The Free Musics by Jack Wright

Daniel Barbiero By

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The 1980s free improvisers were essentially a small underground community that got little or no outside attention and lacked financial and media support. But it was held together by the participants' commitment to its practices. Commercial success or even viability wasn't an aim, or at least not a realistic one; the more immediate desire was to bring together musicians—and in some cases non-musicians working with sound—to exchange ideas and collaborate with each other. In this regard the self-initiated, self-sustained culture that grew up around this wave of free improvisation resembled the contemporary DIY cultures of the cassette underground, with which it had some direct, personal links, and punk.

These free improvisers set up relatively few, if any, barriers to participation. In contrast to the professionals who had played free jazz, they largely lacked or otherwise rejected standards of technical expertise and selectivity in regard to what kinds of musicians they would play with. They were generally unconcerned with convincing others that they were "serious musicians." Which many of them probably weren't interested in being anyway. In a useful analogy, Wright draws a parallel between free improvisation and automatic writing—the "pure psychic automatism" that Surrealist André Breton defined as the essence of Surrealist practice. For free improvisers, the spontaneous upwelling of sound-creating gestures, without the restraints and second-guessing imposed by self-editing, would produce an improvised music liberated from the mediation of deliberate, and deliberated over, structures, let alone pre-existing labels or genres.

During this period free improvisation was a marginal activity relative to any purportedly legitimate musical establishment—Wright recalls having to find "less discriminating venues" to play in his home base of Philadelphia during this time. As a community it was nevertheless widely distributed geographically, if sparsely populated. There was even enough interest and infrastructure to support something like a performance circuit for those willing to try: Wright estimates that between 1984 and 1989 he played seventy locations in North America over the course of fourteen tours.

Eventually, though, this marginality took its toll. Wright describes a situation where free improvisers became discouraged because of what seemed to them to be their permanent consignment to an ignored underground; as a result, some stopped playing or began playing other kinds of music in addition to or instead of free improvisation. Wright, however, continued to play free music exclusively.

Free Musics at the Change of the Century

Wright saw a new interest in free improvisation beginning around 1996 and lasting through approximately 2008. This renewed interest was partly afforded by the internet, which facilitated easy communication among like-minded artists regardless of their physical location, and by the widespread use of digital technologies for sound creation and reproduction. With many of the newly-available digital tools, there was very little need for the hours of practice it would take to master an ordinary instrument; with little more than a sense of curiosity an artist could start improvising with the devices virtually just out of the box. Curiosity—about sound as such—was and in fact still is the primary motivation for many free improvisers; for those artists the goal is not necessarily to make a piece of music per se but rather to find out what sound does under certain circumstances.

Wright characterizes this period of resurgence as being distinguished by an influx of new players/listeners—often the same people; the separation of career from non-career players; and a split between jazz-based improvisation and free improvisation. He also noticed that, in contrast to jazz-rooted improvisation and earlier types of free playing, these newer improvisers were often likely to combine electronics with acoustic instruments, or acoustic instruments with home-built instruments.

An important and influential force during this period was the interest in the reduced, minimal sounds of lowercase improvisation. Lowercase music, which framed improvisation in terms of restricted volume, density and expressivity, brought to the free improvisation of the 1990s-2000s a set of significant changes of aesthetics and sensibility relative to other varieties of improvised music. One of the hallmarks—indeed, the signature strategy—of lowercase improvisation was the close attentiveness to what other players were doing. Wright sees this emphasis on the primacy of listening as engendering a distinct, qualitative change in free improvisation, one that put a premium on receptivity to sound and sensitivity to the performance as a whole rather than on making personal statements or displaying instrumental ability.

Correlatively, the generally introverted sensibility of lowercase improvisation manifested itself in transparent textures and incrementally developing sound structures. This focus on contemplative microsounds provided a contrast to the more expressive, extroverted jazz-based free music, and widened the divide that had been growing between jazz and free improvisation. Instead, the sound profile of lowercase music was consonant with, if not deriving directly from, the experimental side of contemporary composed Western art music. (It's important to note here that musicians trained within the Western tradition had been experimenting with free improvisation since at least the early 1960s. In addition to the New York School composers, who for philosophical reasons may not have wanted to acknowledge the improvisational implications of the indeterminate scores they were creating, there was The New Music Ensemble, the Gruppo Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza, and experiments by Pauline Oliveros, Terry Riley and others associated with the San Francisco Tape Music Center, to name just a few.) Wright was himself introduced to lowercase music in 1998 by Bhob Rainey and the Boston group Nmperign; it was to have a profound effect on him as an instrumentalist and collaborator. Although its tendencies ran counter to his established style of physical, expressive playing, it did expand his technical vocabulary and widened the range of musical contexts in which he could contribute effectively.

Enabled by its emphasis on lower volumes and close listening, lowercase improvisation also afforded the nuanced exploration of timbre for its own sake. This further separated free improvisation from jazz-based improvisation. Free jazz had made liberal use of unconventional timbres, but as the vehicle for musical expression. Lowercase improvisation, like avant-garde and experimental composed music, tended instead to treat timbre as an object of research and to foreground it as a musical element. Considered as an independent musical parameter on a par with pitch or rhythm, timbre offers a common ground on which acoustic and electronic instruments can meet. A good part of the original appeal of electronic instruments lay in their ability to provide an almost unlimited number of timbres; at the same time that electronics began to establish a significant presence within music, advances in instrumental techniques broadened the timbral palettes available to acoustic musicians. Wright himself often plays with electronic improvisers; his engagement with extended technique on saxophone is deep and nuanced, and his performances are often marked by sounds that diverge quite dramatically from what a conventional saxophone makes.

Structurally, lowercase imported a sense of continuity and coherence into improvised performances. Lowercase improvisations might be based on compositional structures, no matter how minimal; alternately, they often featured a consistency of tone that could create the impression that there were compositional structures undergirding the music, even if there weren't. Wright describes this as a "syntactic" approach to improvisation as opposed to free improvisation's otherwise "paratactic" approach—an approach based on linear development rather than on a discontinuous chain of episodes.

Worth mentioning in this regard is the influence of 1970s non-academic electronic music on post-1980s free improvisation. Many artists of the late 1990s-mid 2000s worked with purely electronic instruments, sometimes solo and sometimes in pairs or small ensembles. Their playing often took its cue from the floating, improvised soundscapes created by electronics artists active in Berlin and elsewhere in the post-psychedelic era. As with improvisation animated by lowercase principles, this music too was permeated by a sense of architecture—though sounding worlds away.

Free Music as a Non-Career

For Wright, the wave of improvisation that welled up in the 1990s completed a shift in the kind of artists predominant in the improvisation community, a shift that had begun with the punk and free improvisation scenes of the 1980s. Wright observed that non-career players—artists who weren't and seemingly had no interest in becoming professional musicians—became more numerous than professionals. The de-professionalization of improvised music that Wright first saw setting in with the free jazz artists' efforts at self-organization was now more or less complete.

Improvisers at the change of the millennium, being free of the professional's dependence on building and maintaining an audience, consequently had no need to be aware of let alone follow current musical fashions, and could replace external motivation with a purely internal motivation. On the negative side, the de-professionalization of the music meant that it lacked the cultural prestige of other musics, including jazz. In practical terms, this manifested itself in a relative or absolute lack of institutional support and major media interest. It also brought significant changes to the way free musics were (and are) distributed. Non-career artists, not being dependent on selling music to make a living, tolerated or encouraged the free distribution of their music over the internet. For many current creators of improvised and experimental music this is a matter of principle rather than of circumstance, and thrives with the proliferation of netlabels and an active Creative Commons movement.

And now? Free music continues as a largely self-organized practice, usually within a broader network of allied musics. The picture Wright sketches is of an unorthodox music that's thriving in unorthodox ways. Costs in major urban areas are high and make the sustenance of venues and communities difficult, but there has been growth outside of the larger metropolitan areas—the Midwest and Southeast in particular are seeing more interest in improvised music—and touring is increasing. The venues themselves are still relatively small, frequently ephemeral, and often take the form of house shows, alternative art galleries, and pop-up underground spaces.

Contemporary programs of experimental music are likely to include sets of freely improvised music alongside electronic noise music, DIY sound art and even performance art, poetry and dance. Although relatively uncommon, some of these programs include contemporary composed music, generally of an "experimental" type. (As Wright observes, the label "experimental" now simply connotes virtually any kind of unusual or unconventional music.) An occasionally, free improvisation will be on the same bill as—yes—free jazz.

Free improvisation, then, lives. As a practice, it is liable to undergo cyclic periods of dormancy and resilience, of flagging and cresting interest. As a self-motivated art form answering to its own sense of curiosity, freely improvised music will continue to be made as long as there are people who feel it must be made.
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