On Free Improvisation

by Dominic Blackwell

At one level free improvisation is simple — you take an instrument, you make up some music and you stop when you’re finished. At another level you can spend a lifetime understanding the practical and aesthetic implications of this way of doing things.

I was trained as a classical musician. A classical musician interprets and performs the works of other, composers, people who wrote down their music on paper precisely so that others could perform it. From my knowledge of the history of classical music, I knew that many composers of the past — Bach, Beethoven and Lizst, for example — were reknowned in their time as great improvisers. And musicologists will try to detect improvisatory elements in scores, attempting the impossible task of reconstructing what these improvisations may have sounded like.

Then I played some jazz. In the popular imagination, jazz is a free-wheeling, spontaneous, made-up artform. In reality, it is far more complicated than that. Especially as the recorded history of jazz has grown, jazz musicians have the sense of a tradition, of needing to pay homage to the greats of the past, of needing to respect the spirit of the art of their forbears. So, on the one hand, jazz musicians definitely do improvise and create music on the fly. On the other hand a lot of musicians and critics will then critique improvisations on whether they use jazz ‘vocabulary’ or whether a solo adequately incorporated licks from the masters — Charlie Parker, Miles Davies, John Coltrane and so on. And when you read tutorial material written by more experienced jazz musicians for apprentice improvisers, you notice a lot about structure and theory and patterns and even notes to ‘avoid’ in a particular musical context.

But what happens if you step outside traditions and idioms? Of course everyone, myself included, has been influenced by what they’ve played and heard before. And that comes out in improvisation. But what if you don’t say you’re playing a solo on some jazz standard, or classical theme or rock song. What if you just play?

Now many players in many styles of music use free playing as a form of creative or physical loosening up. They treat free improvisation as a means to an end — a way to get in touch with yourself and your instrument before getting on with your real work.

However, what I have been trying is treating the free improvisation as the real work. I have been exploring free improvisation, outside the confines of generic boundaries, as an independent artform. Of course, I didn’t originate this idea. On the experimental cutting edge of jazz, classical and electronic music for example, many musicians have exploited the wild chaos and creative frenzy of unstructured instrumental play. But free improvisation doesn’t have to be wild and avant-garde. It can have any degree of structure you choose. It can use any type of rhythm, or several. It can have any level of repetiion, from loads to none which is noticeable to the listener.

Free improvisation is very liberating. Gone is the anxiety about reproducing pre-exsisting pieces accurately. There are no wrong notes — the question is not what is ‘right’, but what would sound good right here right now. Of course freedom makes you more vulnerable. You don’t have Chopin or Coltrane to hide behind. You have to take full aesthetic responsibilty for what you play and for some, that may be more than a little terrifying. But I think it has great potential — you can hear some of the places you can go with it at my SoundCloud. And if you are a musician, or if you think you’d like to be, I dare you — try it. Sit down and just make something up. You may be surprised by what you hear…

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