It’s been almost a year since my book, The Free Musics was published. In the meantime I’ve been reflecting on the subject, elaborating and sharpening what I said. As follows:

To demand to be taken seriously as a musician, in society as it is structured, is a demand to be paid, or its poor substitute today, to simply receive attention and recognition from the music world. That demand is a declaration that one is willing to sign the professional-musician contract, which under the cover of ambition is never made explicit. Every contract is binding and coercive, it will restrict what one can play in order to satisfy the other party—audience taste, media, academic and funding institutions. The contract that musicians believe enables them to do what they want musically, in fact constricts them. For instance, no audience has a taste for what is outside their taste; even the most adventurous art consumers will only pay for what they want, at least in the long run. This limitation should be obvious from any examination of the actual playing done by the current generation of avant-garde musicians who are “taken seriously.”

On the other hand, if we refuse the contract and are happier to be outside its law of exchange, then we have no right to make that demand. Support for us will have nothing obligatory about it; whatever we get—praise, surprise, confusion, or donations–is purely a gift. Music world institutions on the other end of a contract are not in the business of giving gifts; they have no reason to pay attention to musicians unwilling to submit to their needs. Even more, they should not; they would self-destruct. Accidents do happen, but were they to give attention and “real” money to such musicians consistently, out of some belief that they are honest judges of music, they would quickly find themselves betrayed by those who never asked for their favor.

In free playing we are too interdependent to give each other what can be called gifts. The gift we receive is from listeners, who are few in number, generally have little to give financially, and are completely powerless to affect the machinery of consumer attention and funding sources. But what this does is to transform what we players are doing. Instead of offering music specific to the needs determined by the other, we are offering them a gift free of obligation. A free gift creates the free gift, a continuous circle, a true infinity. It need not expand for it to exist, which means it does not provoke the anxiety and bitterness of “when will the audience we deserve start showing up?”

When our freedom from the obligation to please people—once called “artistic autonomy”–causes them to walk away confused, they are reluctant to pay. Even when they say we have excited or moved them, which is the usual case, they know instinctively that we are playing outside the contract and have caught some glimpse of our freedom. Whatever they give they are not obliged to give, an abnormal situation within normative society. That confusion and that excitement is their gift to us, as the phrase goes, “more than money can buy.”

This is not to deny that I myself, organizer of tours and feeling responsible financially to the others, succumb to contractual thinking, point audiences to the donation basket and hope they will be generous. But when all is said and done, I can easily remind myself that playing freely in front of others, together with the highly varied responses we get, is more than enough reason for doing what we do. Coming to this conclusion has been a long road, for I did sign that contract decades ago and had to discover the suffering inherent in it. It takes clear thinking to break free of it, and the will to know the actual situation one is in and what is one’s true desire in life.

Our unfree society, whose ideologues try desperately to prove otherwise, produces hidden anxiety, disappointment, and bitterness for all those who sign its contract. No one can ever get enough when they feel they deserve something substantial in return for their efforts, long years of service, and artistic product. Free playing lives and thrives in the cracks of that economic and psychological system. Paradoxically it seems, only when we refuse the social contract to please the other and demand our rights in exchange, is the free gift possible. People speak of the precious gift of life: here it is.

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