‘Someone Else’s Dream’: ‘Alienation strategies’ in a Culture Hostile to Experimentation

A friend of mine showed me a few books he had about improvisation this morning, a subject that both of have share an interest in. Improvisational music has for years now been a thorn in my side, or foot, or wherever–I’ve just never been able to get over some personal obstacle that is in my way of being able to really practice it, be it in a “jazz” medium or some other setting.

One of the books was Derek Bailey’s Improvisation: it’s nature and practice, which I flipped through until I came to the section on the ‘new’ free improvised music of the 60’s and 70’s. Bailey is himself a seminal figure in this movement, some of whose more recent albums are among my favorites in his output.

Here is the conclusion of a discussion between Bailey and Eddie Prevost of the group AMM:


[Bailey] And the reasons for the survival, so far, of improvised music in an apparently hostile environment?


[Prevost] Alienation strategies. One thing many of us experienced when we began playing ‘free’ improvised music was a sense of alienation from the available models – playing models – mainly jazz and classical music. The critical response to what we did was, ‘its[sic] not jazz’. In some very important sense those remarks were so wrong, but I won’t go into that. But irksome though they may have been, those hostile attitudes helped. I suspect that most of us didn’t care what it was called, we just wanted to go on playing – and finding out about this new activity in which we were engaged. Being forced to cut what were, in fact, imaginary bonds helped us to recognise our wider cultural and social bearings. It is then that you can begin to calculate where you really want to go. Before, you had been traveling along in someone else’s dream. Even if our music began as a negation it seems to have transcended and superseded those earlier formative aspirations – those unfocused ideas of ‘being a jazz musician’. We have gone beyond all that and its attendant imprisoning ethos. This music, of which AMM is a part, goes on, survives and grows. Precisely because it has these reasons for being, these meanings. I get more of an appetite for it as the years go on. I can’t think of anything else I would rather be doing. (131)

I can’t help but relate this to what has been happening with ‘experimental’ poetry, or other sidelined movements in literature. There is plenty of interest in a ‘freer’ idea of poetry, one that resists the tradition of ‘bummer lit’, the resists the simplicity of such labels as ‘lyric’ and ‘narrative’, and searches for something else, some dream of its own. I think there are plenty of serious artists and poets that I think would tell (or have told) similar stories. Jackson MacLow would be one of them. It’s a good thing these activities are labors of love.

[More on this later.]


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