Free Improvisation Actuality

By Ben Watson, 10 April 2001
Image: Free Improvisation with Steve Beresford,Uithorn, Holland, 1977 (ICP's 10th anniversary festival), Photo © Gerard Rouy

In the wake of the Napster debacle and the recording industry’s recapture of the main means of music’s commodification – the recording – Ben Watson considers Free Improvisation, a music ‘groupuscule’ and attitude which bypasses the music ownership wars, unpredictably

Conventional thinking contrasts classical music to pop, assigning the technologies of score and recording to different epochs. Free Improvisation doesn’t credit the significance of such ‘progress’: on the contrary, classical and pop are viewed as symptoms of an identical malaise. For Derek Bailey and Lol Coxhill and the hundred-odd international musicians who play Free Improvisation in public, recording is simply the technical apotheosis of the score. Following on from the radical critiques of classicism made by both Free Jazz and the ‘indeterminate’ compositions of the 60s, Free Improvisation focuses on a time-based art’s most basic virtue: a cultivation of unpredictability as an end in itself. On the way, Free Improvisation is also an elegant answer to the accusations of recuperation and commodity-fetishism which Situationists, Art Strikers and Neoists hurl at visual artists. Here is an uncommodifiable art-happening that leaves no saleable residue, a poetry of modernist form that truly melts into air.

In 1919, Kurt Schwitters declared in Der Sturm that “a perambulator wheel, wire-netting, string and cotton-wool are factors having equal rights with paint. The artist creates through the choice, distribution and metamorphosis of the materials”. Free Improvisation is aural Dada: any sound source – from traditional instruments played in outrageous ways to crisp packets, Pokémon watches or G3 PowerBooks – is permitted. Sampling and digital editing are ubiquitous, but subject to the judgement of the ultimate receiver: the distinctly analogue interface of airwaves and the human ear. Free Improvisation, one of the few areas of cultural activity that adheres to dada principles, comprises one of the most tenacious and vehement groupuscules in today’s fractured music scene. Although Impro-visation is currently enjoying an Indian summer – Sonic Youth are proselytisers, Tortoise are into it, Blast/Disobey puts its veterans in the lime light – it has weathered Bop, Prog, Fusion, Glam, Punk, New Romanticism, the Jazz Revival, Minimalism, Authentic, Rave, Lo-Fi, the New Complexity and Electronica without losing an (indeterminate) beat. It is fierce, angular, abstract. The timing is super tight, closer to stand-up comedy than to the smudge and fuzz of Post-rock or Ambient. If you can’t play, forget it. Its controversies, schisms and exclusions resemble those of revolutionary politics. Claims to have “broken out of the Improv ghetto” by including such no-nos as tonality, regular rhythm or a hummable melody surface at regular intervals. But, far from accessing the energies of pop or funk, these invariably signal a failure of nerve, a lessening of tension, a lapse into feeble ingratiation.

It’s not always great. Reputations burgeon, musicians coast. A recent complaint – voiced by Bailey, and also by bassist Simon Fell – is that you can predict the music on most Improv CDs by simply checking the names on the box. Musicians develop a personal ‘sound’, and people pay to hear it: what is deemed evidence of ‘genius’ is actually the reassurance of the already-known. So the malign influence of the star system impacts on even these refusenik domains. However, there’s probably no other scene where musicians and listeners are more critical of these and other failings. Free Improvisation: music for those who prefer the chill of actuality to the reliability of the concept.

Ben Watson

Clubs:All Angels T: (0)20 8348 9595 // Cenophelle T: (0)1932 571323 // Flim-Flam T: (0)20 8809 6891 // Free Radicals T: (0)20 7263 7265 // Klinker W: []Shop:Sound 323, 323 Archway Road, London N6 5AA. E:<>Radio:InfrequentPrint:Derek Bailey, Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music (Da Capo) Jeff Nuttall, The Bald Soprano: A Portrait of Lol Coxhill (Tak Tak Tak) and Ben Watson, Derek Bailey & the Story of Free Improvisation (Quartet, forthcoming)

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