I cannot avoid the troublesome term free. Even if I don’t accept the label myself, my music is often described as free improvised music. Free improvisation or free improvised music is used both as a label for certain kinds of improvised music – as a name of a genre, but it is also used in the meaning of being free (of) something, for example free from the constrains of musical style. Whichever way the term freedom is used, I find it misleading. It causes a lot of misunderstanding and generates mystification.
I am fully aware that this is a long and important debate in the field of improvised music. And I am aware of the polemic on idiomatic and non-idiomatic improvisation. I am not intending to give a full account of that here.
What is free?
What is it freed from?
Who is free?
The audience (free to leave the room, free to ignore)?
When am I, as practitioner, free?
Is it before I play?
Is it when I play?
Is it freedom to choose what, when and how I play?
WIKIPEDIA has this definition: Free improvisation or free music is musical improvisation without any rules beyond the logic or inclination of the musician(s) involved.1 Which means that it is the logic or inclinations of the musician(s) involved that set the rules that apply to that (free) improvisational activity.
But what about bound improvisation? Would not every musician’s improvisational activity be bound by, and be depending on that musician’s logic and inclinations?
My focus is that I am free to use (and be bound to) my own logic, inclinations and taste when I play. And that the boundaries that mark the space for improvisational interplay in my ensembles are set by both the inner logic of the ensembles’ music, and the inclinations of the musicians involved. These marked spaces form our referents. Boundaries enable freedom – a freedom to move around in that marked space. It is how these boundaries are set that is the most significant component of the music and our improvised activity. Which is why free is so misleading.
… the longer you play in the same situation or group (…) the less appropriate it becomes to describe the music as ‘free’ anything. Derek Bailey (1980).2
I don’t see the problem, unless the very reason for improvising is to be free. My approach to improvisation seems to be different. I prefer to be bound to tacit rules and the inclinations of the groups I am playing in, I would like to continue to operate in the space that constitutes the ensembles’ music. I would like to rediscover and re-open the space, like I would rediscover a Calder Mobile each time I look at it. At the same time I do like to have the freedom to develop the boundaries – to refine them, in close companion with the band mates.
Gary Peters (2009),3 echoes this approach in his definition of a “relocation of freedom”:
It is by thinking freedom as the beginning rather than the end of the artwork that the link between freedom and origination is established. Thought in this light, free-improvisation is no longer presented as a radically autonomous art, outstripping the past and the present in transcendent acts of innovation pure and immaculate…
To me, this freedom is bound. It is bound to comply to my taste, inclinations, abilities, imagination and so fort.
1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_improvisation, 1 July 2015
2 Derek Bailey, Improvisation: its nature and practice in music. Ashbourne, England 1992 (1980). Moorland Pub. in association with Incus Records, p115
3 Gary Peter, The Philosophy of Improvisation, London 2009, The University of Chicago Press. Paperback edition 2011 (min versjon), p2-3