Free Improvisation – Method and Genre
Michael Francis Duch
My area of research has been free improvisation both as a method and a genre, as well as the use of improvisation in experimental music. This essay seeks to clarify why I believe that free improvisation is to be seen as both a method of music-making and a genre of its own. I will investigate this by discussing the relationship between free improvisation and experimental music and its origins, and the history of free improvisation will also be briefly discussed through examples of some of its practitioners. I will also use examples from my own experience during my research period.
An important focal point for me has been the English composer Cornelius Cardew, since his impact on bridging the gap between composed and improvised experimental music cannot be overestimated. His writings, ideas and music have all been equally important in understanding the origins of free improvised music in the latter part of the nineteen sixties, particularly in north-western Europe, as well as the use of improvisation in experimental music in general throughout that decade. Heavily influenced by American music and art, a form of anti-genre was established - and thus a genre of its own.
The term experimental music refers to a form of music that has an unknown outcome: an experiment. As the word experimental means “based on or derived from an experiment or experiments”(Allen, 2002:303) experimental music can therefore refer to any music that has an unknown outcome: either as a part of the process of composing it or when performed, and sometimes even both. The term was first used by the American composer John Cage in describing the music he himself was involved in creating in the early fifties (Cage, 1973:7). Later the same term and definition was used by the English musicologist and critic Michael Nyman to define a particular movement in the modern music era of the fifties and sixties in his book Experimental Music – Cage and beyond. It is from this movement and era that free improvisation as a genre within experimental music was born, and it is therefore I believe that it is important that free improvisation is seen in relation to other experimental musics within the same period.
Cardew’s former colleague, Eddie Prévost from the pioneering ensemble AMM, has referred to their music as meta-music, while another of their contemporaries Derek Bailey described his music as non-idiomatic and as a method of music-making, rather than a genre of its own. By calling this music a non-idiomatic meta-music they both insist on that this is something entirely different from all other musics, and ultimately this brings forth the question if this is indeed music at all? This is also something that I will discuss in this essay and is something that I intend to clarify. In the introduction to his first book on improvisation, No Sound is Innocent, Eddie Prévost writes:
”I was first alerted to the idea that ’free’ or ’total’ improvisation was different from all other music-making when told that what I did was not music! (In retrospect I am astounded by so impoverished a perspective: though it hardly discouraged me or my peers; quite the reverse.) Later on, in addition to more remarks of the ’not music’ variety, we learnt that what we were playing wasn’t even jazz. Though not offered helpfully, this was a more reasonable claim.” (Prévost, 1995:1)
Bailey also claimed that free improvisation is an activity distinctively different from, although somewhat related to, experimental music and the avant-garde. In his book Improvisation - Its Nature and Practice in Music Bailey describes that the main difference is that improvisers seldom conduct experiments and therefore will not describe their music as experimental (Bailey, 1993:83). As for the avant-garde Bailey claims that there is very little innovation and “desire to stay ahead of the field” among improvisers, and not to forget that improvisers employ the oldest method of music-making there is:
“Historically, it pre-dates any other music – mankind’s first musical performance couldn’t have been anything other than a free improvisation – and I think that it is a reasonable speculation that at most times since then there will have been some music-making most aptly described as free improvisation.” (ibid.)
In antiquity, improvisation was an important part of rhetoric training. We know for a fact that improvisation has been an important aspect of Western music history since medieval times, and that composers like Bach, Mozart and Handel were known to be formidable improvisers, although the word improvisation itself was not used in a musical context until around 1850 (Alterhaug, 2004:8). Bailey’s claim that free improvisation is as old as music itself is therefore perhaps more than just a bold and provocative statement.
Method, genre or both?
In my view, the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky had some interesting views of art in general and in particular the avant-garde, which he branded as meaningless. For example, he viewed the visual arts in this area as ”totally devoid of spirituality” (Tarkovsky, 2003:96). He further described contemporary art as: ”for the most part fiction, for it is a fallacy to suppose that method can become the meaning and aim of art.” (ibid.) The lack of spirituality is obviously an important aspect for Tarkovsky regarding whether ”modern art” indeed is art and can be called so. Although the spiritual side of free improvisation is perhaps neglected and not particularly mentioned by Bailey or Prévost, there is at the same time a similarity in the views of Tarkovsky and both Bailey and Prévost concerning the question of whether an art largely based on method is art or a genre therein, or simply a method of producing art, as in the case of free improvisation, or a non-idiomatic meta-music?
If the method of music-making is more important than the music, then this is the very opposite of Plato’s view of music being an echo of the divine. The musician, as well as the composer, is only a medium of the divine and therefore there is no room for creativity and personal influence on the music through the process of music-making. John Cage’s view of his music as echoing the anarchy of nature therefore seems to be in the tradition of Plato’s philosophy. His method of chance operations further proves this, as there are no choices to be made, neither by the musician and interpreter nor the composer, as he used to toss coins or dices and also consult the I Ching as a way of composing without relying on his own personal choices.
Avant-garde and experimentalism
There can be little doubt that Tarkovsky's view of art also belongs to the tradition of Plato’s philosophy, although his vantage point is the very opposite of Cage’s regarding the avant-garde and experimentalism. Free improvisation, however, relies on the spontaneity and creativity of the performer as well as being inspired by Cages’ experimentalism, which makes it an activity that is in direct opposition to Plato and his theory of the echo of the divine. I believe this to be particularly true concerning Cornelius Cardew’s view of improvisation and experimentalism as a social and collective method of music-making.
While Bailey dismissed his work as being experimental it seems as if conducting experiments was a central part of Cornelius Cardew’s music and ways of music-making throughout the sixties. This is perhaps the Cagean influence on Cardew’s approach to music, whether it being in his indeterminate period in the first half of the nineteen sixties, or his involvement with AMM and free improvisation and later the Scratch Orchestra, where improvisation married leftist socio-political philosophy. The experimental side of the avant-garde as well as its continuous search for development is the essence of Tarkovsky's critique, and his main reason for calling the concept of the avant-garde meaningless when it is applied to art, as it ”would be to accept the idea of progress in art”(Tarkovsky, 2003:97). He further asks the question ”how anyone can be more advanced in art? How can Thomas Mann be said to be better than Shakespeare?”(ibid.)
”People tend to talk about experiment and search above all in relation to the avant-garde. But what does it mean? How can you experiment in art? Have a go and see how it turns out? But if it hasn’t worked, then there’s nothing to see except the private problem of the person who has failed. For the work of art carries within it an integral aesthetic and philosophical unity; it is an organism, living and developing according to its own laws. Can one talk of experiment in relation to the birth of a child? It is senseless and immoral.” (ibid.)
Improvisation: creativity and failure
Tarkovsky's critique of the avant-garde reaches its climax with the rather bold and perhaps even dubious statement mentioned above. I find it interesting, as what is pointed out as a potential weakness by Tarkovsky is at the same time what attracts people to improvisation in general, as well as being the very core of experimental music and its aesthetics. Failing is essential to both improvisation and experimentalism as they are both involved in events of an unknown outcome. Failing is an integral part of creating and developing one’s own personal language in jazz as the ”mistakes” that occur in improvisation often lead to new versions of an already existing musical material. A radio documentary on the music of Cornelius Cardew by the BBC in connection with a Cardew retrospective event arranged by Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival opens with a recording of Cardew himself discussing the topic of failure:
”Failure exists in relation to goals: Nature has no goals and so it can’t fail, humans have goals and so they have to fail. Often the wonderful configurations produced by failure reveal the pettiness of the goals. Of course we have to go on striving for success, otherwise we could not genuinely fail. If Buster Keaton wasn’t genuinely trying to put up his house, it wouldn’t be funny when it falls down on him.” (http://ubu.artmob.ca/sound/cardew_cornelius/bbc/Cardew-Cornelius_Radio-Retrospective.mp3)
The risk of failing and the sometimes even creative ways of avoiding failure is also our main reason for commonly using the word “improvisation” to describe situations in our everyday life. These situations require a spontaneous reaction to problem solving that might even be a simple variation of a situation experienced numerous times before. This is something pointed out by Bjørn Alterhaug in describing the difference between creativity and improvisation, as well as discussing the various usages of the word “improvisation”, in his article Improvisation on a triple theme: Creativity, Jazz Improvisation and Communication:
“Derived from the word creare, to create, the term creativity can be related directly to improvisation. In everyday language, though, improvisation covers a host of different meanings. Its various usages often cause confusion especially when used as a concept and phenomenon. Two main meanings of the word spring to mind: First, improvisation as an emergency measure, as in “the plans failed and hence I had to improvise.” Notably such a statement presupposes that human action is normally based on rules and instructions. Second, improvisation as an acute state of readiness, internalised skills and practice; a highly rated way of acting. Here this meaning is based on another important concept, namely one that involves tacit knowledge.” (Alterhaug, 2004:97)
Creativity is something that can be spontaneous as in improvisation, but it is also important in other musics and methods of music-making, such as composition. Even in composition a creative process can often be spontaneous, but as opposed to improvisation one has the ability to revisit and revise ones music whilst composing it, which is arguably the main difference between composition and improvisation. As for the word “improvisation” Alterhaug explains its origin and meaning, as well as giving insight to an interesting reflection, as follows:
“The term originates from the rhetoric of antiquity under the designation improvisus. If we attempt to translate this word, the Latin verb videre means “to see”, in conjugated form visus translates to “seen”, pro to “before” and im means “not.” Assembling the word parts should then impart the meaning “not before seen.” I have reflected upon the meaning “not before seen” many times, and found out that it works poorly as a description with regard to musical interaction, which in its truest sense is based on the auditive, on listening and hearing (.)” (Furu, 2007: 136)
There can be little doubt that the ideas and writings of Cardew, Prévost and Bailey are that of highly skilled and experienced improvisers that also employ their writing skills and academic talent. Along with Michael Nyman and only a handful of others they provide us with the most important literary work on free improvisation there is, and it is still as valid today as it was then. However, the world has changed since the nineteen sixties – not to mention music and art. What has a music that was established as an anti-genre and opposed to the continuation of the strict serialism of the European avant-garde become, if not a genre of its own? At least it has created a cluster of sub-genres throughout its almost half a century of existence.
Free improvisation has become established and recognized as an art form and is almost as common as composed music in today’s contemporary music-scene. One can almost wonder whether to improvise has become a kind of ‘fashion’ among contemporary classical musicians; embracing its freedom as they wish to shed the restraints from the music of long dead composers – or musical dictators from Cage’s point of view. I believe that free improvisation is equally as much a genre as it is a method of music-making. Although Derek Bailey was striving for a non-idiomatic music his fans, or the ones that know his music and his way of playing, can easily identify him after listening to only a few seconds of his music.
The meta-music of AMM seems to be close to what can only be referred to as a genre of its own, but it is still often quite distinctive and can also be identified and therefore classified. If we do call free improvisation a genre, it is still as much or less a genre than jazz and it is equally difficult to differentiate. As long as there are certain types of performers that are drawn together by mutual aesthetics that are identifiable, there will be different types of genres or categories within any music – even when it is unidentifiable and unclassifiable. On some CD’s you might even find the following instruction to record shops: File under Unclassifiable.
When Derek Bailey describes what the main difference between idiomatic and non-idiomatic music is, he also gives us an idea of what can be seen as the possibility of free improvisation being a genre of its own:
”Non-idiomatic improvisation has other concerns and is most usually found in so-called ’free’ improvisation and, while it can be highly stylised, is not usually tied to representing an idiomatic identity.” (Bailey, 1992:xii)
Practicing and rehearsing freedom
The word free, especially when put in front of the word improvisation, has often been the root of every turn this project has taken so far: What level of freedom can be found in so-called free improvisation? Is free improvisation only truly free when the performers involved do not know each other at the moment when they first meet on a stage to improvise together? Would they be even freer if they in addition to not knowing each other perhaps also performed on an instrument they are not accustomed to? Personally I believe the very opposite to be true: The better I know my instrument and the performers involved, the higher the level of freedom involved in the improvisation itself. My supervisor, Bjørn Alterhaug, is one of Norway’s leading researchers within the field of improvisation and he once told me the following story about when Lee Konitz was asked how he prepared himself for improvising, where he had answered:
“That’s my way of preparation – not to be prepared. And that takes a lot of preparation!” (Alterhaug, 2010:116)
Exploring improvisation through personal experiences
One of my main ensembles throughout this period is the Norwegian quartet Lemur, and more than a third of my concerts in this research period have been with this particular ensemble – 39 out of 108 concerts, to be exact. None of these concerts were planned in advance as regards to musical content. However, we have worked methodically in rehearsals where we have tried to learn as much as possible about each other through various musical exercises, something which is documented and discussed in an essay I have written about the working-methods of this particular ensemble (Lemur - Methods and Music).
Performing freely improvised music solo is also an area that I have explored during these three years. I have performed 13 concerts, most of them in Norway, but also in Athens, London, Glasgow, Gothenburg and Umeå. Five of these, and a total of 31 of the concerts I have performed, has involved composed music containing various degrees of improvisation. This has been important for my understanding of how these compositions might, or might not, be used as improvisational exercises as well as for my understanding of the close relationship between various composed experimental musics in relation to free improvisation.
My own background from being a student at the jazz department of the Institute of Music at NTNU in Trondheim has been important for my research, particularly concerning the areas of pedagogy and teaching. During my research period I have been teaching at the same department and institute where I once was a student, and I have been striving to obtain the same approach as the methods that are already used there. Although these methods are primarily concerned with melodic, harmonic and rhythmic improvisation within jazz, it is my belief that they can also be used to learn any form or genre of improvisation. In my view, this is also why this particular department has produced some of the finest improvising musicians from Norway and the other Nordic countries.
The main method and approach in the jazz education in Trondheim is simply to learn tunes and chord changes by heart by singing these tunes, their chords and chord changes, and also to learn to improvise on the same material by singing before even picking up one’s instrument. The general idea is that once you know sufficient chord changes from the repertoire of jazz standards by heart, you can play these and other tunes in any existing key on your instrument. This method of teaching, although rooted in American jazz, is something that can be found more or less in any musical traditions that do not depend on scores, and it is therefore very much both present and useful in improvised musics: listening to, identifying, copying and reproducing a specific sound source. This is done in order to create one’s own musical identity by learning from the tradition.
In order to use this method one has to develop the skills to be able to do so, which is very much a part of the method itself. This involves being able to identify and sing bass lines, chords and chord changes, or clap rhythms, polyrhythm and so forth. The only similarly thorough method towards learning improvisation as the one I have briefly described here that I have found, is John Stevens’ Search & Reflect; a collection of exercises developed by the author from the latter part of the nineteen sixties and first published in 1985. Stevens was a key figure in the development of European free improvisation in the mid-sixties, and he was among the first to invent and use such methods in a pedagogic way in relation to free improvised music:
”I don’t know where it started. Something that I often found myself doing long before I started playing free music or almost any music was grabbing people to play, I remember getting together with a brass band cornet player in the army. There was no-one in the block at that time and I said to him ’come in here and play’ and he said ’what shall I play then?’ and I said ’ play anything you like and I’ll drum with it’. He said ’but I can’t do that’. And I said ’but you can – just blow a note – any note – and I’ll play this and you play that’. And so that was a sort of beginning. And when I teach now it’s not that different.” (Bailey, 1993:118)
Although I did not read Stevens’ music workshop handbook until during a late stage of my research period and thus was unable to try out his exercises myself, I am now grateful for having read it. This is most of all because his writings supports my belief that free improvisation is something that can be practised, and also because of the resemblance of his methods and exercises to the ones we have developed in Lemur as well as the pedagogical method endorsed by the jazz department at the Institute of Music, NTNU, where I am currently employed.
Documentation and recording
”Documents such as tape recordings of improvisation are essentially empty, as they preserve chiefly the form that something took and give at best an indistinct hint as to the feeling and cannot convey any sense of time and space.” Cornelius Cardew
Most of my concerts during my research period have been documented by either the recording of audio or video, or simply by photography, and sometimes by a combination of two or all three. The sheer amount of concerts during these three years would be too much to present in the documentation of my final results, as a total of 110 concerts and an average length of each concert being that of roughly 45 minutes, would leave me with almost 83 hours of music, or the equivalent of three and a half days. I have therefore chosen to document my work through a selection of commercially released CDs, made of both live recordings as well as in studio. A full list of both concerts and CDs with references can be found as appendixes to this document.
Various sound engineers professionally recorded all of these CDs and, as I have already mentioned, they have been recorded both live and in studios. In most cases these recordings have been altered and edited for aesthetical or practical reasons and sometimes both. Once such a process is done I believe we are dealing with a form of composition as opposed to a mere documentation, but even in those situations where the recording is as clean and unedited as possible, it cannot fully replicate the real situation of a live concert. Since free improvisation is music that is spontaneously created, a recording will never function as anything but a documentation of something that has already occurred. When we add to this the choices we often tend to make regarding editing and mixing, we are in fact rearranging the music, or simply turning improvisation into composition.
Commercially released recordings of free improvisation can therefore often end up being ”best of” albums where one has chosen to present what one likes best from a particular recording and leaving out whatever we dislike. We might even alter time by choosing to present a new order of the music rather than the actual order when it was recorded, to make it sound better as an album. This is somewhat like watching the highlights of a game of football where we are only shown the goals, but more seldom the actual line of events that leads to that particular goal. A heavily edited album can even make the impossible sound possible by creating the equivalent of beautiful passes and goals that appear from nowhere.
Cornelius Cardew’s view quoted earlier in this essay is that of free improvisation being an activity that becomes ”empty” once recorded. He argues that such recordings only ”give at best an indistinct hint as to the feeling and cannot convey any sense of time and space.”(ibid.) The act of improvising is to deal with the present, as the meaning of the word itself is ”unforeseen”. A recording of a free improvisation is a documentation of an activity of the past and it is essentially different from any other recorded musics as its form and content is not known in advance, and not intended to be so. Singer and Performance Artist Laurie Anderson’s view is similar, but she stresses the importance of live art being recorded, if not only for purely documental reasons:
”I myself used to be very proud that I didn’t document my work. I felt that, since much of it was about time and memory, that was the way it should be recorded – in the memories of the viewers – with all the inevitable distortions, associations and elaborations. Gradually I changed about making records of events because people would say things like, ”I really loved that orange dog you had in that show!” And I’ve never had an orange dog, ever. I started to keep track of things after that. I just didn’t want it to disappear. (Goldberg, 2004:6)
I find Andersons’ view particularly interesting, as they are based on her experiences as a performance artist more than her background as a musician. Although she does not necessarily address recording improvisation specifically, I find her views relevant for this issue, as they address not only the inability to record a live performance in full but, even more importantly, that recording such an event changes the event itself:
”When live art is documented through film or audio recordings it immediately becomes another art form – a film or a record – another rectangle or disk. It’s in the can. But live art is continually elusive.” (Ibid.)
This is not to say that I dislike recordings and making CDs or the way that this is often done. On the contrary, I have found that recording free improvisation can be fruitful, as it can be used for practical reasons or enjoyed in many ways, but I believe that one should be aware of this when listening to what appears to be free improvisation ”caught on tape”, so to speak. This is at the same time one of the many wonders of improvisation: you never know whether it has been edited, composed or rehearsed, which can sometimes even be experienced by the performers themselves. This means that in the same way as Magritte’s painting of a pipe is not a pipe, a recording of improvised music is not an improvisation: it’s prime function as real-time music-making is lost once it is caught on tape.
Recordings can also function as the equivalent of a score, as composed music is something you can change as you go along and as much as you like. You can even revisit your own music or the music of others and learn from it in such a format. I believe the same can be said about recordings as it can function more or less in the same way, and therefore it also belongs to one of the many grey areas between the fields of composition and improvisation.
Composition versus improvisation
Derek Bailey is said to have been fond of the following story by Frederic Rzewski, in explaining the main difference between composition and improvisation:
”In 1968 I ran into Steve Lacy on the street in Rome. I took out my pocket tape recorder and asked him to describe in fifteen seconds the difference between composition and improvisation. He answered: ’In fifteen seconds the difference between composition
and improvisation is that in composition you have all the time you want to decide what to say in fifteen seconds, while in improvisation you have fifteen seconds.’
His answer lasted exactly fifteen seconds and is still the best formulation of the question I know (.)” (Bailey, 1992:141)
We have to look at many different improvised as well as composed musics in order to identify the variations between the two seemingly different methods of creating music. I believe that it is difficult to find another explanation that is as simple and to the point as the one offered by Steve Lacy. However, for me personally it has been more interesting to seek to find the similarities rather than differences between the two, and to see how composition can be approached in an improvisatory way. This was one of my main motivations for recording my solo album Edges, which consists of various experimental compositions from the nineteen fifties and sixties. These compositions are analysed and explained in depth in my essayEdges – A listener’s guide and reflections (2010) on this particular recording.
The Scottish guitarist, improviser and composer Neil Davidson has based his PhD-project Composition in improvisation: forms and otherwise at the University of Glasgow, on applying the philosophy and ethics of the Lithuanian philosopher Emmanuel Levinas to improvisation:
”In terms of improvisation I have already alluded to an interest in Levinas when it comes to thinking about what this practice can be for us. As an improvising musician I do not have control over the whole of a piece, the practice of ‘free’ improvisation does not lend itself to gauging or forming a totality. I don’t know what the others players are going to play but their sounding obliges me to respond, even if my response is soundless.” (Davidson, 2010:7)
Further, he has based his way of composing on the same principles. Davidson is referring to a way of composing which is largely based on the same collective principles as well as the same creative and spontaneous approach that one can find in free improvisation. This is an area of which our research-projects are similar and that we both share an interest in. The main difference is that Davidson relates to his own compositions while I have been doing artistic research in music by other composers mainly from the nineteen sixties. One of these compositions that I find of particular interest is Cornelius Cardew’s The Tiger's Mind from 1967, which I now will present more in detail. I will also attempt to explain its close ties to free improvisation.
Cornelius Cardew’s The Tiger's Mind
Several of the most important free improvising ensembles in the nineteen sixties that were pioneers within this field, were also involved in performing experimental composed music based on graphic scores and text pieces. One of the major turning points and discoveries I have encountered during my research period is Cornelius Cardew's composition The Tiger's Mind from 1967. This composition was not only inspired by, but in many ways also derived from, the music and music-making of the free improvising ensemble AMM, of which Cardew himself was a member in the latter part of the sixties. I believe The Tiger's Mind to be as close to what we can call a composed improvisation as possible, however paradoxical that may sound.
I have spent approximately half a year trying to analyse The Tiger's Mind, from March to September 2009. When I first met my second supervisor John Tilbury in England, we discussed the piece and various ways of approaching it. Following this I travelled to France to listen to a version of the piece being performed in connection with a Cardew-exhibition in Bretigny. I then wrote an article about it(this article is a draft written in Norwegian only and is therefore not included here), and used it as a part of an improvisation-course at the jazz department of the Institute of music at the University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, where I am currently employed. I finally did a version of Daypiece at Dokkhuset in Trondheim, where I was one of eight performers involved during Forskningsdagene (Norwegian Science Week) in September 2009. This was followed up by a performance of Nightpiece with the same eight performers at Blæst in Trondheim in June 2010.
What I find remarkable about this composition is that it is closer to what one would call role-play than a composition. There are six different characters or roles involved, but the piece suggests that it can be realised with both less or more performers than what the six characters indicate, which are: Amy, Tiger, Wind, Tree, Circle and Mind. The score itself is purely text-based and the text has to be memorised by the performers. It is the relation between these roles that are to be improvised and therefore it requires a certain amount of creativity from its interpreters. It is, however, important not to confuse creativity with improvisation, but to see creativity and spontaneity as important factors and elements in improvisation. While improvisation is a real-time activity, creativity does not necessarily need to be so. My main supervisor, Bjørn Alterhaug, has described creativity as being an activity which is both solution-oriented and innovative, and as:
”(.) a slow floating improvisation, a process based on knowledge, proficiency and reflection over time. This process is often referred to as an individual exploring process, a necessary preparation phase that makes the ground for the “in-the-moment-innovative”, what apparently happens in a “magical” way by creative, improvising persons.” (Alterhaug, 2010:115)
The actual score of The Tiger's Mind is divided in two parts on one page, where each part indicates what time of day it is to be performed. The first part, Daypiece, reads as follows:
The tiger fights the mind that loves the circle that traps the tiger. The circle is perfect and outside time. The wind blows dust in tigers’ eyes. Amy reflects, relaxes with her mind, which puts out buds (emulates the tree). Amy jumps through the circle and comforts the tiger. The tiger sleeps in the tree. High wind. Amy climbs the tree, which groans in the wind and succumbs. The tiger burns. (Cardew, 1967: 84)
In many ways this composition is a prime example of what a major part of my research has been about: seeking to find examples of composed experimental music based on the premises of improvisation and being as close to free improvisation as possible. As it is not specified whether this piece should be performed by musicians or solely as a piece of music, it provided an opportunity for me to do a version where I combined musicians from various backgrounds, as well as other performers from other disciplines, such as an improvising poet and a video artist. I experienced our rehearsals and our performance as quite astonishing, as the score provided us with enough information to enable us to improvise together, but it also demanded an approach closer to that of free improvisation. This is very different from what I have found in any other composed music.
I strongly believe that this is one of the few compositions that exists that challenge John Cage’s critique of improvisation as being a situation where the performers only bring their own clichés to this way of making music. This borderline between improvisation and composition is something I find fascinating and essential in understanding the origins of free improvisation as both a method and a genre. I also believe that this is one of the areas which will contribute to further developments in my field of research – that is the European experimental music in the late nineteen sixties, particularly the post-Fluxus text-pieces by Cardew, Skempton and others who wrote music that challenges one’s creativity and fantasy, while their contemporary American counterparts mostly wrote instructions for the performer.
Afrological and eurological perspectives
There are still several questions left concerning the different attitudes and approaches to improvisation. George Lewis has described the distinct differences to improvised music after 1950 in two categories: The afrological and the eurological perspectives. He describes the afrological approach as being closely linked to jazz and its origins and, thus, as somewhat practically and socially oriented, while he relates the eurological perspective to the western European intellectual tradition, where improvisation is often related to a notion of spontaneity that excludes history or memory. - Hence Cage’s disapproval of improvisation and jazz, as he did not want the performer to add his or her personality to the music. David Borgo offers the following explanation of these two terms:
“An Afrological perspective implies an emphasis on personal narrative and the harmonization of one’s musical personality with social environments, both actual and possible. A Eurological perspective, on the other hand, implies either absolute freedom from personal narrative, culture and conventions – an autonomy of the aesthetic object – or the need for a controlling or structuring force in the person and voice of a “composer.”” (Borgo, 2004:4)
Cage clearly fits in the eurological category; in fact he was the model for this categorisation when George Lewis made it in the first place. As for the afrological category this was based on the innovations of Charlie Parker, and it is tempting to say that all free jazz would fit into this category, so that the distinction between the to terms would be that of European-inspired platonic indeterminacy as opposed to African-inspired collective free jazz. But where does that leave the tradition of European free improvisation? Borgo argues that “not all European improvisers, however, favour a Eurological approach to practice” and that “contemporary free improvisers often struggle with the issues implied by Lewis’ Afrological/Eurological model.”(ibid.) My view is that neither most of my colleagues or me completely fits in to any one of these categories. I do, however, believe that these categories might be useful when coarsely classifying certain types or perspectives of free improvisation for either academic or other reasons.
John Tilbury suggests “orientological” as a possible third category particularly concerning AMM as they where equally influenced by Eastern culture (e-mail from John Tilbury dated 06.09.2010). This Eastern influence was prominent in the sixties in the Hippie counter-culture and in popular musics as well as in the music and philosophy of (eurological) composers such as John Cage, La Monte Young and Terry Riley. I also believe the same can be said about musicians belonging to the afrological tradition such as Pharoah Sanders and John and Alice Coltrane, who incidentally named their son Ravi Coltrane after Ravi Shankar. The Eastern influence is something that becomes quite obvious with album titles such as Karma (Pharoah Sanders, 1969), Om and Meditations (John Coltrane, 1965 and 1966) and Journey in Satchidananda (Alice Coltrane, 1970), an album where Eastern instruments such as the oud and tambura are introduced to free jazz.
Seeking to explain what free improvisation is and is not has often inspired me to ask new questions rather than providing definite answers. I believe that the method of free improvisation is something that anyone can use, and might subsequently benefit from using, particularly in the form of a “practice of self-invention” as Eddie Prévost calls it. Reinventing one’s own musical expression and language through free improvisation is something that can benefit other musics as well, not only those concerned with improvisation. This is also one of the reasons why free improvisation is a valuable tool for teaching. It defies and sometimes even eliminates the boundaries between virtuosity and those who have very little musical skills or between those who are both inexperienced as well as experienced improvisers. I believe that John Stevens explains some of the reasons why improvisation can have this effect, as well as how he summarises some of the areas I have been discussing in this essay, towards the end of his introduction to his music workshop handbook Search & Reflect:
“We celebrate mistakes because they highlight innocent human failings i.e.: lapses in mental concentration or in physical control. Our aim is towards the near impossible task of synchronising within the moment – a basic ingredient of interaction. Spontaneous group improvisation will inevitably produce discrepancies. ’Mistakes’ are an inevitable result of the process of improvisation. The pieces are open ended (having no fixed conclusion) – there is therefore no perfect end result. The process of playing them is itself the product.” (Stevens, 2007:2)
Another important factor here is Stevens’ pieces that he mentions. This enables this form of improvisation to be rehearsed and practiced and that “free” improvisation can be used in connection with composition. In my own experience, the pieces or compositions based on using text that can be memorised are favourable, since they open up for a possibility to remove the physical score from the performance. As for freely improvising as a method in itself, Erling Aksdal has noted that his free improvisation-classes at the jazz department of the Institute of Music, NTNU, has a lot in common with group therapy. He further notes that these classes have been particularly fruitful for the students in dealing with musical situations where insecurity arises. He even raises the question if the best experiences so far have been in situations where insecurity has been tangible, so to speak.(From Erling Aksdal's En ”fri”-improvisasjonsmetodikk, unpublished and undated.)
Asking whether free improvisation is a genre or not, has also raised some more questions rather than given many definite answers. It is experimental in the way that we cannot know the outcome of the other participants’ reactions in advance, and its musical form is open with no fixed conclusions. Instrumental technique is commonly challenged by extended rather than conventional techniques, and these techniques might even be further extended as a direct result of freely improvising. It is idiomatic because we often can recognise it from its method of music-making, but it can also be said that it strives for being non-idiomatic as it can both contain and be produced by means of any other musics and musicians with any musical background.
Since the mid-nineteen sixties free improvisation has developed into different schools of approaches, thus creating several subgenres, something that I also discuss in my essay Lemur – Methods and Music. This is sometimes done by describing the music as either belonging to or being inspired by the German-school of Peter Brötzmann, Peter Kowald and others, or the Dutch or British school of free improvisation, and so forth. It can also be described as being noise, minimalist or free jazz, and although these are terms that are used to describe musics that not necessarily are freely improvised or even being genres of their own, they are often attributed to free improvisation in describing the music or group of people associated with this particular music or subgenre. This is particularly true for free improvisation of the nineteen nineties, where minimalist subgenres within free improvisation began to emerge, such as onkyo, Berlin reductionism and the new London silence.
“Jazz is one of the most important musical developments of the 20th century, and by the mid-1960s the leading jazz improvisers had developed such an extraordinary degree of instrumental prowess that their extempore music was as richly complex and creative as a music can be. However, when the free jazz stylings of Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor and John Coltrane were transferred to new cultural circumstances, many of its codes quickly broke down or were rejected and a global language of improvisation began to develop. The free improvisation we hear today has got almost nothing to do with jazz of any kind, and in its 40-year history it too has greatly evolved. One of the characteristics of free improvisation is its hunger for new ways of making sounds and new ways of (dis)order them.”
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