Degrees of Freedom and the Semiotics of Improvisation

Not long ago, I was at a performance of some friends and acquaintances.* They are all masterful improvisers, each with a well-developed, innovative, singular musical approach. In the case of this specific performance, the musicians were paired with a handful of improvisers with whom they had never played. Over the course of the performance, it became apparent that the musicians involved in the performance were not interested in finding new improvisational languages through performance; the voices of my friends clashed with the voices of the newcomers, and the performance suffered.

Not long ago, I was on tour with a band whose music has resonated with the spirits of hundreds of thousands of people around the world. Most of their music consists of short, driving, high-energy songs. Occasionally, one of their songs would break down into an improvised noise section, where it seemed they revealed the energetic foundation of their music. Listeners were allowed to briefly see them tap into the magma that laid underneath the propulsive surface of their songs. Yet within at most a couple minutes, the band returned to the usual cadences of their song forms; the noisy section teased some listeners who wanted more, and was more than enough for others.

Not long ago, I attended a performance of a long-active freely improvising trio. Each player in the ensemble is a powerful force on his own, and the band itself is responsible for quite a few wonderful recordings. They sold out a medium-sized performance space in Chicago. As a frequent attendee of many events in Chicago's improvised music world, this was an exception to the weekly attendance trends. The concert itself was fine; the musicians animated their well-understood voices. The audience reception was overwhelming. It seemed as if this was a pilgrimage of sorts for many of them to the rare and revered occasion of seeing freely improvised music live.

These are all stories of people negotiating a space of musical autonomy and freedom; a space which, at some point, shrinks, gets compromised, or altogether vanishes. I would like to look at the sorts of factors that contribute to this movement, that reduce an improvisational moment's degrees of freedom.

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When we encounter signs in the world, they appear to stand for something else. For example, the word "tree" may call to mind a large plant with leaves and branches. But the relationship between a sign and its object is not one-to-one. The human mind interprets a sign based on context, (personal) history, and a number of other factors. Thus, we must consider the image that sign creates in the mind. It is here, in the mind and in the picture of the sign in the mind, that meaning begins to take shape. This triadic relationship was spelled out by American philosopher C. S. Peirce. Peirce called the mind's image of a sign the 'interpretant'.

Interpretants can be classified in a number of ways, and can even stand as signs in further semiotic relationships. It is along this complex semiotic chain that music comes to life and achieves its meaning. It is here that the listening experience turns into judgement, criticism, and emotion.

In other words, when we respond to the sign of music, we are not responding to the sound waves of the music, but the reflection of the music in our minds. At the very least, it is the first interpretant (though it may in many cases be further removed) of a musical performance that we contextualize within and use to create our histories and communities.

The value of a Peircian approach to musical semiotic analysis is that it can account for many of the ways in which we are moved by music. Our awareness of our own interpretive processes varies based on the nature of the interpretants that arise in our minds. Sometimes,an interpretant appears to share qualities with the object it appears to represent. Other times, the interpretant represents or otherwise brings to mind the conventions associated with an object. We can encounter the interpretant in any number of ways, be they emotional or analytical.

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As we undertake an "everyday" conversation, we utter things that help contextually define our own identities. In such a way, language becomes a site for cultural performance and the ritual (re)production thereof. Similarly, music provides a site where various tones, timbres, and patterns can help anchor the identity of a musician or performance in the mind of a listener. For a musical event, the interpretant is informed by such things as our personal listening history and understanding of musical technicalities. For example, the later music of John Coltrane may seem like noise to some people, whereas others may hear very well-defined patterns, scales, and hints at song structure.

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Perhaps music (here understood to be music without words) has a slight "advantage" over spoken language in that it does not denote anything; the semiotic relationship between musical sound and meaning rarely appears to us as direct and "natural" as does the relationship between words and meaning. Think of the difference between a conversation between two people, each speaking an entirely different language. In these occasions, we often think that we can't understand each other. If we listen to music of an entirely unfamiliar nature, we often believe the stakes to be different - that there is a different sort of understanding to be achieved, and that it may be achievable.

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It is necessary to spell out the various terms and stakes of the musical experiences described in this piece. Music is never without constraints, and therefore is never without some degree of structure. However, the structural elements of music can be said to exist along a spectrum of explicitness. On one end of the spectrum exists music without any specified constraints. This music can occupy many different genre categories: noise, free improvisation, free jazz, drone, and so on. These constraints are typically determined by the instrumentation and the personal backgrounds and skills of the musicians involved. At improvisational music's least structured state, it involves a group of musicians playing together for the first time, knowing nothing of each other's playing styles or backgrounds. In such contexts, the performance is like a first conversation (a friend of mine, after taking part in one such set, called it a  getting-to-know-each-other  set). Within the performance, musical structures emerge and are interpreted by the other musicians. When we improvise in these ways, we learn things about each other and, in its best cases, figure out how to make beautiful music together. Consider the opposite end of the structural-explicitness spectrum: music so full of stated rules that it is nearly the same every time; the lines between performance and recording become blurry. These poles of the stated-structure-spectrum also correspond roughly to degrees of freedom: on one end, a musician has total improvisational freedom. On the other, the musician has very little improvisational freedom. As we reduce the degrees of freedom, the musical event becomes less dialogic and its potential as a communicative symbol is foregrounded; the musical event as a whole speaks louder, and its performers speak less and less to each other.

This space of freedom in improvised music is related to the concept of autonomy as examined by philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis. Castoriadis suggested that autonomous societies understand the degree to which their laws and institutions are self-instituted, and can call these institutions into question and, ultimately, change them.

In a similar way, the space of free improvisation allows musicians to bring different elements of their musical imaginaries into the space of performance. There, musicians can suggest sets of rules, patterns, and conventions to follow. Free improvisation is a site of autonomous linguistic/cultural reception and creation.

The degrees of freedom of a piece or performance of music also affect the potential interpretants that form in the mind of the listeners. A complete absence of predetermined structure, in many cases, correlates to a more open interpretive space; references, allusions, contexts, and ideas of appropriateness have not been established through ritual repetition and association. Indeed, as structural elements get imposed on and are exercised through music, these elements bring with them historical, generic, or personal baggage; they have been previously-contextualized, and many of these previous contexts arise in the mind of the listener upon hearing familiar musical structures.

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Let us return to the examples mentioned at the beginning of this piece and break down the semiotic processes and spaces of autonomy in each one. (Of course, this analysis is limited to what I can infer from the actions of performers as well as the degree to which I can understand my own semiotic processes. But hopefully some increased depth of of understanding can come from this.)

First, the improvisers who played with outsiders to their community: Over the course of years of playing with and listening to each other, the local group of improvisers had established what I recognized as a common language. Hence, when I listened to them play, I immediately categorized their individual sounds. The first interpretant that occurred in my mind was one of convention. I understood the music to be based on a shared, implicit, highly communal language. The newcomers, with whom I and others were unfamiliar, utilized an entirely different palette, one which I could not place in a familiar context. Hence, my interpretant of the entire performance was preoccupied with the communicative discrepancies and shortcomings; I understood the performance in a space of convention, and I understood certain of the sounds to be unable to break into and dislodge that space of convention. Hence, even though the performance had no explicit structural rules, their own inherited musical impressions led them to interpret and continue to create in a certain way. In such a space, the performers also sacrificed the sort of improvisational autonomy that allowed them to question and change the instituted rules of their own musical language(s).

In the case of a pop band that includes free improvisational passages within their songs: a freely improvised section stands in stark contrast to the rest of a song. We hear the song decompose and we hear a chaotic, anarchic undercurrent to their whole soundworld. Knowing the other songs of the band - or merely knowing the song's beginning - I formed an interpretant of the improvisational section with reference to the overall song structure. It was difficult to understand the free section as anything other than something which pointed to the structure of the song through its own structurelessness. It was a statement to help lend the rest of the song more meaning. Here again, the dialogic autonomy of free improvisation is obscured. I worry also that listeners who are unaccustomed to listening to freely improvised music would, after hearing this section, be uninclined to seek out similar music outside of the context of well-defined song structure.

Lastly, we have a sold-out show by innovators of the improvising tradition:  again, the voices of these improvisers were highly-developed, finely-tuned through years of playing together. Yet their performance took no chances. In my mind's interpretant, each musician stayed within the boundaries of their recognizable voices. I understood the performance to be one of repetition and assertion of expected identities. It seemed that the crowd understood the performance in the same way; their standing ovation perhaps implied that they got exactly what they expected. It is also worth noting, and a factor that contributed to the context of the interpretants, that the venue was filled with people who do not attend free improvisation performances regularly. To them, the performance was also a sign of other such free improvisational performances and recordings. They understood the performance as a sign of musical freedom. And in this context, to them, it was great.

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Above, I suggested that free improvisational music is a space of dialogic, autonomous cultural performance; in the lack of externally-structuring parameters, musicians bring their own histories, identities, and imaginaries to the musical space. In performance, they exercise and express different aspects of these backgrounds, and they both create and reproduce a musical culture.

Hence, as the degrees of freedom diminish, the interpretive focus shifts: we can understand a performance with fewer degrees of freedom in an increased number of contexts and histories. This may also be why music with more limited degrees of freedom also helps entrench communities and economies; the performance is an exercise in and display of the expected and known rather than the unexpected and unknown. It is not made from freedom nor is it an example thereof. It instead reminds us of an idea of freedom, one which may or may not exist beyond our consciousness.

*The performer of music is also a listener. Hence, semiosis occurs in the mind of the performer as well, and we may get glimpses into the nature of this particular semiosis through the musical responses that s/he makes to the sounds s/he hears.

**Accompanying image of Ben Boye by Mikel Avery.

References, Resources, and Further Reading

Baest, Arjan van & Hans van Driel. 1995. The Semiotics of C.S. Peirce Applied to Music. A Matter of Belief. Tilburg: Tilburg University Press - (PDF).

Castoriadis, Cornelius. 1991. Philosophy, Politics, and Autonomy. Edited by David Ames Curtis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Castoriadis, Cornelius. 1997. The Imaginary Institution of Society. Translated by Kathleen Blamey. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Peirce, Charles Sanders. 1931-58. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce. 8vols. Edited by Charles Hartshorne, Paul Weiss, and Arthur W. Burks.Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Ben Boye is a musician, thinker, and writer based in Chicago. He is active in a variety of musical genres on a variety of musical instruments. He maintains the website, a place for collective meditations on music and society, and, a place for meditations on his upcoming performances.


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