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Free Improvisation and Experimental Music Essay

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Updated: Mar 1st, 2021

Free improvisation is a term used to denote musical sounds predominantly associated with Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, and AMM group. This form of music came into view in the 1960s and is currently being practiced all over the world. In fact, free improvisation, perhaps dryly, has developed into a genre of its own (Sansom 31). It is improvised music that does not go beyond logical rules and the artist’s inclination. As a genre of music, free improvisation developed in the United States and some parts of Western Europe. It is a product of free jazz and contemporary classical music (Bailey 4).

Free improvisation is unscripted music, which emphasizes other dimensions of music and instantaneous interactions among artists. Even though artists are allowed to embrace certain styles or keys, conventional music is very scarce in this genre. A lot of focus is placed on the frame of mind, consistency, or basically on the figurative aspect of performance, rather than melody, accord, or tempo. In other words, the musical elements are embraced at will during the performance (Nyman 12). According to Bailey, free improvisation provides artists with a wider choice than any other genre of music. However, the excising of this freedom will depend on an individual artist (5).

In his book, Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music, Bailey states that the increased popularity of free improvisation music, if anything, is due to the freedom it gives artists. One of the most consistent characteristics of free improvisation is diversity. It lacks a stylistic or colloquial devotion. For that reason, it has no style or distinct sound. In addition, the characteristics of this genre of music can only be identified through the sonic-musical identity of a given artist.

These artists come from different backgrounds and often engage artists from other genres. For instance, Ennio Morricone, a free improvisation artist, has collaborated with many classical artists across Europe (8). This essay will explore factors that facilitated the growth and development of free improvisational music and its link to other genres of music.

Free Improvisation and Indeterminacy

In the early 1960s, a number of artists started to make a move towards a freer style of jazz, which was totally different from the conventional style. The artists include Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and John Coltrane. Free Jazz led to the diversity of styles with new methods of handling instruments, orchestrating playing, and general organization (Jost 11). Correspondingly, developments in compositional techniques during that period clearly responded to matters raised concerning the stiffness of the conventional techniques. Apparently, during the 1950s, rigidity within compositional techniques had reached a level of exhaustion for many artists (Nyman 12).

Very many artists challenged the conventional musical compositions, especially the effort to develop a common musical language based on the principle of serialism. The main factor behind these reactions was the role of indeterminacy, which is the elimination of conventional rigidities in musical composition. The extremely intricate notation of conventional compositions resulted in the use of clear-cut time and relative notations and the use of serial notation to produce estimated results (Nyman 13).

In Europe, indeterminacy was only used in musical durations. It was until the 1960s that it was applied to other parameters, which include musical notes and form. These changes inescapably led to candidness towards the role of musical notes and the emergence of vivid scores and shift by artists towards free improvisational music. In addition, large-scale implementation of free improvisational music contributed to the changing roles of musical notes and concert (Sansom 32).

On the contrary, but in line with the failure of the European conventional music, American music had already started going through radical transformations. Starting from the early1950s, a number of American artists had already begun applying Zen’s ideas that were aimed at eliminating conventional compositions and let the sounds take their natural course. They applied indeterminacy in all parameters, unlike in Europe, where it was being applied gradually. The American artists also applied indeterminacy to obtain the elements of compositions as they strove to achieve a composition that lacked personal taste and recollection and free of conventional style and form (Sansom 33).

According to Bailey, many artists from the US-initiated changes of attitude towards what is perceived to be melodically imperative, be it natural sound, quietness, and/or other probable sound incidents. They also initiated changes of attitude towards the likelihood of graphic notations. In addition, they emphasized the significance of the role played by music composers. They subscribed to the idea of music as a performance, rather than a prescribed or exceptional event (9).

In fact, there was a significant exchange of ideas between the American and the European composers during the 1950s. However, America’s feeble demands of history and custom, in addition to Zen’s dream, established itself in a more tentative manner. America’s philosophical objectives were basically different from the European counterpart. The European history and tradition were developmental and rational, hence generated novel musical prospects (Sansom 33).

In differentiating between forward-thinking and tentative approaches to music, an English composer by the name of Michael Nyman stated that the American composers were mainly concerned with laying down definite time-bound objects whose substance, structure, and relations are estimated and orchestrated beforehand. However, they are often electrified by the prospect of drawing a situation where the sound may arise (Nyman 15).

In the mid 20th century, numerous composers, for example, Morton Feldman and George Crumb introduced free improvisation to classical music. These compositions allowed and/or demanded artists to be innovative. The improvisation of classical music is taking place up to date. Most of the improvisation normally takes place in concerts and places of worship, especially in protestant Christian churches. The modern classical improvisational artists include Jean Guillou and Oliver Latry (Jost 10).

On the other hand, improvisation has been the principal component of jazz since its beginning. However, until the 1950s, improvisation in jazz music was anchored on laid down traditions and was characteristically within the jazz expression. Probably the first improvisations in Jazz are the pieces recorded by the jazz maestro Lennie Tristan in the late 1940s. In the early 1960s, the free improvisational jazz movement united around iconic jazz personalities in the US and Europe.

Free improvisational jazz allowed the abolishment of vocal and musical compositional materials, for example, it allowed artists to discount traditional parameters of music. As a result, even though free improvisational jazz has a number of key elements of traditional jazz, it often appears to be detached from conventional jazz (Jost 11).

By the mid-1970s, the concept of free improvisational jazz had already spread across the globe, especially in East Asia and Latin America. In 1976, Derek performed with numerous artists whom he had not met before, during an annual improvised music concert. These artists were believed to have come from Asia and Eastern Europe. They were brought together within a very short time. During the performance, Bailey used confrontational gestures, probably in response to some musicians that had ridiculed free jazz. The critics believed that collaboration of artists was only possible after several months of joint practice (Jost 11).

Electronic devices were an integral part of free jazz performance. These devices could also be used in other free improvised performance. Later on, these devices were abolished and substituted by an integrated electronic gadget. Nowadays, nearly all free improvisational equipment is embedded with a micro-computer chip for convenience (Nyman 66). Free improvisation has also been linked to electro-acoustic music. This is a genre of music characterized by silence, slow movement, nominal touch, and often uses unconventional electronics. Electro-acoustic music gained popularity in the mid-1990s with the growing demand for “lowercase” music (silent music) (Nyman 68).

Conclusion

Free improvisation is a term used to denote musical sounds that do not conform to conventional styles and forms. This genre of music emerged in the early 1960s. It focuses on other dimensions of music and instantaneous interactions among artists.

Free improvisation is mainly attributed to indeterminacy, which is the elimination of conventional rigidities in musical composition. The application of indeterminacy was because the rigidity of the conventional compositional techniques had reached a level of exhaustion for many artists. Indeterminacy was applied both in the Europe and US. In Europe, it was applied to limited parameters. However, in the US, it was applied to all parameters. Nonetheless, free improvisation has gained popularity among many artists and musical genres, including jazz and acoustic music.

Works Cited

Bailey, Derek. Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music, New York: Da Capo Press, 1993. Print.

Jost, Ekkehard. Free Jazz, New York: Da Capo Press, 1994:10-11. Print.

Nyman, Michael. Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Print.

Sansom, Matthew. “Imaging Music: Abstract Expressionism and Free Improvisation”. Leonardo Music Journal 1(2001): 29-34. Print.

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