Saturday, July 16, 2011

Free Improvisation Series: Ornette Coleman

Ornette Coleman
I did not initially overlook Ornette Coleman’s music; rather I decided that because his music was, strictly speaking, not “free improvisation”, that I ought not include it in this series. However, I have decided otherwise, given the powerful influence of his ideas which led (in part) to free improvisation being explored by jazz musicians in the 1960's.
Ornette Coleman. Photo from breath of life.
In his small group work, Coleman has used the head-solo-head paradigm which originated in small group jazz in the 1930's or so. In this idiom, the harmonic progression outlined by the melody was also to be outlined by the soloists in their improvisations. Coleman used this idiom as well (many tunes on Tomorrow is the Question are altered blues or rhythm changes forms, and the solos follow the traditional forms) but more often he diverged from it, allowing the soloist to follow her own harmonic progression.
Improvisation can follow a chord progression with no set form, (see Miles Davis' “Flamenco Sketches”, “Teo” and “Spanish Key”) or form with no set chord progression (some of Tristano's and Dolphy's more-outside improvisations are examples of this). But in general, Coleman's music excised both. This apparently simple innovation provided a great deal of insight into the role of the accompanying musicians as well, and by extension, the nature of the interplay between soloist and accompanist(s). If we are to maintain the traditional jazz value of mutual “listening”, then two options for interplay emerge: 1. the soloist/accompaniment roles are preserved, and the accompaniment leaps into a state of hyper-intense listening, or 2. the soloist/accompaniment roles simply collapse and the group arrives at collective improvisation.
It's important to emphasize that 2. does not mean free improvisation, nor does Coleman see it that way. The fact that the improvisation is free from the harmonic rhythm of the melody does not imply that the improvisation is completely independent of the composition. (If it were, then why bother playing a melody at all?) So in Coleman's music, the melody sets the tone; the improvisations which follow draw from bits and pieces of the melody. (I speculate that this is also the basic idea behind Cecil Taylor's “unit structures” theory of improvisation.)
Coleman’s string of highly influential Atlantic recordings in the late 1950’s set off what would become a firestorm of controversy and experimenting. Coleman was to jazz musicians what Marx was to economists, or what Gödel was to logicians: although he disrupted the established order, he was actually right in his general theory. Therefore he couldn't be ignored. Jazz musicians were always searching for ways to feel more freedom in improvisation, and Coleman certainly did this. By the early- to mid-60's, a large community of musicians in New York and elsewhere were busily testing the boundaries of jazz composition and improvisation. (Even mainstream figures like John Coltrane and Miles Davis were using Coleman's head-free solos-head idiom.)
Did Coleman play free improvisation? Probably. But I'm not aware of any recorded evidence from this early period.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Free Improvisation Series: Jean Dubuffet & Asger Jorn

Jean Dubuffet & Asger Jorn
I also have a preference for music without variations, not structured according to a particular system but unchanging, almost formless, as though the pieces had no beginning and no end but were simply extracts taken haphazardly from a ceaseless and ever-flowing score.” - Jean Dubuffet, 1961
In late 1960, Asger Jorn (1914-1973) invited his friend Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985) to improvise music with him. They had several sessions between December 1960 and March 1961. Dubuffet recorded these encounters on a portable tape recorder, and made several finished pieces out of the sessions. Some of these finished pieces were released by an obscure Italian label called Edizione del Cavallino; others remained unreleased until the 70's or later.
The well-educated musical ear will likely interpret their formless and radical experiments as the clamors of inexperienced and unschooled hacks. But such judgments crumble upon consideration of their motivations for making music in this way. In 1941, Jorn wrote an article for the journal of Helhesten (“Hellhorse”), an underground art group, (in Nazi-occupied Denmark) in which he derided “the great masterpieces” as “nothing but accomplished banalities”. Describing the art of the non-professional artists, “[t]hese forest lakes on colored paper, hanging in gilded frames in thousands of apartments, are among the most profound artistic inspirations." [1]
Asger Jorn, Visio Geologico, 1969. Photo from NOT BORED!
These statements were not flights of youthful anti-authoritarian fancy, but early expressions of an ideology that would dominate his life and work. A lifelong sympathizer with communism and pacifism, Jorn was highly critical of the capitalist economic order and the ways society (and art) had become structured within it. He was a founding member of COBRA, which lasted from 1949-51. In 1957 he was part of a conference which resulted in the formation of the Situationist International. In May 1968, this collective succeeded in bringing about a general strike in France. Jorn had parted ways with the SI by 1961, although he continued to support them morally and financially.
Dubuffet studied painting at Académie Julian in Paris. In 1924, disillusioned with the value of art in society, dropped out of the art world and sold wine for his father's company. He returned to painting briefly in the 1930's, but there followed another period of silence. In 1942, he returned to art, this time permanently. He found particular inspiration in the work of Jean Fautrier, and became associated with the tachisme movement.
In 1923, he had been given a text of German psychologist Hans Prinzhorn’s “Bildnerei der Geisteskranken” [“Artistry of the Mentally Ill”] (1922), which helped developed his interest in the works of artistically untrained people.
Jean Dubuffet, Personage, 1964. Photo from the Opera Gallery.
In 1949, Dubuffet coined the term art brut (literally “raw art”) which he defined as work of “pure artistic operation, unrefined, thoroughly reinvented, in all its aspects, by the maker, who acts entirely on his own impulses”, brought on by a reliance “entirely on their own resources rather than on the stereotypes of classical or fashionable art”. [2] Dubuffet's ideas about art brut are complex, but in general, it was any art which was made independent of cultural influence. This could include, but was not limited to, art made by mental patients, prisoners, and children.
We thus see that both men specifically valued art which was aesthetically amateur and culturally unaffected. Since both had received formal art education, it is possible that they viewed music as a kind of blank slate for them to experiment with this amateur aesthetic more directly. Dubuffet emphasizes that neither he nor Jorn were “au fait with the output of contemporary composers”. They were not attempting to contribute to the theoretical canon that generated serialism, concrete music, and electronic composition. Both had had some previous musical training, but they deliberately chose instruments which they had no experience playing, many of them found or created by their friend Alain Vian.
The Grundig TK35. Photo by Michael Keller, from
Dubuffet recorded his collaborations with Jorn on a Grundig TK35 tape recorder (pictured above), Of the unprofessional nature of their recording methods, Dubuffet comments: “We consider that a good recording provides precise and distinct sound which seems to be coming from a close source; in our daily lives, however our hearing is submitted to all sorts of other sounds which, more often than not, are unclear muddled, far from pure, distant and only partially audible. To ignore them is to give birth to a specious artform, exclusively concerned with a single category of sounds which, when it comes down to it, are pretty uncommon in everyday life. I was aiming to produce music based not on a selection of sounds but on sounds that can be heard anywhere on any day and especially those that one hears without really being aware of them.”
Of music more generally, Dubuffet is acutely aware of the same truths expressed by John Cage (published that same year in Silence, 1961) and Pauline Oliveros (Some Sound Observations, initially published in 1968): the attempt to create music “which expressed people's moods and their drives as well as the sounds, the general hubbub and the sonorous backdrop of our everyday lives, the noises to which we are so closely connected and, although we don't realize it, have probably endeared themselves to us and which we would be hard put to do without.” He refers to this “general hubbub” as “permanent music which carries us along”, as opposed to “the music we ourselves express.” The two go together “to form the specific music which can be considered as a human beings'." [3]
1. Jorn, Asger. “Détourned Painting.” Translated by Thomas Y. Levin, available at Situationist International Online. Accessed June 15 2011.
2. Dubuffet, Jean. "Art Brut Preferred to the Cultural Arts", 1949 as cited in Krukowski, Jean Dubuffet and the Deculturation of Art, available at jean dubuffet. Accessed June 15 2011.
3. Dubuffet, Jean. “Musical Experiments.” Translated by Matthew Daillie. Available at UbuWeb Sound – Jean Dubuffet. Accessed June 15 2011.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Free Improvisation Series: Group Ongaku

Looking back through history, one can find numerous cultural and art movements which consciously reacted against the status quo. All anti-art is also anti-culture, at least to some degree: these are movements have developed in reaction to perceived limits or inconsistencies within art or culture. Such limits are addressed or overcome with freewheeling satire (the French Incoherents), reactionary rhetoric (the Italian Futurists), and even social action (the Situationists).

Group Ongaku

Post-World War II Japanese music was dominated by the influence of American music (rock n' roll, jazz) on one hand, and a fusion of modern Euro-American composition and traditional Japanese music on the other. Group Ongaku can be seen as either a fusion of, or a reaction against both of these approaches.
This group first played together in 1958, as the duo of Takehisa Kosugi and Shuko Mizuno, two musicology students at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. It was not named until 1960 when other members, such as Meiko Shiomi and Yasunao Tone had joined. Only three tracks are known to have been recorded; all are available on UbuWeb Sound and were recently reissued by Seer Sound Archive. The recordings speak for themselves: completely improvised, action-oriented rather than product-oriented (in keeping with the general anti-art aesthetic of the period) and highly experimental.

Takehisa Kosugi, photo by Kiyotoshi Takashima, from The Japan Foundation, London.

To understand what I mean by "action-oriented", we should take a look at what was happening in the visual arts. Gutai Bijutsu Kyokai (Concrete Art Association) was formed in 1954; their 1956 manifesto (written by Jiro Yoshihara) declares that gutai art "does not change the material but brings it to life". They "pursue the possibilities of pure and creative activity with great energy." Some examples are described:

"Kazuo Shirago placed a lump of paint on a huge piece of paper, and started to spread it around violently with his feet."

Atsuko Tanaka's "Clothing". Photo from I like boring things.

"Shozo Shimamoto ... [fired] a small, hand-made cannon filled with paint by means of an acetylene gas explosion."

Murakami Saburo, a Gutai artist, creating "Lacerating Paper", 1955. Image from Outside Japan.

Gutai was a predecessor to and influence on Fluxus, an international and interdisciplinary movement which brought all arts even closer to "life", often with guerilla tactics. The most famous Fluxus artist is probably Yoko Ono; her early work is very interesting. Central to the Gutai concept is the idea of "psychic automatism", the process of "[uniting] abilities of the individual ... with the chosen material." It's worth noting that Group Ongaku named one of their recorded pieces "Automatism", suggesting a direct ideological link to Gutai. Group Ongaku is most well-known for their improvised pieces, but this was just one part of their overall activities. They often accompanied puppet shows, dance pieces, and sometimes even performed compositions. Julian Cope's book "Japrocksampler" tells the story better than I ever could.

"In Gutai art the human spirit and the material reach out their hands to each other, even though they are otherwise opposed to each other."


Cope, Julian. "Japrocksampler: how the post-war Japanese blew their minds on rock'n'roll." Available online, accessed June 13, 2011.

Stuart, Caleb. "
Yasunao Tone's Wounded and Skipping Compact Discs: From Improvisation and Indeterminate Composition to Glitching CDs." Available online, accessed June 13, 2011.
Yoshihara, Jori. "The Gutai Manifesto." Available online, accessed July 2, 2011.