For some, Sheffield is synonymous with free improvisation, a way of playing music which, in its purest form, has no formal rules beyond the negotiated logics and inclinations of those involved. In part this association is due to Derek Bailey, a guitarist born in Sheffield, who in the 1960s shifted from doing light entertainment session jobs to being a key figure in the European free-improv scene. As well as favouring diverse and often incompatible musical partners right up to his death in 2005 at the age of 75, Bailey produced a Channel 4 TV series on musical improvisation, a topic unlikely to again occupy our screens despite being, from a global and historical perspective, the most widely practised of all musical activities.

However, this lauding of Bailey is to propagate the media/ marketing friendly myth of celebrity, something I’d resist, particularly given the subject of this article. For although it is probably rare that anyone engages with freely improvised music on the basis of some political judgement of its value, there are many participants who would argue that there is a radicalism residing within its very processes, a radicalism beyond the standard commercially-subsumed genres of dissent.

The notion of political radicalism in music might seem fanciful for many people. At best some might consider music a vehicle for carrying propagandistic lyrics. After all, as Adam Harper has written on his music blog Rouges Foam: ‘You’d be forgiven for thinking that when it comes to the task of imagining, planning and working to build freer or more egalitarian societies, music would come out as a peripheral issue.’ However, like Harper, I believe that music has far greater political resonance than most people realise.

The musicologist Christopher Small was so convinced that the reification of music as a commodifiable form was restricting not just our understanding of music, but preventing ‘listeners’ from gaining an awareness of how musical activity can ideologically serve elite classes and capitalism, that he reinvented music as a verb. Musicking, Small argued, is to take part in a musical performance, whether by performing, listening, dancing etc. The radical value in putting the community and social occasion back into the musical picture is that it creates a perspective that reveals a lot more about the social relationships involved than the abstract noun ‘music’, a word notably absent amongst many pre-industrial societies.

This shift of perspective from music-the-object to musicking-the-ritual enabled Small to provide a devastating critique of the wildly uneven power distribution celebrated in the European Classical symphony tradition.

It also raises questions about how music functions today. With the division of labour and the widespread professionalisation of music making, music was largely reduced from a social function to an object to be bought and sold. Despite the tectonic shifts taking place in our culture as a result of digital media distribution, it would be optimistic to believe that new hierarchies will not be speedily erected to exploit these changes. Indeed, new social relations are already being harnessed as a key strategy in capitalism’s current renewal.

Unless, that is, we adapt our socio-cultural forms to resist it. Harper argues that in accepting the politically resonant, society-building function of music, we should attempt to find a mode of musicking that serves as a metaphor for, and a rehearsal of, the social relationships we expect from a better, freer, more egalitarian society.

Whatever the type of music, genuine not-for-profit DIY local music scenes – as opposed to the “guerrilla” marketing pioneered by The Arctic Monkeys and currently lauded on business Powerpoint presentations the world over – are “engaged cultures”, because the audience includes a high proportion of participants. This seems like a good start if we want an end to top-down hierarchies.

In his exploration of future “utopian” musics, Harper surveys the pros and cons of existing/past forms of socially-engaged music: Punk (destroys elitist notions of musicianship, still able to be a voice of protest, but easily commercialised and unwilling to radically deviate from the performer-audience paradigm), Rave (emphasises positivity and collective participation, but passivity in that ravers respond to rather than negotiate its creation), tribal central African polyphony (promoting social cooperation in the creation of a complex polyphony of interlocking simpler parts, non-commodified, but, today, unfeasible and prone to romanticisation), free improv (partially subverts notions of a stable musical commodity, collective negotiation in performance but, in Harper’s opinion, lacking the stylistic stability necessary for agreed meaning).

Which returns me to Sheffield. If you’re interested there’s plenty of improvised music about to hear/see/play. Noise Upstairs events for participation, and Notes and Sounds events for issues of stylistic freedom/stability. I organise improv/noise-focused events too as Singing Knives Records and will be trying to find ways to address more of the issues outlined above in future gigs.

singingknivesrecords.co.uk
thenoiseupstairs.com
discus-music.co.uk/notesandsoundsarchive.htm

Jon Marshall.