I was a bit surprised to discover that an Examiner.com article I wrote last week about a free improvisation gig received an impressive number of page views (at least according to Google Analytics). This was a bit ironic since the article itself was very narrow in scope: I chose to "examine" a single set by a single group over the course of a three-set evening. Indeed, I even let the organizers know that I was leaving after that first set, simply because there was too much in my head to risk any of it being crowded out by two more rounds of stimuli.
I now find myself facing another irony. Deutsche Grammophon just released a Complete Works box of the music of Pierre Boulez. (Are they assuming that he has given up composing?) Many of Boulez' earliest pieces involved a highly discipline use of systems to control the specific details of every mark on the score page. I once gave a seminar talk about one of those systems, at the end of which I tried to reconcile the listening experience with all of the detail that had gone into the composing experience.
I have previously cited Virgil Thomson's observation that music composed through a system of absolute control (Boulez) cannot be differentiated from music composed through a system of absolute chance (Cage). (Since writing that post, I discovered that there was a rather extensive exchange of letters between Boulez and Cage at the time that each of them was exploring the possibilities of his systematic approach. There was a good deal of amicable exchange in those letters, but the relationship did not last.) However, I think it is important to remember that "free jazz" is not a matter of turning things over to chance in any systematic manner. Rather, it involves spontaneity in the activity of making music.
The problem is that spontaneity is not easy to achieve. We are always informed by our past activities, and it is virtually impossible to ignore them when we set out to invent something new. I would thus argue that one of the great pioneers of "free improvisation" was Johann Sebastian Bach, whose pedagogical approach was based on the premise that the capacity for invention is tightly coupled to the technical command of execution. On the basis of this premise, I found that I could write about a free improvisation performance in terms of hypotheses as to where the performers had acquired their respective skills of proficiency of execution; and the article turned out to follow and interesting thread running backwards through a few key "stations" in music history. I would not argue that the validity of my hypotheses was not necessarily important. Rather, I found myself advocating the act of hypothesizing as a strategy for listening to free improvisation.
The question now is whether or not such hypothesizing is equally valid as a strategy when total control (by either system or chance) is involved!