This post was inspired by Stravinsky’s Poetics of Music Lesson Three – The Composition of Music (Amazon affiliate link)
“I experience a sort of terror when, at the moment of setting to work and finding myself before the infinitude of possibilities that present themselves, I have the feeling that everything is permissible to me. If everything is permissible to me, the best and the worst; if nothing offers me any resistance, then any effort is inconceivable, and I cannot use anything as a basis, and consequently every undertaking becomes futile.”
Consider the following, organized from most “freedom” to most “controlled”:
- I will create something
- I will compose a piece of music
- I will compose a jazz tune
- I will compose a blues
- I will compose a fast blues
- I will compose a fast blues in 3/4
- I will compose a fast blues in 3/4 in the key of F minor
- I will compose a fast blues in 3/4 in the key of F minor for a jazz trio
- I will compose a fast blues in 3/4 in the key of F minor for sax, bass and drums
- …the drums will lead off with an 8 bar intro
- …the bass and sax will double the melody
- …the melody will be a be-boppish, Tristano eight-note line, with much thematic and rhythmic variation
- …the melody will span two choruses of the blues
- …following the melody there will be an interlude
- …the interlude will be in a different key and lead into the first solo
- …the first solo will be a duo between sax and drums
- …and on and on and on…
Can you hear it? Quick! Write it down! At what point did you begin to hear it? How would your list unfold?
Stravinsky later says that more meaning is inherent in the limiting and narrowing of possibility, not the opposite. For example, each successive step from the above list came from a deeper, more personal, creative impulse. And even with all of those limitations, there’s still much more creative work to be done!
Of course, there are an infinite number of directions it could have taken. Replacing “compose” with “improvise,” would make an interesting variation.
Where does free-improv and free-jazz fit in all of this?
In this context, I think the word “free” is misused and abused. It implies that the music is free from all rules, boundaries and conventions. However, the most interesting free-improv establishes many spontaneous, rigorous rules and boundaries. In my opinion, the best free-improv doesn’t sound improvised at all!
“…my freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint, diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.”