Usually I am satisfied with more modest goals, but this week I want to explain the whole history of contemporary music. Of course, I’ll have to skip over a lot of details, but one column is sufficient to give the general idea of my quest-for-freedom theory. Basically it goes like this. Musicians in the West have generally sought to free themselves from traditions of the past, but in the 20th century they have been seeking additional kinds of freedom, not only for themselves, but also for the music itself. We can see this already with Schoenberg’s ‘emancipation’ of the dissonance and with the gradual liberation of the musical vocabulary to include clusters, polytonality, chance procedures, chaotic forms, and all sorts of new sounds.
The liberation process continues with the types of performer freedom initiated by John Cage, with schemes for eliminating the conductor/master, with newer and less rigid notation techniques, and with composers like Robert Ashley, who came to feel that the real tyrant was music notation itself and who has avoided putting notes on staff paper for some years. A similar quest for freedom took place in the jazz tradition, which led from the extremely limited performer freedom in Dixieland solos to the freer and freer improvising of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Albert Ayler. Summarized this way, the evolution of contemporary music becomes so ridiculously simple that it is surprising critics and historians have never, so far as I know, chosen to explain it this way. Of course, as with most grand views of history, complications arise when you work out the details. But it has always seemed to me that the most interesting thing about theories is not the pat answers they provide but the questions they raise. The quest-for-freedom theory raises quite a few.
The United States is the first modern democracy and allegedly the ‘land of the free.’ Our history is cluttered with anarchist movements, liberation movements, protest groups, communes, and rugged individuals, and our lifestyle today emphasizes the kind of individualism that Philip Slater analyzed as ‘The Pursuit of Loneliness’ and Christopher Lasch more recently dissected in ‘The Culture of Narcissism.’ Yet mass taste in this country continues to call for singers who perform their repertoire the same way every night and tight groups that seem to have more authoritarian images every decade. Even in jazz, freer forms of improvisation are grossly outsold by the more controlled jazz-derived idioms of Spyro Gyra or Bob James or Chuck Mangione. Yet in Western Europe, where there is much greater respect for tradition and a much neater structure of social classes, ‘free music’ has developed large followings. Can we fit this into the theory?
Ethnomusicologist Verna Gillis had some interesting things to say about musical freedom when I spoke with her a few weeks ago. Gillis has traveled widely in Africa, the Caribbean, and other parts of the world, and she currently operates Soundscape, where programs of free improvisation are often presented. She told me that despite the plenitude of improvisation in almost all African and Caribbean music, she has never heard anything as loose and unstructured as some of the music presented in New York by American and European improvisers. But she also pointed out that New York audiences generally remain imprisoned in the typical concert format. They are expected to consume free music with the same reverent attitude that has been central to the European notion of Art for several centuries. By contrast, a musical event in Africa, with the performers laughing, others dancing, children fighting, and babies crying, offers many more options for the audience. Is an African situation of this sort thus a greater expression of freedom?
When a musician like guitarist Derek Bailey becomes known as a free-form improviser, he becomes financially dependent on that reputation. His fans, his colleagues, and his recording outlets all depend on him to continue doing what he does, and ultimately he becomes locked into his image. He is then not even free to perform Bach or Dixieland, at least not without sacrificing a certain number of fans and gigs. What kind of freedom is that?
Freedom has a lot to do with both the common concept of improvisation, which is jazz-based, and the very different notion of ‘music indeterminate of its performance,’ which is Cage based. The former process leaves much to the performer’s will, while the latter generally limits the performer to a few choices or interpretations within highly prescribed limitations. Curiously though, improvisations can be relatively predictable while performances of indeterminate scores often abound in odd coincidences and unexpected juxtapositions that even the composer can’t predict. We might say that improvising is an exercise in free will while indeterminate scores encourage the performers to free themselves from the will. But what are the political and religious implications of these two processes, and how could we evaluate the quantity and quality of the freedom that results from them?
When someone like Keith Jarrett improvises, he is theoretically free to play whatever he likes, while in Phill Niblock’s music the performers are restricted to playing long sustained tones with only minor variations in pitch and volume. Yet when I listen to Jarrett, I hear an attractive sort of music that is very much a part of current harmonic and pianistic conventions and seems a little afraid to step very far outside that. And when I listen to Niblock I hear a defiant sort of music that has broken free of current conventions and made its own unique world. Isn’t Niblock’s music more free than Jarrett’s in one important sense?
A month or two ago I wrote about the elderly Italian composer, Giacinto Scelci, who is concerned with freedom but has no interest at all in improvisation. For him spontaneous musical decisions are merely ‘reactions’ stimulated by the habits and personal idiosyncrasies of the performer, and he strives for another kind of freedom through ‘right action’ in his carefully notated and slowly written scores. Isn’t this another very different attitude toward freedom?
How many kinds of musical freedom are there? And why do so many musicians feel so strongly about their particular quests for freedom? And if we worked it all out could we really explain the course of 20th-century music with this little theory? Perhaps. But then we’d be locked into an intellectual system. And doesn’t the intellect want freedom, too?