Avant-Garde  •  Improvised Music

Free Improvisation

Free improvisation represents the culmination of the avant-gardist musician¹s quest for complete, uncompromised freedom. To improvise means to perform without preparation, to make music on the spot. Improvising is nothing new: classical composers like Mozart were accomplished improvisers. But free improvisation lets the musician do whatever he wants, regardless of any rule. Rhythm, harmony, melody, even respect for the physical integrity of the instrument itself (preparations and home-built instruments are often used) are shattered. The free improviser channels his creative energy through his instrument and plays. A lot harder than it may seem, free improvising requires extensive musical and psychological training, as the musician must attain a high level of concentration, an ability to metaphorically strip naked in front of the audience, and if he is not performing alone, to listen to the other improvisers in order to interact with them if he doesn¹t want to get isolated. Free improvisers come from very diverse backgrounds -- jazz (Cecil Taylor, Derek Bailey), rock (Thurston Moore), electronica (Fennesz, Jim O'Rourke, Voice Crack), even classical (Patrick Scheyer, Aki Takase) -- and perform in settings ranging from solo to large groups called creative orchestras. Free improvisation is not the same as free jazz, although some key musicians like Bailey and Taylor came from such a background. Free jazz often remained anchored in its originating idiom, using heads and licks to structure the improvised material. There is no such thing in free improvisation -- being freed of all rules, it cannot be traced back to a genre other than the very generic term "avant-garde." As a style, free improv started to emerge in the late 1960s, mainly on the Berlin and London scenes, when people like Peter Brötzmann and the musicians revolving around (and trained by) John Stevens started to push American free jazz into more abstract territories. Brötzmann¹s 1968 LP Machine Gun shattered the world of free jazz and pioneered a form of improv characterized by extreme energy levels. Around Stevens and his Spontaneous Music Ensemble, a group of musicians developed an approach to improvisation relying on listening, toning down, trying to "become" the other musicians while being oneself, instead of attempting to outplay the other participants. This school of free improv is best exemplified by the productions released on the record label Emanem. In the late 1990s/early 2000s, an even more radical approach to free improvisation emerged, based on silence and the use of very short, very fragmented musical gestures. People like John Butcher, Axel Dörner, Franz Hautzinger and Radu Malfatti first explored these extremes.