The New York Times
David Toop

Historically, improvisation in American music has been largely associated with jazz and blues. Great improvisers, like Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King and Miles Davis, are masters of the unexpected. Listening to recordings of live Hendrix performances from the late 1960's gives a sense of order emerging from turbulence, chaos held barely in check.

But a half century ago, the composer John Cage changed our thinking about improvisation. Sounds should be left alone to speak for themselves, he believed. In a famous 1954 speech he said, "Whether I make them or not, there are always sounds to be heard and all of them are excellent." A small but significant number of free improvisers took this idea to heart, allowing sound mixes that were as much accident as design to emerge from group playing.

Cage's open attitude about the intrinsic qualities of sound proved to be a huge influence on a generation of composers and musicians who made their mark in the 1960's. The composer Cornelius Cardew, the electronic musician Richard Teitelbaum, the film composer Ennio Morricone and dance-band guitarist Derek Bailey all turned to free improvisation, rejecting harmony, melody and regular rhythm. Largely based in Europe, the groups in which they played - AMM, MEV, Nuova Consonanza, SME and Music Improvisation Company - invented a new way of organizing sound in the moment, without preparation or written scores.

Too loose to be called a style, this method, distinct from the chance procedures of Cage, the structures of African-American jazz or the formality of 1960's academic electronic music, has become an established feature of the international musical landscape over the last 30 years. Today, mostly in Europe and Japan, an emerging group of improvisers is going even further in challenging and focusing the way we listen. The question of whether music could, or should, be distinguished from random, ambient sound or noise was one of the central issues of much 20th-century music. Such debates are ancient history for a generation that regards as legitimate source material the hum of air conditioning systems, the crackle on a vinyl record, the tunes that accompany electronic games like Tetris, the noise of rain on a roof or long periods of silence.

These improvisers defy categorization. In fact many seek to escape the usual categories of jazz, classical and even experimental or noise. The style is too amorphous and diverse to have a fixed name. For the moment, the descriptive term electro-acoustic improvisation is the only category in sight, perhaps because improvisation has moved away from the acoustic free jazz of the 60's and now incorporates everything from punk attitude to laptop computers. Several of the leading proponents will be featured at Amplify 2001: mainsine, a two-day festival that starts tomorrow at Tonic in Manhattan. The festival is named in homage to the pure pitches of electronic sine waves that form such an important part of Japanese underground improvisation.

This new approach has grown from the innovations of earlier players who usually served an apprenticeship in chord changes or virtuoso techniques. Younger musicians like Otomo Yoshihide are more likely to draw from the vast storehouse of information contained in their CD collections. This creative rootlessness not only sidesteps musical conventions but also confounds the old idea that music is linked to national character.

Like other social upheavals of the 1960's, the promise of early improvisation was freedom. Freedom, of course, proved to be elusive. Some players abandoned the practice, believing that if there were no instructions to lead musicians into the unknown, they would gravitate to familiar routines. Others learned to work with habits, technique and memory to fashion a highly developed personal language.

Now younger players are less burdened by the need to fight those old battles. During the 1990's, an explosion of musical genres followed in the wake of dance music. With the growth of digital sampling, collage became a basic element of pop music, and the experimentalism of techno, ambient electronica and left-field hip-hop let loose a whole generation of musicians who loved to play with sound. New musical tools seemed to be invented every week, and so it comes as no surprise in the 21st century to see Mr. Yoshihide's group, Cathode, featuring Ko Ishikawa playing the sho, an ancient Japanese mouth organ, alongside all the latest electronic devices.

Unlike the improvising pioneers whose starting point was Cage's theories and the recordings of Karlheinz Stockhausen or Ornette Coleman, these younger musicians discovered the 20th century avant-garde by degrees, as an extension of their own curiosity. They also grew up in a time of information overload. As a reaction to the bombardment of images, sound and movement that is typical of ultramodern cities like Tokyo, a powerful streak of minimalism runs through their work, characterized either by barely fluctuating purity or intensely restrained playing techniques. In extreme cases, you might wonder whether the music is still happening, though this placidity is a refreshing withdrawal from media excess and artistic overstatement.

In January, the Queen Elizabeth Hall, one of London's most prestigious venues was sold out for the Japanorama tour, a showcase of Japan's flourishing musical avant-garde. Organized by Mr. Yoshihide, a veteran of this scene who plays guitar, turntables and home-made electronics, Japanorama exposed British audiences to the arcane talents of the guitarist Taku Sugimoto and the vocalist Haco, along with the less easily described Toshimaru Nakamura and Sachiko M.

Mr. Sugimoto exemplifies the ways in which this music builds on history yet adds the unexpected. Playing with the classic jazz guitar tone of Jim Hall, performed at a pace that recalls the spacious timing of Morton Feldman's most tranquil compositions, he gives as much weight to silence as to his delicate, fragmented melodies.

Sachiko M is even more radical in her approach. A member of the group Filament with Otomo Yoshihide, she manipulates pure sine tones in her digital sampler. As for Toshimaru Nakamura, he creates electronic feedback by connecting the input and output of a mixing desk, then transforming the signal with effects. Both of them produce uncompromisingly intense, high-pitched sounds that seem closer to those of ultrasonic bat calls or malfunctioning light fixtures than conventional music.

Sachiko M's Amoebic label, along with Günter Müller's Swiss-based For 4 Ears and Jon Abbey's United States-based Erstwhile, are record companies that currently mark the outposts of the new music. Musicians from these three labels, including Sachiko M, Mr. Yoshihide, Mr. Müller, the French turntablist Erik M and the Swiss electronics duo Voice Crack, will come together for Amplify 2001: mainsine.

The festival promises to demonstrate the state of the art, but will this music have a significant impact in America? In one sense, its 1960's ancestry grew out of a search for specifically European ways to improvise, a strong need for a musical identity that could separate itself from the overwhelming influence of jazz and other American forms. Now, in the age of the Internet, many musicians seem less troubled by questions of identity. Place is a state of mind. If the music can travel freely across boundaries, the audience can follow.