Derek Bailey, “Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music” (1980)

Marian Jago (Reid School of Music, University of Edinburgh)
MPSG Retrospective Review No. 2019:3
Published 10. July 2019

Derek Bailey’s Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music is a book that I will confess to having found somewhat frustrating when I first encountered it years ago. At the time I was uninterested in having much to do with the “classical” music with which the work is so frequently (and perhaps surprisingly) occupied, whilst I came to it armed with enough understanding about jazz and Indian classical music as to find those sections unremarkable. So it was with considerable curiosity that I began to reconsider the work, first published in 1980 and then again in a revised edition in 1992.[1] (Page references in what follows are to the 1992 edition.)

By many accounts Improvisation was the first book to attempt to engage with musical improvisation as a concept or impulse beyond any particular or fixed idiomatic form. Instead it aimed to make some sense of the practice across Indian classical music, jazz, flamenco, various forms of Western Art music (in particular baroque and contemporary compositional practices), popular (rock) music, and so-called “free” improvising. While the work has its limitations (and it must be mentioned that women enter into this story not at all),[2] it is a testament to the innovative, even disruptive quality of Bailey’s work that Improvisation still occupies a prominent and barely contested place at the ideological heart of scholarship in this area. It is also perhaps a testament to the slippery, and at times still contentious nature of improvisation as a topic of study, and the borders and barriers it is still seen to guard between various musicological approaches, cultures, and factions. Indeed, Improvisation managed to highlight via argument or example many of the debates and sticking points that still remain in musicology nearly forty years later, as well as the ways in which engagement with musical improvisation remains very much a peripheral concern here (the area of music psychology notwithstanding).[3]

The landmark breadth of Improvisation is one of its chief weaknesses, with Bailey himself noting the “haphazard researches” undertaken for the work (p. 19) – a criticism to which I would add frequent opportunism in the ethnographic source material, particularly in the work’s latter sections concerning free improvisation which perhaps over-rely on Bailey’s own practice and collaborators. But while the book’s various idiomatically delimited sections might lack the robustness to properly engage specialists in those areas, its breadth is also a source of strength in serving to highlight Bailey’s sensitivity to, and understanding of, improvisation as practice. This wide-ranging exploration only works due to Bailey’s ability to seize upon the sine qua non of improvised musical practice despite the various forms and guises in which it is presented. Essential to this deft ability to locate common ground across various forms of musical expression is precisely Bailey’s respect for the important role played by idiom, alongside his continual return to the notion of improvisation as linked to everyday functional music-making as much as to “music-as-art”: everything from the lute player at court to the church organist, the accommodation of dancers, the demands and unfixed content of traditional Indian performances, and the occupations of jazz musicians. In other words, the very great deal of music which concerns the live mediation of human activity and falls outside the current scope of score-based-conductor-mediated practices in Western Art music.

A notion of the corporeal practice of improvisation vs. the conceptual process of composition recurs throughout the text, as Bailey considers the both the use-value and constraints inherent in musical notation; though it is also here that Bailey’s sensitivity and catholic approach to musical practice at times breaks down. Bailey’s frequently antagonistic stance toward Western Art music practices has likely done little to help bridge a divide between improvised musical forms and “classical” music which is often still palpably felt, particularly in institutional settings. Bailey’s return to the role and place not just of the score, but of the composer within improvised musical practice presages musicological debates still ongoing in the twenty-first century, serving too as a means by which to navigate the perennially thorny issue of authenticity. Here authenticity is expressed as a quality of embodiment in music performance and is bent toward a personal, rather than cultural focus. “Ownership” of music through its creative performance comes to stand as a chief distinction between the non-improvising player of current Western Art music practices and the improvising performer of any sort (pp. 66-67). Bailey is no kinder to “new music” and its compositional attempts to employ improvisation, and those who Bailey considers to have developed a sympathetic approach to wedding the typographic and the improvisational have been improvisers first and composers only latterly.

It is in the recurrent consideration of composition that Bailey also bravely confronts one of improvisation’s chief challenges – that, unlike compositional forms, with improvisation, and particularly with so-called “free improvisation”, a player is only able to get out of the experience that which they carry into it. Ultimately for many this becomes unsustainable, for artistic, emotional, physical, or psychological reasons (p. 114). On similar grounds, Bailey points to the paradox of recording for improvised musical practice, a process which he suggests threatens to misplace the value of live performance, mistaking the recorded artefact for the real-time negotiation of musical relationships which engendered it (p. 103). In locating the power of improvisation so discretely in the process of performance itself – in sounds as inseparable from their creation in space/place/time and, notably, with the role of the audience as a point of discussion—Bailey is engaged with the notion of musicking, though he of course does yet have the term at his disposal.[4]

Improvisation takes something of a turn in its latter half, departing from its energetic, free-ranging, and inquisitive survey of various improvisational practices for a detailing of the free improvisation scene largely as Bailey himself experienced it. Here, the ethnographic approach which had worked so well in other areas becomes somewhat introspective and, in limiting itself to Bailey and his collaborators, the perspective of the work narrows to the point where its explanatory power diminishes. In these later sections, when Bailey speaks of “this music”, he is not speaking of the myriad, mutable expressions of improvisation (idiomatically free or otherwise) but of something smaller; indelibly linked to the personal and without the contextual or critical traction to match the work’s earlier sections.

That things do not close quite as powerfully as they began is regrettable, but ultimately a minor point that does little to take away from the importance of the work as a whole.  Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music began the work of unpicking the complicated bundle of associations and assumptions which have been heaped on its title concept, pushing back at the still frequently held idea that the studied, intentional practice of improvisation is little more than the indiscriminate application of chance, accident, or innate cultural reflex. In the process, Bailey manages to get at what is perhaps musical improvisation’s chief gift, and greatest source of annoyance: that it is an utterly democratic impulse which resists at every turn explanation, definition, and control.

[1] Following the airing of On the Edge: Improvisation in Music, a four-part television documentary written and narrated by Bailey for the UK’s Channel 4 and now available (unofficially) on YouTube. See Derek Bailey, Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music (Ashbourne: Moorland, 1980) and rev. ed. (London: British Library Sound Archive, 1992).

[2] Except as the photographers for some of the images of the (exclusively) male musicians. Bailey also misses the importance of racial politics which surround various attempts to ‘legitimise’ jazz, dismissing Max Roach’s respect for the tradition and historical legacy of jazz in preference for the views of white saxophonist Steve Lacy. While defensible as an aesthetic opinion, Bailey’s lack of political awareness here is regrettable. Bailey’s points about the reception of Anthony Braxton, who has had a rough ride from both the jazz and western art music/compositional worlds (often due to the racial politics which surround composition in certain contexts, which is not articulated here), are well taken, though also a bit at odds with the respect shown idiomatic conventions elsewhere (pp. 56-57).

[3] The implications that this situation has for the place of jazz, popular, and vernacular or folk idioms within academia, particularly in the UK, is obvious.

[4] Q.v. Christopher Small, Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1998).

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