Freedom and Limitations

I find myself thinking about this topic with some regularity.  It seems to me that “freedom” is often presented as a linear scale, with “limitations” in opposition to freedom, as if limitations are like chains that prevent us from being free.  I don’t think that this is really accurate, and frequently can leads to mistaken conclusions.  Although seemingly paradoxical, my belief is that freedom and limitation are actually complementary concepts.   Though I came to these conclusions on my own, it turns out this isn't a new idea at all—Aristotle said "through discipline comes freedom" over 2000 years ago, and if one searches "discipline freedom" in google, one finds any number of explorations of this idea (apparently including a popular recent book by a Navy SEAL).  So I'm not being particularly original here.

Apparent tension between freedom and discipline arises an a wide variety of disparate areas.  To start with a musical one, I always found the name “free jazz” to be misleading.  Sure, it’s free of set forms and chord changes, and often free of metric restrictions as well.  But the absence of those things creates its own limitations: there are no circumstances under which someone playing free jazz will produce something that sounds like Johnny Hodges does on his solo to “Isfahan.”  Now, Johnny Hodges on “Isfahan” wasn’t ever going to produce something like Ornette on “Lonely Woman,” either.  This isn’t to say that either big band jazz or free jazz has a better set of constraints—just to point out that they are simply different constraints, and free jazz isn’t necessarily freer when one looks at the bigger picture.  Now, it may feel freer to a particular performer, but that is just their subjective perception, based on their experience of music.  Different limitations simply lead to different results.  

To use a language analogy, in writing this paragraph in English, I am bound by a rather large number of limitations: I can’t make up my own words (under most circumstances), I must construct sentences that obey the large number of rules of English syntax and grammar, I have to spell words in generally agreed-upon ways, etc.  Additionally, to communicate effectively, I must organize my thoughts in such a way that they can be conveyed using English.  But all these limitations have the precise result of improving communication. Even for myself, the organizational structure of the language allow me to put my thoughts into a more meaningful form.  This isn’t a perfect analogy (I don’t mean to suggest that free jazz is analogous to the grunts, yelps and gibberish of a madman, regardless of what my Dad says), but just an illustration of how constraints can actually assist in creating order and meaning.  Additionally, learning to navigate various constraints creates discipline and leads to mastery.  Once one has mastered something, the constraints no longer feel significant—it’s very freeing, because the ability to work coherently within a form becomes second nature, and one can just trust and follow one’s intuitions.   

“Discipline” is an interesting term; it’s probably most used today in the sense of “to punish,” but its more essential sense is “to bring under control, to impose order upon.”  Fields of study, including artistic forms, are sometimes referred to as “disciplines.” The most fundamental kind of discipline is self-control.  Meditation is a kind of discipline that aims to give one control over one’s mind, and not be governed by one’s desires , fears and other emotions.  That goal, to me, epitomizes freedom in the deepest sense.   

Music is full of limitations—every genre is a set of restrictions as much as it is what is encouraged: the proscribed is as important as the prescribed.  This has interesting results when attempting cross-genre music, as the genre schemas can be in conflict; handled poorly, one can easily violate the norms of both genres.  Writing a work for a particular ensemble—string quartet, piano trio (either kind), symphonic orchestra, jazz combo, etc.—is both a set of limitations and opportunities.  One of the reasons often given by composers for writing a particular work is the particular challenge presented, which is another way of saying that the limitations were interesting.   One limitation I’ve always found intriguing is that when John Zorn wrote is book of tunes for his group Masada, he limited himself to 6 staves, or one-halfof one sheet of standard manuscript paper (there were other limitations: he had to include “Jewish” scales with an augmented second interval, and the composition had to be playable by any group of instruments).  Limiting oneself to just a handful of lines means one has to write either very short pieces or be very creative in how the written materials relate to the actual performance (particular in regard to leaving a great deal of interpretive room to the performers).  The fact that he was able to write around 600 compositions adhering to these limitations is inspiring, and I wonder if the limitations weren’t partly responsible for his productivity.   

As both a teacher and a student, I’ve found that limitations help us focus our efforts on specific areas we want to improve.  Music has a near-limitless number of elements, and we have to narrow our focus to deal with just one problem in order to improve.  For example, if one is working on shifting positions, one shouldn’t be distracted by other things (complex picking/bowings, unusual fingerings, difficult rhythms, etc).  The ability to identify, isolate and target very specific musical demands is one of the most important skills to develop as a musician, in my opinion.  I consider a large part of the practicing I did from the ages of 20 to 30 to really be about developing this skill—learning how to learn, essentially—after which I was able to make my practicing (and teaching) exponentially more effective since I could precisely identify and target specific issues.  Despite our culture’s current infatuation with multitasking, the reality is you really can’t focus on more than one thing at a time.  In order to do more than one thing at a time, at least one of them (preferably both) need to be so ingrained as to be essentially automatic.  So what we’re really trying to do when practicing is to make the ideal action the automatic one; this allows us to focus on higher-order concerns (dynamics, feelings, the attractive person in the second row, what the other musicians are playing, etc).  Which—guess what—sounds a lot like freedom.

Anyway, this is a topic that I find interesting and relevant to being a musician and human, so I'd enjoy hearing your thoughts on the topic in the comments if you are so inclined.  One could extend the topic to innumerable areas—politics & society, obviously, sports and athleticism, etc. 

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