Revised March 5, 2014.

Last October I put a new solo improvisation on my soundcloud page: https://soundcloud.com/jackwright/october-2013-alto-sax-solo. For a description I wrote: “The rule is, never underestimate the listener, never hesitate to offer something because you cannot imagine anyone appreciating it. You never know if the gap you imagine between your private enthusiasm and the other’s desire is just paranoia and fear of rejection. With whose ears does the musician hear his or her own music? Do our ears really belong to us privately?”

The “you” here is the musician who wonders if a recording is suitable to present to an audience and is at the point of discarding it. (And I use “musician” not as an honorable title but just anyone who plays music.) This moment of decision is common, for musicians normally incorporate artistic standards into their playing without knowing what they are, yet they must choose. Not all their recordings can be produced for distribution—there is neither the time nor the will to do so–and no one gets to perform today without recordings, which are seen to represent the musician. One’s standards are thought to eliminate poor examples of one’s performance and so operate as a form of caution. Doubt is most likely to enter the process when musicians somehow forget their role, their standards, and potential audience, recording without thinking they will ever release it. Purposely or accidentally a private space is created, protected by the thought that no one will ever hear this but themselves, a space of private searching without the complications of a public musical persona, which at least professional musicians carry around. Private exploration engages the frustration with one’s own solidity and representation, the drive to escape what one knows all too well. If it were couched as experimental improvisation the task would be: How far can I go not to be the musical self I know myself to be? What will please me as I’ve never been pleased before?

This then would be the most extreme form of free playing, where the musician is distanced from any pre-formed, ruling conception of “good music,” either general (idiomatic) or individual.

The “you” I have addressed is the player, yet in publishing this I am also purposely making it available to any reader-listener—another “you.” I’m encouraging you to put yourself in the position of the musician, rather than on the receiving side of the role division, as you are probably inclined to do. In doing this I am pointing you towards a more collaborative way of listening, a different consciousness, where we recognize our dependence on each other and can experience the music together. For the listener to perceive the situation of the improvising player is to hear with new ears and somewhat escape the passivity of the consumer. More obviously than with visual art and writing, music tends to be something we work together to make. Of all musics, improvisation (“just playing”) best exemplifies this, for without a score the player has the option to relate directly to the audience. This is true of a recording as well, where the musician imagines the listener’s presence, and inevitably gives that image some kind of content. The player listening back to a recording must confront the fact that there is no way to know what will be your reaction, and yet he or she must decide: should I let others hear this or not? What you listeners easily ignore is that the only recordings you get to hear are those the musicians have signed off on. And just maybe, the musicians are not the best judges of what you need to hear, in which case you would do well to ask them, “What do you not want us to hear?”

The questions I raise concern free, unstructured improvisation in particular:The question is:::: what happens when you listen back to something whose form you did not intend at the outset? This is like an everyday experience you reflect on, one that managed to fall outside of routine. You were playing one sound after another, paying attention or maybe not, nevertheless leaving structure—continuities and discontinuities–in your wake. Listening back, you don’t get the satisfaction of hearing a plan realized, for you did not establish its contours and parameters beforehand. In composing pre-structures you wouldn’t face this dilemma so squarely. You would have the luxury of infinite time, which seduces you into projecting into a presumed audience what you think they would like. “I don’t care what anyone thinks” is not an option. That is said to typify the autonomous artist but has never been an honest statement; even high modernist composers cared intensely for the approval of the “expert listener” (their close associates). The “anyone” is a fantasized rejection one is trying to escape; once posited it inevitably shapes the music and can easily create the rejection it presumes. But it must please some listening subject; music is not made without the fantasy of someone present or absent (perhaps God, History, the ancestors) with their ears cocked for pleasure.

Instead of the composer, who structures music in advance, in your private improvisational space you had been walking around blind, with only your own useless, pleasure-seeking intuition to guide you. Immersed in the playing you may have done things you had learned not to do, what you thought an audience would judge as negative, and you had always agreed to censor. You can get away with this by ignoring it. Listening back, however, puts you in the same seat of judgment that belongs to the creator of pre-structures, with time to think of negative reactions and with you holding the sanctioning power to prevent others from hearing it. You are then one listener among many, sharing the shoes of the listener who would also judge it. Since the sum of your musical judgments will contribute to how you make your way in the music world, you have a personal stake in your moment of judgment.

“Yes, I did play this, but it was for private amusement. It isn’t the best, and I don’t want it to represent me.” But in free playing can that distinction be made in all honesty? Can you discard what you have not tried to do well? It is not even structured by your special way of playing, the idiolect you have come to be comfortable with. Nor were you trying to escape your idiolect; it was simply irrelevant. You have not had the chance to get used to it and are in the position of possibly not liking what you hear. It can be off your own mark of good music, as if someone else has made this music and wants to stick your name on it, arousing your spirit of self-defense and ownership. If you feel your job as musician is to make something people will appreciate then in this case you are marooned on a private island, self-accused of self-indulgence, the charge that supposedly separates the good from the bad improviser.

Indeed this might be the initial reaction of horror and alienation. Yet it is necessary to clear the decks of self-congratulation (“I’ve done some great shit here…”) to make room for the next, tantalizing thought: what if those other listeners sitting beside you are sick of musicians pandering to their supposed taste and would prefer being somewhat uncomfortable? What if some part of them is tired of hearing you play your usual stuff? What if it’s not “a stellar performance” by a “master musician”? “Never underestimate the listener” encourages the thought—or counter-fantasy, if you will—of people who might well be programmed to accept or reject the music according to certain engrained ideas, but who are somehow drawn into what might make them uncomfortable or uncertain. As uncomfortable as those who are playing it, or releasing it without their full confidence.

An aside that is not so aside: By now we are outside the usual concept of the artist, and stepping into a way of thinking just beginning to appear. If technology leads the way, as Walter Benjamin might have considered, it will give the dominant concepts of art and artist a run for their money. Digital technology has allowed anyone who take photographs to become a “photographer,” snapping a ton of pictures and videos and displaying them on their facebook pages, etc. just as any artist would. Similar technology has enabled people who play music, formerly confined to the caste of “musicians,” to record everything they do as if it were all “music.” This includes field recordings while walking down the street, which then get patched willy-nilly into a performance that evening, inventing skills unknown to serious musicians. This makes obsolete the “master musician” as a title that precedes and frames one’s performance, like the trumpet blast announcing the king. Who is the king without the announcement? Musical experience is emancipated from the projection, guarded by expert judgment of the artist and music world, that one will appreciate it. What if art is what I don’t know to be art until I do it or hear it? The artist might be one whose judgment is considered non-existent, which is a reasonable definition after all, given the history of art criticism.

Speaking for myself, I have been engaged in two different but related moments of alienation. The first appeared mostly in the past. While playing a solo in certain public circumstances I would become apprehensive, and imagine listeners who were displeased and judging against me. The urge would pop up to do something that would convince them, perhaps a display of technical brilliance, such as fast arpeggios, that would confirm my traditional playing skills. To act on that thought—even the awareness that I’d allowed myself to be distracted by it—would cut into me like a knife and alienate me, making me ashamed of myself. The way out was my experience and prior awareness of this syndrome, the reminder that even fear can be plowed back into the music, making the music affirmative and bold rather than defensive. Joy in playing depends on staying as close as possible to the musical thread of what I’m doing, and that is a choice I can make.

The second alienation is the current one I speak of above, when I listen back to something I’ve done in a private space and I think, “Why not?” My image of what listeners would prefer (“good music”) comes to slap me in the face as an automatic rejection. Among my responses to this is to imagine listeners who have a perverse pleasure, avid for what has escaped my supposedly better judgment, a self-assertion on their part. They want to be allowed to make sense of what I as musician have not censored. It may start with our mutual contradiction: why do I like this in spite of myself? Inviting me into their shoes, this listener can hear the improvisation as what I never intended, a song that bears rehearing in order to “get” it. In spite of the fact that I have not consciously limited myself to a tonality, a selection of techniques, or a theme, they can see I am hammering away at something. There might even be some kind of rage going on here; it isn’t coded as rage so what could it be about? Just as the prejudiced judge seduces me into rejecting my playing, as “merely” self-indulgent, so this judge seduces me into hearing it as music. As I say, this listener is imagined, but so is any listener. Why should I deny this one for the sake of the other?

Listening and working together with this imagined listener creates a world beyond the so-called factual world of calculable success, where I make this and you buy (into) it. It turns playing into music, which can only be a shared experience, in this case emancipatory. If “the public” is what the music world selects and imagines it to be, determining what playing is to be validated as music, then independent musicians must imagine their own “public,” and work together with it as a collectivity.

The down to earth function of this work in the sphere of imagination is not to pat me on the back but rather to send me back to more playing. This is “the infinite game,” as James P. Carse calls it: the point is to play in such a way as to keep the game from coming to an end, as does the finite game, with its winners and losers. An artwork, such as this improvisation I’ve recorded, has come to an end somewhat arbitrarily, it is not an end in itself. It continues through the impetus it gives to the next time of playing, the next alienation, and the next collective celebration when “just playing” turns into “music.”

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