AMN Reviews: John Corbett – A Listener’s Guide to Free Improvisation (2016; The University of Chicago Press)

9780226353807A Listener’s Guide to Free Improvisation
By John Corbett
The University of Chicago Press
ISBN: 9780226353807

Many adventurous listeners have encountered Free Improvisation and some are fascinated by it while others are put off or even bewildered. Along comes “A Listener’s Guide to Free Improvisation” by Jon Corbett, a light-hearted but seriously insightful approach to understanding and listening to one of the most important but least understood contemporary musical movements. This is an outstanding book that I would highly recommend to anyone whom is interested in free improvisation. This is the kind of book you will be lending to your friends and re-reading again and again and again.

“A Listener’s Guide to Free Improvisation” is a unique book about listening. It is not a book about musicians or musical styles or musical histories. You do not need to be a musician to enjoy this book. Mr. Corbett takes his readers through a series of strategies designed to help both the new comer and the old hand to better understand and enjoy their experience of listening to free improvisation.

One of the most important ideas in this book is that as a society we have been musically weaned on steady diet of songs and that as a result, songs are not a mystery to any of us. Mr. Corbett is very clear that while this is not a bad thing, this steady diet of songs has filled us with certain expectations, which we bring every time we listen to music. This leaves us with a kind of cultural baggage that may block listener enjoyment when they encounter the unfamiliar. Mr. Corbett proposes that with a little guidance these obstacles may be able to be removed. This guidance is presented as a series of strategies for listening, which are to be used as a framework to construct your own observations as you venture into the sound world of free improvisation.

Mr. Corbett begins by removing any mystery that may surround the world of free improvisation and deflates many of the overly intellectual or cultish attitudes that may be associated with this music. He defines free improvising as simply music made by improvising. He then presents the idea that learning to listen to improvised music can be like learning to bird watch. This analog really works as he introduces a set of strategies for using your ears and observing what you hear as you go out into the field to listen to improvised music.

A primary obstacle especially for new listeners of free improvisation is the lack of a steady pulse and that the form and its duration is often very different from songs or more conventional classical structures. The book’s strategies provide excellent guidance and insight that specifically addresses things like rhythm, pulse, form and duration. Once the initial hurdles have been overcome Mr. Corbett presents strategies around listening for the interaction dynamics between the musicians.

This set of listening strategies is really core to building your appreciation of improvised music as they reveal essential concepts of current practices in free improvisation. These core concepts center around questions like – how are the players relating to one another? What kinds of exchanges are going on? Are they listening to the others or off playing on their own? How does a player’s actions correspond to what the other players are doing? These questions are all expertly dealt with in a clear, concise and easy to understand manner.

Mr. Corbett then dives into more advanced techniques such as understanding and observing structure – form, dynamics and transitions as well as the role of the free improvisers personal musical vocabulary. The books final section is presented as a discussion of discrete observations on topics ranging from live concerts versus recordings, hybrids of improvisation and composition, and the impact of your own state of mind on listening. It also includes lists of recommended recordings, additional readings and a checklist of major living free improvisers.

A Listener’s Guide to Free Improvisation is essential for anyone interested in free improvisation. It is a quick but thoroughly enjoyable read that is entertaining and insightful. The books strategies for listening will not only help you to better understand and appreciate free improvisation but will enhance your active listening to all forms of music. Highly recommended!

Chris De Chiara