Thoughts on Genre: Blogs and Improvisation

I find myself somewhat mysteriously coming back to the thought of free improvisation in music, and guitarist Derek Bailey’s thoughts on idiom and listening (some sound samples of him are available; I recommend the solo pieces for the best context). Now, what Bailey does certainly has its own idiom, despite his protestings, but there is something in the resolute present-ness of his playing, his focus on the immediate moment and seeming lack of any planned musical superstructure, no matter how provisional, that seems to relate to the medium of blogs. In some of his more in-depth explanations, he describes the ability of improvised music to collaborate without coalescing. And collaboration is key:

I like playing any way, but compared to playing with people, I think playing solo is a second rate activity, really. For me, playing is about playing with other people. In the absence of that, I am happy to play solo, but I don’t think there is any comparison. Even if it is difficult playing with other people – sometimes it’s great, sometimes it isn’t, but that is kind of the point of it. It loses its point playing solo. Then it isn’t pointless, but it becomes a different thing. It is very difficult if you are doing it regularly, which at one point I did. It becomes very difficult not to build up a sort of repertoire, which is anathema to the music, in my view. You can develop a solo performance, and then you finish up with a solo performance; you might as well be playing Bach.

Bailey, AllAboutJazz interview

I.e., it is the collaborative aspect that introduces freshness and variation into a series of performances done within roughly the same parameters:

I don’t claim that, because most music is improvised, it is the same as freely improvised music. Freely improvised music is different to musics that include improvisation. When I put the book ‘Improvisation’ together, I found it useful to consider these things in terms developed in the study of language. And the main difference I think between freely improvised music and the musics you quoted is, that they are idiomatic and freely improvised music isn’t. They are formed by an idiom, they are not formed by improvisation. They are formed the same way that speech vernacular, a verbal accent, is formed. They are the product of a locality and society, by characteristics shared by that society. Improvisation exists in their music in order to serve this central identity, reflecting a particular region and people. And improvisation is a tool – it might be the main tool in the music, but it is a tool.

In freely improvised music, its roots are in occasion rather than place. Maybe improvisation takes the place of the idiom. But it doesn’t have the grounding, the roots if you like, of those other musics. Its strengths lie elsewhere. There are plenty of styles – group styles and individual styles – found in free playing but they don’t coalesce into an idiom. They just don’t have that kind of social or regional purchase or allegiance. They are idiosyncratic. In fact you can see freely improvised music as being made up of an apparently endless variety of idiosyncratic players and groups. So many in fact, that its simpler to think of the whole thing as non-idiomatic.

Bailey, Jean Martin interview

Not that this is an analogy for blogging, but note the distinction he makes: an individual’s style is homogenous, even repetitive; whereas aggregations of these homogeneous entities lead to a heterogeneous variety of evanescent (occasion-based) performances. This is an extreme view, more an ideal than a reality, but as an ideal it is drastically different from notions of autonomous, single authorship within a genre/idiom. And this is reflected in his views on recordings as well. He doesn’t “get” listening to records:

Do they just sit there for 74 minutes…just sit and look at something or close their eyes? So you don’t have to give it your complete, full, unadulterated attention? That’s one of the things that’s wrong. If you could only play a record once, imagine the intensity you’d have to bring to the listening! In the same way that if I play something, I can only play it once…If you could only listen to it once, don’t you think it might concentrate the eardrums?

Bailey, Invisible Jukebox

“Intensity” is not quite the word I would for how people read blogs. But there is something that it shares with free improvisation in the increasingly ephemeral nature of its content, as well as its collaborative aspects. I think that these shared aspects are best summed up by a word Bailey uses to describe participation in improvisation: practice.

To be continued…