A Listener's Guide to Free Improvisation

A Listener's Guide to Free Improvisation

by John Corbett

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Improvisation rattles some listeners. Maybe they’re even suspicious of it. John Coltrane’s saxophonic flights of fancy, Jimi Hendrix’s feedback drenched guitar solos, Ravi Shankar’s sitar extrapolations—all these sounds seem like so much noodling or jamming, indulgent self-expression. “Just” improvising, as is sometimes said. For these music fans, it seems natural that music is meant to be composed. In the first book of its kind, John Corbett’s A Listener’s Guide to Free Improvisation provides a how-to manual for the most extreme example of spontaneous improvising: music with no pre-planned material at all. Drawing on over three decades of writing about, presenting, playing, teaching, and studying freely improvised music, Corbett offers an enriching set of tools that show any curious listener how to really listen, and he encourages them to enjoy the human impulse— found all around the world— to make up music on the spot.
Corbett equips his reader for a journey into a difficult musical landscape, where there is no steady beat, no pre-ordained format, no overarching melodic or harmonic framework, and where tones can ring with the sharpest of burrs. In “Fundamentals,” he explores key areas of interest, such as how the musicians interact, the malleability of time, overcoming impatience, and watching out for changes and transitions; he grounds these observations in concrete listening exercises, a veritable training regime for musical attentiveness. Then he takes readers deeper in “Advanced Techniques,” plumbing the philosophical conundrums at the heart of free improvisation, including topics such as the influence of the audience and the counterintuitive challenge of listening while asleep. Scattered throughout are helpful and accessible lists of essential resources—recordings, books, videos— and a registry of major practicing free improvisors from Noël Akchoté to John Zorn, particularly essential because this music is best experienced live.
The result is a concise, humorous, and inspiring guide, a unique book that will help transform one of the world’s most notoriously unapproachable artforms into a rewarding and enjoyable experience. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226353807
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/13/2016
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 112
Sales rank: 1,170,073
Product dimensions: 4.20(w) x 6.10(h) x 0.30(d)

About the Author

John Corbett is a writer, producer, and curator based in Chicago who has written extensively on jazz and improvised music. A regular contributor to DownBeat magazine, he is the author of several books, including Extended Play: Sounding Off from John Cage to Dr. Funkenstein and Microgroove: Forays Into Other Music

Read an Excerpt

A Listener's Guide to Free Improvisation

By John Corbett

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-35380-7


Preparing to Go into the Field

1. Take nothing.

No binoculars (or opera glasses) necessary. Recording devices and cameras are distractions that keep you from listening attentively; leave it to the professionals. Cell phones are a nuisance, not just for the listener but for everyone around them; sitting next to somebody texting at a concert is like having a television on at a bar — the light of the phone is a magnet that attracts a curious-minded person's built-in eavesdropping mechanism, causing them to pay rapt attention to something they don't care about in spite of themselves. I've been told that in the early '70s a special brand of idiotic audience member brought saxophones to jazz festivals, thinking that because the music was so free they could join in. Please. None of this. What you do require: ears, eyes, brain, drink. That's about it.

The point is to bring as little as possible in your head. Try to just leave it all at home. Of course, for the intermediate or advanced listener, knowing the history and the various factions and the geographical distribution are all part of the listening process. That becomes part of the excitement, figuring out what's at stake in a specific concert based on what you know about what's come before. Knowing context is essential to the sustained enjoyment of improvised music. To start with, it's important just to come ready to observe. And simple, unobstructed observation is a luxury in our action-packed lives. I have spent many evenings at concerts I'd looked forward to — even ones I organized myself, really great, important ones — and found myself thinking about work or worrying about something I forgot to do or daydreaming. Again, there's a place for all that — flip to the "Advanced Techniques" section for some ideas. But if your first task is to try to figure out what's going on in the music, you have to pay attention to it. Direct attention. As if you were defusing a bomb. Imagine you've got those red and green and black wires in hand, ready to cut one of them, but which one? Not a good time to be mulling over grocery lists or imagining great comeback lines you missed. You've got to stay focused. Lives depend on it.

2. On second thought, take a notebook.

I know it sounds nerdy. But it's really helpful. At a festival I was reviewing early on, I noticed other journalists taking notes, thought I'd give it a try, and though I don't do it all the time anymore, at the beginning it was a great help. It's like taking notes at a lecture — you can't rely on your memory to be complete or accurate, and sometimes your impression in the moment is fleeting and scoots away for good. Unless you've written it down. So overcome your vanity, grab one of those little Moleskine dudes, as small as possible, and mark the date and the players at the top of a page. You think you'll remember. You won't. I've unearthed notebooks from twenty-five years ago that remind me of gigs that I'd totally forgotten. Not only that, but they refresh my memory of little noteworthy events in those concerts that, a quarter century later, I could hardly expect to recall. When I see them on the page, though, it's a mnemonic device; and as often as not, I can reconstitute the ancient music as if it were water hitting Tang — like those specialists who memorize The Odyssey in its entirety or a series of non-sequential numbers. That's what improvised music is often: an odyssey or a series of non-sequential numbers. Jot down some observations, some mileposts, musical monuments, what someone looks like when they're playing, feelings of boredom or elation, anything you notice. Nobody else will see your scribblings, so don't worry about being elegant or writing full sentences or even making sense.

3. And a pen.

Notebook's no good without it.

4. And a watch.

A timepiece is helpful. As an artifact of the way it's made, improvised music has a special relationship to duration; time becomes super-relativized in the process of listening to folks improvise — it expands and contracts. Sometimes a watch is needed just to see how long the music's been going, to check how long it feels against how long it's "actually" been going, as measured by the less malleable measure of clock time. It's helpful to note the length of a piece or a set or a whole concert, or even an intermission, if its length seems significant. Anyway, a watch is also an aid in being sure that the bar owner's not going to shut the concert down for going past 2 AM or that you're not going to be late for the babysitter.


Range and Diversity

Free Improvisation

Free improvisors are by nature migratory creatures. They range far and wide, and are common from the United States and Canada to Europe and Asia, with communities in Australia, and occasional sightings in Africa and South America. First identified in the United States and several northern European countries (England, Holland, Germany), free improvisors once roosted locally, but they have now established themselves far from their home berths. Joe McPhee, for instance, who was at one time hyper-local — performing in the smallish American city of Poughkeepsie, New York — ventured out and established a base in France, working with a cadre of French improvisors. Likewise, German Peter Brötzmann began performing in the United States in the late 1970s, with the advent of lower-cost airfares, and has forged long working relationships with many American musicians. Freely improvised music is the first thoroughly transnational musical art form, its identity inflected by the various intersections and cross-pollinations engendered by all this migration.

Structured Improvisation

Coexistent with free improvisation, occupying precisely the same habitat, structured improvisation is often mistaken for its counterpart. There is frequent interbreeding between these species, even in a single concert. However, there are some typical markings that can help distinguish structured improvisation from free improvisation:

1. Players looking at sheet music on music stands.

2. Unison activity (i.e., multiple players starting or stopping simultaneously; several players playing the same melody; more than one player executing a tricky rhythmic pattern in tandem).

3. A conductor standing at the front of the stage, cuing players or directing activity.

4. The bandleader announcing the title of a piece before or after they play it (freely improvised music is only ever named when it is being released as a record, and then often grudgingly).

Free Jazz

With its ancestors in North America and subsequent strains thriving in Europe, free jazz is also difficult to distinguish from freely improvised music. Indeed, some references treat them as part of the same species, and some free improvisors identify themselves as jazz musicians, while some of the Europeans decline to call what they play jazz out of respect for the African American tradition. Here's what people tend to mean when they say "free jazz":

1. Driving rhythm with great forward momentum, usually unmetered.

2. Screaming and shouting horns, especially tenor saxophones.

3. Minimal thematic material, sometimes none.

4. No cycles of chord changes; harmony limited to one chord, if any.

5. Long-form dramatic arc.

6. Optional round sunglasses.

Noise Music

Noise music is a species appearing most frequently in Japan and Scandinavia, with examples sighted less frequently across North America and Europe. Sometimes made using free improvisation as a method, noise music is a distant descendant of heavy rock and tape music (also known as musique concrète). It tends to eschew all conventional musical material — melody, harmony, pulsed rhythm — in favor of electronic sounds generated by various means, including synthesizers, electric guitars, and overdriven or mistreated microphones. Frequently employing drone as a baseline technique, noise music can be long and gradual or shorter and song-like with extreme outbursts of high-energy sound. Someone might be screaming. There is probably distortion. It is very loud. What?! Loud, it's very loud!


I'm a purist, at least when it comes to nomenclature. I never use the abbreviated form of improvisation. Improv is for improvised comedy, a particular and separate artistic activity. Some of the great comedians are incredible improvisors, not only within the domain of "improv," but all the time, in daily life, on a talk show, at the gas station. Some use scenarios and characters, like Richard Pryor and Andy Kaufman did, and others get into a zone and seem to be able to riff on anything that comes their way. Groucho Marx was legendary for the snappy retort, which is a specialized kind of improvising.

Thinking about improv in the context of improvised music brings up something worth sorting out, though. There's a basic mandate in improvised comedy (and theater), something called the "yes, and" rule. This guideline says that when improvising with others, you should never say "no." Instead, whatever it is that they throw at you, you have to accept and run with it. Wow, when did you grow ears made of caterpillars? Last week, don't you like them? Sure, but they're eating your hat. I know, but I didn't like that hat anyway. I gave you that hat! For my birthday, I know, and I never told you how much I disliked it. And so on. The concept is that if you say "no," no matter how dorky or uninteresting the premise, you break the flow, and the flow is what keeps the audience engaged. I would argue that this is exclusively an artifact of the spoken arts, not music, and that in freely improvised music it is possible, maybe even necessary, to sometimes say "no." Without "no" there isn't any friction, and without friction you basically have new age music. New age music is all "yes." And, to my ear, that's a much bigger "no."


Rhythm: The Hurdle

The hardest thing for new listeners to deal with, in my experience, is rhythm. Growing up with a regular beat of one kind or another in virtually every piece of music they've enjoyed — depending on how adventurous they've been — most listeners have to grapple with the fact that in improvised music there's a very good chance that there's going to be no steady pulse, no continuous 4/4 or 2/4 or waltz or 6/8 or even anything as exotic as seven or nine or eleven. There's no reason these things can't appear at some point, but it's unlikely they're going to last the length of a piece, for instance. A drummer may decide to drop a walloping backbeat or some light swing or a metronomic tap into free-flowing interplay, but the music doesn't presuppose the rhythm. In theory, it can't, if it's really improvised. Presuppositions are checked at the door.

Metrical rhythm has a specific function — several, in fact — but one of its functions is to provide a sense of regularity. In other words, it's the music's grid. Against a steady rhythm, anything can be plotted, even the craziest and most unhinged of sounds. I know a few people who are fans of really aggressive, wild, totally out rock, who can't stand free jazz or improvised music. It's the rhythm. They want the grid, the plotting, something to measure the weirdness against. Without it, they feel lost, adrift, as if there's nothing at stake. I also like to experience the contrast between a steady rhythm and something completely bananas. That juxtaposition is exciting, and for some, myself included, it's been a necessary step in the process of feeling comfortable listening to music with non-metrical rhythm. A bit of a safety net.

So what to do in the absence of a beat?

The first thing is to relax. Not to clutch. Breathe. Admit to yourself there's not going to be a steady pulse. And then begin to pay attention to other things about the music. Like does it seem to move or stay in one place? That's a fundamental observation, whether the music has momentum or remains static. Often within a single performance, this will vary. The rhythms will ebb and flow: things will get hitched to a post and suddenly grow still, or they'll burst out of the gate, break into a trot, maybe a gallop. In improvised music, speed equals velocity, not tempo; it's a matter of feeling a tidal pull rather than counting beats per minute.

I suggest listening to a group without a drummer as a way of trying this out. Drumming is overdetermined. We expect it to lay down the beat, manage the time; we look to the drummer to know what's going on with the rhythm. (Matter of fact, in some music, like jazz, this function is actually the business of the bassist, even though the drummer is known as the timekeeper.) In improvised music, drummers have gone in many directions — some even call what they do "multi-directional percussion" — and to great lengths to open up other possibilities. There's a history of non-metrical drumming in improvised music. As I've said, some improvising drummers have no compunction about bringing the beat, many doing so effectively and without totally dominating the proceedings. (Imposition of a steady beat for a long period in a piece of freely improvised music has a tendency to make everything refer to it, so it eliminates much of the openness of the setting and in effect makes a unilateral decision about the direction of the music. Something like playing "Happy Birthday" or "Chopsticks" — a magnet thrown into a bunch of metal flakes. An extreme measure, experienced improvisors know to use it judiciously.)

In any case, it's a helpful exercise to find a group with no drummer, more akin to a chamber ensemble, and then try to hear what's happening rhythmically. How would you describe the music: slow, medium, or fast? What gives that impression? Density of activity? Can there be dense music (lots going on at the same time) that feels slow? Can there be spare music (a note or sound here and there) that feels fast? Remember that everything is rhythmic, not just a beat. Whenever there are two events separated in time, there's a rhythm. And when you get a whole bunch of things happening, there's the potential for shifting velocity, or overlapping and conflicting velocities, lots of complex rhythmic activity, a whole lotta shakin' going on. Try to figure out: Is one person playing fast, or is the whole of the music fast? How is the feeling of speed created? How consistent is the rhythm? Does it slip and slide all quicksilvery, or does it stay more or less even?

Ekkehard Jost's description of rhythm in Cecil Taylor's work is useful here. He poses a question: Since metrically based swing is the motor of so much jazz, how can motion be created without meter? In Taylor's case, Jost says, it comes from what he calls wavelike activity. He specifies: This means that the music has a tendency to go from a low dynamic to a high dynamic (soft to loud) and at the same time to go from fewer to more notes in a given span of time. So you get swells in volume calibrated with crests in speed. He plays without a pulse but with a definite sense of forward motion. If you want, check out Taylor's solo music to hear what Jost means. His explanation is pretty persuasive, though it's basic and reductive and doesn't really account for much else of value in the rich music.

Listening to music without a steady pulse, you take on the role of code breaker in training: you hold up your stethoscope to the music, working to make sense of something that's complex and irregular, deciphering scrambled code in an asymmetrical or uneven expanse of sounds. It's easy enough to deal with regular patterns — repetitions, cycles, series — so think of this as a challenge to train your brain to understand more organic sounds, ones that don't repeat over and over.


Excerpted from A Listener's Guide to Free Improvisation by John Corbett. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Preparing to Go into the Field
Range and Diversity


Rhythm: The Hurdle
Duration: Another Hurdle
Basic Identification: Who Is Doing What?
Entrances and Exits: Mapping the Flow of Events
Interaction Dynamics: The Core
Dynamics Dynamics: Passive-Aggressive Improvising
Transitions: Observing How the Music Changes
Structure: The Butcher Shop
Personal Vocabulary: Each unto Themselves

Advanced Techniques

On Watching While Listening
Live or Memorex?
Kindling: 20 Starter Records for Your Improvised Music Collection
Once vs. Ongoing
The Level of Mystery
The Ambiguous and the Unresolved: Is Tony Dead?
The Rule of Threes
Dancing Between the Hypothetical Poles
Kindling II: 20 Classic Poly-Free Records
Distraction and Sleep
Thinking and Chewing Gum (at the Same Time)
You and the Night and the Music: Audience Participation
Additional Reading: Seven Great Books (Plus One DVD)
A Little Rouge, a Touch of Blush
On the Moral Superiority of Improvised Music
Life List: A Selected Checklist of Major Living Free Improvisors

What People are Saying About This

David Grubbs

“This book is a small marvel. A deceptively simple guide, it is clearly the product of decades of serious listening. There are few books—about any form of music—that pack more ideas and more insights into such a short space as this one, and yet it remains light, lithe, immensely readable, enjoyable, and practical. It is an excellent, accessible introduction to an art form that is notorious in its reputation as difficult listening.”

Jim DeRogatis

“Corbett is one of my absolute favorite music writers because he has the rare ability to combine two diverse strains of this benighted craft, bringing together the deep musicological knowledge, heavy-lifting reportage, and crystalline prose of Peter Guralnick with the unbridled passion and joy of Lester Bangs, even when he’s writing about a topic as allegedly difficult as improvised music. He never fails to open new vistas for this music lover, and he is guaranteed to do the same for you.”

Glenn Kotche

“I wish I had this book twenty-five years ago! A hyper-insightful and thoughtfully organized book that also happens to be thoroughly entertaining, A Listener’s Guide to Free Improvisation is an essential read for anyone interested in the complex yet accessible world of musical improvisation.”

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