Even for the most stalwartly adventurous ears, music is largely anchored in how it refers back to everything that's not music. Most of us hear a love song and don't pay attention to the music itself, but rather the emotional connotations we've built around it: didn't I hear that song back when I was in that crummy little diner, right when we held hands and almost spilled our coffees all over each other? And isn't that, by and large, what we want from it?
Like John Cage, Derek Bailey made music that wasn't about anything but itself, and over the years I've had a difficult relationship to both Bailey's work and everything else like it. I admire the adventure, but I also question my emotional responses to it: how can my feelings about it be communicated to others without seeming like I'm asking them to swallow scrap metal? Most people hear a record like Improvisation and wince: to them it doesn't sound like anything but the kind of skronk you'd get if you dropped a guitar down a flight of stairs.
But then I remembered Cage talking with Richard Kostelanetz about how most conventional music sounded to him: like the notes were a bunch of little children that had been forced to dress up in school uniforms and line up, all neat and orderly and dull. The emotional reactions we have to music are as much social as they are personal — hence the way African natives responded with almost total indifference to Beethoven (as Philip Ball described in The Music Instinct). Derek Bailey's music — and Cage's before him, and so on — is only possible to create, and take seriously, in a society where we have developed some idea of music as a social construct in the first place. Just as there is music for romance as well as dance, this is music for those who have an emotional involvement in the very idea of music. If that's too many steps removed from what you're comfortable with, no fault lies with you.
Bailey was a guitarist, and so Improvisation is fourteen short pieces — none longer than four minutes or so — which might well actually be one, fifty, or a hundred different pieces, given how little there is within each piece (apart from the track indices) to set them apart. They sound like someone trying to tear the guitar apart and stick it back together again, and not just in a physical way — as if someone who didn't know what "music" was, let alone a "guitar", was trying to build a definition of both of those things up from scratch.
A less pretentious description would be noise, and that was my first reaction to the record: Bailey was just junking it up, and everyone who was giving this stuff credence was simply buying into a hoaxster's definition of music. It's the old "I could do that" argument, which remains a tough one — the person in question could do that, but doesn't think the act of doing so would legitimize it. (Pace Lou Reed, re: his own Metal Machine Music: "Anyone who gets to side four is dumber than I am.")
But there did seem to be a palpable difference between Bailey's plink-plunk-and-plank and someone simply trying to put one over us, and some years after my discovery of jazz I found myself pulling the album back out and listening to it with fresher ears. I'd started with jazz at the most outré end of the spectrum, and so by the time I'd worked my way back to its relatively sedate foundations I had a better idea of what to listen for. This wasn't music that was meant to map to an emotional state; I'd learned that much from the likes of Stockhausen's Mantra, where e.g., the low rumbling passages were not meant to be menacing horror-movie music, even though that would be the easy, inaccurate comparison to draw.
It's hard to listen to any music and not connect it to something emotional in your life, even if it's just the experience of listening to the music. Listening to Improvisation reminded me not only of how Mantra had come to make sense for me, but also stuff like Merzbow's Amlux, another example of an artist who gives most people very little of a toehold, or none at all. The more of Bailey's work I heard, the more I came to sense the mentality behind it — to hear the work through Bailey's ears and understand why he had done things that way, and how he was not simply trying to make a bunch of noise.
I don't listen to Improvisation often, but that's not because I don't enjoy it. It's like any other kind of "mood music" — it requires a contemplative attitude going in, much the same way a rock garden will not give much of anything back to someone who walks in expecting a well-manicured lawn. It's an attitude records like this have helped me cultivate, one skronk at a time.