Form and (free) improvisation

June 28th, 2011 |  Published in Articles

…free improvisation has been around for a long time now, and many distinctive and sometimes incompatible aesthetics are at work. Which again begs the question, what is this freedom actually about?” John Butcher, Freedom and Sound, 2011

Or perhaps it’s a question of what those aesthetics are? Is there a form to free improv? I wonder if it’s a question of perspective. It makes sense for me that the first couple of generations of free improvisers should hold to the ‘free’ of ‘free improvisation’. I can only imagine that the form-based musical culture of 60s/ 70s Britain was massively restrictive. For myself, just shy of 30, ‘free improvisation’ seems to indicate less a liberation from form and structure and more a set of loose conditions inspired by a relatively limited set of musicians – whether that’s Eric Dolphy, Derek Bailey, AMM etc. Free Improv isn’t a museum piece, or a defunct, atavistic culture, and there are probably more free improvisers now than at any point in the last 50-odd years. Now, when we see a Free Improv concert, we expect a few things. We don’t ‘know’ what’s going to happen in the same way we do with Status Quo, but we have a fair few ambiguous parameters.

There’s a trite criticism of Free Improv that persists: how ‘free’ is it really, if everyone does more or less the same thing? I’ve seen Butcher 3 times in the last year, and each time there were a few recurrent techniques and ideas. It’s still ‘free’, of course, but it’s a contingent freedom. As Butcher says, there’s conditions – other players, room acoustics, experience, mood etc. ‘Free’ may have initially meant free of certain well-worn constraints – melody, harmony, structure – but free improv, since that watershed, has settled into an expansive set of techniques and concepts that, while voided of ‘classic’ ‘formal’ musicalities, is fairly recognisable to those of us who’ve listened to an amount of it. Free Improv, I would say, didn’t abandon form but arrived back to it by accident. And, in terms of a lack of documentation of that form, might be accused of covering over the realisation there’s a ‘form’ to free improv.

It strikes me that the broad panoply of approaches and ideas in free improv are stored solely in the living memories of a few hundred players. The question I’m asking, I suppose, is how can we access these personal libraries of techniques? The scene is aurally well-documented, but I’ve yet to see any ‘Lean 20 free improv licks in a week’-type teaching aids. It’s taken me some 15 years to get to the point of feeling capable of doing free improv outside of my bedroom – while with the help of a few books I’ve managed to get a fair way with classical music in just 5 or 6 years.

Butcher takes umbrage in his article with the notion of ‘extended technique’, which implies that techniques implicit to the player’s style are ‘outside’ of classic musicality. The point being (if I understand it right) is that it’s not ‘extended’, it’s just technique. This could range from ‘just over the edge’ techniques – Hendrix/ Sonic Youth’s use of feedback as an implicit part of composition – to the more radical uses of instruments – say, Borbetomagus’ horn modifications or Hauschka’s piano preparations – to a more complete alteration of the fundamental use of the instrument – Keith Rowe or Kevin Drumm’s use of the guitar as source material, Otomo Yoshihide’s turntables, Toshimaru Nakumara’s no-input mixing desk etc.

I can see his point – I think most improvisers have at some point come across people who just don’t get why you’d play an instrument in anything other than a so-called orthodox way. I remember hearing an audience member (or ‘twat’, to give him his proper title) shout out ‘He’s not even fucking playing that!’ in response to my band’s guitarist placing a tambourine on top of his guitar strings.

The idea of extended technique seems to come from 20th-century composers extending the canon of techniques used by players – though the genealogy of buggering about with what an instrument is ‘meant’ to do extends much further. I can imagine there wasn’t always a codified, rigidly-defined way of playing a sforzando. In this context, the ‘classical’ music education is considered a canon of techniques, and the ‘extended’ technique is additional to that. Some of these become standardised – following Bartok, violin students now know what Bartok Pizz is (a particularly rigorous pizzicato). So Bartok pizz (depending on how draconian your teacher is) is no longer ‘extended’ technique, but a general part of the average violinist’s vocabulary and technique.

This possibly seems like a quibble over semantics. In a way it is. But I’m getting there, I assure you.

Butcher is absolutely right to say that extended technique reduces general practise to the point where it may be repeated in formal, tightly-controlled ‘classical’ music. A ‘formalisation’. An extreme version of this in ‘classical’ music is Helmut Lachenmann, who fastidiously scores out his pieces with a baffling array of directions for the players – whether that means using the very butt of the bow to sound notes (as with Toccatina, below ) or specific directions of movement for the heel of the hand on an acoustic guitar (as with Salut für Caudwell).

In Lachenmann’s idiom – where his role is that of instigator and controller of a piece of music, limiting the personal expression of the player almost entirely – extended techniques, in terms of notating a specific way of playing an instrument, are absolutely necessarily. In the Free Improv idiom, too, people are constantly searching for new ways to rub, bow, hit, stroke, blow (etc) their instruments to produce new sounds, to produce interesting sounds, to explore sound in general. The major difference between the two is that free improv is radically opposed to the precisely repeatable event, and more often than not opposed to the idea of the written score (with a few exceptions, as Butcher mentions). The electronic wing of ‘experimental’ music does a great job of documenting things – I’m thinking of the circuit-bending hordes – but I’m not seeing the same from the less gear-based wings of ‘experimental’ music.

Improv isn’t a particularly new thing – there are traditions the world over which include improvisation, one way or another. With most of the folk improv traditions – whether that’s Nyabinghi drumming, Iranian Maqams, the Indian rhythmic systems etc – there exists formalisation. Not in the same way as Western classical transcription – often they are oral or practical traditions, the ‘passing of the knowledge’ from one player to another in a direct teacher-pupil relationship. Free Improv, as far as I see it, relies upon a hardy few to preserve it on record, and techniques are passed within private, infrequent conversations between players. 50 years from now, will this be enough to preserve the music? After our records are dust and our CDs rust-ridden (I won’t even dignify mp3s with being slightly preservable, given the hard drive atrophy I’ve been through in just the last 3 years) – who’s going to preserve this music, and help players explore the range of techniques (extended or otherwise)?

The point of this article is a concern, primarily. Someone like Butcher has acquired hundreds, if not thousands, of Butcher-specific techniques over the years. The same is doubtless true of every free improviser of a certain standing. Unlike Lachenmann, these people have no impetus to transcribe their findings – repeatability per se is anathema. But what I want to point to is the notion of a formal improvisation. I don’t mean in terms of theme-development-recapitulation (or similar), but in terms of finding some way of preserving techniques, away from the transience of recordings. Free improv seems to be in rude health at the moment – at least, as rude health as a musical ‘form’ with a fairly small audience can be – but we can’t guarantee it’ll always be this way. The trailblazers of the idiom are not going to be here forever, and as they pass, so to do lifetimes of techniques.

What does form in ‘free improv’ sound like? There are those moments where improvisers build to a crescendo and rant away at their instruments for a bit. There’s those moments where some musical event changes the dynamic – like when a free improvisation changes from fractured, rapid-fire arpeggios to more plaintive, drawn-out notes. There’s the moments where a motif recurs at irregular intervals, giving the impression of completeness, or sarcasm, to an improvisation. There’s plenty of other forms, ideas, events etc which commonly recur, and there are plenty of techniques which are shared by numerous free improvisers. There’s a thread on BangtheBore at the moment sharing precisely that sort of information.

Form isn’t opposed to improvisation, even free improvisation. Form has a more opaque relationship to free improvisation. It isn’t necessary – or perhaps I should say it’s not central – but it still pops its head over the parapet.

I’ve generally found that, while improvisers individually are happy to share ideas and techniques, there’s nothing like the documentation that follows folk-traditional and classical musics. While Messiaen falls in and out of vogue, there’s nothing stopping a hardy student from fiddling about with modes of limited transposition, so long as they have a library at their disposal. There’s nothing stopping us, as musical society, from picking up the ideas of a given composer again in 50 years. Learning to play like Derek Bailey would take a very acute ear, a lot of guesswork and years of failed experiments. Surely the scene would thrive if a player could get involved without having to be proximal to an experimental musical culture like London?

Free Improv, as it stands, could fall foul of becoming an antiquated idea, with a series of hand-me-down oral anecdotes and the aural documents of the records and journalism. Can we not, while the scene is healthy and its protagonists still kicking, push towards a formalisation of free improvisation? Can we sacrifice our attachment to the ‘free’ of ‘free improv’ for the sake of preservation of an idiom that’s keeping the hardy few busy?

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June 28th, 2011 | by | Published in Articles


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