Wednesday, October 25, 2006

what’s in a name: free improvisation

What do you call this? Free improvisation? Open improvisation? Total improvisation? Each term comes with its baggage. If we wish for some kind of ahistorical, innocent purity, we ain’t gonna find it here. Each designation encapsulates a particular historical vantage point; comes with its own mythology. They are liberating in some ways, and oppressive in others. In short, these terms are political.
I don’t wish to fuel (local and transnational) factionalism in improvised music traditions (there’s certainly enough chauvinism and tribalism already) by opening up and inspecting these labels, but these labels confuse and alienate as much as they simplify and welcome. Coming to grips with these signifiers is part of the process of understanding the history and practice of improvised musics.

Take, for example, the twists and turns that’re found in Wikipedia’s entry on free improvisation (archived version dated October 12th 2006 ). According to the article:

…[in free improvisation] the musicians make an active effort to avoiding overt references to recognizable musical genres.
…[free improvisation] can be considered both as a technique (employed by any musician who wishes to disregard rigid genres and forms) and as a recognizable genre in its own right.
…[Derek Bailey claims that] the form [free improvisation] offers musicians more possibilities "per cubic second" than any genre….
…[free improvisation] "cannot be traced back to a genre other than the very generic term 'avant-garde.'"
So where is genre positioned in relationship to the term free improvisation? For that matter, what is the relationship between style and free improvisation?
"Free improvisation," as a style of music….
…Performers [in free improvisation] may choose to play in a certain style….
…it [is] difficult to pinpoint a single moment when the style [free improvisation] was "born".
…Bailey contends that free improvisation must have been the earliest musical style….
[Bailey:] "It [free improvisation] has no stylistic or idiomatic commitment."
Furthermore, the article confuses free improvisation as tradition (a sub-culture or sensibility that is more or less specific to a time and place, and/or a group of people/actors), and the technique, genre or style (an element or “piece” that can be executed or practiced within the bounds of one or more traditions). Without clarification, the article suggests that the latter pertains to the former. Beyond Wikipedia, the tangle of these, at best, overlapping terms is not particularly helped by the occasional sloppy, ad-hoc generalizations, and the various sects claiming this term as their own.
But I digress….
‘Free improvisation,’ confusingly, could be the term denoting assortment of overlapping or unrelated things. It designates a, perhaps local or perhaps transnational, (quasi-)tradition. It’s also a practice, perhaps associated with one or more of these traditions. It may be a technique. It may be a (quasi-)genre or (quasi-)idiom. Finally, it may signify an aspiration.
It is last of these meanings of free improvisation that I, simultaneously, am most sympathetic towards, and find illustrates a hazard of this term—the hazard in invoking the word ‘free.’ The question often asked, particularly by those who do not practice ‘free improvisation,’ is, can an improvisation be truly free? If ‘free’ stands for an aspiration—an ideal to strive towards—then this question becomes meaningless. It does not matter if absolute freedom is possible, it is the process of aiming for that goal that is of value. Yet ‘free’ in this sense has the same chimeric quality that plagues similar designations of cultural exchange such as ‘authenticity.’ All too easily I can transform this word into a flag to march under without any critical reflection whatsoever.

I should probably note that I generally avoid using the term free improvisation (I prefer the maybe slightly less problematic open improvisation). I do this not only because of some of the tribal reasons (which I’ve already bemoaned, and, I admit, I am somewhat guilty of), but because I often find that people, before hearing the music, already know what free improvisation sounds like. In other words, there’s a strong preconception about what the effect and practice that goes with that label….

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