Perpetual Frontier

an essay by
Joe Morris

My forthcoming book is titled Perpetual Frontier: The Properties of Free Music (riti pub). It is a meta-methodology, or a methodology that can be used to construct a methodology. It does that by describing properties – things that are always used and are always adjusted in every methodology within Free Music. The properties are explained in sections that describe the construction of a methodology that informs process while allowing constant input from all players. The why, what, and how of free music are explained in simple, readable terms that any musician or non-musician can understand. There are sections on approach, melodic structure, pulse, interaction, and form. I include descriptions of four seminal methodologies: Unit Structures, Harmolodics, Tri-Axiom Theory, and European Free Improvisation. The descriptions are accurate enough that a musician with limited training should be able to play differently by adhering to the particulars, and be able to sound like the original music made from these methodologies. The details are there as examples only, not meant to fully describe every part. The book also features a section in which various musicians answer the same seven questions drawn from the properties.

In writing this book, I changed from a linear perspective that perpetuates a rigid tradition-based understanding to a more useful, flexible and accurate ontological one. I use the term free music as an umbrella term in place of the many terms that signify a period or specific body of work, all of which were lumped together under the term “jazz” and then shuttled away. I blame this syndrome on the jazz industry, which has consistently devalued, maligned, disregarded, ignored, or relegated free music to the lowest place, assuming it to be unsellable. Ironically, innovation – the very thing that makes all of this music historically significant – is exactly what devalues it by industry and institutional standards.

Rather than waste my time fighting this revisionist and ignorant perspective, I chose to not use jazz as a name to describe any material in my book. I use methodology because free music has formal elements and informal ones, each reliant on the other to become the whole. Free music is used as a name for any work in which the artist has set the criteria free from critical approval, industry or institutional oversight; a context in which the artist decides if that criteria was met, in which the player or players have freedom to express themselves through improvisation, using the particulars imbedded within the operational methodology in use. This definition of free music does not exclude improvised music that relies on harmony. Instead it views the use of harmony as a device within a methodology. So Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker are free music musicians, as is Anthony Braxton. In free music, artists synthesize, interpret, and inventmaterial. But invention to some degree is the goal. And invention can be accomplished by the discovery of a new synthesis or new interpretation.

Since I began my playing career in the mid ‘70s, I have been intrigued by the variety of material and approaches that I encountered. I have never thought to align myself with one sub-group within free music. Instead I wrote early on about having a “repertoire of approaches,” and I studied everything I could to make that happen for myself. My point of view was inclusive, but not just for the sake of being open-minded; more specifically, I saw that the bodies of work in free music were similar in a way because they were all so different and different because they were all so similar. As a musician, I understood it as ways to play, not just as things to like or dislike. I tried to learn the material as a way to improvise. I had to understand how each piece within a body of work operated, so that any and all of these parts could be identified as unique within this arena of similar things. Of course, the how-to-play part was not the only important thing. Every bit of material I encountered was made for a reason. I had mine, and I knew what it was. I never thought I needed to latch onto someone else’s. Early on I tried to formulate my music in a way in which the composed material informed the improvisation. This meant that I often had to convey this information to the musicians who played my music. While this was never easy, it did help me to learn ways to do it. It is why my own methodology is diverse and the reason I am able to teach.

In 1995, I taught a class in improvisation at the Tufts University Experimental College. In 2000, I was asked to join the faculty at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music, where I have been teaching since. In 2005, I also joined the faculty of the Modern American Music Department at Longy School of Music of Bard College. My work at NEC has mainly been coaching ensembles in the jazz and contemporary improvisation departments and teaching private lessons in improvisation for all instrumentalists. This past year I taught a course called “The Properties of Free Music” at NEC and at Longy, using the technical parts of my book as a course manual. The class is a mix of lecture and workshop; it has given me the chance to see my theories put into practice. My focus with all of this work has been to describe in detail the particular aesthetic and technical elements within the methodologies of Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Anthony Braxton, Eric Dolphy, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, and Derek Bailey, among others.

The ability of these amazing young improvising students has made this course a constantly exciting opportunity. The biggest challenge has been to find language that will help them bridge the divide from the jazz pedagogy that focuses on harmonic and modal (scalar) improvising, and provide them with an equivalent in the way of a specific technical description that they can understand and use as a guide for improvisation. To do this, I’ve had to develop new language and a new pedagogy extracted from explanations made by the artists who made the music, and from my own analysis done through listening and playing the music. My goal has been to provide all the technical material that would enable students to perform this music on the highest level possible. Over the years, my students have consistently amazed me. I feel that many of them could perform with Cecil, Ornette, Braxton, or Evan Parker today and maintain their own voices with all of them. It is my objective as a teacher to instill the ability to comprehend this material in the same way that a student would understand key, meter, or harmony, so that they can walk into a so-called “free” gig and know how to negotiate a balance in the material.

With this understanding, they are prepared to deal with these various ideas of what “free” playing is. They can identify bits of a specific methodology in the process of performing using their knowledge of its specific properties, which are always in play and always adjusted within these methodologies. And with this understanding, they might develop their own use of these properties,or even develop their own methodology. That language, developed in a conservatory setting can also fill the gap that I see in the “theory of improvisation” curricula at many liberal arts colleges. They seem to do a good job preparing students to formulate an aesthetic, but don’t offer much in the way of describing how to actually improvise, or how musicians have actually improvised so far. As a meta-methodology, my book suggests a way to construct a methodology by using the properties in the book, all of which are in play and re-configured, recontextualized and processed through synthesis, interpretation in all of free music.

I hope to move the discussion about free music away from critique, opinion, or the philosophy of improvisation by instead describing what has been done so far with a new template. For starters, it must be made clear that free music is not a poor relation to jazz or classical music: It is unique. It is formulated differently and operates differently than any other music, purposely. Free music has specific operational components. My book states clearly that the architectural structure of free music starts its construction with inspiration and finishes it with musical techniques, and that all the bits that comprise those techniques are properties, constants that are reformulated. In other words, each type of property is a building block that is reconfigured in the formulation of a new design.

There is some risk of offending people by codifying material that is thought by some people to be mystical and sacred. When material is made mystical or sacred, it is implied that some people don’t deserve access to it. There are those who think that by explaining anything at all technical in nature I am violating an unspoken rule that expects all free music to be original, or robbing people of the chance to make their own technical decisions. Then there are those who think free means 100% invented on the spot, and voice the lowest kind of denial – that free music cannot be explained or taught. These attitudes have done serious damage to the sharing of information about free music. My book describes things that everyone has used; by viewing them in a way that is free of a linear tradition or beyond the shadow of any particular aesthetic perspective, they are all shown to be what they are – material that is used to make music. More information won’t kill creativity. Less information always does. Furthermore, the idea that every improviser is a freestanding innovator who shows no reference to any larger methodology has no merit. My book shows that the use of methodology actually allows for individualism within every example given. I have proven this in the classroom, but the enormous amount of free music out there is better proof.

Most professionals are aligned with one existing methodology – or a hybrid methodology – but few are versed in all of them. And even fewer have a methodology that is wholly their own. The examples in my book suggest that maybe no one has invented everything they do. Everyone synthesizes and interprets existing material. But having the ability to read the material being processed through performance is a unique kind of virtuosity. It enhances a player’s chances of moving past what has been done into new unchartered territory with a higher percentage of invention. Free music isn’t random. It is made of complex materials used in complex situations. Having the ability to play this way moves the music forward. My book shows the connections that make this possible.

Free music is an art form that has been made by individuals who operated without regard for critical or institutional approval, who invented theway they play their instruments and invented platforms on which to play that music, based on whatever aesthetic value they thought mattered to them. The idea of that undiscovered place, one that enlightens someone or enhances the life of the player or listener, is not a finished concept. It’s a perpetual frontier. By determining to leave things open-ended in concept and still allow for a better understanding of how things can be done, not just why things should be done, we allow for the possibility that more will emerge. Musical skills are like language. Fluency in speech allows for better expression. An informed imagination combined with a fluent tongue makes for eloquent statements that might help us all to evolve beyond where we are to someplace new again.

Joe Morris©2012

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