Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Joe Morris - Perpetual Frontier - The Properties Of Free Music (Riti, 2013)

By Stef

There aren't that many books that deal with free improvisation. Not that there is not a great story to tell, but what can you write about music, and most of all, niche music for niche audiences, and then on top of this music that is so beyond any grasp of known descriptions, that any attempt is doomed to fail. Or is it?

In his "Perpetual Frontier", guitarist, bass-player and musical educator Joe Morris gives it a try, and a welcome try at that. Not much has been written about 'free music' as Morris likes to call the composed/improvised genre we are reviewing on this blog, and we can agree with the name. It's more than 'free jazz', and different from 'free improvisation'.

The book is more than welcome, because it offers a kind of foundational explanation of what 'free music' is, and then in an almost academic fashion. Morris presents "The Properties Of Free Music", a description of the constituents and building blocks of the music, with definitions of the known ingredients like melody, harmony, rhythm and their absence and their alternatives. He describes the conceptual methods and systems that musicians can use in establishing their sound, the essence of what musicians try to achieve, and they can do that through synthesis, interpretation and invention, by using known forms or by creating new ones. He writes about musical platforms, about interaction, about open forms, templates and layering, about melodic structure. He explores four theoretical frameworks of free form in a little more depth : Ornette Coleman's 'harmolodics', Cecil Taylor's 'unit structures', Anthony Braxton's 'tri-axiom theory', and European Free Improvisation.

The explanations, the definitions and the conceptual framework offered here will be of high value to students of music, but also to interested listeners, who will find here a great toolbox of ideas and explanations for what is possibly the least codefied of musical genres. Joe Morris is of course very much aware of this, and his text is a open-ended as the music, an offering of possibilities for musical creation.

Next to this academic first part of the book, he has had the great idea to ask individual musicians to answer a questionnaire and talk about their vision on the music they play. We get the insights of Marilyn Crispell, Rashid Bakr, Agusti Fernandez, Simon H. Fell, Mary Halvorson, Katt Hernandez, Joe McPhee, Nicole Mitchell, William Parker, Jamie Saft, Matthew Shipp, Ken Vandermark, Alex Ward, Nate Wooley and JackWright. Quite an impressive list of musicians, and what they write is a wonderful complement to Morris framework. Why? Because they write about the human aspect of making music, they talk about emotions, spirituality, being enriched through interaction, about the audiences with whom the music resonates, about intimacy, about the joy of making music, about the tension, about the magic of it, about the unknown.

The testimonials are sometimes elaborate, with the musicians apparently eager to tell their story, to tell their vision. Interestingly, all of them talk about instrumental skills and technique as essential but totally uninteresting unless it leads to great music.

Many of the musicians have different opinions, as much as they have different backgrounds, and influences, and musical concepts, but that makes it interesting.

As a non-musician, I found it all very revelatory, but what surprised me most was the limited attention given to the audience, to the individual listener. That's why I liked Nicole Mitchell's text so much : "I like stretching beyond the comfort zone to make discoveries of my own and to guide listeners to the other sides of themselves". I also like the way Jack Wright writes about it in his very personal story "Musicians would do well to ask themselves not whether they want to please people but how. Obviously you can please people by giving them what they expect to hear; the reward path for that is assured. But there is another kind of pleasure for people when they are not sure what they are getting and don't know how to judge it, who even enjoy being confused a bit". Yes, we, the listeners, can relate to that.

A very valuable book that will be of interest to many musicians and fans of free music.

To end with a quote from William Parker: "Theory in itself did not free people to reach into a deeper area of sound. It was those who altered, abandoned, and redefined the elements of music that got closer to the true source".

This books gives you the options ...


Matthew Grigg said...

Its really interesting to hear your thoughts on this Stef. I think that this is an excellent book, and (to my knowledge) stands along side Derek Bailey's Improvisation as the only books to deal with 'Free Music' from a technical/practical perspective, eschewing the woolly vagaries and emotional motivations usually employed in discussing this music. The language he employs is both specific and instructive, whilst being open enough for the prospective practitioner to impose their own approach on the potential methodologies he discusses (a skill likely honed in his position as an educator).

As a description of Harmolodics, its possibly the most concise and accurate definition I've read of something which is often dismissed by critics as a smokescreen or marketing tool. Of Braxton's theories, again it provides insight into something which is often lost under the sheer volume of critical thinking Braxton has published on the subject, and the potentially alienating use of language he employs to talk about his ideas.

I'm interested by two points that you mention. Firstly, that the music he discusses is "different from 'free improvisation'." Like most musicians writing on the subject, Morris spends quite some time explaining the music he practices, and the definition of his chosen term to describe it (in this case 'Free Music'). However, he doesn't distance what he is discussing from the term 'free improvisation', and in fact states that it falls "under the heading of "free music"." (P.34). All the potential materials discussed as components/potential building blocks of the music are found in 'free improvisation', hence 'spontaneous composition' often being used as a synonym for it. That he designates European Free Improvisation as a specific approach does not mean 'free improvisation' is not a characteristic of the 'Free Music'. As you point out, he absolutely distances 'Free Music' from 'free jazz', and spends sometime dealing with what a thorny issue any use of the word 'Jazz' is now, and how it's particular organisational principles are outside of 'Free Music'.

Secondly, regarding your comments about the "limited attention given to the audience." I'd suggest how the music is received by an audience is not really a major concern in the creation of this music. Much music that exists in the commercial sphere is composed with this concern as a central feature, and at its most cynically orchestrated, with audience consumption/revenue generating at the very core of its raison d'ĂȘtre. However, the concert conditions in which 'Free Music' is largely created, the pressures that said environment exerts on practitioners, and the feedback of energies that exists in that setting, are central to the music. So whilst audience reception might not be a motivating factor in creating the music, the audience is still fundamental to the process. Also, when Nicole Mitchell talks about "listeners" it is possible she may not only be talking about an audience but about other musicians involved. Improvised music is after all a listening music, and the potential for a musician to be pushed into areas they might not visit were it not for the particular musical situation/combination they find themselves involved in could easily be described as "finding other sides of themselves."

Colin Green said...

I agree, the distinction Stef was drawing was a bit lost on me, but I've never been much of a labels man and one can pretty much define these terms at will.

I also agree with the point about audiences. Musicians and composers will only create something of genuine worth if it satisfies them. The audience will then follow, even though it might take time.

I've read some interviews with Joe Morris where he discusses improvisation and he has many useful insights. The book should be worth reading.

Stef said...

My point about the audience is not that you have to give to audience expectations, but that you have to keep the audience listening experience in mind somehow. And that is in the case of 'free music' much more than you can expect, even more, I hope to be taken beyond what I expect, in zones of discomfort or zones of resonance that are new and beyond words, offering the listener something unique, something magical. No painter paints to hide his canvases, no musician creates music with the expectation that it will not be heard by anyone, etc. The audience part is essential to any form of art, yet it doesn't mean that you have to compromise as an artist. You want things to sound in a certain way because it may add something to the listening experience, not because it is just interesting to play it that way.

As for the classification of subgenres, to me that is just a question of semantics and practical organisation. In essence, I don't care what name the music has, or that it even has a name at all, but then think about where to start looking in record stores next time, or under which headings on websites.

Colin Green said...

Stef, artist, musicians etc. create something in the hope and expectation that it will looked at or be listened to: that there will be an audience. I remain of the view however, that as a general rule there is little point in thinking about an audience. Musicians tend to be their best audience. For most I imagine the distinction you draw between wanting things to sound a certain way because it may add something to the listening experience and just being interesting to play that way, simply doesn’t exist. They amount to the same thing. As an audience, what we listen to is their listening experience.

And who is this audience? The bloke in the scruffy beard nodding off, the pretty girl who keeps smiling, the guy who comes to every gig, the eminent free jazz blog reviewer, etc?

That is not to say of course, that in live music the presence of an audience doesn’t make a difference. Many musicians speak of their performances being lifted or hampered by the mood of those listening – the focus or lack of interest – but I think that’s something rather different.

By the way, what’s a record store?

Matthew Grigg said...

I think Colin has nailed it here with the comment "what we listen to is their listening experience." In a recent interview Ken Vandermark has spoken about "failing musically", and when asked what he meant by that he talked about not reaching the sound/idea he had in mind at the time. He said however that subsequent listening back to a recording of that 'failure' can often reveal that it sounds 'good' even without achieving the intended goal at the time. He also recounts being blown away by the playing of other musicians only to see them disappointed by what they'd perceived as a 'failure'.

I think that whilst any creative person is pleased that their is a receptive audience for their work, the work is created to satisfy a personal desire rather than to be enjoyed/consumed by others - that is a happy byproduct.

I agree with the classification/demarcation of music to be largely "semantics and practical organisation." Genre is not something I subscribe to and I think it is largely shorthand for a reviewer, or a means toward marketing/presenting music for those seeking to sell it. However, in the case of musics related to 'Jazz' it is a persistent and thorny issue, especially given the socio-political overtones associated with the word, and the rejection of its use by musicians almost since its use was coined. I think this is why there is still such a constant debate and perpetual searching for definition for alternatives, and why so much energy is devoted to the discussion. To quote William Parker, "How dare we spend so much valuable energy answering such questions as "what is Jazz?"".

The Ken Vandermark interview I mentioned above can be listened to here:

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