While a “piece” of music has a beginning, middle and end, this structure would have to be imposed on free playing, imagined where it does not exist. Free playing starts and later stops but it cannot be said to have a beginning, and so lacks the other narrative elements as well. This lack is usually more evident in a session than in performance, for the performance ritual seems to necessitate the narrative illusion, compelling the musicians, in order to have their music understood as performance, to adapt to what they know is expected and structure the playing as a narrative, however rudimentary. At times the session is (mis)construed as a rehearsal, so that layers import this structure unnecessarily. A recording is similar, for musicians can assume that if they are recording for later reproduction there will be listeners expecting a standard form, such that each track is coded as a narrative. One common sign of this is that each track has a different “feel” to it, much as jazz records often alternate energetic and slow tracks for variety. Furthermore, this structure is what enables critical discourse and the hierarchy of judgment. One can only reasonably apply descriptive adjectives, the core of journalistic/promotional language, when each piece is so structured, and reasonably different one from another.

The question for me is, does musical meaning necessarily depend on this narrative form? In the session it does not have to, so can it be eliminated in public as well? The problem is that in sessions improvisers have a widely duplicated model that when carried to the stage has become generally acknowledged as what listeners can expect. The form is to start quiet and sparse (“dribble in”), crescendo and become more dense, and then get quiet again, the sign that their allotted time is up. The listeners, thinking it a piece of music, take these moments as the narrative form and complain, since they are looking for creative form, and don’t hear it within the playing.

There is something correct about the complaint, though not for this reason. Improvisers themselves adopt this form without thinking, assuming this is the best way to be connected to one another, and so will break the ice gradually rather than beginning more forcefully. The assumption is that to create too great a contrast between the everyday time that precedes and musical time that follows would be the bold act of a singular individual and not the group. Like the first soldier to leap out of the trenches, he is presumably signifying that he wants to get the soloist medal. The others then can only follow in his footsteps, which is as demeaning as the bold act is hierarchical, and taboo. What improvisers prefer is to all go together, disguising their move by making it as undramatic as possible.

However, a more noticeable beginning need not be a bid for dominance in the group or for the spotlight, nor an adjustment to the demand of the performance ritual for an “interesting” piece. It need not be a matter of volume or density, nor set the pace in that direction. There is no necessary “pace” of an improvisation, players are not obliged to relate to each other by call and response, leading and following. If one merely starts rather than begins a piece, then the starting sound(s) or gesture can be anything at all to break the silence, and can be followed by a silence that is interpreted musically and not socially (as a failure to gain commitment from the others). The moves of the others follow only in time, with musically chosen timing, not as if the path has been laid out. What the other(s) do can be as dissimilar as possible, as if the first player were on another planet, in contradiction to her factual presence. Free playing does not need to eliminate such contradictions, as it so often does, it can raise them to the highest extreme. That is my preference, and I believe extreme free playing has a possibility of communicating something very different from its more moderate versions.

Here is the central paradox: the more players try to listen closely and fit their playing to the group, the more the music becomes a conventional piece of music and loses the full advantages of improvisation. To follow the group model, often perceived as the communal ethic of free playing, is intended to create greater connection between the players but actually it is only a connection between fearful and self-weakened players. The so-called strength of free playing, its egalitarianism, levels the music down to the lowest common denominator, silencing players who have more eccentric musical ideas rather than spurring others to come out with their wildest fantasies. The mistaken idea is that the ill-fitting move is necessarily competitive—it can be, but it can also be a sideways step outside the consensual group that causes a healthy disruption.

Free improvisation should open beyond the consensual ethic often assumed of it. It should be a space not for followers but for bold spirits strong enough to incite and counter-incite each other, all of us stepping outside, a collectivity that moves not into the arms of safety but where we don’t know what can happen next, playing on the edge of disaster. That’s where “serious music” provokes its greatest burst of laughter.

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