The women and men who make freely improvised music are the boldest and bravest musicians of our time. Unlike their peers in the orchestra pit who follow a score, or jazz musicians who can find refuge in the standard tunes, free improvisers face the terrifying prospect of total freedom. It takes an intrepid soul to make music free of any predetermined melody, harmony, rhythm, or timbre. The free improviser's quest is to wring music from the soul on a moment's notice.

Listening, not instrumental virtuosity, is crucial to freely improvised music. All musical performance requires musicians to listen, but rather than wait for a cue, remember a lyric, or prepare to solo for 16 bars, free improvisation uniquely demands a stubborn, almost defiant willingness to shape what happens next, even if it entails remaining silent for 10 minutes. When master improvisers make this music, you live in a moment that no recording, no writing, no recollection can capture.

Freely improvised music is a calling with no commercial reward. Unlike folk, rock, punk, and other comparatively mainstream musics that are easily cloned and co-opted by multinational corporations for commercial consumption, the radical elements of free improvisation--protean forms, silence, poetic disorder, pure surprise, and communal action--suggest a utopian political vision unsuited to popular radio, clubs, or other moneymaking enterprises.

Now forget this screed and go hear some of the finest practitioners of this art: extraordinary cellist Peggy Lee, master saxophonists Jack Wright and Bhob Rainey, and superbly talented locals, including Stuart Dempster, Gregory Reynolds, and Greg Campbell. CHRISTOPHER DeLAURENTI

The 18th SFFIM concludes Fri Feb 21 (CoCA, 1420 11th Ave, 728-1980) and Sat Feb 22 (Polestar Music Gallery, 1412 18th Ave, 329-4224) at 8 pm, $5-$15 sliding-scale donation. See for more information.