“I’m not being creative until I don’t know what I’m doing” [Hal Galper at the Jazz Bridge Piano Series Dec. 2010 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I5YWHuDI1zg ]

It makes practical sense for musicians to speak of musical genres, since that is how the music world categorizes us. Before we are assigned a hierarchical position of relative value we are sorted into a category, a labeled store aisle with competing branded products. Our category (for myself it might be “experimental improvisation”) often determines who will lend us their ears and on what terms we will be judged. Thus the category is involved practically in where and for whom we get to play and the reward structure. For instance no jazz club will hire an “experimental improviser,” who will be referred to a venue more appropriate to that category. And the more familiar the category the more clear it will be where one belongs. We musicians may not think in terms of playing a genre, yet we’re called back to one or another category (including that of the advertised “genre-defying”) by the practicalities of the world we must deal with. To play “within” a certain genre and be identified as such gains the benefits of a predisposed audience and easily learned and repeated tropes. One must to relate in some way to the history of that genre and to those whom the sales charts, media and academia have determined to be prominent, treated as figures that represent it to audiences. In this system that creates partitions within “music” and among musicians, it is assumed that anyone at all playing music is attempting to represent one genre or another, and can be judged accordingly.

Genre relates to the experience of listeners, but especially that of consumers. “Listener” is a more amorphous category, overlapping but not concentric with consumers. Comparable to art collectors, record collectors are consumers but not inclined to prick up their ears at whatever they hear, a quality of listeners.  Collectors are closely governed by genre boundaries and are dependent on genre stability, the hierarchy of players within it, and specialized knowledge. On the other hand, internet access has yielded the rise of listeners, who explore whimsically far outside stable consumer genres and at the expense of consumer purchase, professional musician livelihood, and the earlier business mode.

While a music genre is a commercial label directing consumers to a record bin, it is the specific within a general distribution of sound: first, what is and is not music, and then the boundaries within music that determine what musical meanings are legitimately assigned to what musical producers. The existence of a distribution system of genres is presupposed in defining what signifier—the simple sound/silence–is to be perceived as a pattern and assigned to a particular signified—a musical meaning. That link is crucial to the identity of a genre: to play a certain way means this rather than that label, the public meaning and the basis of any discussion.

As a function of now-globalized western culture, “music” is the sum of all the genres and the work of conscious creation; sound outside of music is noise and the unconscious, the barbarian at the gates. As it was for the Roman Empire, the boundary of civilized and barbarian may appear solid as a wall but is constantly under pressure and negotiation. Genres are applications of standardized codes to empirical reality, and so over time, as musicians freely explore untested ideas and put them on the market, genres are threatened with destabilization. Indeed, the representation of the genre “at its most creative level” is where it begins to escape the genre, a seeming paradox, yet part of the logic of innovation vital to market dynamics. A genre is either “innovative,” supposedly resisting its own boundaries, or else it becomes classicized and dependent on a consumer group with a nostalgic bent and an in-group social dynamic holding it loyal. The latter can also be promoted as educational, not far from the “getting hip” motif of mainstream liberal culture, which requires the stability and constructed historical certitude of genre boundaries.

Free playing, on the other hand, is an activity and not a matter of genre categorization, including the fundamental one of music/noise. It refers to the experience of playing and not how it is marked and distinguished after the fact. It is not even fully intentional, since intention usually implies an expected output, whereas setting up a meeting for free playing only opens the door. If music is that which is judged to be music, and jazz, free jazz, and free improvisation are preliminarily judged to fit their respective categories, then free playing falls outside, for it is playing prior to any terms of judgment. It is outside the partitions of music and not merely a genre presently unfamiliar to audiences, which someday will be known and accepted. A genre is one among the many, where the existence of the other determines the one. Free playing is the many before they are assigned a home as this or that one.

The kind of playing I refer to here is not the game, with given rules, but aesthetic experience. This category also would include most objects framed as art, although for some, for instance didactic and ethically correct contemporary art, the aesthetic experience is of minor significance, used merely to entice the spectator to accept the artist’s message. The one who plays, the subject, is not a musician or artist but simply a player. The “artist” is a specific figure, an idealized abstraction; “player” is simply one way to speak of the human being, homo ludens (playing) alongside homo faber (maker). “Musician” and “artist” are titles, social roles for those with a recognized knowledge and skill sufficient to produce music and art. Players are going after their own aesthetic experience, often shared; they leave any title they hold at the door. To think in terms of usefulness, of rehearsing for a performance, even of expanding one’s knowledge, only gets in the way. If one follows the Anglo-American tradition of utilitarianism, which divides life activities into functional and dysfunctional, free playing would be the latter.

Play goes beyond sound or other activity considered artistic; one can play sitting quietly in the corner, making no ostensible movement. As aesthetic experience rather than an “active” activity, one can appear externally as a spectator yet be fully part of the playing, perhaps on the verge of activity. The distinguishing feature is radical not-knowing, and not-anticipating specifically what might come next. It is based on the faculty of imagination–what can be but is not yet. The player does not care what it will mean, how it will be taken, or where it will go. Playing is not artistic experiment, which aims at the artwork or performance, but surprise. The excitement is a kind of fear of what might happen, of developing knowledge that will be found to be useless, what escapes the category of art, which can happen without even noticing it. The players might have extensive knowledge of the culturally given links between the signifiers and signified–the sounds and their musical meaning—but they ignore them as irrelevant.

While contemporary art turns to the everyday, with the command to “use everything,” free playing is not done for anything else, is not used to create an artwork but is its own end. The aim is to keep the playing going, such that any ending is arbitrary, dependent more on purposeful activities and needs than even exhaustion. It threatens to extend beyond the period of time chosen for it. Taken as an object free playing is indeterminate, and the player abandons any effort to determine its meaning and effect. It is motivated without a telos, a goal used to determine whether the aim has been reached, and how well it has been accomplished. Unlike entrepreneurial activity, the motivation is self-fulfilling, fulfilled before it is begun, circular. It is neither life nor art, but has a tenuous relation with both. All this may sound like an idealization, but it is an accurate description for those who actually do it on a regular basis.

It is possible to play in front of those who do not think of themselves as playing, usually called spectators at an event called a performance, framed as a presentation of music. Without intending to be understood players lack both a strategy for “reaching” an audience and any certainty of response through a common understanding of what they are doing. They cannot resolve for others or for themselves the question of whether what happens is good or bad, whether it has meaning or whether it is just sounds in the air. The question from non-playing listeners, “what is your motivation?” is perfectly in order, for they commonly assume that musicians possess and even embody the “will-to-art,” that no one is truly an artist who does not intend to get across some meaning. This has negative implications for the reward structure built into each genre, for without displaying the will-to-art the justification for paying someone is lacking. A more positive version of this would be that free playing undermines the position of the master musician and of the entrepreneurial effort and goal to market musical meaning.

Regardless of musician intentions, free jazz and free improvisation are the specific genres of music understood as expressions of free playing. In this essay I will deal only with free jazz, which in contrast to Europe is the recognized title under which free improvisation is subsumed in the US. For instance, I will tell promoters my music is free improvisation, and give them some music to listen to that has no trace of the jazz idiom, but they will inevitably promote it as “free jazz.” The real deal–idiomatic free jazz– is firmly linked with the now fully legitimated history of jazz, its heroic forms, arpeggios, its distinct combination of sophistication and roughness. It is presented as an extension of original Free Jazz of the sixties, in fact some players advertise themselves as the true defenders of the jazz spirit. But despite some overlap with the past, contemporary free jazz is its own historical entity, with origins in the late 80s, and with boundaries far more demarcated than what originally went under its name.

As with many other genres considered marginal, contemporary free jazz is coming out of the underground and getting its place in the sun, not only in academia but in public presence. It is however being funded and rebranded as “experimental jazz” for middle class consumption (in Philadelphia, via NPR). It is then categorized under the wing of jazz as its established “outer” edge but not a challenge to it, as earlier Free Jazz was. The hope and expectation is that it will gain the publicity benefits of jazz as a classicized and stable musical form, America’s contribution to world culture, sign of the equality of the races, creativity, challenge to conventional taste, and other such promotional motifs.

Despite the careful elision of “free” in “experimental jazz,” the identity is strongly articulated, partly because its historical progenitor in the sixties still lies in the background.  Wynton Marsalis and the filmmaker Ken Burns had good reason to exclude it from the jazz canon. Its emotionality, however stylized, touches on noise and threatens the stability of form that jazz has achieved. Given the strong identity and commitment, there are few borderline cases or crossovers, compared to Europe, where some players might slip into and out of the free jazz idiom depending on the performance situation. The name calls forth specific musicians and consumers, people who will not deny the jazz tradition, but will affirm free jazz as its extension. It also follows the pattern and tradition of the career jazz musician, who struggles for a place of legitimacy in the world through a music at least tinged with a resistant stance against its other, so-called mainstream music, as jazz once did. “Mainstream” conjures up the image of easily pleasured, conformist masses, whatever lacks a “cutting edge.” The long-established means of identifying what one does as art is to distinguish it from so-called “popular music” that is made for people who supposedly “do what they’re told,” the conventional philistine. As I suggest above, now the philistine is being told to take “experimental jazz” seriously. Compared to the response to the recent John Cage Centennial (another re-branding in the name of experimental art), audiences might well fall in line, for the jazz imprimatur weighs far heavier on the gutsiness scale.

As with any genre, musical meaning in free jazz is socialized. It follows a code known and recognized by a specific collectivity, a very small demographic, including of course the musicians, who are expected to communicate in that code. Such meaning isn’t literal, but a series of breathless fast runs that do not fit a harmonic scheme, plus drums and bass played heavily without strict time, a lyrical line that is not a repeated or sing-able melody, is a pattern and meaning that would be catalogued as free jazz. If today it were truly to embody the conflicted heritage of the sixties Free Jazz movement, as it seems to be claiming, then it would come close to the approach of free playing, which was how players then experienced what they were doing. (European-based free  improvisation, denying any idiomatic identity, makes a more explicit claim to be grounded in free playing, but I will deal with that elsewhere.) The statements musicians made at the time (for instance the bold writing on the back of albums), and those of advocates like the late Amiri Baraka, do not indicate a genre identity but an adventure in which the players did not know where they were going. “Free Jazz” or alternately Black Avantgarde Jazz was a wide open field, different tomorrow from today. It reflected the utopian spirit of the times, the belief that the world could be turned around, that real, actual, fundamental change was actually happening through their music. That meaning of avantgarde might see further than the mass but did think they would end up as a genre. It was a movement, and like all movements it came to an end for various reasons, whereas the category of free jazz is not expected to change, in fact by all appearances its players resist internal challenge.

Despite genre boundaries, the claim to be playing freely is essential to free jazz, reflecting a feeling of exuberance and immediate presence in performance rather than following a score. As such it is claimed more widely as well. The quote at the head of this essay would indicate that a musician well-credentialed as a jazz pianist, Hal Galper, also considers the essence of his approach to be that of free playing. There is then a contradiction at the heart of any genre with a claim to being essentially improvised in the moment, and a contradiction is something that goes against the grain, potentially destabilizing it.

The free playing situation, as I’ve suggested earlier, opens the door to a radical individuality of meaning, a disjuncture from what has been socialized and understood. The individuality is not that of the specific player but is implicit in every moment of playing. It has something ascetic about it, for the individual turns away from the pleasures of repeating cultural givens for the sake of pleasure he and she does not yet know but only imagines. One attempts to uncover for oneself the range of the possible, and not only for that person alone, nor for other “experimental improvisers,” but for all who play. This is the contemporary version of the autonomous subject, not at all defeated by the postmodern turn but still alive and well wherever people trust their individual exploration and aesthetic experience.

Taken to be the work of a specific figure, the free player, and not the human situation of playing freely, this approach will be doomed to failure and illusion, for it can be deconstructed as inescapably social. Even known, supposedly heretical figures, such as free improviser or free jazz musician, suppress the possibility of free playing as an activity and motivation. Figuration establishes the place for everything and everything in its place. As soon as one re-presents the result of private experiment to others, meaning begins to be constructed, and encases the player in a web of determinations, as if that is what they were seeking all along. There is no such thing as a private music any more than there is a private language. Yet in the moment of performance (which of course can be a private recording), when despite the players’ intention their private exploration of meaningless sound turns into musical meaning, they are at the point of challenge to the given, more readily understood meaning. As with a critical politics, one publicly raises doubts—dissent–about how things can be understood and suggests another view, unrealistic from the viewpoint of the given. It is not an argument however, as politics is usually framed, but a suggestion: “Try this.” The suggestion occurs as a moment indistinguishable from the moment the players are trying it for themselves. Unlike the scenario expected of the expert and acclaimed musician, they are not doing something they know how to do but precisely what they have no prior knowledge of.

This is where “in the moment” gains its significance, if removed from its usual promotional context. Free playing does not offer itself as spontaneously arising out of a mind innocently unaware of what it is doing. It is fully aware that only at this moment, the supreme dividing line of what is and is not comprehended as music, does new meaning come into the world. The world is other but not outside. When a player says that at some point there has to be an audience, this can mean just one person, who will embody the social in its full potential, and together they create new meaning. Even though there are no buyers, no supportive venues, no grants available, there can be listeners. To assert that one musician and one listener constitute the world will seem ludicrous, hyperbolic and self-important to those who operate in terms of the music world, but it is inherent in free playing when it is offered. The doors are open on both sides of the stage, no code has been written, all are invited to write it together. And propelled into the next moment, they can leave it behind.