There is “freedom” and there is “structure”, right? No, not really. Not when we’re talking Improvised Music. I had a very interesting communication with a guy who bought the MussoMusic release by Doom Dogs (my band, not the Finnish metal band who stole our name) “Personal Nuclear Device”. He really liked the music and wanted recommendations for more music like it. Here’s the thing: he had checked out other MussoMusic releases, specifically the Machine Gun titles and found Machine Gun to be too “unstructured” compared to Doom Dogs. Interesting because the Doom Dogs sessions were totally improvised. No instructions, no forms. Just completely free improvisation. Machine Gun, on the other hand, by comparison, was highly structured as we usually based our improvisations on some set – albeit simple – parameters.
So what was happening? Well, Doom Dogs was more “Harmolodic” whereas Machine Gun was more “energy music”. Or, pan-tonal spontaneous composition verses wall of sound, if you will. Both are improvising ensembles. They just organize different musical material. You see, free Improvisation (with a capital ‘i’) does not mean that you “play whatever you want”. It means that you are free to choose how you interact within the ensemble. There are always structures. There are always forms. That’s the nature of music. As soon as two events occur you have a structure/form. The question is how “conventional” those forms and structures are. The further from traditional/conventional modes of organization the fresher and more interesting the improvisation. The trick is to improvise convincingly and not lose your audience. I don’t care what any one says: even the most dedicated free improv audience is looking for a structure. The thrill is in witnessing an ensemble spontaneously create and work their way through a coherent, new musical form.
We achieve these feats of magic through listening. It’s all in the listening. This is why a conduction sounds notably different from a group improvisation. In a conduction, everyone is listening to one person: the conductor. In a group Improvisation, the musicians are listening to each other. You can imagine how the dynamics differ.
I was once (many times, actually) asked how to balance open improvisation with the need to maintain some kind of coherence in an ensemble. First: improvisation is not the lack of coherence Not listening is. As soon as musicians are listening and looking for a musical conclusion you have coherence. When the entire group is focused on finding a musical resolution to the chaos that ensues from the first event of the improvisation you have structure. It’s that simple, isn’t it?