Teaching Free Improvisation, Part 2 – Parameters for Exploration

I have a few more thoughts to share about teaching, learning, and doing free improvisation, in anticipation of our Jazz Education Network Conference panel discussion today (Saturday, January 12, 2019, 2:00 PM in Reno — Sierra Room, for anyone who is at the JEN conference).

As I mentioned in my previous post, there’s a range of approaches to free-improvised music and several, maybe many, musical subcultures with differing aesthetics, assumptions (stated or unstated) or tendencies, and approaches to playing together.

If you’re a visiting artist, or perhaps an artist in residence, hired to teach what you do, share your values — what you like and believe — and your job is to involve students in your works, then what I’m suggesting here may not apply to you. I think that’s a valid and important kind of teaching, and a worthwhile experience for students to have. If that’s your role, then you’re not responsible for representing the diversity of possibilities as much as diving deeply into the way you work and sharing that with students.

Another kind of teaching, which it’s been my role to do as a teacher and support as an administrator, is to expose students to a range of possibilities and try to prepare them to be flexible so they have the tools to make their own artistic choices and to navigate the music worlds of the present and the unknown future. That requires a kind of questioning overview and some analytical thinking about what the characteristics of different musics are, then designing experiences so students can explore them. I don’t feel I should be telling students there’s one true or best way to improvise or give structure to music. I can give artistic feedback on what they do, but I feel I owe them exposure to and experience in a wider palette of options. And since I’ve participated in and studied different scenes and approaches as a student, musician, and researcher/teacher, I want to share not just my favorites, but all the wonderful possibilities that are out there, as much as I can.

Looking at the music from different angles, identifying parameters of musical structure and sound in time, and then varying them, can do several things:

  • Clarify our hearing and thinking about music,
  • Help us understand different approaches and aesthetics,
  • Suggest creative possibilities to consider,
  • Suggest skills to practice, and
  • Prepare one for participating in different possible ensembles, traditions, musical cultures, and future developments.

Here are some parameters and thoughts about them in relation to free improvised music. There may be a lot more of these that are equally important, but I’ll start with some obvious parameters in which I’ve encountered wide differences of taste and practice myself in working with free (form) improvisation with other musicians from a variety of scenes and backgrounds:

Duration of pieces: This is one of the most contentious and varied areas, and one I find is surprisingly rarely discussed in advance in some parts of the free jazz and free improvisation world.

(With many of these things, improvising musicians often feel a reluctance to talk too much, or at all, not wanting to introduce inhibiting expectations or dominance of one person over another. But sometimes big questions hang in the air about what is expected or wanted, and sometimes something really is expected or wanted: long durations or short ones, for example.)

Some musicians are very bothered when a potential ending is ignored, bypassed, or elided into another passage by others in the group. They are thinking that the music can consist of movements or pieces, several or many per set. Some improvisers are very open to what might be called miniatures: pieces as short as a minute or less, even. They often value the ability to find endings greatly, and the endings themselves create a lot of musical interest.

Another widespread point of view is that the need for flow (or ebb and flow), long arcs of energy, immersion in the creative process over time, going deeper, not breaking the trance, etc. (there are many ways of feeling or talking about it) is primary. Endings can even be seen as a failure to keep the music going. A natural ending should be bridged by someone who keeps the music moving forward. There’s often an assumed, but sometimes unstated, duration for a set or concert, however: 45 minutes or an hour for a set, 2 hours for a concert, for example. There are also some who might play much longer in some situations, and value that.

Sometimes, these are really incompatible points of view that can cause friction in a group, and skills at communication and conflict resolution are needed to resolve them. As a teacher, I’d propose making students aware of this range of practices and musical meanings or intentions, and listen to music with them in mind. In an educational setting, at least, you can talk openly about these things and try many variations. There are real skills and challenges involved in playing concise, crystalline improvisations vs. playing multiple long solos in a set, each maintaining momentum and building over many minutes.

Related to this is the ability to be aware of duration. Knowing how clock time is passing is an important musical skill, with a practical side in recording, giving concerts, and bandleading. This awareness of time is not at all to be taken for granted. When I started teaching free improvisation at Berklee in 1983, I would give each of my eight ensemble members a one-minute solo improvisation to start the class, or as the second activity after a group improvisation. I would secretly time them. Some — and these were fairly to very strong, experienced jazz students — played for as long as eight minutes but, when asked, said they thought it was a little under one minute. Gradually, the group developed a better sense of clock time and how it is altered by musical material. (At first, it can be hard to process the fact that a two-and-a-half-minute modal drone introduction to a 12-minute modal jazz piece, for example, is the same length as “Paperback Writer,” or two Bach 2-part inventions. The experience of musical time has a lot to do with the pace of change and information flow, as well as inner physical and psychological experience, like adrenaline and anxiety.)

I should point out that there are also artists whose work includes both extremes, from miniatures to very long pieces. This difference of duration can be specific to pieces or projects, or it can be a characteristic of an artist, band, or style in general.

Continuity vs. discontinuity: This is related to duration of pieces and sections, but not quite the same. How long do instrumental combinations, textures and densities, general dynamic levels, and areas of musical material stay roughly the same, and how much and how often do they change? Free improvised music of recent decades contains some real extremes in approaches to continuity, from rapid jump cuts to long drones, and from extreme dynamic contrasts to whole concerts of ear-damaging or barely audible music. A lot of music is in the middle of these extremes but is still varied in its degree of continuity across different parameters.

Repetition and imitation (as in imitative counterpoint) are two aspects of continuity about which there are wide-ranging opinions and practices. Thinking of examples, at one end, with much repetition you might have certain pieces by The Necks or Third Person (Tom Cora, Samm Bennett, and an invited guest), parts of Jerome Cooper’s The Unpredictability of Predictability, or the beginning of Roscoe Mitchell’s famous live interpretation of his piece “Nonaah.” Examples of the other extreme (if I remember correctly) might be Roscoe Mitchell’s “The Flow of Things” or the Joe Maneri quartets, with very little apparent repetition.

Solos and accompaniment vs. group improvisation: Some groups tend to organize their playing into sequences of solos, where one artist is featured in a texture and duration that resembles a solo and accompaniment in a more traditional jazz group — or a soloist with accompaniment in any style (song, concerto, etc.). On the other hand, some improvised music has constantly changing roles and people quickly move from foreground to background and back, or play in varying equal contrapuntal combinations. Again, this could be an area for contention: “Why do you keep interrupting my solos?” vs. “Play with me, let’s get into something; don’t hang back just because I’m playing energetically.” In an educational setting, you can explore all these extremes and the middle ground, and listen to a variety of approaches and discuss them.

Rhythm section (and other instrumental) roles: There are bands and styles in free jazz where the instrumental roles are quite close to those in post-bebop modern jazz, or other musics with rhythm sections: the drums rarely stop, except possibly for a bass solo or an introduction; the bass rarely stops while the drums are playing, except for drum solos; etc. On the other hand, there are bands and styles where all possibilities of orchestration are pursued: in a quintet of two horns, piano, bass, and drums, you might be as likely to hear a duet of only the horns, or drums and piano without bass, as any other combination.

Note that the difference is really created by not playing. Unless you’re a conductor or visually cuing bandleader, or you’ve provided a compositional structure in advance, you can’t change the basic orchestration while improvising except by laying out yourself. When you stop playing for a substantial period of time, longer than a breath (possibly much longer), it has an impact on the sound of the ensemble and the listeners’ perception of orchestration.

Sometimes these two extremes are represented by the phrases “free jazz” (more traditional rhythm section roles) vs. “free improvisation” or “new improvised music” (more varied roles and more laying out)— names without “jazz” in them. But it’s not always that simple or clear what is intended when people first get together.

Rhythm, pulse, and meter: The area of the timing of musical events and how they relate to one another is another parameter with wide variation in improvised music. Some groups and artists are very open to things being in a shared groove, including a steady metric cycle (like 4/4 swing or funk, for example). Some are open to playing in a shared pulse or tempo, but want flexibility to change the meter and move where “1” is. Others strongly prefer to play in free time all or most of the time. And others are quite specific about this, varying it widely from one piece to another. There are ideologies and issues of identity and relationship to history and culture around pulse, meter, and free time that are worth discussing deeply.

“Free time” is not just one thing. There are many variations and ways of playing it. It’s not necessarily the same as classical rubato, or multiple people doing their own rubato playing, although that is one possibility. People deeply immersed in free jazz have a lot to say about free time, and there’s a lot to learn about it, and several kinds.

One key element has to do with whether the figures and gestures are played with their own internal sense of rhythmic momentum and expressive intensity. In my eight years of playing with the great Rashied Ali, John Coltrane’s last drummer and one of the handful of drummers who helped create this style (with Sunny Murray, Milford Graves, Andrew Cyrille, and a few others), I learned a lot about this. He said everything he played was “in time,” and closely related to his studies with Philly Joe Jones and jazz in general, and, to him, all the free-time pieces had a basic tempo. I offered the observation that his approach to rhythm, which John Coltrane called “multi-directional,” was analogous to looking at the real world through a kaleidoscope: everything is what it is, but it’s broken up, changing, etc., and he at least partially agreed. Jazz players may find alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons’ playing with Cecil Taylor and others to exemplify this as well. To explore this, try playing figures in time, but in your own time, or as if they were in time, but shifting among tempos from phrase to phrase, in both mathematically clear and fuzzier ratios. Play with the articulation and dynamic shape that you would use for any rhythmic figure.

The effect of a group of people each playing with their own rhythmic intention and intensity, whether each part is continuous in tempo or not, is very different from that of a group where some or all are playing more like classical rubato, which can have its own beauty or compelling character. Some groups have both, or multiple, kinds of free time going on together. It may take time and listening and playing experience to fully appreciate this.

Unpulsed space and pointillism is another kind of free time that may or may not overlap with the others.

And, of course, tempo (agreed upon or contrapuntally individual, shifting or steady), note durations (and how varied or consistent they are), density (amount of activity over time in one part and in the ensemble as a whole), and the ratio of rests to sounds are all factors that have a huge role in the effect of music.

Pitch material (on the short-term, phrase or motive scale): Another important aspect of the musical surface is how familiar or unfamiliar, diatonic or chromatic or microtonal, tonal or atonal in implications, conjunct or disjunct, directional or zig-zagging, jazz-like or not, blues-related or not, etc. the melodic figures (and their inflections and expressive elements) are. And over what period of time? Are tonal implications constantly being undermined by “Viennese triads” (014 interval sets, like C Db E), tritones, and chromatic intervals of a major 7th or larger? Or are there phrases that are tonal or jazz-like but modulate every few seconds?

Pitch material (on the longer-term, passage or movement or piece scale): Does the pitch material stay in a tonal or modal area, or at least maintain a tonic or pedal tone, for a fairly long while, and does it modulate sometimes? If so, how often? And if it modulates, how (by pivot or abruptly?), what are the key relationships and their distances or number of common tones? What is the rate of chromatic circulation? (I think that useful term comes from composer/teacher Stefan Wolpe: how often are we hearing all 12 notes, or most of them?)

Timbre, register, dynamics, and instrumental techniques: Some styles, players, or pieces use nearly constant extended techniques, including ambiguously-pitched or unpitched noise elements, while others really work with the usual twelve pitches of Western equal-tempered music and the conventionally-produced tones of instruments. Are dynamic ranges and registers extreme or moderate, disjunct or smooth? Are pitches colored by growls, bends, etc., and are these recognizably connected to the expressive language of a traditional music, like earlier jazz, or not?

More parameters will come to mind, and for each, you can think of them as a field with extremes, like a spectrum from ultraviolet through the visible colors to infrared, and experiment with them in all combinations.

Many of these parameters can be observed on the local, moment-to-moment level, and then they multiply when one considers their rate and range of change over time, the direction(s) of that change, etc. Multiple vectors all changing at different rates among the players in an ensemble, listening and reacting to one another musically and imaginatively, coming together and diverging in conscious but somewhat unexpected ways, with a bit of random surprise and quick conscious musical reaction to it, all add up to an endless proliferation of engaging musical forms.

Really, all of this examination of parameters is no less applicable to traditional forms and tonal or modal music, composed or improvised. You can analyze (or practice playing) a bebop solo on a standard form and changes the usual way, in terms of certain melody-harmony relationships and chord resolutions, but also in terms of density, use of registral space over time, chromatic circulation, or any other parameter, and then see what happens when you vary it.

You can take or leave this analytical language and parametric way of thinking. If you use it, I suggest using it judiciously. It is breaking something into parts mentally when the thing itself is really a unique whole. If you do analysis, it’s important to remember that the category is never the thing, and nothing is totally reducible to words and concepts. This is a tool to help us question assumptions, move out of our comfort zones and try unfamiliar things, and/or to better understand and communicate about aspects of free music (or any music). I think of this analysis as being in service of creative inquiry and an enriched experience and appreciation, not an end in itself.

In Part 3, I’ll share a short list of practice suggestions and links to some books, ebooks, recordings, and other resources.

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