Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Negotiating Freedom: Values and Practices in Contemporary Improvised Music

Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Negotiating Freedom: Values and Practices in Contemporary Improvised Music

Article excerpt

Free improvisation is not an action resulting from freedom; it is an action directed towards freedom.

--Davey Williams (1984, 32)

A compromise between order and disorder, improvision is a negotiation between codes and their pleasurable dismantling.

--John Corbett (1995, 237)

During the last half century, an eclectic group of artists with diverse backgrounds in avant-garde jazz, avant-garde classical, electronic, popular, and world music traditions have pioneered an approach to improvisation that borrows freely from a panoply of musical styles and traditions and at times seems unencumbered by any overt idiomatic constraints. Although a definitive history of this often irreverent and iconoclastic group would be impossible--or at least potentially misleading--to compile, this article highlights several values and practices that have been, and continue to be, negotiated within the contemporary improvising community.

Freedom, in the sense of transcending previous social and structural constraints, has been an important part of jazz music since its inception. The syncopated rhythms and exploratory improvisations and compositions of jazz have consistently stretched the structures and forms of American music. The music has also provided a symbol and a culture of liberation to several generations of musicians and listeners, both at home and abroad. But when Ornette Coleman offered the jazz community Something Else in 1958, he galvanized an approach to freedom that has continued to inspire and inflame many in the jazz community. (1)

At that time, Coleman and other like-minded musicians began to explore performance practices that relied less on preconceived musical models and explicitly defined ensemble roles. For sympathetic musicians, critics, and audiences, the "freedom" implied by these new musical approaches allowed for creativity unencumbered by the constricting harmonies, forms, and rigid meters of bebop and swing styles. It evoked a return to the collective practices and ideals evident in the earliest forms of jazz and pointed the way toward a more inclusive musical approach that could draw on insight and inspiration from the world over. To unsympathetic listeners, "freedom" resulted only in musical mayhem devoid of the swing, melody, and harmony that made traditional jazz music so vital and technically demanding.

At approximately the same time that "freedom" was becoming a rallying point and a musical goal for many modern jazz musicians, improvisation resurfaced in the Euro-American "classical" tradition--after a century and a half of neglect--in the form of indeterminate, intuitive, and graphically designed pieces. (2) Composers not only expanded the amount of real-time creative input demanded of performers, but they explored, in substantial numbers, the potential of improvisation on their own, in a sense conflating the act of creation and performance by removing the interpretive step from the accepted musical equation. (3)

Since these pioneering early years in both North America and Europe, an approach to improvisation drawing on these and other traditions has emerged in the contemporary music community. A variety of names have circulated at various times and in various locales to describe this musical practice, each with its own group of adherents and each with its own sematic shortcomings. (4) The preferred terms tend to highlight the creative or progressive stance of the performers and the cutting-edge or inclusive nature of the music itself, for example, free or free-form, avant-garde, outside, ecstatic, fire or energy, contemporary or new, creative, collective, spontaneous, and so on. Stylistic references (jazz, classical, rock, world, or electronic) are variously included or excluded, as are cultural or national identity markers (Great Black Music or British Free Improvisation). The primary musical bond shared among these diverse performers is a fascination with sonic possibilities and surprising musical occurences and a desire to improvise, to a signficiant degree, both the content and the form of the performance. …

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