Say What?

Right now I’m listening to some electronic music. It seems to be free improv by a group called the Hub. It’s streaming from Scot Gresham-Lancaster’s site. I like it — there’s plenty of color, plenty of variety. But does it embody any sort of human meaning, other than, “Ooh, listen to the crazy sounds”?

This is not a trivial question. Meaning, in linguistics, arises from a combination of semantics (what words mean) and syntax (how the words are organized into phrases and sentences). It strikes me that free improv has semantics, but no syntax. That is, individual sounds may be quite evocative, but their juxtaposition is higgledy-piggledy. Free improv is like a stream of words that are not joined into coherent sentences. It’s babbling.

To be sure, some people babble more entertainingly than others.

On a strictly social level, I’m inclined to say, “If you don’t care enough about your music to fix it in some reproducible form, then why should I care enough about it to listen to it?” A recording is, to be sure, a fixed, reproducible form. I don’t mean that the music has to be notated. But let’s say you faithfully record 20 hours of free improv. If you then choose one hour to release to the public (or edit together one hour by combining bits of all of the recordings), on what basis are you choosing?

I would suggest that you’ll probably choose (or assemble) a recording in which something resembling syntax is evident. You’ll choose the performance that has the most nearly coherent structure and phrasing.

This fact suggests to me that maybe you ought to be thinking more about structure and phrasing in the first place, before you go onstage.

John Cage, who in some sense was the founding father of free improv, said, “I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is music.” That’s very Zen. I would respond, “You have nothing to say and so I am not listening, and that is music too.” If you want it to be meaningful, then figure out how to make it meaningful! If you don’t care whether it’s meaningful or not, then please don’t be surprised if nobody cares about your babbling.

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