Issue 6 – Editorial (On ‘Free Time’)

EDITORIAL: On ‘Free Time’
By David Grundy

As ‘eartrip’ lumbers into another issue, as words translate into pixels, into pdfs – more data in the internet’s all-out assault on our critical capacities – the question I keep coming back to is ‘why all this? what need for all this? what is this ‘criticism’ (good) for?’ Stitching together an interview, an ‘article’, a ‘features’ section – and, above all, filling up space with the checklist evaluation of records sent, in hope and good faith, by artists from different backgrounds, locations, musical placements; deciding to allocate 500 words, or 200, or a few thousand; making judgements in one sitting, or two, or three, typing while the music plays, eating and digesting simultaneously. That’s ‘what’ – but why? and what for? In what critical economy, what arena of reception, does this take place? Why the haste (or lack of)? What ‘job’ does this all do? The writing takes place in the contributors’ ‘free time’ – and yet, even here, there is never enough time. Why, sure, there’s time to check the watch, to answer emails or the phone, to tap and type and sort – the organiser, the virtual filo-fax, the ticking clock that governs, that apportions, that parcels out what time we’re allowed. You are ‘free’ to do this, but what toll does the strict semblance of routine – or even the frantic, ‘got no time,’ multi-tasking rush that might seem its opposite – take? What is this ‘free time’? Time for free improvisation, time for one more tune; or, as at the 2010 Freedom of the City festival, no time for another Wadada Leo Smith piece –health and safety regulations lead to organisational twitchiness, no matter that Wadada might have more to say (and no matter that he’s shown us just how much he has to say in previous performances during the festival) – no, the only time we have is that time Wadada & Co. acknowledge, by turning the constraint into a kind of musical/theatrical joke, a full-ensemble ‘half-second’ blast of sound (perhaps shorter than Napalm Death’s ‘You Suffer’), an ‘encore’ that’s over almost before it’s begun; the stutter, the stammer, the little uncontrolled shriek before one bites one tongue and stiffens one’s upper lip, returns to smooth and controlled speech, parcelled within the limits assigned by someone (or something) outside one, outside one’s control. Outside even such extreme instances, a virtue must be made of the constraints in which musicians find themselves. Thus, the ‘free time’ of music might variously be, or include: music that ‘makes time stands still,’ [1] that attempts to quieten the ever-present metronome, ticking away in the background (the nightmare exploited, perhaps even transcended, in Ligeti’s ‘Poeme Symphonique’ for 100 metronomes); music that messes with one’s perception of time, in a mad, packed rush of multiple and simultaneous events; music that’s ‘gone, in the air’, that leaves only rumours, whispers, echoes of its presence once it’s been played. [2]

Here one must contrast the notion of ‘free’ or leisure time which sprung up
since the nineteenth century as something available to all, rather than simply to the ‘leisured classes’ – a time which, as Adorno notes, is not really free at all – with a time that might genuinely be free; where free time means focus,
commitment, desire: in fact, the moment of becoming fully human. So often,
economic imperatives (the need to ‘earn a living’, as if one’s right to live were
something that one had to pay ones way towards) mean that the practice of
experimental music is reduced to a ‘mere leisure time activity; it is judged that Cecil Taylor makes better use of his time by washing dishes[3] than by striving and seeking to create something of true worth (i.e. not measurable by the standards of capital). One is allowed to – indeed, encouraged to – think of one’s whole life as geared towards work, towards labour. [4] Thus, in Adorno’s words, “Free time does not merely stand in opposition to labour. In a system where full employment itself has become the ideal, free time is nothing more than a shadowy continuation of labour.”[5] One is expected to fill one’s ‘free time’ with shallow activities – the passive consumption of going shopping or watching TV, where one is bombarded with advertisements – and, even if one does something other than this, the implication is that one is simply practicing a ‘hobby’, ‘messing around’. The simultaneous denial of the right – for example – to make art as a full-time occupation (rather than sitting in an office and chatting about the latest episode of The X Factor) – and belittlement as ‘mere leisure time diversions’ of any activities which do not exist outside the remits of one’s ‘job’ or ‘career’, ensures that the arrangement of society which requires and trains people to sell their labour in order to live remains accepted as ‘common sense’, as ‘how things are’. One may be detached from one’s job, in that one must subordinate one’s true desires, needs, wants, &c., to the demands of nine-to-five – must, effectively, stop living as a complete person for eight hours a day – but one is also detached from one’s ‘free time’, too exhausted to put one’s whole self into
activities which require and test that self with a rigorous and draining exactitude, and always mindful that ‘society’ considers such activities mere frivolities anyway.

What is needed, then – and what is so very hard to achieve – is a situation
where music and life meld, mesh, fuse together – are not parcelled off into boxes marked ‘work’, ‘leisure’, ‘hobby’, ‘career’.[6] One thinks back to Marx’s argumentagainst the division of labour:

“For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has aparticular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” (Marx, The German Ideology)

Of course, this is not achievable in society as it is organised now, and any
attempt to put it into practice straight-away would be doomed to failure. Instead (as Adorno suggests[7]) one may have to substitute it for its opposite: total dedication to a particular sphere of activity, to a particular set of formal concerns (for example, the task of writing verse, or of writing or making music). Yet this sometimes seems almost as impossible to implement as Marx’s proposed polymathic non-specialization – and when it can be implemented, too often it means a ‘retreat’ into the academy, and a kind of seclusion from actively making music in the social world.

Such organisational problems are not mere technicalities, but lie at the very root of creation; thus, we must consider how the ‘freedom’ of free time might relate to the ‘freedom’ of free jazz. There are dangers here – for one, the term ‘free jazz’ implies that ‘jazz’ on its own is inherently ‘un-free’. As the late Bill Dixon noted in an interview for BBC Radio 3, one must regard the term as a nonsequitur, a journalist’s trick, an inadequacy – and one that might operate in a similar way to the notion of ‘free time’: a limiting factor disguised as a space for potential and freedom.[8] In addition, this music – one should really say, these musics, for they cannot be generalised, shivering under one umbrella – is often praised for its ‘free’ collective, perhaps utopian, potentials. But this tends to remain at a metaphorical level: what is lost is a close consideration of the practical circumstances in which the music is created, out of which it emerges, and upon which, perhaps, it could also have some impact.[9] This means looking at the actual organisation of this music in terms, not only of musical interaction, but of the group as a whole – interactions, exchanges, disagreements, comingstogether, factions, strategies for ‘staying together’, the difficulties of organising concerts and securing funding. George Lewis’ superb book-length study of the AACM and Benjamin Looker’s guide to the BAG are full of points of contention and inspiration with regards to this, and hopefully mark a growing rise in scholarship that goes beyond the usual anecdotalism through which ‘the story of jazz’ is told.[10] To reiterate: music cannot be isolated from its socio-political context – we know this – and might even be able to take an active role, however ‘minor’ this might seem ‘in the larger scheme of things’. So then, we need to ask, once more: what is the social context of this music? Who receives it, how, and why? What problems might arise, and need to be addressed here? One could consider, for example, balances and imbalances of gender balance, race, sexuality– not necessarily because of a desire to impose an artificial model where everybody is incredibly diverse yet gets along just the same – but as a process of asking why certain paradigms are or are not in place.

Given such concerns, this latest issue of ‘eartrip’ contains a feature on
freely improvising collectives in the UK. (Perhaps in future editions, some work can be done on collectives in the rest of Europe, in America and in Asia – if anyone is interested in contributing something along those lines, please do get in touch.) There have been historical studies of how central such associations were in the formation of free improvisation – for instance, Derek Bailey’s Company Weeks, or the range of activities centred around the Little Theatre Club – though usually within the context of something else (something biographical, reducing things once more to the individual, or a larger ‘scene’ – ‘the London scene’, ‘the north’, ‘the south’, ‘European Free Improvisation’, ‘eai’ – which it is easier to talk about in the abstract). Yet what is the reality now, in the world of festivals, international tours, government grants, performance public and private? To provide some insight into these questions, there follows what might best be described as a series of snapshots, personal and partial portraits of freely improvising collectives in Oxford & Bristol.

Anyhow: until next time, whenever that may be…


[1] Or in some way ‘bends’ time, as in the following: “and very often i leave the other world behind for vast swathes of time …and of course we do something which is bending time because so often so much time goes past and however arduous it may be it doesn’t really seem that the time could
have been a whole hour for me. and i like that. it’s a time of slowing down and away from so much happening at once.”
[2] Most obviously, one might think of the transition from Beat- to Pulse-playing (à la Sunny Murray) that marked the advent of ‘free jazz’ – the freeing up of rhythm to match the harmonic innovations of be-bop et al.
[3] “I was washing dishes in a restaurant at the same time I was being written about in places like Down Beat.” Gene Santoro, ‘Cecil Taylor: An American Romantic.’ Down Beat 57, no. 6 (June 1990): 16-18
[4] See Nina Power, ‘One Dimensional Woman’ (Zero Books, 2010), especially pp.23-26.
[5] Theodor Adorno, ‘Free Time’ in ‘The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture’ (ed. J.M. Bernstein). p.194 (Routledge, 2003 (2001))
[6] The situation is similar with regards to poetry: “If one is leading a movement against People with Money, they don’t pay you for it (which, in the era of neoliberalism, means you don’t get paid) – until you get coopted or sell out, which requires you to work at it long enough and successfully
enough (w/o money) to have something to sell. You have to eke out a living doing something tedious and exhausting, and then, “after hours,” do your organizing work (and there actually are people who do this). This is why poets generally aren’t organizers. They spend “after hours” writing poems and arguing with one another. Academics have to grade papers, prep class, do committee work, get published, etc.; we call this “burrowing from within. “” (Joseph Harrington, ‘Rethinking (Reality-Checking) Poetics’ (blogpost at
[7] See Simon Jarvis, ‘Adorno: A Critical Introduction’ (Routledge, 1998), pp.125-6, and Adorno, ‘Art, Memory of Suffering, in Rolf Tiedemann (ed.), ‘Can One Live after Auschwitz? A Philosophical Reader’ (Stanford University Press, 2003), p.332.
[8] “The commonplace genre-tag “free-“, equally deceptive whether seeking to predicate verse or jazz, suffices to indicate not so much what is “irregular” in such practices as the breaking point where critical attention throws in its hat and attempts to conceal the fact of doing so by hanging a flatteringly bankrupt and all-but-irremovable medallion about its subject’s neck.” (Mike Wallace-Hadrill, Some Thoughts in the Vicinity of the Poetry of Sean Bonney (Pamphlet distributed at a Reading by Sean Bonney and Simon Jarvis as part of the Cambridge Reading Series (Judith E. Wilson Drama Studio, Cambridge University, 18th June 2010)).
[9] Some of the problems arising from a too-easily drawn critical correlation between ‘free’ music and communitarian politics (or even a kind of utopian, quasi-religious mysticism) are suggested in blogposts at and
[10] George E. Lewis, ‘A Power Stronger than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music’ (University of Chicago Press Press, 20008), Benjamin E. Looker, ‘ “Point from which creation begins”: The Black Artists’ Group of St. Louis’ (University of Missouri Press, 2004). In a similar vein, see Kwasi Konadu, ‘A View from The East: Black Cultural Nationalism and Education in New York City’ (Syracuse University Press, 2009) (Expanded Second Edition of ‘Truth crushed to the earth will rise again!: The East Organization

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