A Listener’s Guide to Free Improvisation

John Corbett on a new pocket-sized field guide to free and spontaneous music
John Corbett, A Listener's Guide to Free Improvisation (University of Chicago Press, 2016)
John Corbett, A Listener’s Guide to Free Improvisation (University of Chicago Press, 2016)

What led you to write A Listener’s Guide to Free Improvisation?

I’ve been involved with improvised music from several different standpoints over the last 35 years, as a listener, as a critic, as a teacher, as a presenter, and as a producer.  In the process of moving around in the music’s netherworlds, I noticed that many potential listeners were curious about it but just had no way to enter, no accessible points of reference.  It’s sometimes seen as “difficult” or “complex,” and it can be both, but approaching free music is very different from listening to music composed using mathematical algorithms or with elaborate preconceived harmonic inventions.  To listen to it you basically need to be attentive.  That’s it.  But that’s also not easy.  Having some historical framework can help, and the more experience you have as a listener the better.  But it’s really open to new listeners, and I wanted to find a way, in as down to earth a way as possible, to suggest that openness.  To invite new listeners from other walks of music and to give a few tips on listening, things that might help get over the initial hump.   

John Coltrane
John Coltrane

What do you mean by the term ‘free improvisation’?

I mean it in a very basic way: music made without any prewritten or pre-set material.  It is music generated as purely as possible in the process of playing.

In the book, you suggest things one might need when ‘Preparing to Go into the Field’. Is this, perhaps, the reason why your book is pocket-sized?

Indeed.  I was inspired by nature books and field guides.  I love the notion of an edition that you could stuff in your pocket and take with you out into the woods or to the beach, to help identify different kinds of trees or birds or bugs or amphibians.  I grew up using those kinds of books, which were as close as I had to a bible, and I thought that the same kind of publication – not taking the comparison too far, with color drawings of the musicians, maps of their range, description of their mating calls, or anything like that – but just the hint of that pocket-ness, would perhaps aid in making it less imposing and intimidating.  It’s a bite-sized book.  You can read it in a few hours.  It is not everything there is to know about freely improvised music.  But it should give a neophyte a running start.

Eric Dolphy
Eric Dolphy

What is it about free improvised music that you love?

What sets freely improvised music apart from many other kinds of music is the degree to which it is reliant on musicians listening and responding to one another.  At some level, most music works that way, and in the chamber music tradition, for instance, ensembles like string quartets refine that kind of interplay to a fine art.  In free improvisation the players don’t have anything else to pay attention to, no scores to be mindful of, no chord changes to worry about, no strict rhythms to adhere to, so in order to do anything they have to listen to one another and decide how they are going to interact.  The largest section in the book is titled “Interaction Dynamics” because I think that’s the most exciting part of listening to this music.  There are many ways players can interrelate, including ignoring one another, but if they ignore one another they have to decide to do so based on what’s going on between them.  So they’re still aware of the others, at least peripherally.  To me, the excitement of not knowing exactly what kind of interplay there will be, what direction it will go, when or how it will end – these are special joys associated with free improvisation.

“To me, the excitement of not knowing exactly what kind of interplay there will be, what direction it will go, when or how it will end – these are special joys associated with free improvisation.”

Could you say a little bit about the role that collaboration plays in improvised music?

Free improvisation is an inherently collaborative activity.  That doesn’t mean it’s always cuddly and full of warm fuzzies.  One form that collaboration can take is struggle.  The music is always negotiated.  Negotiation can involve argumentation.  So our common image of a lovey-dovey, hippie manifestation of improvisation is not always the way that collaboration manifests in the music I’m most drawn to.  Musicians sometimes work off of one another’s energy, or sometimes they play tricks on one another, or even undermine one another if they think there’s grandstanding going on.  It’s a microcosm of social interaction in everyday life, in a way, and I find the question of personal interplay in improvisation endlessly fascinating.  It’s like sonic sociology.  Except there are also aesthetics at play, so people are often working to build something that reflects their joint interests, perhaps the result of some consensus building or mutually assured destruction.  And in that vein, it should be mentioned that not all free improvisations are successful or interesting – it’s an art form and as such it is extremely difficult to do it well.  The best improvisations, for me, are ones in which you sense that there’s something at stake.  If nobody has any skin in the game, there’s no real possibility of tension.  And I think at least a modicum of tension is a key ingredient to a successful collaboration.

Ornette Coleman with his saxophone during a rehearsal for The Empty Foxhole, September 1966. Photograph: Francis Wolff.
Ornette Coleman with his saxophone during a rehearsal for The Empty Foxhole, September 1966. Photograph: Francis Wolff.

Does free improvisation ever have a structure?

The extreme answer to this question is that without structure you would have entropy, and as long as you are playing with instruments that hold their shape we’re dealing with structure.  That’s more than just a snarky response, it points at the way that the instruments that are used come with all sorts of limitations and historical baggage, which amount to a kind of meta-structure.  Players sometimes work to get past those, to discover new material and unheard sounds that are less determined by the ideology of the instruments, redesigning them or finding new ways to play them, but other players work within standard musical means as improvisors, taking their instruments as a given and playing them in a conventional way.  Either way, unless you’re playing on an exploding instrument in outer space you’re dealing with some kind of physical structure.  So there’s the first order of structure: the instrument.

“We have a tendency to think that musical structure, in terms of notes and sounds in an order, is exclusively pre-planned, like chord changes or pre-set parts, but there are also improvised structures.”

We have a tendency to think that musical structure, in terms of notes and sounds in an order, is exclusively pre-planned, like chord changes or pre-set parts, but there are also improvised structures.  Think of a conversation.  You may not know where it’s going, what you’re going to talk about, but that doesn’t mean your dialogue doesn’t have a structure.  It may have a wayward structure or an ambling structure or in fact it may have a very concise and focused one.  Who knows?  It’s a matter of how the speakers speak, how the improvisors improvise.  Structure is just a matter of how the parts are put together, how a piece is constructed.  If you’re doing that on the fly, there are certain things that are highly unlikely, things that might be common in other kinds of music, like rote reiteration or sonata form or elaborate jointly executed orchestrations.  But, just as a simple example, let’s say that a group has been playing at a certain dynamic level, all five of the musicians in a quintet, for ten minutes, intense detailed interplay, and then it all suddenly stops except for the oboe player, who takes an unaccompanied solo and then chooses to end the piece.  That’s a very clear structure, a simple two-part form.  And it might be totally improvised.  So yes, there can be structure in free improvisation.

John Zorn
John Zorn

What do you think are the challenges of talking or writing about music?

The challenge is that you’re trying to describe one coded sign system by means of another coded sign system.  That’s inherently fraught.  Like trying to use semaphore signals to describe a painting.  But it’s also exciting.  It means that there’s lots of room for figurative language, for finding metaphors and similes that can act as bridges between the text and the music.  Also, you have to be careful not to get too invested in those metaphors and similes, particularly when you’re dealing with music that isn’t necessarily meaning to evoke the ideas that the words represent.  Let’s say you describe a certain passage as being like chimpanzees screaming in the jungle.  Already you have added a great deal to what the music is doing on its own.  You’ve heaped a bunch of your own associations onto the sounds.  But those chimp screams, maybe they’re not screams but just high-pitched sounds.  Sometimes listeners describe high-energy music as angry when it might not be angry but just energetic or excited. Writing about music, one has to be careful to check one’s own associations and not assert that they are universally true.

“Sometimes listeners describe high-energy music as angry when it might not be angry but just energetic or excited. Writing about music, one has to be careful to check one’s own associations and not assert that they are universally true.”

How does free music make us rethink the way we think about live and studio recordings?

The way I see it, freely improvised music is always live music.  If you begin to use overdubbing or multi-tracking, any kind of time shifting, I think it’s not really free improvisation anymore.  Which is not to pass judgement on those techniques, but to say that all members of a free improvisation have to be present at the same time together for it to be that kind of music.  So in some ways it doesn’t matter whether it’s a “live” or “studio” recording; except for the fact that there is or is not an audience, they’re the same thing.  Of course the presence of an audience can have a decisive impact on the way free improvisation goes, so this is not to say there’s no influence coming from the audience’s direction.  But there’s no fundamental distinction between live recordings of free improvisation and studio recordings of free improvisation because they’re both “live.”

“The way I see it, freely improvised music is always live music.”

What role do you think mystery plays in music appreciation?

Mystery is a key facet of life.  It is one of the surest antidotes to boredom.  It leads to wonderment and investigation and observation and attentiveness, maybe even fantasy and imagination.  And in improvised music, a quality of mystery lurks in the greatest performances – how did they do that, how did they get from there to there, why did she do that when he did that?  Unanswered questions are often preferable to unquestioned answers.

In the book, you write that you feel ‘free improvisation will eventually be seen as one of the great contributions of Western society to world culture’. Could you say a little bit more about this?

Charlotte Hug
Charlotte Hug

Free improvisation, in the sense that I’m talking about it in the book, should be properly understood, in my opinion, in league with the great art and architecture and poetry and fiction and film of the Western world.  Its major exponents have asked some of the most probing questions, explored most deeply the potentialities of their instruments, and delved into the far reaches of human interaction.  All the while, they’re doing so in a kind of music that is often described as “abstract.”  So what?  So’s Willem De Kooning, but he’s understood as a great artist.  So’s Walt Whitman.  So’s Jean-Luc Godard.  What of it?  Musicians like Evan Parker and Anne LeBaron and Charlotte Hug and Joe McPhee and Milford Graves and Han Bennink and Peter Brötzmann and George Lewis and Steve Beresford and Paul Lovens are among the great artists of our era.  It may be awhile before history recognizes them for this, but I’m confident that it will come to pass.

What’s next for you?

I have a brand new book that was just published called Vinyl Freak: Love Letters to a Dying Medium (Duke University Press).  It’s about record collecting, and it compiles a dozen years of the column of the same name, which I contributed to DownBeat magazine in the early 2000s.  The first edition, which sold out immediately, had a flexidisc with a previously unheard track by Sun Ra, with him singing a song by Peggy Lee!

A Listener’s Guide to Free Improvisation is published by The University of Chicago Press.

About the Author

John Corbett is a writer, producer, and curator based in Chicago who has written extensively on jazz and improvised music. A regular contributor to DownBeat magazine, he is the author of several books, including Extended Play: Sounding Off from John Cage to Dr. Funkenstein and Microgroove: Forays Into Other Music.

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  1. Thanks, good interview! Good points on writing about music. Glad to see Evan Parker mentioned.

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