Into the Maelstrom: Music, Improvisation and the Dream of Freedom. Before 1970 - David Toop. London: Bloomsbury, 2016


By Marcel Cobussen

[1] France, October 2016

Several years ago, David and I were enjoying lunch in Amsterdam near the Frascati theater where we both had given a lecture performance during a festival organized by STEIM. One of the topics we discussed was that we both had plans to write a book on improvisation and how we struggled to find the right entrance.

Continuing our contact through email, David told me he was suffering from writer’s block, which kept him from working on his project. But then, in June 2016, all of a sudden, so it seemed, it fell on my doormat, his study on improvisation, aptly called Into the Maelstrom. First subtitle: Music, Improvisation and the Dream of Freedom. Second subtitle, as a kind of “warning” or announcement: Before 1970. Writer’s block? Already on page 4 he writes that Into the Maelstrom is only a first volume, mainly dealing with (free) improvisation events prior to 1970. Toop already foresees a second volume, concentrating on later developments, with a special focus on Germany, the Netherlands, and Japan.

So, even while suffering from writer’s block, David managed to get his thoughts on improvisation published before I did.[1]


[2] Greece, July 2016

Into the Maelstrom. I put the book aside, marking the page: 91. I had just listened to Roy Eldridge, Sidney Bechett, Olivier Messiaen, Jennifer Allum, and many others. In my head, that is. Absorbed by David’s, meanwhile quite familiar, style of associative writing – spinning non-linear and non-chronological networks of musics, anecdotes, histories, facts, and experiences – from the first page onwards, I was caught in his turmoil.

Now the musics fade into the background, starting to engage in my inner listening with the immediate and rather unfamiliar sounds of the environment: Greek, Russian, Serbian, and Romanian voices; the incredibly versatile sounds of the sea; cicadas of course; remote sounds from cars and some mainstream lounge music from a nearby beach restaurant; my kids, discussing their own drawings of their favorite houses.

I close my eyes, surrendering to this maelstrom of sonic formation, information, deformation … Constructing my own private soundscape, composition, improvisation, performance.


No, not only sounds. It is more complex than that. David’s book also interacts with the other senses, with what I smell, see, feel. And with the news, as well: the terrible events in Nice; the day following the failed coup d’état in Turkey; Dutch cyclist Tom Dumoulin winning the individual time trial in the Tour de France; some email exchanges with students, faint echoes from my work; my own forthcoming book on improvisation for which I still need to prepare the index …


[3] The Netherlands, August 2016

I could write a kind of review, actually more of a reply, on the first pages alone. They are strong and engaging, on how life in general, like improvised music, is “a disturbing conflict between predictability and contingency”; on listening as: “sifting, filtering, prioritizing, placing, resisting, comparing, evaluating, rejecting and taking pleasure in sounds and absences of sound; making immediate and predictive assessments of multilayered signals, both specific and amorphous; balancing these against the internal static of sound”; on how our “insidious culture of management strategy, militaristic thought, planning and structural goals” works against improvisation; on how “the central role of improvisation in human behavior is consistently devalued.” All of this on page 1: David’s welcome, a nice gesture of hospitality!


What follows is not an overarching theory on improvisation but a kind of archeology, a quest to discover its elusive origins with an almost singleminded focus on the concept of freedom (non-hierarchy is one synonym David uses, openness another) as it has been addressed by (primarily) musicians. Why an archeology? David’s answer: “Existing attempts at a history are cursory and partial at best” (p. 29). However, even before stating this, he has already admitted to the impossibility of his task, given the fact that so much of the history of improvisation has remained unrecorded or only partially documented. So, an archeology with no claims of being complete.


[4] Greece, July 2016

It is only very rarely that I remember dreaming about a book, but last night David visited me in my nocturnal (in)activities. He sent me a composition called “Babies” which turned out not to be a composition in the classical sense of the word at all. On the contrary, it consisted of several tasks, taking me to many different sites …


[5] The Netherlands, August 2016

Can I criticize David’s archeological work? Are some comments allowed? In his search for origins, David discusses music coming from mainstream jazz, experimental electronic music, 20th-century classical music, non-western folk music, and many other genres and styles. As he writes: “There are no linear chains of influence in this web […] invisible lines connected all of them” (p. 64). I can only agree.

However, seemingly inevitably, the concept of improvisation – as in the work of David Borgo, and despite his attention for so many different musics – is almost always equated with free improvised music. Free improvisation remains or appears to be the horizon, the goal, the standard against which all others are measured (never condemned!). Although he calls music making that aims for complete democracy and freedom naïve (p. 24), the music David wants to describe is the music that is “resistant to a settled position, nomenclature, preservation, pedagogy, writing, hence respectability” (p. 13), music that “has resisted analysis of critical discourse” (p. 14), music that “turned its back on the final authority of the composer” (p. 28), music trying to achieve an “anarchist hope of equality” (p. 82), and music freeing itself from tradition, conventions, structures, and harmonies (Chapter 4).

Of course I am not objecting to a clear demarcation of a subject. Of course I agree that the history of free improvised music is lacking a thorough documentation, especially when written from an insider’s perspective. Of course I will not deny the aspiration for freedom that characterized the time, hence the music, before and well into the 1970s. And of course I share the rather obvious thought that improvisation is inextricably connected to (the dream of) freedom. My critical remark is based on the observation that history has produced and afforded many improvisation practices that have not been resistant to pedagogy and written analyses, which did not so much question the role of the composer, which did not (explicitly) aspire to role equality: think of basso continuo players, church organists, pop musicians extending their solos during live concerts, folk musicians reworking ancient tunes, gamelan musicians, classical musicians making “instant” decisions on embellishments and cadenza’s – see for example the books by Carl Czerny on how to improvise. And I am convinced that many jazz musicians and improvisers have consciously and deliberately suppressed any striving for non-hierarchical group relationships, Miles Davis being one of them. I’ve mentioned it before in other publications: please do not equate improvisation in music with improvised music.


[6] France, October 2016

Leafing through the book again, rereading certain passages, going through the notes I made in Greece, it strikes me once more how profuse it is, how dense with (inside) information, how David has managed to interconnect so many musics; this is how music history should be taught to laymen as well as professionals!


Chapter 2 on the voice, unconsciousness, and spirituality, contains pages on André Breton, Dada, and Cabaret Voltaire. Chapter 3 on collective subjectivities has personal reflections of, among others, Marjolaine Charbin and Steve Beresford. In Chapter 4, regarding the first tentative steps of freedom, David introduces musicians such as Errol Garner and Pierre Schaeffer, Barry Ulanov and Giacinto Scelsi, Lennie Tristano and Pauline Oliveros. Chapter 6 deals with the Japanese scene (Yasunao Tone, Group Ongaku), with Jamaicans in London, with Gustav Metzger and the Destruction in Art Symposium in 1966, as well as Jean Dubuffet and Asger Jorn’s Musique Phenomenal. Chapter 8, focusing on electronic as well as classical music in relation to improvisation, has sections on Larry Austin and the New Music Ensemble, on Franco Evangelisti, Ennio Morricone, and Nuova Consonanza, all from Italy, on Frederic Rzewski, Kraftwerk, and a large section on AMM. Chapter 10 mainly concentrates on the free improvisation scene in London, John Stevens and Derek Bailey being the main characters here. And then we end in Chapter 11 with John Lennon and Yoko Ono and a bit of Nam Jun Paik.


David has browsed through history and offers readers an extremely rich overview of myriad germs of improvisation popping up all over the world, in so many musics, in fine arts and theater, in politics and philosophy, in social activism, and in small musical events.


[7] The Netherlands, October 2016

“Music is shaped by many environmental conditions, collective movements of thought and theory, political events and cultural shifts, not simply by a lineage of narrow musical influence” (p. 151). Every now and then David connects the strife for freedom in music to broader social and/or political events, especially in the Western world of the 1960s. Many cultural and aesthetic experimentations developed parallel with battles for social justice. And, as David writes, music was the laboratory, a means of exploring what was (barely) possible in wider society. This was especially so for the Afro-American musicians: more so than their European colleagues, they felt the need to liberate themselves from commercial edicts and musical orthodoxies, which for them were very directly connected to political, social, and ethnic repression (p. 121).


To improvise is already a political act in itself, as it can be regarded as a laboratory of social experimentation (p. 23). At least, before the 1970s it had no legitimacy in the (cultural) institutions and was “an argument against the narrow range of class-bound art and entertainment milieus in which musicians were expected to perform, the restrictive capitalist model of record production and, to compound these problems, indifference or hostility from media outlets” (p. 218). The alternative improvising musicians presented was to demonstrate that it was possible, within small communities, “to develop a collective, dialogical practice that embraced rather than suppressed dissent, idiosyncrasy and independence, simultaneously nurturing an altruistic responsibility for the integrity and coherence of the group” (p. 263): the micro-politics of improvisation.


[8] Greece, July 2016

How many books on music can make you laugh out loud? More than once, other beach guests turned their heads towards me while I was audibly reacting to one of the many anecdotes in David’s book. I guess it is best to simply quote one, a story told by Italian percussionist and composer Andrea Centazzo:


I remember a solo performance in Taranto at the beginning of my career probably 1972 or ‘73. I was doing my usual shit when a group of ultra-leftists stormed in the venue. Note that the concert was a free concert organized by the Communist Party. They came on stage and said that the music belongs to all the people and everybody is capable of playing. Then they pushed me off the stage and they took all my instruments and started a cacophony adding chanting like ‘free this, free that’ … then they left with my instruments. At the last minute seeing that, I started yelling ‘this is not a revolution, but a capitalist stealing’ … Somehow the dumb audience since I was touching a ‘political matter’ started to react and the battle started. While they were punching each other in a total chaos, I recouped all I could and I exited the backstage, still some gongs and drums were missing but no physical damage whatsoever. Those were the years post ‘68 in Italy. Not to mention when in Padova in 1977 I was performing a duo concert with Evan Parker and somebody threw a barking dog at him on stage (p. 136–7).


[9] The Netherlands, October 2016

Well, apart from these hilarious anecdotes, this panoramic book is an absolute must-read for everyone interested in (the archeology of) free improvisation, actually for anyone interested in music in general. I am already looking forward to the second volume.