A Listener’s Guide to Free Improvisation
by John Corbett

Reviewed by Devin King


Published by The University of Chicago Press, 2016   |   112 pages

On the fourth of July, 1980, dancer Min Tanaka and guitarist Derek Bailey performed together under a glass roof in an old forge in Paris. Video of the event doesn’t exist—though you can find documentation of other performances by the duo online—but an audio recording exists under the title Music and Dance. It’s wonderfully low-fi, and Bailey’s playing is, as always, shocking: notes pop in and out of muted noise, scratches trace through the air, a sound like something breaking erupts amid the cacophony and stretches of long silences. Suddenly, there’s a rush of white noise as rain crashes on the glass roof, temporarily smothering the sound of Bailey’s guitar. The transition is flawless and compositional in the context of the performance. The recording continues, and as the cloudburst quickly subsides to a quiet drizzle, Bailey renews his improvisational accompaniment with Tanaka. It is a quintessential example of free improvising by one of the art’s master practitioners. Let us begin by noting that free improvisation is different from improvisation. The latter has almost certainly existed since the first musical performance. Hindustani and Carnatic music in India are improvisational arts, and European composers during the Baroque period were famous for the improvisational virtuosity. Contemporary improvisation is generally associated with soloing in jazz (Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk) or rock (Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, The Grateful Dead). Note that in both cases – the “classical” and the contemporary – the improvisation is taken as part of a larger fixed framework—the song or the genre—that the improviser uses as the basis for their own gesture. In these examples, improvisation is a technique within a larger musical structure. This structure sets the scene, if you will, for the musician to expand their notions of the form while still staying within a largely recognizable framework. No matter how long a soloist in a raga or a jazz or pop song may play, one still recognizes the language – or idiom – in which they’re playing. In the turbulent culture of the late 50s and 60s, these genre-encoded forms of improvisations came to feel inadequate. In their place, a new form of intentionally non-idiomatic improvisation termed “free” was developed. Free improvisation arose as a single solution to a number of different genre specific problems, though there were larger shared concerns, included how personal expression in music—whether through composition or playing—could be expanded, and how group dynamics could be evolved to foster that expression, both in the players themselves and in the dynamic between the individual ensemble players. Just as their motivations differed, so did their solutions. The Chicago based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) found in free improvisation (amongst many other forms) a means to achieve a new radical black collectivity. Derek Bailey, mentioned above, came to his guitar based version of free improvisation through the study of serialist and atonal composers who had, in the early 20th century, attempted to create a new musical language that rebelled against vapid pomp and romanticism. Others were admittedly, and unapologetically, lazy: with free improvisation you could bypass the process of learning the entire repertoire of a genre, and just play. Many laypeople assume that free improvisation – because it involves “making things up as you go” – must somehow be easier than other, more composed, forms. Composition, in this reading, is understood as work, while improvisation is viewed as either play or mere chaos. This is, of course, a false dichotomy: free improvisation is work, albeit a particular kind of work. Rather than learning how one fits into a larger language, a larger idiom, by repeating and building upon earlier motifs, free improvisation asks the practitioner to learn by doing, creating ab ovo. This does not, it should be stressed, mean that artists who practice free improvisation necessarily ignore the canon or contemporary musical landscape. Free improvisation is, of course, influenced by these, but strives instead to turn formal study outwards, each improviser in dialogue not only with the repertoire, but also with the practice of free improvisation itself, with their own practice and those of the other improvisors in the group they happen to be playing with at the time. Listening to free improvisation can be as challenging as playing it. Until now, unless you had friends in the know, or a good record shop to go to, the barrier of entrance into the scene (even as a strict listener) was high as the language of free improvisation is quite foreign to the standard Western repertoire. Recently, however, gallerist, critic, and producer John Corbett’s new book, A Listener’s Guide to Free Improvisation lays down a golden road to understanding free improvisation. The book isn’t a history or a guide for playing (none exist; though texts that treat the practice include Derek Bailey’s Improvisation, Corbett’s recent book from Duke, Microgrooves, and George Lewis’ A Power Stronger than Itself). The emphasis of A Listener’s Guide to Free Improvisation is, as its title suggests, on the listener, and Corbett spends a good chunk of the book encouraging the new listener to focus on their main role—listening. To what? To micro-details, to larger dynamics, to the improvisation as it actually sounds:

Here’s another exercise: attend a concert with the intention of simply listening for volume shifts. Do the musicians have a tendency to go in one direction all the time? Are the dynamics complex and varied, or do they conform to one kind of profile? Is there a pattern you can discern in the rise and dip of loudness?

Though the fundamental paradigm change in listening perspective can be a hurdle, beyond that it’s easy sailing. Sit back, relax, and listen: to the rhythm, the dynamics, the interactions, transitions, structures. There really is nothing else to it. Above all, Corbett stresses, suppress the desire to look for meanings, purposes, ends: “Of course we live in a goal oriented world,” Corbett writes, “where undirected activity is considered a waste of time. To get what’s going on in this kind of improvising, you have to let go of that idea and embrace a non-narrative, nonlinear sensibility.” In free improvisation, there is no end except continued attention—in some instances, even the attention of sleep: “The equivalent of Eagle Scout status in improvised music listening is awarded for a listener’s capacity to get something from the proceedings whilst asleep…or damned close.” Throughout A Listener’s Guide, many small personal anecdotes and rememberances are recounted:

I once engineered a studio recording for three string players, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and bassists Kent Kessler and Peter Kowald. Kowald, the elder statesman of the threesome, proposed a particular strategy for some of the pieces: they should do a suite of short improvisations based on the idea that as soon as the music felt like it was about to change, rather than following the impulse, they would stop. Hearing them do it was incredibly instructive for me as a listener. It made me acutely aware of the transition points in the music, places where something that had developed and stabilized would be left behind and something different would take over.

In other books, this could be come across as name dropping, but Corbett’s light, open prose invites. It is, in fact, principally through his anecdotes that A Listener’s Guide broadens its historical perspective. Elsewhere, Corbett manages to summarize a whole chapter of music history in three sentences:

When jazz drummers introduced the option of playing without pulsed time, for instance, they didn’t just do so to be contrary or unorthodox or to make music that was difficult to listen to. They called their prescribed instrumental role into question. The drummers—specifically, it was Milford Graves, Sunny Murray, and Rashied Ali—wanted to open the music up in order to let some new things develop, and they realized that the conventional instrumental roles were an impediment to possible new directions.

Instead of telling you all the stories, Corbett gives you some names to research. Instead of an index, there’s a “Life List: A Selected Checklist of Major Living Free Improvisors.” A Listener’s Guide is, essentially, and in the best way possible, a popular how-to manual from a master who has spent years in the field. Reading Corbett is like spending an afternoon with your favorite uncle and his cabinet of booze. By the end, you won’t necessarily know the names of the different bourbons, but you’ll know what tastes good. Corbett is right to say “Improvised music is open to everyone…It is not a mystery cult, esoteric language, or secret handshake. It needs no decoder ring.” Some—usually those unsure of their own engagement in the music—will act like jerks. The real musicians and the real followers—the ones in the know—only want to talk to more people about the music. Corbett’s book, though written by an expert, shares as its goal that of the genre it covers—the freedom to make up one’s mind, to engage as one sees fit.

Devin King co-directs Sector 2337, a non-profit gallery and performance space in Chicago and is the poetry editor for the Green Lantern Press.

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