By Colin Green
Depending from where you start counting – and typically, there’s no consensus on the date – free improvisation has just passed or is, or will shortly be celebrating, its half-century. This might explain the number of books on the subject which have appeared recently, such as Trevor Barre’s Beyond Jazz, Plink, Plonk & Scratch, the Golden Age of Free Music in London 1966–1972, John Corbett’s A Listener’s Guide to Free Improvisation and Jack Wright’s The Free Musics (which I’ve not yet read). Then again, it might just be a taking stock now we have a better perspective on matters, a more considered view from a critical distance. The fifty-year mark also provides an opportunity to scrutinise certain notions that in some quarters have ossified into established orthodoxies about the music, myths that have attained the status of indubitable truths, which need to be re-examined. For that reason, some of the issues I address go beyond the book under review.
David Toop has written a number of highly regarded books about “sound theory and history”, contributed to The Wire and other journals and is professor of Audio Culture and Improvisation at London College of Communication. He conducts an annual course on the practice and analysis of improvisation, but it’s not just talk: Toop is also a musician, playing various standard, home-made and found instruments, primarily in freely improvised music. Into the Maelstrom: Music, Improvisation and the Dream of Freedom: Before 1970 is the first of a proposed pair; the second book will consider matters from 1970 to the present.
One of the problems in providing a meaningful overview of the subject is the lack of uniformity on pretty much any issue to do with improv. (Even “improv” is contentious – Corbett refuses to use it to avoid confusion with stand-up comedy, and Toop regards the abbreviation as “infantilising”.) Surprisingly, for musicians who spend their working lives cooperating in some shape or form, when it comes to deliberating about what exactly it is they do and why, and the significance it has, there’s an awful lot of disagreement among both practitioners and proponents. This may be partly because, compared with other music comparatively little that has been written about free jazz and free improvisation. The relative absence of a common framework and fixed criteria may be one of free music’s chief virtues but this also means it’s difficult music to put into words, perhaps the reason some authors elect to provide background information, which ends up occupying most of the foreground, but say next to nothing about the actual music.
Some of the problems flow from prioritising context over content, and theory over the music itself, which often seems to have little value or interest other than as a jumping-off point for non-musical pontification, tangential but easier to write about. There’s also a disproportionate emphasis given to the concept of freedom, an idea which takes hold more vividly on the page than in what we hear. It’s not how much freedom musicians have – all music is subject to constraints of some kind, physical or self-imposed – but what they do with it that counts. Because freedom in its most general sense is something to which any right-thinking person subscribes, to suggest otherwise can be taken as a rejection of freedom itself and to assert the importance of freedom provides an opportunity to appear righteous, without even having to get out of your chair. Such thinking has been a significant weakness in certain writings about the music and has obscured our understanding of some of its most distinctive features.
What’s in a name? In the case of “free improvisation” unfortunately, quite a lot. First, there’s the word “free”. The transference of properties and values we associate with freedom generally to free improvisation (and free jazz) is an instance of what the philosopher Gilbert Ryle coined, a “category error”: confusing the properties of things which are distinct, for example: because the head of state represents the nation, any criticism of the head of state is a criticism of the nation. Just because certain things are related or share certain features, doesn’t mean that all their attributes are the same or that they can be spoken of in the same way.
This confusion, often motivated by wishful thinking, has led people to make some pretty outrageous claims about free music: that it embodies all the principles of freedom we cherish, improvising musicians are more liberated and therefore better people, it’s preferable to music subject to constraints, such as notated music, that free music is opposed to discipline and you can do what you like (in fact, it requires a different kind of discipline); even, that it should be free of charge – as if its practitioners didn’t earn little enough already. I can’t help but think that the musical world would have been better off if the word “free” had been omitted. It is, to adopt another of Ryle’s terms, a systematically misleading expression – misleading for some commentators that is, not the business of making the music itself.
It’s a fallacy perpetuated, albeit unwittingly, by the definitions banner that appears at the head of this blog. To state the obvious: the meaning and scope of the adjective “free” depends in large part on the noun it is qualifying. Free elections differ from free school meals and free economics, and the considerations which go into assessing each are quite independent. Of course, that’s not to say that certain features aren’t shared, only that caution should be exercised in identifying them, and that the value attributed to one kind of thing doesn’t mean that it has equivalent value elsewhere. Analogies should not be taken too literally, but when freedom is mentioned, for some, the image of Liberty Leading the People and all its associations, is firmly lodged in their mind. You can see the attraction.
Toop drops “free” and in the early parts of the book largely uses just “improvisation”, but even that isn’t without its problems. There are many kinds of improvisation and free improvisation – the subject of the book – is very different from other forms, to the extent that thoughts about one kind may not shed any real light on others. This was amply demonstrated in Derek Bailey’s TV series about improvisation: everything from country-and-western, cadenzas in classical piano concertos (Bach, Mozart and Beethoven were renowned improvisers), solos in jazz to Bailey’s own brand of “non-idiomatic” improvisation. Such diversity extends to writings on the subject. In his introductory remarks, Toop quotes from thinkers as different as Eric Hobsbawn and Jacques Derrida but I’m not sure that these writers are talking about the same thing. Their subject is improvisation, yet it’s doubtful the observations can be taken as having application outside the specific concerns of the authors or that there’s anything particularly useful to be learnt from them concerning free music.
Possibly the most telling quote in the book is taken from Bailey’s Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music (DaCapo Press, 1980):
“I couldn’t imagine a meaningful consideration of improvisation from anything other than a practical and personal point of view. For there is no general or widely held theory of improvisation and I would have thought it self-evident that improvisation has no existence outside its practice. Among improvising musicians there is endless speculation about its nature but only an academic would have the temerity to mount a theory of improvisation.”There’s no all-embracing theory of improvisation, and there probably couldn’t be one which was genuinely informative. Instead, there’s a cluster of topics, some having greater significance than others, depending on the context and the kind of improvisation under discussion. There are no underlying principles which characterise all improvisation, and by its nature free improvisation is resistant to inclusiveness. But if Bailey is right, and the first-person perspective is paramount, is it possible to write a history of free improvisation which is anything more than anecdotal, a succession of personal impressions, set in context? Toop goes some way to answering this question. As the publisher’s press release puts it: “Neither strictly chronological, or exclusively a history, Into the Maelstrom investigates a wide range of improvisational tendencies”.
For music which celebrates the fluidity of experience and the ephemeral, free music has proved surprisingly durable. In musical terms, few recordings sound dated (though some early examples are a little precious by modern standards) a sign that such music probably also marks the end of narrative history, the notion that musical development is goal-orientated, consisting of cycles of growth and decay with styles having identifiable aims, each representing an innovation, reaction against and progress from its predecessor. Such thinking is partly an inheritance of the Enlightenment and there’s a strong case that this has not been the position in other arts for at least fifty years. As Arthur C. Danto put it in respect of the options afforded by artistic pluralism: “When one direction is as good as another direction, there is no concept of direction any longer to apply.” There’s equal merit in regarding the history of free improvisation in similar terms. No doubt, as with most other activities improvisers tend to get better at what they do, but it’s more a matter of depth than direction. Development is by way of refinement and accretion, not revolutionary jolts, though this probably only become apparent after 1970, by which point the ground had been largely mapped out.
Free Improvisation’s purely musical precursors were short-lived, often obscure, personal experiments, such as Lennie Tristano’s 1949 session for Capitol with Lee Konitz and others, and the overdubbed recording he made in his studio in 1953: ‘Descent into the Maelstrom’ (from which Toop takes part of his title) an improvised rendition of the swirling whirlpool from Edgar Allan Poe’s short story. The atonal currents are startling; nevertheless, in its own way it’s as much a piece of programme music as Liszt’s depiction of fountains in ‘Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este’.
In the light of the above, it might be thought misleading to provide a seamless narrative of these often fragmentary and isolated phenomena, but this doesn’t mean they benefit from being written about in a disconnected fashion. Toop favours vignettes, rather mannered effects, such as describing sequences from actual and imagined movies, and silly section headings. The lines of connection may not be straight but there’s a zigzagging between individuals, media and periods which tends to confuse rather than illuminate. He has a meandering style, but there are times when ambling becomes rambling: points could be made more simply in a less prolix manner; and there are far too many, often lengthy, quotations from just about everyone, many of which could have been abbreviated, summarised or relegated to footnotes – better integrated to preserve the flow. At times, the book is extremely hard going, especially for the uninitiated, and more difficult to follow than need be, ricocheting in various directions and with repeated jump cuts producing a general sense of dizziness. It’s not that Toop doesn’t have insights, and he makes many valuable connections, but it often feels like he’s immersed in conversation with fellow academics or musicians, anxious to reference as much as possible, with no regard for the general reader. Even as someone reasonably well acquainted with the music and some of the thinkers and artists he considers, at times I was left scratching my head, wondering if the maelstrom was a metaphor for improvisation or the book’s composition, possibly both. Although much of the music lacks a clearly defined beginning, middle and end and eschews traditional structures, I’m unconvinced this is a suitable method for chronicling its development.
Notwithstanding the disparity of much of the material, it could be argued there are threads which can be drawn together, general trends concerning spontaneity and the unrestricted expression of self, private over public – vestiges of the Romantic sensibility where the hierarchies of the man-made world are rejected in favour of a more natural order, closing the distance between the vernacular and the aesthetic – which reached a cultural fruition in the Sixties. From time to time, we do see glimpses of a bigger picture, but they are frustratingly episodic.
Free improvisation was born out of a sense of newness, novelty that required continual refreshment, which had been a defining characteristic of the avant-garde in the visual arts and had spread to many other areas, including music. Nothing could be more original than where each performance is something unique: musical content as a process never to be repeated. Essential to this was an implicit critique of the status-quo, musical, personal and social, which inevitably carried political connotations. Whether such circumstances are also the predominant features of the music which resulted however, and whether they continue to define free improvisation or whether it is something more autonomous, are not straightforward issues.
Early in the book, Toop makes the following bold statement:
“The freedom of which Du Bois [an early civil rights campaigner] spoke has specific goals – the right of all human beings to sit anywhere in the bus, eat in the same restaurant, to form relationships without censure and to participate in political process – yet it also addresses less tractable areas of human potentiality, the moral dilemmas that open up with a gradual increase in personal and political freedoms, the loss of certitude as restrictive rules are overthrown and boundaries are transgressed, the reluctance or inability of people to change their feelings even though they adjust their outward behaviour. The dream of improvisation is to accomplish all of these goals, thus achieving not only the anarchist hope of equality in government without rulers but also the crafting of a new practice that enables solitary and highly individualistic behaviour within collective action.”Heady stuff indeed – what Toop claims to be “Utopian aims” – for mere musicians. Clearly, Toop has a dream, but to what extent is it a reflection of what improvisers think, or even thought before 1970? And even analogously, from our current perspective it’s difficult to see how, say, a bunch of guys improvising in a room over a pub can seriously be likened to taking a stand on segregation. It all seems somewhat self-aggrandising and, dare one say it, slightly ridiculous.
There’s no reason to suppose that free music sprang from a single set of impulses or that all aspirations were the same. It lacks a universal charter and I suspect the notion that there’s a common ideological framework which binds improvisers together is very far from the truth. No doubt, they all believe in freedom – who doesn’t? – but when it comes to day to day music-making, and the kind of satisfaction it brings, it’s doubtful such that lofty ideals have a great part to play, if any. It’s not that freedom isn’t important, but its real significance is not as an object of achievement but a means of stimulating and enabling the creative imagination and an attention to aspects of sound which might otherwise be missed. Free music is means of enshrining the instantaneous, music having the immediacy of passing sensations, tapping into the inchoate, prompting the irrational and unusual, and producing unexpected empathies and dislocations: one of the reasons it’s so difficult to expound, even for its creators.
In fact, Toop frequently undermines any Utopian dreams. Throughout the book in dealing with individuals, he recognises multiple motives of a different kind, such as Evan Parker, Trevor Watts and John Stevens in the Spontaneous Music Ensemble:
“For Parker this was a philosophy of instrumental practice and group communication informed by the sciences; for Watts, growing up in the manufacturing powerhouse of Halifax with no defined sense of what his future might be, it was the freedom of expression he heard in 78rpm records by Nellie Lutcher, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Ernie Henry, brought back from Canada and the United States by his father in the 1920s and 1930s; from Stevens it was his father’s tap dancing and boxing, the American musicals he saw at the cinema with his mother and then a totally unexpected (for somebody of his class and education) encounter with Webern and Japanese gagaku”There’s no doubt that forming part of a collective was also significant however, and Toop’s observations on SME’s “dialogical, non-hierarchical, close-listening style of improvisation” gets it about right:
“Though not explicit or even intended, the political inference was clear…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.”Like all music, improvisation can be inspired by and conjure up, many things. Although there are occasions when as an aid to understanding these can be compared to the dynamics of human relations, fundamentally they are musical or sonic relationships and only work in the aural sphere, or fail for just those reasons. As with any communal enterprise, musical or otherwise, improvisation can engender a more respectful and sympathetic view of other participants (or not, as the case may be) but as a listener the only non-musical insight I can think of is that cooperation is better than conflict – the sort of thing usually reserved for fridge magnets – though in truth, a bit of conflict can stir the creative juices. Some musicians might think differently, but this in turn raises the knotty question as to whether how they see things and what goes through their minds, conscious or otherwise, are what confers significance on what they do – taking us back to Bailey’s comments.
It’s an issue which Toop touches on from time to time and two sections of the book, Collective Subjectivities 1 and 2, suggest further light might be shed on such matters. In the first, Toop invited the musicians who participated in a collective improvisation (including himself) to contribute texts about how it went, together with a member of the audience, Steve Beresford, also a musician. The responses are various, their approaches to describing what went on differ substantially, and there appears to be no major consensus. Beresford thought the performance unsatisfying. In the second Collective Subjectivity, Toop considers matters from an audience perspective and there are examples of unusual audience reactions submitted to him through a social media site, some very amusing.
It’s unclear what to make of all of this, or even what Toop makes of it. That musicians, and audiences, can agree or differ in their views on and responses to, a performance is common to all kinds of music, not just improvisation. And although the emotions, beliefs and perceptions of the performers can play a causal role in what we hear, it’s not by reference to such matters that listeners engage with the music. If we were to learn that during one passage the saxophonist was actually considering the best route to the next gig, would this alter our assessment of what he was playing? It’s what goes on in the public domain which counts, not the perspective of the performer. In this respect, free music is no different from any other.
Toop is at his best when discussing the music, with which he’s had a long association and he shows an intimate understanding of how it works, such as his description of the use of silence by AMM:
“Heavy with presence, silences assert themselves as more than spaces, pauses, or non-events; they are treated as silences within a greater silence, replete emptiness, resistant to action yet compelling action, full of possibility.”There are interesting observations about John Butcher’s solo work (though long after 1970, like a lot of the music considered), and a perceptive analysis of the physical act of playing in Bailey’s music and his almost obsessive need to keep practicing and reinventing. The coverage of John Stevens and SME is particularly good, tracing the several paths that led to their frontier spirit; and even-handed, recognising the tension implicit in Stevens’ need to limit the kind of freedom he was prepared to allow, underlining just how context-sensitive freedom is.
Toop also covers musicians that often get no more than a passing reference, such as the Japanese Group Ongaku, Lukas Foss’ Improvisation Chamber Ensemble, Alan Davie (better known as a painter) and from Italy, Musica Elettronica Viva and Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza, whose early recordings are shortly to be reissued by Die Schachtel.
Free improvisation required the liberalism of the Sixties to take root but remained self-sufficient thereafter, largely indifferent to changes in fashion and popular taste, as befits music regarded as incomprehensible and unworthy of attention by most people (one of its attractions for others). As a cultural barometer, it’s next to useless and ultimately, along with the freedom to set their own criteria, this might be the freedom which has proved most important for improvisers, though hardly the stuff of dreams – freedom from commercial pressure and the lure of success, leaving them to get on with whatever they want, so far as budgets allow, able to reflect on themselves and the world around them, but never beholden to it. Something beyond entertainment and the peripheral noise of our lives. Inevitably, that kind of independence and freedom from commodification come at a price.
FYI: soundohm does mail-order. The label releasing the il Gruppo box set is Die Schachtel.
Unfortunately I believe that the box set May Be out of print.
Soundohm is worth a visit anyway.
Thanks for the great book review, and if the book has any merit (I haven't read it) is that at least it tries to capture the music, however diverse and however different it is appreciated. It's second merit is that it opens a debate (if that's needed) and it leads to your thoughtful insights.
The very same debate took place in the visual arts and especially in painting some thirty years earlier, when abstract painting started defying conventional norms. Some gave it a humanistic and anarchistic programme, some kept it still as a personal battle with art itself. And in retrospect, within abstract or non-figurative art, there is a broad spectrum of styles with the expected diversity because conventions fell away.
The historiographer can only try to capture with the words of the establishment ("music", "improvised", "art", "jazz", ...) that which by definition wants to go beyond the capacity for words, in what is often uncharted territory, full of explorations into new areas, and preferably all musicians in different uncharted areas, which makes it more interesting (why would they explore what others have already discovered?), so any attempt to categorise, to name and to define can only be a vague approximation of reality. The big difference with other art is the collective exploration, which can lead to chaos but when in good hands also into wonderful new listening experiences.
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