Free improvisation is the title for a very small-scale music genre, most often identified in the UK, where its history began in the late sixties, and in Europe. There it is frequently described as “non-idiomatic” and distinct from jazz-based music, to which it has historical affinities. The genre has a number of professional musicians who play under that title and are thought to represent it. In North America however free improvisation is not well known, or merged with structured improvisation and composed experimental music, and no professionals play it exclusively. Given its lack of promise in the music world, those dedicated to it are not oriented to the conventional career, yet there is a considerable network of players in this category, which has grown considerably in the last twenty years, not just in numbers of players but in locations around the continent where it is welcomed.

To distinguish the approach of these players from the historical genre and the hierarchy of professionals, I have been calling it “free playing,” though the public title that players use would still be “free improvisation.” They (we) typically engage in sessions, where we are intent on what is happening moment to moment and not seeking to fulfill what “music” should sound like, not even to come up with something we will listen back to and find interesting. It might lead to an ability to play an attractive solo but is not aimed at it, nor to expand the codes of known music. It would be of greatest interest to those who are bored with those codes or were never interested in learning them in the first place. In becoming trained musicians we think we are learning the code, but in free playing we discover aspects we didn’t notice. For instance, proper musicians are supposed to play sounds and rests, but in free playing we know that if we feel obliged to play it is not part of any instruction, merely a personal anxiety.

This approach poses the personal question, do I want to make music according to my idea of it or do it as directly as possible? In the second case musical ideas are allowed to flow from one another without the mediation of judgment. We first of all to discover our interest for ourselves and gradually we come to trust our movements, such that if and when we do perform we can resist the pressure to please others, as musicians are trained to do, and merely continue our self-trusting movement in front of them. Without the sheet or idea of music between us and a live audience we are more exposed and at the same time closer to them. Audiences expect us to deliver what we have prepared, “our music” and we don’t know what that is until we play it, so we are freeing them of their expectations. Of course, some might complain, yet others welcome this experience and want to talk about it.

It sounds like an ideal situation for players but it’s somewhat deceptive, for we soon discover there are hidden parameters—the range of technique and material we bring to the table, our experience and flexibility in using them, the specific others we play with, the acoustic situation, and above all our self-consciousness. Most free playing explores sound rather than pitch relations; if the latter, any sequence that recalls the codes of normative music is avoided. If we lack skills beyond the facility to reproduce conventional instrumental sound and music patterns then we will be largely limited to them. Frustration sends us back to private work to explore instruments in ways we haven’t imagined. Our relation to others is very different from that of score-based music, since we lack that protective mediation and are directly confronted with the other. Like ourselves the other can do literally anything at all, including something we think is obnoxious. This frees us to do what we have been trained not to do, yet these things provide a certain security which is difficult to abandon.

We relax any sense of achievement in what we’ve acquired, paradoxically, in order for our technique and musical ideas to be fully available to us in an unself-conscious way. The most experienced player is the one who knows how to be a beginner each time, in order to achieve our own understanding of what our musical knowledge is useful for.

Acoustic instruments are designed to be played a certain way, and musicians are instructed in how to reproduce this, as if the instrument itself commands a certain kind of sound and music. But in free playing we are tempted to step out of what we have spent hours of work on, so there can be a sense of loss. The alternative is to construct a practice for ourselves, where there is no sure goal, but as in playing we are following our musical interest. We can even step outside of instruments altogether. There are certainly many sounds and gestures we can make with almost no skill and no instrument but our body, such as vocalizing bursts of variable duration, timing and volume. As for electronics, if players haven’t created their software or hardware they will be limited to the manufacturer’s idea of what most buyers would want. That’s why they prefer to construct their own arrangement of electronic devices and become experienced with them.

The tendency for people who have played freely over time is to expand into what they have not experienced, to trust but also to be ready to doubt and be influenced by who they play with. Playing with experienced improvisers exploring their own unknowns, we’ll feel challenged to do the same. Especially helpful is to play with those we find difficult to play with but still make us feel we are being drawn in rather than shut out. We might feel we have nothing that works, so we expand our range and imagination…and maybe still feel that way, but underneath the frustration something is happening.

On the practical level, there’s this.  We want partners who will push us in directions we want to go, and who will want to play with us. An ad hoc free session may seem generous and self-indulgent but if our playing doesn’t offer enough that is interesting to the others they will not be interested to get together again. The real world of improv is not a school, where everyone who pays tuition is necessarily included. Whenever desire is strong, judgments will be made, not like in jazz cutting contests but nonetheless. Free playing is objectively egalitarian, meaning there are no higher or lower classifications, but subjectively there is a selection process going on. It is not determined by public reputation, conformity, and credentials, as in the professional music world, but strictly by each player’s musical interest, the ability to play in a way that maintains the interest of those we desire to play with.

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