Free musical improvisation involves playing an instrument without the restraints of traditional imposed rhythm or tonality. Free improvisation, at least in the context discussed here, developed from jazz-oriented thinking in the early 1960s. Musicians well versed in be-bop jazz such as John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman began to disassociate their music from jazz structure, tonality, and time signature, creating a completely new genre of music.
Since that time, many musicians have used “free improv” as a vehicle for exploring a boundless array of sonic realms. Most still make use of the group setting in which members of an ensemble play together and thus inform each other’s playing. There are those who play alone, however, and therefore produce music that is informed solely by the mind of an individual. Much of the work that employs this method of playing can be viewed as a sort of musical free-association upon which the individual can decide how much, or how little, restraint to impose. Playing solo in this fashion is clearly a very personal endeavor, and extends musicians the opportunity of creating a very powerful final product. Solo free improvisation that employs the saxophone as a medium has an especially powerful body of work attached to it, due partly to the saxophone’s wide sonic range as well as its historical significance in the setting of jazz improvisation (e.g. the work of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins, etc.).
The first-ever freely improvised solo saxophone album was Anthony Braxton’s For Alto. Recorded in 1969, less than a decade after the term “free jazz” was coined (by Ornette Coleman, with the 1960 release of Free Jazz), For Alto was remarkably ahead of its time. Though free improvisation was well-established by the time of its recording, the jazz aesthetic still weighed heavily in the hearts of most free musicians. For Alto adheres far less to jazz influence, and is therefore a more pure free association.
European saxophone players Peter Brtözmann and Evan Parker experimented with solo improvisation a few years later and yielded some of the most challenging and incredible albums of all time Solo and Saxophone Solos, respectively. More removed from the jazz setting, both musicians bring the saxophone to its sonic limits and further expose the enrichment that lies at the intersection of free association’s great power and the astounding expressive quality of the saxophone.
On Thursday, September 14, Kimveer Gill opened fire on students at Dawson College in Montreal. Two hours before the shooting, he left a series of blog entries on his www.vampirefreaks.com profile. News reports inferred that he was disturbed, depressed, and “goth.” In a separate incident, Joshua Ballard posted his suicide note as a MySpace bulletin on November 29, 2005. Now eulogized in Internet phenomena, Ballard profiled himself on MySpace as “emo.”
What’s the point? As music becomes less centralized and more outlets open for musicians to export their music, the greater the need becomes to make the music more unique in order to stay afloat and the more convenient it becomes to tag on a new genre label. Combined with the attraction to attaching oneself to the visual image and identity of a particular genre, this breaks the lines of traditional discrimination into an area where prejudice, hierarchy, and gentrification should not exist.
Discrimination no longer takes place only in the form of race and gender, but also visual image. Because I listen to musicians like Marilyn Manson and Skinny Puppy (both musicians favored by Gill), I may be apt to hurt my classmates. Because I am also supposedly “goth,” that means I must hate fans of hip-hop or any other kind of genre, because people as a whole must be, in my mind, worthless, no good, betraying, and deceptive.
However, those who create invisible boundaries based on music and music-related culture are perhaps not only as odious as those they classify as “bad people,” but also fall victim to ignorance and the micro-genrefication of music.
Of course genres help to compare one type of music to another as a reference point. However, since music in general is such a quickly evolving art form, designating categories to contain them is an impossible feat. Sadly, as these genres become more over-defined, the groups of people who follow each get smaller and more specified, and upsettingly, discrimination may rise.
What is the solution? Expose yourself to music that might not necessarily fit your average breadth of musical taste. Immerse yourself in different kinds of people who subscribe to different images and cultures. Realize that most music today is influenced if not blatantly stolen from similar roots. Understand that music is aural, not visual. Image is tertiary in the order of what is important to music, not secondary, and most definitely not primary.
We left you hanging last week — you are probably wondering how to break into “experimental” music, but you don’t know where to start, right? There’s abstract jazz, musique concrete, noise, drone, free improv… what is one to do?
Get your feet wet with a quasi-experimental genre first. IDM (intelligent dance music), is a good place to start. IDM fuses experimentation with semi-regular beats and some traditional melodic sensibility, while retaining some of the strangeness true to experimental music and giving it a distinctly electronic flavor. Some experimental guys will no doubt turn up their noses at beats, but it’s worth a look.
The obvious place to start is with the release that gave IDM its name — the Artificial Intelligence compilation (Warp Records, 1992). This is required listening for anyone wishing to get into the genre; it’s where IDM started, and though the music has become more varied and “experimental” since then, this album still holds up.
Where to go next depends on where you’re coming from. This style has a lot of influences, and many artists mix “traditional” IDM with hallmarks of other sounds. Squarepusher uses jazz bass and drums (try Ultravisitor); Prefuse 73 (who played on campus recently) creates complex hip-hop beats (try Extinguished: Outtakes); Venetian Snares created a mix of breaks and classical samples for Rossz Csillag Allat Született (he even plays violin on some tracks). People familiar with “mainstream” electronic might try mid-period Orbital (like In Sides), which, while not traditionally considered IDM, is going in the same direction. True experimental lovers unimpressed by these straightforward albums might find some solace in Autechre, who have been abstract since the mid-’90s (try Confield).
No intro to IDM would be complete without a mention of Aphex Twin (Richard D. James). As the creator of the genre (which he is, in essence, because of his early work), its best-known practitioner (due to music videos in the late ’90s), and one of the most eccentric artists around (he drives a surplus tank), Aphex Twin is a legend in his own time. Try Come To Daddy, a short but flawless intro to all of his many styles.
Hopefully, you now have a sense of experimental music. If you’re into it, there’s much more to explore — try other labels, for example: Skam, Rephlex, Planet Mu, Tigerbeat6, Schematic, Merck, Fatcat, Clear… you might find a new love for music.