Let me digress a moment in this direction. There is a largely unnoticed cultural attitude that locates and stigmatizes musicians on the so-called conservative side of culture, and celebrates visual artists as culturally challenging. This operates as something of a naturalized dialectic, with the two needing each other for balance, such that the lack of audience support for non-traditional music can be seen as justified by the “natural” conservatism of musicians, and is compensated by the relative boldness and freedom of visual arts. This is a primary hinge on which cultural ideology swings; no such phenomenon exists for the other arts.  If musicians are kept more bound to tradition it may be because music matters more as a factor of potential social disturbance. “It may be that musicians are individually more reactionary than painters, more religious, less ‘social’; they nevertheless wield a collective force infinitely greater than that of painting…”[2] I would add that there is a causal relation operating here, that partly because music has such potential for moving people in directions that threaten stability—whether the role of collective singing in Nazi Germany or rock music in the sixties—it is all the more important for social institutions (the complex known as the music world) to control (guide, organize, keep tabs on) the production and ordering of music and how it is to be interpreted.

Here is a fundamental binary and even double bind of our culture, one that shows up very early in one’s life, the split between the visual, which urges its young to “Be creative,” and the aural, which cautions, “Don’t get too creative.” Middle class society may have learned by now to restrain itself from pressuring small children to identify their drawings as representing objects (“What is that? A flower?”), at least not without accepting often surreal responses from them. After all, they are expected to be drawing for their own pleasure and imaginative growth and not for a market. But a few years later, often at ten, an instrument student is already being trained to play for the marketplace and not to follow individual whims and creativity. Added in the cultural-ideological mix is the universality of creativity (“everyone is some kind of artist”—a post-sixties development of left culture populism) versus the still powerful selectivity of “only a few have real musical talent.” I suggest that rarely does that music student have what the later student of visual art still possesses, a memory of childhood individuality and freedom from correction, like singing to herself, or even the entire first grade class singing together, lustily and unpretentious. Early memory of musical experience is denied; the later visual artist can far more easily access that early freedom from cultural standards and go off on wild tangents of individuality. That is what is expected of visual artists, whereas music and players are highly categorized, and not just for the sake of sales. There would be much more latitude from one musician to another if there were the same broad acceptance that exists for the diversity of artists. Acceptance is the door open or shut to pleasure, which it is the job of the cultural order to manage.

In this culturally encouraged binary, the visual stands for freedom and individuality, the aural, if it might fall under the category of music, stands for the social code. If one violates it, one had better be prepared to defend oneself, or accept the social status of hobbyist or at best rightfully obscure cultist. There are then two individualities in a double bind: one is sanctioned and the other is not. The legitimacy of music is heavily policed; that of visual art is the pride of our liberal culture, even the state, the realm of anything goes. Above I suggested that this is an effect of the power of music to move people, to create an a-cultural solidarity that a liberal society might fear. Sanctioned music can be that which soothes and quiets, with the pervasiveness of oldies made innocuous by incessant repetition, or that of the sanctioned art-music avantgarde, which legitimates a “fringe” for those who feel vaguely restive, beyond which lies chaos, noise.

This has everything to do with the physical body, moved by impulse, and known as feelings. Audiences are trained to sit quietly and make no sounds of their own; that restraining discipline began to be inculcated by the nascent cultural authorities in the later 19th century, a time of social and political threat. To move people collectively outside the established frames is to unleash a force, an awareness that threatens social peace far more than the contemplative position of the visual art spectator. Very crudely put, the eyes belong to the individual; the ears to the collectivity, with far greater potential than do the eyes for disturbance. Certainly, the image of the cross inspired the crusader armies, as do flags, but that upward looking body of followers is not making the image but receiving and honoring it; to join in song is a different act. The moving, physical body and the physicality of emotion are bound up with the making of sound to an extent far beyond visual art, which is presented to its audience as an accomplished fact. Everyone may be “an artist,” but when the work is done no one can touch it. Music confined to “the work” is similar, but the potential is for music to escape the literal work and take to the streets. People in the streets, an improvisational situation of oral/aural immediacy, is still, since the French Revolution, the major immediate threat to political stability. The movement of air that is sound transfers readily to the movement of bodies, and once aroused to movement, exhilarated as a body, no one can predict where people will go.[3]

To return. Those who want to play, to experience sound as the body’s own movement, are trained to listen to the master rather than the body, to imitate the master’s movements and directions rather than discover their own impulses and feelings. The body has a scope of 360 degrees, so the directions it can take are multiple and not limited by the rules of the road. This multiplicity is the fullness of social possibility and the threat to social tranquility, and every effort is made to reduce the multiplicity to the singular, the central tone, as if it were the only reasonable choice, what nature has designed.

This applies to all instrumental training, including the saxophone. Once the central tone is achieved those players oriented to jazz, who since the early days of recorded jazz have constituted  the bulk of players outside school bands, might aim at a more individualized sound that represents that player as an identifying signature. At the origins of jazz and through its creative period each musician competed on the basis of a unique sound that was the musical persona of the player; the more unique and favored, the greater the livelihood and independence of the player. This is not common today, when the sought-after sound is the generic, broad jazz sound learned by imitation and facilitated by a mouthpiece fashioned to produce that timbre. A classical saxophonist by contrast, like the player of any orchestral instrument, is trained to avoid any sound from popular music, and especially the individualized or the generic jazz sound. Even as a soloist he or she will hope to recreate the conventional, narrow and precise classical sound and to be distinguished not by sound but by superior accuracy and interpretation of the composition.

For the freeform (as opposed to the jazz) improviser a new and different relation of subject and object, player and sound instrument has opened up. This is a matter of sensual exploration in pursuit of the greatest possible diversity of results. Since this is increasingly the path I and my close partners have taken I will explore this in more detail. I achieved the capacity for the central tone as a youth through traditional training, and though I later studied and learned to distinguish the sound of most of the iconic saxophonists I have not been interested in imitating them or achieving an individualized or conventional sound identity myself. In many ways I honor jazz but I am not a jazz saxophonist. A certain individuality of tone is inescapable, however, partly due to the physiology of any player’s particular lips, oral cavity, throat, and all other body parts that affect the sound, as for vocalists. Also a certain resistance of what has developed from years of playing cannot be bypassed; try though I might, my developed embouchure will never be able achieve the tone of the beginner, who is meanwhile trying to abandon it. The opening to all possible sound in free playing means that any preference for the better over the worse sound, on which the artistic value of the standard soloist is based, will always be undermined by tempting sounds that soloist would have discarded. For free playing, whatever the mystique of sound might be—and this gets to the core of its possible musicality and the affective appeal of music–it will have to find another nail to hang its hat on than “the best.”

A caveat is in order here. Traditional training will not necessarily inhibit experimental technique; in fact such training may inspire experimentation, as barriers always tempt one to find what lies beyond.[4] To develop the embouchure enough to create the central tone might be helpful to do many other things as well. To eschew traditional training as so much dead weight is to cut oneself off from the full range of possibilities for sound and so for musical ideas. The option to “try everything” is not a call to limit oneself to homemade experiments but to explore literally everything that can be done. To put it into a formula, all learning negotiates a deal between the known to the unknown; the more one knows how to do the more unknown appears and tempts one to expand into it. Here is my twist on the old saw about knowing the rules before you can break them. Just as an artwork can be separated from its maker, to know something as a skill does not necessarily invest one in the meaning aimed at by one’s teachers or tradition. There should be no fear that to know the conventional would require one to play conventionally, any more than to play unconventionally requires one to learn the rules. It is of course common for the trained player to seek to convince an audience through reliance on technical display. That we do out of fear or a sense that it is expected of us; feeling the strength of music within us (as in duende, the footnote above) we can walk away from the known into the new-for-us, and possibly the new-for-others.

Free improvisation operates from a relation of player to music-making distinct from the concept of ownership of one’s “work,” as I have elaborated elsewhere.[5] I say “their music-making” and not “their music” advisedly, since the latter implies ownership of a thing, and what the free player “has” is merely what s/he does, an activity-in-time. This is time as duration which, unlike the clock time geared to work in capitalist society cannot be owned or managed, at least not unless the individual allows it. rHere is a decent reason for calling it “free” improvisation, for it tends in the direction of freedom from ownership and “the” work and from playing as working in order to get paid. Surely as musicians, improvisers want to be paid, but driven by an inner necessity they will play anyway, that is their weakness at the workplace. Such freedom capitalism cannot encompass or even envisage as its utopia. Lacking pre-structure or model, an act of improvisation is an unduplicable time of playing and not a work.[6] “The work” is represented in various instances of performance, an ideal model aimed at escaping all the limitations of time and existing forever, and as such gets to claim participation in the highest idealization, Music. The work is a piece of intellectual property fully endorsed today by the music world, at the point where it joins the neoliberal project to identify absolutely everything, material and cultural, as owned by someone (perhaps things “spiritual” would still be a bit too much to claim).

The distance of free improv from ownership—a stumbling block for those who want to professionalize it–applies particularly to sound. Once the personalized and specialized sound-identity of the jazz greats is iconicized and demystified it becomes possible for musicians to conceive of sound as an impersonal acoustic continuum of physical nature, the ultimate boundary of which is merely the player’s specific body and the residue of early training and daily practice. The question then appears, what is the relation of a sound with the person who makes it; why would I want it to be exclusively mine? Especially as sound, nature is self-standing and available to all.

All improvisatory music can be analyzed according to the player’s location on a spectrum ranging from extreme variability, at one end, to a consistent identity. The latter would be his/her self-chosen and developed identity within an identifiable style or genre that their playing is meant to represent. That identity can be variability itself, within a certain range. If every time I perform I drag in some odd piece of equipment to play as an instrument, then the night I come with a jackhammer I will be maintaining my identity and attracting attention (“What will he do next?”)The players who have a chance to achieve in the music world establish a position on the identity side of the spectrum that is fairly consistent and predictable within an improvisation as well as over the course of their career. They will be known and acknowledged partly by this consistency; their “name” depends on it. It is developed, achieved and valued as a possession, and is similar to a composer’s work, of which s/he is the auteur. Just as the film auteur’s name overpowers and obscures other persons who have taken part in the collective making of a film, and just as identity politics advances a valued one over other, non-valued minorities, so the musician’s “name” is the actual or potential winner of a competition with those who lack equivalent consistent identity.

Though not romanticized in non-jazz improvisation, still the sound of the player is a distinguishing feature because of its consistency over time, without which it is hard to conceive of an identity. More immediately than choice of notes, sound identity reminds the listener of past positive experience and so aids in placing that player in a listener’s personal pantheon. Success for the player comes when this occurs for a significant number of consumers, aided greatly through legitimation by the music world (for instance The Wire, a British publication, will indicate those it considers pantheon-worthy artists by reviewing every one of their recordings).

As for myself, at times I think that instead of playing “my music” I am off to the side and might be seen as parodying and mocking the music of a sometimes present, sometimes absent other. This is not a conscious postmodern strategy, which would still be within the realm of ownership, but is sporadic, unconscious and unintentional. Parody comes about when I enter the mode of the straight, classical saxophone tone and precision and is usually instigated by a partner; it is evident to me I am merely pretending to be a serious player. I’m not doing it “for real,” trying to legitimate myself, but see myself almost as a comedic act, dressed in the stuffed-shirt stereotype of classical players. And if I briefly play “jazz-like” it is a friendly mockery of jazz and does not intend to arouse the sentiment that relaxes the listener into thinking I’ve finally offered something of real meaning. Didn’t jazz improvisation itself, before it was classicized, originate as a mockery of serious European-style music, “jazzing it up”? So to the extent that those moments of jazzing of jazz would fit me into a category, far from renouncing it or making the serious-art move of contemporary, classicized jazz I would be approximating its originary “signifyin’” impulse.

In general, when making music with other players (vocal, spoken-word, or instrumental) I tend to be drawn into a playful mimetic dance with their sound. I am not imitating the other but sensing the drift the other is following in creating a musical space, and I want to be together in enjoying it, to assimilate. [7]  If it is a closed space with the other’s name on it that says “keep off my property” then I am being told to listen and not join in. I can’t enjoy it except perhaps to learn specific techniques that require my subordination. Curiously, an inhibitory sign does not necessarily mean that the music’s owner is enjoying it himself. It is a general problem of property that ownership, especially with the imagined responsibilities it entails, tends to preclude the enjoyment of it for itself. Owners are nervous under certain circumstances; I would not enjoy the house I own if it were threatened from outside but would put my energies into defending it.

However, there might be a consistency to one’s playing that does not put one on guard against usurpation, an unintentional ex post facto form that is not an achievement or an object of ownership. This musical personality could broadcast one’s love of playing and invite others into it rather than warding them off. That kind of consistency would be a welcome sign. Unconsciously I look for such signs, or at least ambivalent indications that the gate might be unlocked, that the player might feel locked into her own established turf. I could self-consciously construct my own space, as professional musicians are expected to do, but the point of that is to create value only to a music listener (including myself in that role as well) but not to the other as a playing partner. The prescribed way of the professional, whether they follow it or not, is to attract other musicians by means of one’s value rather than by their actual playing.

As far as sound goes, my tendency to share a musical space has helped me learn new techniques and expand my range, pushing my embouchure to bring me as close to the other as possible. One of my early close partners, German cellist Wittwulf Malik, enjoyed the amplified sound of his bowed instrument, and played with a huge warm smile. I enjoyed the sense of being seduced into the swooping, plastic sound of his bowed cello, a musical space I had never before emulated or experienced. In terms of the masculine/feminine binary, I am almost certain I come across as a strong masculine figure, yet it is a masculinity that enjoys feeling dependent on the other, which is stronger in the borderless, all-encompassing, enticing sound of the Sirens than in note-based alternatives.

For the next couple paragraphs be prepared for a technical discussion; sound is after all matter in motion, and variety of sound depends on how the player controls its movements. In speaking strictly of the relation of instrument and player, the sound of the saxophone can be altered by any part of the player’s body that is involved in creating the “central tone,” plus some that are not. This includes first of all everything needed to put air into the machine and vibrate the reed: the embouchure, the tongue and oral cavity, the diaphragm, and throat. The other main operator of the instrument is the fingers, and in normative training they are directed to make either a this or a that pitch, and correct or not according to a precise and visible model. However, the sound, as well as pitch, can be altered by using “false” or incorrect fingerings, which can give a muted and dull quality. One can also approach sound variation through multiphonics, where more than one pitch is voiced at the same time by irregular finger positions. This can only be done by using an appropriate embouchure setting, one outside that for the central tone and discovered through individual experimentation. Some multiphonics have as many as five different pitches, and are of such different strengths that it is often difficult to hear and distinguish them. The pitch could be anywhere between the half-tones (such as A to A#) of standard notation, and so naming them is only approximate, the habit of rigid schematization. They can merge so as to create a radically different sound, and especially when combined with other body alterations, one multiphonic can be pushed to sound radically different from another.

I exclude from this list electronic alterations, whether through a microphone or wires attached directly, as well as mutes put into the bell. Instead of the latter, as anyone seeing me play will see, I use my bare leg for muting. (This is why I prefer to play in shorts, not because my legs are worth the view. In fact I am embarrassed in cold weather to roll up my pants, since that could easily be seen as wanting to present a ritualized performer persona.) I came to this out of frustration with external mutes, which I used for many years. Unlike the one-handed brass instruments, woodwind mutes are either completely in or out; to change the sound requires a break in musical continuity. Also, there is far greater range of sound and pitch possible by varying the bell opening from full open to fully closed. The tightest seal possible is the skin, and especially the fat of the thigh and calf that ensures that no air at all will escape, which is necessary for certain sounds. I only wish that the “bare leg mute” were more widely used so that it would not seem to be a trademark of mine; ownership of any technique inhibits its development, as scientists will attest.

As for electronic additions I will admit to a kind of resistant, old-fashioned belief here, a desire to explore to the fullest strictly what the body can do with this manufactured instrument.[8] I get my electronics from partners and fully enjoy the playful rivalry of trying to bring our sound as close as possible with all the difference we have to deal with. Sounds tend to merge; our stereophonic apparatus is not “nature.” It is frequently confused, and a listener will say, “I can’t tell the sax apart from the electronics.” Mission accomplished.

It was not initially my direction but increasingly I have wanted to explore the fullest sound possibilities on my instrument. I participate in the phenomenon of sound-orientation increasingly motivating musicians, of which I spoke in Part I. For much of the time I am what might be called a free-sound player. Electronics and sound-oriented percussion have the greatest sonic range, and the past decade I have especially focused on finding partners who play these and invite me into their musical space. Amidst the growling and spitting, however, I will often insert a pure central tone straight out of my boyhood playing. Like “jazziness” the moment appears unannounced and might seem to signify to an analyst a defensible aesthetic, yet I am more likely bored and a bit perversely reaching for a different, contrasting sound. In the context of free, weird sound the central tone calls up a disruptive image, as if your straight-laced aunt were to walk into a party unannounced while you were boozing it up. Within an improvisation and over time, and depending on the specific others I play with, my sonic range will include everything I’ve ever learned: the central tone, the jazz and occasionally the classical sound, poised against animal or body sounds. The latter are achieved by pushing the embouchure every which way, by all varieties of tonguing, guttural vibrations, vocalizing away from the horn, diaphragm action, half-closed tone holes, muting against my bare leg, and shaking or hitting the instrument. Everything but farting into the horn, which I’m sure someone can and will do. For me anything goes, within my self-imposed limit of body and standard saxophone. I learn most free-sound techniques in the process of playing rather than by practicing them (my daily practice is exploratory but still comparatively straight). Taken together these sounds will be relativized and heterogeneous such that signification is shifting and inconsistent, lacking an overall unifying factor but linked one to another by usually imperceptible transitions and sometimes overlaps, or giant leaps which, if properly timed can join rather than separate.

On the listener side, no matter how variable and divergent, my sound will still be identifiable as that of the saxophone, but only at the most basic phenomenological rather than the culturally desired level of homogeneity. That is, any experienced ear (listening to a recording) will detect that I play not a brass but a woodwind. Those who consider themselves music lovers, however, who have a caring relationship to what they consider music, would no doubt think that I’m murdering the instrument. The same would be accused generally of free-sound players. At one level such listeners are knowledgeable, at another they have an appropriate judgment, which makes them wince as if they are being violated, even that the player wants to violate them. This is not a “merely” aesthetic choice in the Kantian sense, choosing this painting over that next to it; it is a visceral reaction, they feel their ears are damaged, the stomach almost churns.  I neither desire, plan on, nor regret that reaction; it is just part of the process of making music before non-playing listeners, the flip side of joyful acceptance. Either of these reactions is preferable to me over the ho-hum acceptance coming from ears too inured by avantgardiness to be offended. It is all part of the tension between instrument and player, which is crucial to instrument-centered music. In the case of free-sound playing, however, it is possible to reverse the tension; instead of training to overcome the distance between the normative and the actual sound one makes, one works to open up that distance to the extreme limits. The remove from normative sound parallels the distance from acceptable music. Since sound is a major component to legitimacy as music, the free-sound player ends up delegitimizing his/her playing as much as possible away from “music,” the cultural and music-world standard, in search of musicality.[9]

The revulsion experienced by those I’m categorizing as music lovers, who rightfully want to protect their ears from violation, is part of their musical expansion. It is disavowed at the moment, but more than dissonance or lack of pulse, a transgressive sound once heard is an intrusion into consciousness that cannot be extinguished. The question, as of all love, is whether the expansion that is love will stop at one point and not continue to open up. Once inaugurated, music lovers often become the most ardent fans, and tell a story of conversion, how they love what they once hated. Whether this happens or not depends on many factors, not least of which is the socio-political climate, whether one of constriction and defensiveness or of openness and hunger for new experience, which is the same frustration with one’s limits that is at the heart of artistic work. This was the case in the expansive and conflictual sixties, fueled by opposition to the Vietnam War, and possibly now, if the financial crash and austerity comes to fuel cultural dissatisfaction to the same extent.[10]

A topic I will restrain myself from pursuing here is the role of the music world in containing such expansion through controlling the accessibility of strange-sounding music to wider publics and ennobling a few players as representing its gracious liberality. Suffice it to say, there is right now very little negative reaction from listeners, and that is in part due to the superb organization of consumers into taste groups so as to lessen “unpleasant” listener experiences as much as possible. This is one of the prime functions of the apparatus known as the music world, which encourages people to sort themselves out as fan-identities of various categories of music, and to get musicians to think of their professional task and expectations for reward in relation to these fan-groups.

Despite the common rejection of the Cartesian mind-body split there is a scale of roles on which all music-making identities depend, a hierarchy of cultural valuation that puts mind-workers over “mechanical men,” such as players. A composer is a mind at work notating ideas, which can include setting the parameters of improvisation, or establishing a core melody and harmonic framework for a jazz improvisation. Neither his/her kinetic body nor the act of moving the molecules to create sound is the composer’s concern; at the simplest the body’s task is merely to move a pencil on a page and to make the required sounds only as a test. The electronic musician is involved directly with the physicality of sound, not necessarily pre-structuring while in the process of making sound but still engaged in making it happen. At the far end of the mind/body spectrum is the kinetic body-engaged musicking of the instrumentalist and most acutely the vocalist, who will often speak of his voice as an instrument. For this person there is no sound/silence without the body physically pushing the sound and kinetically engaged. An ensemble of such players is a collectivity of bodies in motion, whereas a group of composers would be a collection of minds in motion, discussing their respective works. The hallowed tradition formalized by the 19th century is a version of this on the model of the disciplined body.[11] It judges that musicians are to conform to designated sounds, either the standard timbre of their instruments or specific alternatives, and to discredit all others. Letting musicians “do whatever they see fit” is a horror to the composer tradition, including its avantgarde.

For the player to go beyond traditional training is inseparable from the wider expansion of aesthetic listening. This cultural change ultimately contested the proscription of musical sounds outside those made by humans on traditional instruments. [12] It can be traced back to the Romantic poets in their reaction against industrialization and urbanization. As a kind of polemic in defense of threatened nature, they responded to the sounds of nature as music, also bringing a fresh ear to the sound of spoken words. Orality itself was seen as a world they were losing, present only in technologically backward cultures. Later, the invention of recording equipment made it possible to hear and be tempted by the music of non-European “natives,” humanizing them at the very moment they were being most thoroughly dehumanized. Recording also opened at least the possibility that all sound could be unified as a message heard through the same medium. While the modernist avant-garde reacted against the romantic idealization of nature as sentimentalization the link of nature and non-Western has continued into the present.  Ethnomusicologists once recorded village music while fully believing that it was inferior to Music, a strictly western phenomenon. Postcolonial investigators are today more likely to have the reverse opinion.  Steven Feld, for instance, himself a trombonist and improviser, discovered ways of listening to natural sound among tribes in Papua New Guinea that were as new to his Western ears as any experimental avantgarde.

The openness to age-old nature, new urban everyday sounds, and electronic technology was roughly simultaneous and reinforcing. It might be represented in narratives by David Toop and John Cage or a host of others, but more broadly and indeterminately it could be called the attraction to sound as an acoustic phenomenon, selected according to acoustic pleasure and unknown to musicology. Contributing hugely was the modernist reaction to and incorporation of the new world of urban sound, as part of the general expansion of aesthetic validation. It increased the range of what could be listened to as if it were music, and is still in process. For instance to appreciate a child’s singing without thinking she will become a great opera singer is an example of this. Very summarily, the direction was taken up by avant-garde composers (Luigi Russolo, EdgarVarese, with the encouragement of Feruccio Busoni and others) in the first half of the 20th century, and then on an enlarged scale when tape enabled everyday sound to be used as a musical source. This was followed by advanced electronics and computers, which were certainly not everyday, yet the door had been opened for them at the same time.

This occurred before orchestral players caught wind of the idea for themselves, which is understandable for orchestra professionals, who were paid not to think beyond doing what they were told. Change came only after the Second World War and increasingly post-sixties, as a few instrumentalists (improvisers) began to free themselves from subservience to their training. Composers discovered around the same time that strings could make very interesting sounds apart from the traditional (there was some resistance from players, whose instruments were often threatened with damage from the liberties composers took). Instrumental skill began to come out from under the heavy hand of musicological judgment, and the concept marked “music” was as seriously threatened from below as was the concept of “literature.”

The discovery of silence as a musical element and not just a short dramatic pause was later in coming; even Cage’s 4’33” was part of his educational program and not truly using silence for a musical purpose. He found it difficult not to fill every moment with some audible event, despite, or because of his philosophy: “I have nothing to say and I’m saying it.” It was a group of British improvisers, AMM, which first explored the possibility of silence, and later reductionism, a movement of Berlin improvisers in the mid-90s who expanded its use. Surely, in waiting fifteen minutes for the next sound to be emitted from an instrument one will hear inadvertent audience sounds, as with 4’33’’, but the Cage piece is well known and now ineffective. What is experienced instead is the silence itself of anticipation, an imposed discipline in which one asks oneself, after all, why do I want them to do something. Like raucous free playing this might be “not for everyone,” but what is?

Jazz and blues, arriving as a kind of revenge against jim crow repression, yet a celebration that would eventually seduce the oppressors, were together the first assertion of instrumentalists against the dominant musical culture, the composer/orchestral art music system. It was also, as part of that challenge, the first popular music to go outside the normative instrumental sound. In the cultural rebellion of the 20s strange, wild sounds excited people ready to abandon every tradition, to be swept away as Victorian prudery. In the age of “terrible honesty,” the sounds of the growling trumpet and wailing saxophone merged the exotic, visceral, animalistic, and sexual to which the youth generation responded and danced to.[13]

Free jazz has often been thought as a stretch too far beyond jazz, but the same had been thought of bebop, which inaugurated the commercial expansion of jazz as an art music into the middle class in the fifties. Free jazz, as full participant in the cultural watershed of the sixties, is the point where the dynamic of rejection to commercialization came to a halt. Unlike rock music, free jazz “went too far,” in the words of its critics, and for once their rejection was not overturned at the marketplace.[14] “Free” meant not just the abandonment of key signature and chord structure and hummable tune but the sound players made, and especially the saxophone. As regards sound, it was not Eric Dolphy’s imitation of birds that caused the problem. Besides “off-pitch” playing (as Ornette was charged, which had always been a feature of jazz and blues in its phase as a popular music) it was instrumental timbre that was the problem, especially after Albert Ayler came on the scene and expanded the emotive range of jazz. Sound became a key means of offensive political expression, pointedly violating the gentle, sophisticated tone of increasingly profitable jazz. Jazz musicians, by then widely categorized as artists, risked their professional lives by picking up on the more popular and sneered-at rhythm and blues honking of the late forties. In rough and throaty tones, singing through the horn, they were orally but wordlessly voicing the rage of urban blacks just as the civil rights movement was turning more militant and taking an aggressive tone. Free jazz and black culture would be joined at the hip by writers such as Leroy Jones/Amiri Baraka and the musicians themselves, for whom “the man” was not just racist whites in general but those who had always controlled the music business.

Non-jazz free improvisation, what I’m calling sound improvisation, has avoided the expressiveness of jazz through instrumental timbre, moving instead towards the exploration of sound in all its possibilities. As timbre is analogous to color, the more recent direction has opened up the realm of shape, where the stigma against noise is threatened. As with standup comedians, heckling can even be incorporated, as I discovered even in the 80s. At the same time, to abandon the tradition of sound as timbre also disconnects the playing from some kinds of expression, such as rage and tenderness, which are rarely confused. Maybe some of my wailing with my leg-muted saxophone is personal wailing, traditional jazz-blues feeling, but in the context of all other sounds it loses such easily translated meaning. That’s fine with me; I’m not out to evoke an emotive response. And wherever the politics of this music lies—which would be glimpsed throughout my essays—it is not in the kind of emotive expression of classic free jazz, though it was once the core of my own playing.

Depersonalized sound, selected for the ear and not the identity of the player, is the major meeting point that free improvisation has with modern composition, its art-legitimated cousin in the weird music category. In the US it was John Cage who first found brake drums to have an interesting resonance and composed for them. Sound as an alterable component of music led to the prepared electric guitar in the 70s and by the late 90s to the widened range of electronic instruments by similarly individualized adaptations. Acoustic players developed what have been called “extended techniques,” misleading since it presupposes a fundamental technique one must first acquire, an assumption disproved by the many musicians who have bypassed the tradition. Non-jazz free players have no hesitation to attach foreign objects to their instruments to denature their sound, not unlike Adolphe Saxe, who conceived of instruments as potential hybrids. They also build new instruments to get beyond the sound identities of traditional manufactured ones, realizing the notion, long buried in 20th century avantgarde composition, that any sound at all can be shaped into music.

Our musical culture is being changed, and even those playing for facebook-only friends in rowhouse basements are a sign of it. There you will find material picked up in the room or the street, without any altering, is an instrument requiring skill–a piece of paper, a little dirt on the floor, the floor itself. The playful shifting of one’s weight that makes a wooden floor creak in just the right way requires skill that is off the music school charts, but a skill nonetheless. One can criticize and improve upon it, make it more textured, better timing next time. When a sound appears unintentionally it is craft ability that turns it into musical meaning for the sake of the whole. Experimentation (even in a performance situation) will lead to discrimination and will be based on individual aesthetic choice rather than post-facto musicological directive. This has brought with it a kind of “chance music” quite different than composer-controlled aleatorics, since objects not intended to be used as instruments tend to have a mind of their own. “Play” then refers also to its common meaning as leeway, like the bolt too small for the hole, which makes a sound when it’s jiggled.

The desire to push the instrument to its sound limits tempts the player to push her body to its limits, almost like an extreme sport. It is at the same time an incitement to inhabit and animate space, where all sound is experienced. The opening to physically move into the space as untrained dancers should be obvious—in sessions or performance–yet even those self-identified as unconventional aren’t aware of it. The fear of possibly losing some control over one’s instrument is too great for most to let their body find its movement, inspired by the music itself. Similarly to start singing spontaneously, letting words and syllables come, without it being consciously performative. Our social order, to which we are all active contributors, is so hungry for spontaneity that it must claim every evidence of it as part of its cultural program. All the rest is noise, what we don’t know what to do with. In another essay I suggest that if academics want to have a colloquium on free improvisation they should first spend fifteen minutes making sounds at will. How can that even be imagined?

More noise, spontaneity, roughness one won’t know what to do with is coming; the path is wide open. For now it is a lot just to relativize one’s instrumental sound and to experience it heterogeneously as one possible among many. And see what happens.

[1] Similarly, to have perfect pitch, the ability to give the letter name of any pitch one hears, is prized as an indication of musical superiority, a facility that would be useless in many cultures. Whereas relative pitch, to give the letter name after knowing that of a different pitch, can be widely trained, perfect pitch is not possible for everyone. It is a practical tool for the standard musician but its high value derives from seeming to be physiological, which could only be an arbitrary gift of the goddess of Music on special individuals at birth. As judge over the standards of Music, she blesses those she chooses for genius.

[2] Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in The Thousand Plateaus, 1987, p.302. They were probably referring to studio-produced gallery painting. Graffiti could be a challenge to this thesis, for although not so portable and ubiquitous as recorded music it approaches music in its social impact. It has required a massive effort of urban cultural authority to contain and legitimate it.

[3] It is hard to imagine today, when movement to music is considered benign and carries no social threat, but in the “Jazz Age” of the twenties, while the Victorian cultural voice was still strong and resistant, dance was contested turf, a moral issue and generational divide. Defenders of society saw new and contagious dance forms as bringing insurgent chaos right into the heart of the stable middle class. They were a kind of miscegenation, for the source of subversion was jazz and popular music, whose source was the lowest social caste, the Negro. Dance today is no threat to social order. What might be called freeform movement is contained as art performance; few would dare the ridicule of doing it on the dance floor.

[4] Duende, which through Garcia Lorca became a byword for the heights of musical and dance experience, was associated with modernism and is still not repudiated. It is specifically an achievement where all the performer’s best technique is abandoned. This rare act requires the highest degree of instrumental knowledge, attained through the tradition of training and mastery. This would challenge free players who are, after all, motivated to attain musical heights, but who think they can easily do so by making an end run around all aspects of the tradition. Duende plows right through the middle and takes the biggest risk of failure. Lorca’s discussion of it is in “Theory and Function of the Duende,” in The Poetics of the New American Poetry, ed. Donald Allen and Warren Tallman, New York, Grove Press, 1973.

[5] See


[6] In the brief period of the 60s and early 70s a handful of writers and musicians saw Free Jazz (“the new thing”) as allied with an assertive Black Culture in a critique of the Western concept of work and time. One of those, the white jazz musician Ben Sidran, in speaking of the black musician as a cultural hero, pointed out (this was in 1971, which may not hold today) that “Work within the world of black culture was quite a different proposition [than working the day job for the white man]; a musician’s work is his play…Somewhat in contrast to the tenets of Western Puritan tradition and to the demands of industrial society, the black culture was defining work as pleasure rather than as service, duty, or obligation.”(Black Talk: How the Music of Black America Created a Radical Alternative to the Vaues of Western Literary Tradition, Da Capo Press, NY, p.38)

[7] In conversation with a Southerner I often feel magnetically pulled into their way of speaking, their sound. (That the drawl is contagious is a general phenomenon, with causes not specific to me.) Not wishing to mock them or to betray the selfhood expressed in my own, Northern accent, I will exercise conscious control to prevent myself from drawling, like the straight unwilling to give up straightness. Contrariwise, I am best able to speak and understand a foreign language when I can slip into the body gestures and persona of the nationality that speaks it. It is an act of either refused or chosen assimilation to the kind of aural space the other creates.

[8] Part of the truth-effect of prose writing is the illusion of stability, that whatever one says at the moment of publication holds good for all time. This is, alas, betrayed by change. Unhindered by the absoluteness of the sentence in the text and spurred by fellow sax player Bryan Eubanks, I began exploring the sound of soprano sax held against the head of a large tom drum and now wonder if I don’t need to schlepp a drum along with two horns.

[9] The distinction between music, as culturally determined limit, and musicality comes from hearing, and still digesting, a fascinating talk by philosopher Lydia Goehr on Walter Pater’s famous “All art aspires to the condition of music” (meaning that it unifies subject matter and form, purged of every meaning other than itself ). Pater was not really referring to his musical culture, which would elevate it above the other arts, but rather Music, Greek Mousike, the realm of the Muses to which even music was believed to aspire, but which painting (for Pater) more likely achieves. Mousike is difficult to define, especially since the explosion of musical possibility in the 20th century, and I would tentatively use the word “musicality” as a translation. Free playing then would be the search for an elusive musicality apart from its known forms, which endow music with pre-established meanings. (Not to be confused with the “meaning” of meaninglessness.) Goehr said her talk was basically taken from “Music has no Meaning to Speak of: On the Politics of Musical Interpretation,” in Michael Krausz, ed., The Interpretation of Music: Philosophical Essays, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1993).

[10] In 1965 Irving Howe, cultural critic and Old Left critic of the early counterculture, satirized this expansion in “New Styles of Leftism”: “So when a new sensation…is provided by the shock troops of culture, the sophisticated middle class responds with outrage, resistance, and anger—for upon these initial responses its pleasure depends. But then, a little later it rolls over like a happy puppy dog on its back, moaning, ‘Oh, baby épatez me again, harder this time, tell me what a sterile impotent louse I am…’” p. 260 in Beyond the New Left, Irving Howe ed., McCall, NY, 1970 (“épatez” roughly translates as scandalize and offend. It is what Modern Art was earlier accused of doing, the very art that Howe himself appreciated.)

[11] One of the major projects of Michel Foucault was to show that the formation of the prison, the hospital, the school, and military training was a unified, concerted effort at disciplining the body, beginning in the early Modern period and extending into the 20th century. I would include the orchestra as another such institution, whose soldiers or inmates were and still are the model professional musician, trained to control the instrument and to be controlled by the orchestra hierarchy. The breakdown of the discipline-oriented society more recently has allowed other notions of instrument learning to develop and even become somewhat validated. This expanded, modernized version of the professional might be, in Foucauldian terms, a self-confinement, since the very concept of the professional implies limits of the culturally permissible, now self-policed rather than disciplined by the orchestra-based training program.

[12] It was in preparing for a presentation at a University of Alabama course in “Sound Culture,” offered by saxophonist Andrew Raffo Dewar, that I began to reflect on the relation of sound, music and the large sweep of historical change, a topic I would love to pursue further.

[13] Anne Douglas, Terrible Honesty, Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s, (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, NY, 1995), which covers far more than the 20s and has major sections on musical development, though linked with the wider culture, thankfully, and not treated as an isolated music-history narrative.

[14] This is a point made by Jacques Attali in Noise, The Political Economy of Music from the perspective of the 70s, looking back on the period of struggle of black free jazz musicians for economic and artistic independence. Their failure led to a diaspora out of New York in particular, the winding down of the scene by 1982, and the dependence of many of the most committed players on elite colleges for day jobs. Unfortunately this is overlooked in John Corbett’s Extended Play, Sounding Off from John Cage to Dr. Funkenstein, 1994, which, favoring its inclusion in the postmodern smorgasborg of the 90s, ignores the political aspect of free jazz and the musicological reasons for its distinction from more “accessible” musics.