Perfect Sound Forever

A Beginner's Guide to "Free jazz"

Listening and Ethics
by Tyler Friedman
(June 2012)


Since it is my experience that discussions about art tend to become diffuse and unsatisfying if not grounded by a particular piece, let us proceed by listening. We'll take as our anchor an exquisite live encounter between Cecil Taylor and the Art Ensemble of Chicago from 1984. Embodied in this performance are the elements of "free jazz" at its finest. More specifically, Cecil and the AEC exhibit the comportment that "free jazz," by its very nature, demands. In what follows, I would like to try to motivate this claim. But first, the stage must be set.

Briefly, the mid to late 1950s brought with them an unprecedented infusion of ambiguity into jazz. To be sure, this was by no means the first instance of the defamiliarization of the elements of a musical event, be they harmonic, rhythmic, melodic, or what I wish to focus on in this essay the rules governing interaction. However, the depth and quality of imaginative leaps, the number of new approaches to the jazz tradition that emerged, still leaves one reeling. "Free jazz" is too often treated as an unlistenable aberration. I submit, however, that it responds to a universal aesthetic desire.

Generally speaking, we place two demands upon music. First, we require stability, a foothold nay, an earhold such that we keep our bearing throughout the piece of music. We want to "understand" what is going on, and understanding typically occurs in music through consonance. But thorough-going stability, we know, is deeply unsatisfying. Thus, we demand that stability, both final and en passant, should be shot through with precariousness, resolute irresolution. The principle of tension and release holds sway in music no less than in other domains of our life, be they similarly artistic, sexual, or whatever else pertains to a sensation.

But the fact is that habituation exacerbates the demands we place on the quantity and quality of our experience. The music that once titillated us with its novelty more often than not becomes passé with time. Just as predictability and expectation render a horror film less horrifying and more horrible, so do our other constant aesthetic encounters ineluctably yield diminishing returns. As a consequence, we eventually crave what is new and unpredictable.

If our requirement for change may be satisfied through a number of avenues, I find myself especially enamored with what seems to be the least acknowledged choice: upsetting or reestablishing the manner in which musicians interact. And insofar as it is concerned with interactivity, I find that reflection upon these shifts opens up the oft-ignored ethical dimension of music.

Listening is not a purely passive activity. But it is an activity governed by passivity. That is to say, listening demands of us that our activity be in response. This entails that the act of creation take place in response to something other, something external to our control and mastery. And if we are willing to expand our sense of listening, to free it from the sense modality with which it is physiologically associated, then listening becomes a comportment whereby we open ourselves to externality. No less than the musician, the sculptor listens to the slab of marble, the painter to her pastels, the luthier to her wood. Each of these materials, if properly listened to, is articulate. The sculptor must hearken to the veins, cracks, and regions of greater and lesser density in a slab of marble, lest some area be charged with supporting more weight than it can manage. The luthier must listen to the wood that will only later actually produce sound. Does the grain suggest receptivity to vibration? Will the wood "open up" over time or become sclerotic and unresponsive? Does the wood really want to be a guitar?

Turning our attention to the aforementioned Cecil Taylor-AEC meeting, we can hear the same sort of consummate listening taking place. Allow me to point some things out (I take it that my readers will be acquainted with the radical inadequacy of language to capture the experience of music and the unavoidability of using subjective descriptors... please bear with me as such). Cecil begins by creating the atmosphere, punctuated at first by cymbals and a triangle. Left to his own devices, he runs through some of the affects and devices that will be utilized throughout the piece: the meditative, interlarded by an occasional air of the menacing (0:00-1:12, 1:28-1:55); percussive units and angular bursts of energy (1:13-1:27, 1:55-2:24). During the second bout of "percussive units," Roscoe Mitchell picks up on the motif and rhythmically chimes in (1:58). Cecil's achingly lovely introduction ends with an interlude that beckons contributors. Responding to the audible cue, Lester Bowie enters with a characteristic muted, half-valve whisper and he and Cecil begin a conversation of sorts, their sympathetic contributions evidencing close listening on both their parts. Listen to the way that Lester follows Cecil's descending motif at 3:38, leading to mutual paroxysms, after which Cecil takes up Lester's suggestion of a tamer mood (3:58). The tamer mood that Cecil picks up on and develops is, as I characterize it, not without a menacing trace, to which Lester contributes with an almost sardonic half-valved declaration (4:06-4:11). The two then converse by way of the percussive units that have already been encountered. The predominance of rhythm invites the participation of the other members of the AEC.

What began as a solo, and mutated into a duet, has now progressed into a full-fledged group improvisation. A few words on "group improvisation" are in order. There are a number of ways that group improvisation can take place, despite the fact that the term suggests a single phenomenon. The polyphonic effusions of New Orleans jazz are of an entirely different order than what we find in the Cecil-AEC piece under consideration. The overlapping improvisations that one finds in recordings of King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, et al. shared a harmonic framework and stable rhythm that ensured coherence and set bounds to the possibilities one had available. Tethered thusly, a musician could go about her merry improvisational way without too much concern about marring the music and stepping on toes. Consequently, the need to listen was mitigated. Now, the situation for Cecil and the AEC is fundamentally different. They have not agreed on any all-encompassing tonal center. The rhythm of the piece floats and drifts any way that they see fit. Certain motifs reappear throughout, but not with determinacy enough to call them the melody.

In short, Cecil and the AEC are making music in largely lawless territory. And the revocation of harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic rules demands the institution of a new central law: LISTEN! Listen and respond in kind! Respond accordingly! Group improvisation takes on a character entirely otherwise than the variety found in New Orleans jazz. The latter form of group improvisation is a group of individuals each improvising individually. "Free jazz" improvisation is a group of individuals improvising as a group, as a unit, as a coherent whole. This sort of interaction is what we find par excellence in the Cecil-AEC group improvisation.

Lacking a superordinate structure that would hand down rules from on high determining how musicians should interact, the chief means of staving off senseless overlapping soliloquies is to listen and to be guided by one's comrades. To my way of thinking the imperative ("listen!") that we find writ large in "free jazz" is of an ethical, not to mention aesthetic, order. For, as I have claimed, listening is an alchemy of activity and passivity that demands recognition of and respect for the other. This recognition becomes manifest in sympathetically, supportively, and productively responding to the impetus offered by the other. Above all else, improvisation requires responsibility, that is to say, response-ability. Perhaps if we trained our ears to listen to listening, "free jazz" would lose its forbidding character and begin to offer up its treasures.

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