Definitions! Definitions! There is so much confusion as to what ‘experimental’ or ‘improvised’ means that is seems a good idea to start with this issue.
An accepted use of the term experimental is to combine it with a particular genre or style to denote music which is either a fusion of different styles or which in some sense explores the boundaries of a style. So, it is possible to get ‘experimental jazz’, ‘experimental folk’ (the Incredible String Band, some Davey Graham for example), etc. Experimental music has often been applied to the work of electronic musicians. Although the roots of this music go way back, it was with the advent of easily available electronics after World War II that it really got going through the efforts of musicians such as Frenchman Pierre Schaeffer who founded the Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète (GRMC) in 1951.
I think, though, that the most straightforward definition of experimental music was given by American John Cage who claimed that it was music written in such a way that even the composer himself could not predict the eventual outcome. Predictably, the term ‘experimental music’ has occasionally been used as a term of abuse by the the popular media to mock the efforts of musicians engaged in these forms. What is neat about Cage’s definition is that it can cover freely improvised music although, of course, without a composer to write things down beforehand. As there is no composer, the great bass improviser (and heart specialist!!) Roger Dean has described improvised music this way:
Improvisation in music is the simultaneous conception and production of sound in performance.
(R. Dean (1989) Creative Improvisation; p.ix)
Since there are no preset rules (a composition), the judgement of the performers is of primary importance in freely improvised music. A few names will be pertinent at this point. In Britain, AMM and the Spontaneous music Ensemble (SME) were influential in the 1960’s (and beyond) as were the Italian groups Nuovo Consonanza and Musica Electronica Viva (MEV - all these acronyms!!). There are also soloists such as Evan Parker or American Steve Lacey. I will mention some more in later blog entries.
We must, however distinguish between genre-based improvisation (also called idiomatic) and free improvisation. Genre-based improvisation involves music within a tradition and includes the various forms of jazz from traditional to fusion as well as a multitude of traditions around the world including raga, flamenco, blues and so forth. To this list is to be added the traditions of Western European Art Music from the Renaissance to the present day including classical cadenzas and French organ playing.
Confusingly, Americans sometimes use the term ‘free improvisation’ for ‘free jazz’. It is true that the two forms of music share certain characteristics which makes it impossible to create a clear demarcation between the two forms but it is a common misconception to regard free improvisation as merely a type of free jazz rather than a distantly related though uniquely different form of music.
The Genre of Free Improvisation
Looking more closely at improvised music, what distinguishes it from other kinds of music (including other kinds of experimental music). We know that music can be categorized using a variety of definitions, many of them driven by commercial interests, but very few of which take the performer into account.
Three terms frequently used when talking about types of music are genre, style and idiom. In this blog, I use genre to distinguish between types of music based on the characteristics and background of gestures. Gestures are the expressive phrases used by musicians to convey a thought or idea to the audience and allow us to distinguish a performance in classical Romantic style, for example, from Jazz or Rock. Style, on the other hand refers to the methods used in deploying the gestures. So, the way in which a Rock musician uses a phrase changes whether he/she is playing R&B, Rock and Roll, Progressive, Metal, etc. In an article with the imposing title ‘Categorical Conventions in Music Discourse: Style and Genre’. Allan Moore illuminates this a little by associating genre with general aesthetic considerations, whilst style is concerned with identifying the more everyday aspects of specific kinds of articulation. Hopefully things will become a little clearer when we actually start using the terms.
Among the definitions of our third term, idiom, given by the Oxford English Dictionary, the most useful is:
A characteristic mode of expression in music, art, or writing; an instance of this.
Lets start by thinking about how we can distinguish free improvised music as a genre. At its highest level, free improvisation must possess the following characteristics (not all of these are unique to improvisation, by the way):
1. Music without significant precomposed or consciously memorized content.
2. All members of an ensemble improvise freely as equal partners. Ownership of the material is necessarily collective as opposed to individual and entails a complete rejection of the concept of an individual as creator and arbiter of good taste (this one may actually be unique to free improvisation).
3. Sound itself provides the generative platform for the performance which depends upon no other type of music for its moment-to-moment creation.
4. Content of the present performance and its environment provides the sole stimulus for direct real-time responses.
5. The rejection of repeatable codes and methodology and the inclusion of chance operations in performance.
6. The adoption of a ‘failure aesthetic’ as an accepted and normal part of performance (this one may also be unique!!).
7. The structure of the performance is inseparable from expression via the concept of gesture. Thus the performer is inseparable from the work.
8. An open and exploratory approach to space both physical and mental. Performers seek to work with space and explore its properties rather than to control and dominate.
I will look at styles and idioms in later blogs and give some examples to illustrate these terms.
The Styles of Free Improvisation
Anyone approaching freely improvised music for the first time would be forgiven for thinking that it is ‘all the same’. Broad stylistic approaches, however, can be identified within the music which can be traced back to its origins in the 1960s. It is important to recognize, however, that groups and individuals do not adhere exclusively to one style and may pass through different styles during the course of a performance.
This is the archetypal sound of the group AMM, the term being attributed to them by Evan Parker, an occasional guest with the group. The style is characterised by individual contribution being completely submerged within the group sound. The sound may be so integrated that even the performers themselves cannot identify who is making which sound!! For the listener, the perceived tempo is frequently slow and gestural interchange (the individual phrases) is at a very relaxed pace. Performer focus is typically centred on overall texture and timbral development. The Taj Mahal Travellers and Musica Electronica Viva were also masters of this style and when listening to this music, just let your ear absorb the textures and sounds – forget about time!!
In this approach the part of each musician is unique and perceptibly their own rather than being submerged within the overall sound. Characteristic of much Spontaneous Music Ensemble playing, gestural interchange is typically faster and there is more ‘white space’ than in the laminal approach and more focus is placed on motific development. At first (during the 60s and 70s), this style was mainly performed by players of acoustic instruments which leant themselves most easily to the rapid and flexible responses between players. Since that time, electronic instruments have increased enormously in sophistication (particularly sampling) with intuitive and rapid interfaces leading to their increased use in this style.
As with the atomistic style, performers retain a distinct identity but with less clear space between the gestures which are often longer in duration. It is the layered approach which is almost universally used in the related style of Free Jazz – but with the players clearly referencing and using jazz based phrases. This style is frequently heard in large ensemble improvisation; whilst at the other extreme excellent examples are found in Evan Parkers solo work such as The Snake Decides. Mr Parker’s unique approach appears at first to be an extremely rapid sequence of random sounds, but it quickly becomes apparent that the music is in fact layered in sophisticated ways through the complete range (including altissimo) of the saxophone.