Are there criteria for improvisation? I can only stake out my own, recognizing that their horizon has expanded and shifted, and may well do so in the future. My essential criterion is that every detail is necessary, not to the whole, as in composition and structured improvisation, but to the sequence of events. This means that everything is chosen, and what appears by accident or impulse is incorporated, adjusted to, shaped–noise that is transformed into signal. Chosen does not mean conscious as against unconscious but the working of the two together and not resisting each other. Instinctive, unconscious expression is what a newborn does in crying. It is not learned, has not yet been affected by conscious shaping to desired effect. It is noise, about which I have no negative opinion, since I can hear it as music. This means to hear the form, hear how every detail is necessary to be what it is, yet it does not make the baby the creator of music any more than the trucks pounding up the hill outside my window. I myself create noise, when I do the dishes for instance, and can turn a switch in my head and hear it as music. This might transform my activity from something strictly and purposefully efficient (though no doubt shaped by my personal style) to purposefully musical and less efficient, as I am drawn in as creator. If I move then to the saxophone I might continue in the same vein, not in imitation but perhaps following the rhythm and timbre of dishwashing. Similarly, I can be drawn in by a beginning saxophonist’s tone, hear it as music, and continue it in my own playing as best I can, working that tone, exaggerating and in a friendly way mocking it, contrasting it with “good tone,” abstracting it from its source. What the beginner may be striving to overcome and discard, I pick up as noise that can be utilized as a musical sound source.

It would be ingenuous for me to call the above “my” aesthetic, if that would imply acceptance that it was mine personally and equivalent to others. If it were equivalent to others then I could easily exchange it, whereas to assert it, which is to assert that my playing is music, is to interfere with other viewpoints and not account them as equals. There is a general belief, derived from the marketplace of individual aesthetics, that one should not assert one’s aesthetic beyond the strict perimeter of one’s own creative work. One’s aesthetic is only right for the individual; once arrived at it is a match to the person, in an extension of the Romantic legacy of the genius artist and the concept of the personality. One is not to interfere with another’s aesthetic, just as the protection of my political “view” is guaranteed by the barrier around it. Every assertion of universal value beyond the particular is valid as promotion; the potential purchaser finds a match with the aesthetic and buys into it.

It should be obvious that things don’t work this way. One’s expressions on these questions are the result of developmental interplay with others. What I am looking for in improvisation, and the distinction between music and noise, comes as the result of influence as well as resistance, both of which are the result of my accidental encounter and seeking out challenges to what I am frustrated with in myself. An aesthetic can be a viewpoint I hold by force of expression, which today is expected to mark the self-determined artist. Or I can hold it by force of reason, in which case it might have a different kind of appeal and persuasive power than a marketplace item. To argue for my aesthetic might threaten some, but at the same time I enter the arena where I might be persuaded by others. To assert my criteria as universal invites resistance and criticism, which requires of me elaboration and greater precision or else serious modification. As universally true it is not my property but everyone’s potential thought, and so is more permeable and flexible than if I assert it as the mark of the self-determined artist, whose right and obligation it is to ignore other viewpoints.

Yet I do not consider my criterion of improvisation, in which each detail is necessary and present to the player’s musical understanding and choice, as the basis for valuation of “good music.” If I follow my criterion I play simply music and not good music; I could care less if it were good. The goodness or badness of music refers to the result, and to focus on results is a distraction from the musical project of improvisation. To assert that my music is good is to place it on a scale of comparative judgment with other music, and I don’t make music with the thought that it is or will be judged better than that of others. I even separate the making of music from later judgment, such that usually I leave to others the choice of what is included in a recording. “Good” must engage what others judge as good—to this extent logical positivism has got it right—and in practical terms those others are the most prominent music world institutions of one’s assigned musical category. If one considers one’s music good and those institutions do not, then one is speaking only as a self-promoter, who is expected to believe in one’s product. This chain of reasoning escapes me; I do not believe or disbelieve in my product, even if from time to time I can imagine a category of people who will think my music “good.”

By listening to valued saxophonists I have some idea of what is “good,” and when I listen for those qualities in my own recorded playing I can only say that I am not a very good saxophonist. When I do hear those qualities I recognize that in those moments I was distracted, not immersed in the music but fearful that my playing was not interesting to the audience, and I felt I must throw in something they would identify as good playing. This creates a dilemma in performance, for I present myself as a serious musician, and musicians are supposed to communicate with an audience. Yet what I choose to play, which I know from private playing, clashes with what audiences shaped by “serious music” institutions want to hear. All music is assertive, including my own, yet the manner of assertion tends to fall into culturally determined and coded categories. Each category transcends the individual, such that it is rare for one to establish oneself as sui generis. In one’s truly private playing one digs deep into the critical task of finding one’s precise need and pleasure and escapes the work life of the functional musician, who needs to utilize private talent to please others. Outside that functionality one is sui generis, the genius of oneself and perhaps of value to no one else, so it would be a mistake to consider one’s playing of value at all.

This adds a new layer to the “free” of improvisation: free of value. To learn how one is evaluated—through judgments one receives in the course of a musician’s business life—is functional knowledge of where one stands in the world, but is of no benefit for the work itself.

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