So This Is What We Do; Thoughts on what to call the music we make, and why it matters.

Flowing from some thinking I’ve been doing about what it means for music to be “free,” I’ve been considering the nomenclature surrounding ideas of genre. When people ask me what kind of music I play I’m always stymied. Pat answers like “anything you like!” or “rock, jazz, classical, folk, but always the weird end of the neighborhood” are maybe pretentious and off-putting, but certainly not very meaningful. I could try Creative Music, but for the vast majority of questioners the response would be “isn’t all music creative?” And really, isn’t it? Advertising is creative, fine art is creative. We hold them to different standards and they serve different purposes (maybe even different masters), but we consider the good stuff to be creative. Even the bad stuff - it’s creative but bad.  

So I’m thinking about these genre boundaries, rock, jazz etc., and I’m thinking that their usefulness is mostly in the marketplace, e.g., you know which bin to look in for your favorite stuff, which radio station to tune into, which store to buy your sub-culture-appropriate outfits. Basically what to expect from whatever you’re consuming. I mean, it’s helpful to be tuned into a tradition, but I think the boundaries even between the traditions are a bit overstated.

By way of example I’ll talk about a group I lead called Never Enough Hope (listen HERE). It’s usually made up of twenty-five or more folks: double/triple rhythm section with strings and horns and more (two drums, electric bass, multiple guitars, vibraphones, piano/electric piano, accordion string section, saxophone section, brass section). The drums and guitars suggest “rock” for sure, the big-ass saxophone section and the brass telegraph “jazz,” the strings maybe speak “classical” or “third-stream.”  I know for sure that the music isn’t jazz, and although there’s a combination of composition and improvisation, I’m not working with the kind of harmonic motion that’s born from real “capital J” jazz, and it probably won’t swing. (I think some of my melodic stuff at its prettiest is coming out of smarter pop music ((Beatles, Elliott Smith)) which is certainly drawing from Tin Pan Alley and old Broadway numbers, so really it’s from the same batch of starter as the jazz material.)

I will say that my approach to melody is informed by one version of the definition of Harmelodics - that the melody is only responsible to itself. In my writing, that means the melody has a logic that’s organic to the melody. If there are harmonies going on (ostinatos, backgrounds), they’re not a harmonic framework to be followed, but parallel systems evolving along their own internal logics. Or I hope so, anyway.

It’s definitely not classical music; I don’t have any of the tradition there. I’m not an orchestral musician and I’m not steeped in the concepts and conceits of a lot of the history of that music, though I love a lot of it. On the other hand, some of the conceptual leaps of 20th century classical music (Cage, Feldman, Cardew, Reich, etc.) certainly inform my practice. But that’s true of any musician currently involved with improvising.

I don’t think it’s really rock music either, although that may be the closest fit. There are precedents for instrumental rock with a bunch of non-rock instruments, especially in the prog-rock arena; Frank Zappa, King Crimson, Fred Frith, or in the jazz fusion stuff like Miles or Mahavishnu Orchestra (which to me is really more rock than jazz, despite the pedigree of the players).

I feel in my music a strong connection to the New York Downtown scene, where all these elements seem to coexist in a fluid environment. But there’s sometimes a preciousness or condescension to the inclusion of particular elements. Like, “now it’s rock, so make it a little dumb,” or, “now it’s country, make it cheesy.” The fact that the genre can be put on like a costume is part of what makes the genre conventions seem less meaningful to me.

I grow my music in blended soil- there are the mouldering remains of many records down there feeding the roots. In the compost pile the rack I picked the record from doesn’t matter, it all feeds the new idea the same. I have the records on my shelves segregated by genre for easy retrieval, but the ideas in my head and heart and fingers aren’t segregated at all.


Toby Summerfield's "Never Enough Hope" at Chicago's Av-Aeire. Photo by John Sturdy.

I’ve been thinking of historical divisions between one kind of music and another, often “the good kind” and “the bad kind,” or “higher” and “lower.” Though I’m no scholar of it, I think that division stems from traditional ideas differentiating Classical and Folk musics. Traditional differences between the art music of the concert hall and the songs sung in the kitchen or the field. One isn’t necessarily better or more important than the other, rather they’re made with differing intention and for different use. I toyed around with using the term “Art Music” as a catchall for improvising/composing and in-between as a way to make it clearly unconcerned with commerce, but it made anybody who know the term think of Old European Classical stuff. Anyone who didn’t register that connotation would just think me pretentious. I even used the term “Other Music” for a while, but that’s a record store in New York City.

The pre- and post-war division of Jazz also comes to mind. There are hard-line jazz traditionalists who say that jazz quit being jazz after the war as it got more intellectual and less danceable. For me that is again a division of intent and purpose. There’s dancing jazz, and there’s listening jazz.   

(An Aside: “Evan Parker Trio Music”
I think the vast variety of music currently lumped into the jazz idiom is a big part of what propels me to think about this stuff, too. Very inside straight-ahead hard-bop reenactment is jazz and so somehow are the most forward-thinking avant-gardists. Really, I think that a number of the “greats” of jazz transcended the genre at the pinnacle of their creativity. Certainly people like Cecil Taylor, Derek Bailey, Henry Threadgill, Anthony Braxton, Evan Parker, Tim Berne, John Zorn, etc., aren’t jazz anymore. That they’re FROM jazz is worth mentioning, but it’s not that anymore.
Coltrane quit being jazz somewhere near Meditations. Miles quit being jazz by In a Silent Way (and -some very straight cats would argue- by Miles Smiles). Mingus’ record Black Saint and the Sinner Lady just doesn’t feel like jazz anymore to me. There’s an old interview in The Wire with Jim O’Rourke where he says that the Evan Parker Trio isn’t really improvising anymore, they’re playing “Evan Parker Trio Music.”
I think there’s a point that musicians aim for where we transcend genre and make “My Music” music. It’s good to have comrades though, so I like to find a way to put an umbrella over all the “my music” musicians. Joe Morris uses the term “Free Music” in his book Perpetual Frontier, and I like that. But he ties it to jazz history, and uses the terminology “free” which doesn’t totally work for me and might not be clear to the uninitiated. On the other hand, he demarcates the music as being made without regard for commerce, which I admire, and which I think is relevant to the conversation with regards to unshackling from market-driven genre names.)

In fact, I think there’s that same kind of practical/impractical division in the majority of music practices. There’s rock for dancing and drinking, and rock for head-scratching puzzlement. There’s new classical music that is familiar and tonal and engaging and works great in a movie, and there’s right-on-the-edge-of-comprehension contemporary composition. There’s folk music for protests and folk music for deep contemplation.

I just had a conversation with an old friend who’s a klezmer accordionist working in New York. He plays both dancing-specific and listening-specific gigs in the klezmer universe. He describes the Bar Mitzvah and Wedding music as serving a social, practical purpose, and the more concert-oriented music as being more just for listening. For him as a performer and composer the two different performances inform one another, though you might not know it from hearing one gig without the other for context. The concert music his klezmer trio performs is as close to the wedding music they also play as Feldman’s string quartets are to Mozart’s.
The wedding music has its function, to brighten spirits and move feet. The concert music has it’s purpose, too. (Perhaps it’s just the squeezebox, but I’m also reminded of Astor Piazzola’s revolutionary work with the Tango.)

The practical purpose of the music is what I think drives an understanding of the music. What do we need the music for?  I think we should be talking about intent and impact rather than arbitrary market-driven aesthetic concerns. I like what I call Listening Music. Listening, Dancing, Hearing, Working, Healing. And even then we can’t divide these names apart very cleanly. Just because a record rewards a close listen doesn’t mean you won’t want to shake your ass to it.

So, then. Listening music. What is it, exactly? Music for Music’s sake? No, I think it serves a purpose for makers and listeners alike, it’s not impractical as “music for music’s sake” suggests. We have a hunger, an inquisitiveness that’s satisfied by giving all our attention to a thing. You go to a movie and give your mind over to the world of that movie. You go to a “Listening” performance and you enter the world of the music.

I don’t think I can put a fence around what is Listening music and what isn’t. I’ve been rolling “Listening Music vs Hearing Music” in my head and heart for a while and the two sides don’t want to get in the ring. Maybe it’s a matter of mutual trust, listener/hearer and maker. If I grant you my attention - undivided, uninhibited - I trust that you’ll give me something worth giving that kind of attention to. Likewise, if I make a thing that I think is worth really listening to, I hope you will give enough of your energy to it to really listen, to complete the circle, to give me the gift of your attention. “Where the attention is, that becomes lively” (David Lynch, from Catching the Big Fish). The more attention I pay to a thing, the more it radiates out at me. It’s as true for a mountain as a song.

So we make music that rewards deep concentration, there’s not just one way to experience it, or one way to accept the gift that the music makers are putting out there. There may be greater rewards to be had by listening deeply, by making space in your day and your mind to listen, but that doesn’t mean you can’t just put a record on and sweep the floor or play with your kid. You don’t have to dance to dance music.

Maybe listening music is about the music maker listening to the music itself - as we write or improvise- paying close attention to what the song wants to be, listening for clues as to where it wants to go. Maybe the music maker is an alchemist, listening to the music first so that everyone else can listen to it.  

I think the notion of healing music works to illustrate this point. I wonder, if the music isn’t healing the musician, can it really heal the audience? If the musician isn’t listening to the music, how can he expect the audience to do the same?

(Another Aside: “Healing Music”
Healing music is tricky. The name brings to mind, maybe, drone music, or new age music, something vaguely devotional if non-denominational. It’s tricky, because - I think - the healing nature can either be the intent of the player, or the action of fully receiving the music as a listener. I’ve felt healed mostly by freely improvised music - powerfully so. Two examples. First, Supersilent at the Open End (later called Av-Aeire.) in Chicago in 2004. I had an experience of being totally emotionally overwhelmed. It was a sensation that encompassed all the variously divided emotions, happiness, sadness, anger, satisfaction, hunger, self-regard, and it washed over me, or maybe up and out of me like a long, slow wave - a kind of anti-grief ((if grief is sadness, anger, fear, peace, relief, absence of feeling, but trending downward. This trended upward Healing for sure)).
The second example is an improvised duo, Sax and Drums. The improvising was quite intense, lots of density and interaction on a very high level. There was this moment of crest, an increase in intensity that did not seem possible, higher than the very top of the container. The saxophonist looked over to the drummer in disbelief, and the drummer was weeping, shoulders heaving while he played.
Now, I know this drummer, and he was having some serious life during this performance, and the gig may have been healing for him, too. It may be that the process of healing oneself lent it the power to wash that cleaning, opening feeling over the audience too. Maybe I just know the guy. That may be the whole thing with Healing Music Get right inside yourself in front of others, share that feeling of getting right, show them it can be done, share the relief.)

Maybe “Listening Music” is another name for demanding music. The sounds demand you listen to them or turn them off. I think for most people “Listening music” is a strange language, but an insistent one. It doesn’t let go of your attention when you need to drive, or check the baby, or get back to work. It can be unfamiliar and scary.  It can be hard to learn to taste the new flavors, to understand the customs of the inhabitants of a strange neighborhood.

Some more aggressive work has a physicality to it that isn’t really listened to so much as body-felt. That’s a different place, too. (But I mean, your ears are your body, right? Listening with the resonant cavities in your torso is not so different than with the resonant cavities in your ears.) I’m not sure that listening to Peter Brötzmann’s Machine Gun deeply reveals more than the physical experience of placing yourself IN ITS PATH. There’s a crossover into Healing music here, too. The transcendence of the drone. Becoming one with the sounds - it can happen gently, you can float away on the long tones, or you can be engulfed by the pressure of the sound in the air. There’s a parallel between giving your attention and energy fully to a music and giving your physical self over to the music.

Okay. So. What’s the point, then? Aren’t I just picking a different label to demarcate some music on one side of and some on the other? Isn’t “Listening Music” as potentially divisive as “Creative Music?” Is there a musician working who really doesn’t want you to listen to their music?  

I think that couching the discussion in these terms creates more of a spectrum, rather than little tribal camps. I think there are a lot of musicians who assume that the audience isn’t listening very hard, but they’re still engaged. (Frankly, I think there’s a lot of great music that works best driving fast with the windows down.) Music is experiential no matter which way you’re experiencing it. But in the end, I think it helps to ally ourselves along the lines of our intent rather than along the lines of our commercial opportunities.

Some informal bibliography:

Bailey, Derek. Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1993. Print.

Feldman, Morton. Give My Regards to Eighth Street. New York, NY: Exact Change, 2004. Print.

Lynch, David. Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity. Los Angeles, CA: Tarcher Press, 2006. Print.

Mathieu, W.A. The Musical Life: Reflections on What It Is and How to Live It. Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, 1994. Print.

Morris, Joe. Perpetual Frontier: The Properties of Free Music. Riti Publishing, 2013. Print.

Zorn, John. Arcana: Musicians on Musicians. New York, NY: Granary Books, 1999. Print.


Toby Summerfield is a guitarist, composer, improviser and collaborator currently residing in Virginia. His main compositional vehicle is Never Enough Hope, which he also conducts. He has written for smaller ensembles (solo guitar, trio, quartets, sixes, twelves) and has scored two films. An active participant in the Chicago free music scene since 2001, Toby has played with improvising luminaries Frank Rosaly, Jaimie Branch, Tim Daisy, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Josh Berman, Keefe Jackson, and many others. More at

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