Born in Sheffield, Derek Bailey studied music with C.H.C.

Biltcliffe and guitar
with, amongst others, George Wing and John Duarte. Throughout the 1950s
he worked as a guitarist in every kind of musical situation - clubs. concert halls,
radio, TV and recording studios. He became increasingly interested in the
possibilities of a freely improvised music and by the mid-60s was devoting
himself exclusively to this field. He has performed solo concerts in all the major
cities of Europe, Japan and North America, played with most of the musicians
associated with free improvisation, and recorded over 90 albums on labels
including CBS, RCA, Deutsche Grammophon and Island.
In 1970, along with Tony Oxley and Evan Parker, he founded Incus
Records, the first independent, musician-owned record company in Britain. In
1976 he established Company, a changing ensemble of improvising musicians
drawn from many backgrounds and countries that performs throughout the
world. In 1977 an annual Company Week was inaugurated in London. He
now divides his time between solo performances, organising and playing in
Company events, running Incus, practising, writing and - something he
considers essential- ad hoc musical activities.
Improvisation: its nature and practice in music was originally written in
197516 and first published in 1980. Translations followed in Italian, French,
Japanese, Dutch and German, and it has formed the basis of a series of TV films
made by Jeremy Marre and screened in several countries in 1992.
IMPROVISATION
its nature and practice in music
DEREK BAILEY
DA CAPO PRESS
examining the idea from every angle - being busy with the idea. That's the
whole thing. Looking for each way to come to the middle of it Han Bennink I've
always tried to provoke the musician to go beyond hi s habits Earle Brown the
accidental, the chaotic. You know, the stuff that you can't control or you can't
predict Jerry Garcia it's something that should be heard, enjoyed or otherwise,
and then completely fotgotten Stephen Hicks when you start to playoff the
top of your head, that's when the truth is really known about people Steve
Howe a musician is trying to use whatever liberty he has within the raga to
extend the limits of that raga without destroying its basic features Viram Jasanl
the most important thing for an improvisor is to be able to think quickly Jean
Langlais it started from what we accept as silence. And every move meant
something Tony Oxley the violinists, and the other string players in the group,
spurred the harpsichordist on ... the harpsichordist might then think of
something first and they would follow him Lionel Salter an improvisor wants
to have the freedom to do anything at any time John Zorn the basic
characteristic of music-making is improvisation Derek Bailey
Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data
Bailey, Derek.
Improvisation: its nature and practice in music I Derek Bailey.
p. em.
Originally published: Ashborune, England: Moorland Pub. in association
with Incus Records. c1980.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0-306-80528-6
1. Improvisation (Music). 2. Music-Performance-History. I. TItle.
MJA30.7.B25 1993 93-24899
781.3'6-<lc20 CIP
First published in the United Kingdom in 1992 by
The British Library National Sound Archive
First published in the United States of America in 1993
by Da Capo Press, supplemented with photographs.
Copyright C 1992 by Derek Bailey
5 6 7 8 9 10 02 01 00
Published by Da Capo Press, Inc.
A Member of the Perseus Books Group
All Rights Reserved
Manufactured in the United States of America
for K
Introduction
Introduction to revised edition
PART ONE
Indian music (1)
Indian music (2)
Flamenco
PART TWO
Baroque (1)
Baroque (2)
Organ (1)
Organ (2)
PART THREE
Rock
Audience
jazz (1)
jazz (2)
PART FOUR
The composer
CONTENTS
The composer and the non-improvisor
The composer - in practice (1)
The composer - in practice (2)
The composer - in question
PART FIVE
Free
joseph Holbrooke
The Music Improvisation Company
The MIC - the instrument
The MIC - recording
Solo
PART SIX
Objections
Classroom improvisation
PART SEVEN
The long distance improvisor
Company
Limits and freedom
Bibliography
Index
IX
XW
1
7
12
19
26
29
36
39
44
48
54
59
66
70
75
79
83
86
94
98
103
105
113
118
125
133
140
143
145
Author's Note
This book is an account by practicing musicians from various idioms of their
use of improvisation, its place in music and their speculations on its nature.
The widespread presence of improvisation in music, combined with a scarcity
of documentation concerning it, means that any single volume will inevitably
be selective. This is an attempt to cover the practice of improvisation in the
main areas in which it is found and to reveal those features and characteristics
common to all improvisation.
The book is divided into sections ranging from the traditional uses of
improvisation (in Indian music, Flamenco and Baroque music) through its uses
in church organ playing, in Jazz and in Rock, its relationship to its audience, its
relationship to recording, its uses in the classroom and some of the recent
developments involving improvisation in contemporary Western composition.
It concludes with an examination of some aspects of the recent rise of free
improvisation and the correspondences found between all types of
improvisation.
Acknowledgements
The number of people who have helped me with the book from its inception
through its various stages and revisions is countless. Primarily, I am indebted
to all the musicians whose words I quote in the book. They are the book. But I
would also like to thank all those musicians whose ideas and words appear
without acknowledgement, passages in the book which derive from conversa-
tions held with many players over many years.
Among those who helped in a variety of other ways, I have particular
reasons to thank Alistair Bamford, Mick Beck, Karen Brookman, Peter Butler,
Janice Christianson, Chris Clark, George Clinton, Mandy Davidson, Martin
Davidson, John Fordham, Charles Fox, Laurent Goddet, Henry Kaiser, Rudy
Koopmans, Frank Long, Paul Lytton, VIla Lytton, Michael Oliver, Peter Riley,
Marion Rout, Beryl Towns and Paul Wilson.
My thanks also to Harcourt Films and Channel 4 Television for
permission to use certain quotations from the series of TV films based on the
earlier edition of this book. Particularly, I am indebted to the director, Jeremy
Marre. His perception of the social and spiritual powers of improvisation lead
me to a greater understanding of its universal significance.
Introduction
Improvisation enjoys the curious distinction of being both the most widely
practised of all musical activities and the least acknowledged and understood.
While it is today present in almost every area of music, there is an almost total
absence of information about it. Perhaps this is inevitable, even appropriate.
Improvisation is always changing and adjusting, never fixed, too elusive for
analysis and precise description; essentially non-academic. And, more than
that, any attempt to describe improvisation must be, in some respects, a
misrepresentation, for there is something central to the spirit of voluntary
improvisation which is opposed to the aims and contradicts the idea of
documentation.
My purpose in undertaking such an unlikely project as, firstly, instigating
a series of radio programmes in which practising musicians from different
idioms discussed their use of improvisation, and then assembling a book
combining these programmes and further discussions with these and other
players, was to show the significance of improvisation through the experience
of those who use it. My feeling was that there was an important part of
improvisation not easily indicated or conveyed by its results, a part which
perhaps only those involved in doing it seemed to be able to appreciate or
comprehend. This suspicion arose mainly as a resultof the almost total absence
of comment concerning improvisation and the hopeless misconceptions
usually expressed in the comment which does occur.
Defined in anyone of a series of catchphrases ranging from 'making it up
as he goes along' to 'instant composition', improvisation is generally viewed as
a musical conjuring trick, a doubtful expedient, or even a vulgar habit. So in
this book the intention is to present the views on improvisation of those who
use it and know it.
Obviously this is not intended as a history of improvisation, a task which,
if it were ever attempted, would be a vast and probably endless undertaking.
Even about its presence in Occidental music, the most inhospitable area for
improvisation, E.T.Ferand in his Improvisation in Nine Centuries of Western
Music can write: 'This joy in improvising while singing and playing is evident
in almost all phases of music history. It was always a powerful force in the
creation of new forms and every historical study that confines itself to the
practical or theoretical sources that have come down to us in writing or in
print, without taking into account the improvisational element in living
musical practice, must of necessity present an incomplete, indeed a distorted
picture. For there is scarcely a single field in music that has remained unaffected
by improvisation, scarcely a single musical technique or form of composition
ix
that did nor originate in improvisatory practice or was not essentiall)
influenced by it. The whole history of the development of musIC IS accom-
panied by manifestations of the drive to improvise.'
So the omissions, those musics which have to be excluded In order to
avoid the book assuming encyclopedic proportions, would make an extensive
list. It would include many parts of Islamic music (notably Persian guslf":h ) , the
blues, Turkish music, many African musics, the Pol ynesian 'variable' musics'
and all the many forms of vocal improvi sation found in settings as culturally
different as the Presbyterian chapels of Stornoway2 and the markets and
bazaars of Ca iro. Those and many other forms of music involving the use of
improvisation are not here.
However, it did become increasingly clear during my contacts with
different musi cians and their musics that the main characteristics of Improvisa-
tion could be discerned in all its appearances and roles. What could be said
about improvi sation in one area could be said about it in another. I hope I have
managed to avoid doing that. I have tried, in fact, to use the different secnons
not only to present an account of improvisation in that area or idIOm but to
highlight a characteristic most obviously demonstrated by that area. For
instance, the section on Indian music examines the usual method of learning to
improvise, Flamenco deals with improvisation and authenticity, the chapters
on church organ playing present something of the schol astic attitude to
improvisation, and so on.
The mUSICS covered here have been chosen simply because I had the
opportunity to talk to an active practitioner from each of those fields. I
couldn't imag111t: a meaningful consideration of improvi sation from anything
other than a practical and a personal point of view. For there is no general or
widely held theory of improvi sation and I would have thought it self-evident
that improvl sanon has no exisrence outside of its practice. Among improvising
musicians rhere is endless speculation about its narure but only an academic
would have the temerity to mount a theory of improvisation. And even they
can run into serious difficulties. Ella Zonis in her book Classical Persian Music,
fter ldting that 'Persian music theorists, considering improvisation to be
ntuJtl ,do not consider it in their writings', ignores the warning and plunges
in. 'A further obstacle in this area is the readily apparent discrepancy between
t The procedure 01 vanabOrll$ one of the oldest and most petSlSlent ot peI1OfTT1109 pnncIpies. being present without Interruption !rom
the earliest known muSICS 10 the present day Early vocal and IIlStrumental mprovisatlOfl. while it might take the Ionn 01
was not uS«! mefeiy to aher what already e.,stect but as a means 01 celebratIng the Ict 01 musIC' making. II was an
end Iflltsell· the means 01 e.pr8S$lOl'l open to the pertormef The composition stood or Ie. on whethef Of not it provided a good vehiCle
for imprOVIsatIon
2 The collec1lve imprOVlsatlOfl Dy the congr(!9atlOflS ot these chapels has been described 13 'elat>orate melismata around an
extremely slow IllOYlflg metrical psalm tune; an astonIshing sound. but almost impossible to learn. One has to unlearn the tempered
scale to begin WIth, to say nothing 01 one's sense of what is harmonically proper'. (Michael Oliver;" a leiter to the author)
x
the theory of practice and the practice of practice. Not infrequently, after a
lengthy interview regarding performance practices a performer will illustrate
the aspects of practice he has just described by playing something entirely
different from what he has just said ought to be played. One must reali se from
the beginning that in Persian music there is no 'always', for no rule or custom is
inviolable.' After examining the various structures and constituents in Persian
music she later concludes: 'After considering all these procedures, however, we
must admit that the performer is not bound by them. For, in Persian music, the
essential factors in a performance are the feeling of a player and those of his
audience. At the actual time of performance, the musician does not calculate
the procedures that will guide his playing. Rather he plays from a level of
consciousness somewhat removed from the purely rational... Under these
conditions the player performs not according to the "theory of practice", but
intuitively, according to the "practice of practice", wherein the dictates of
traditional procedures are integrated with his immediate mood and emotional
needs.' I hope it will be adequate if I refer to the 'practice of practice' as
practice. In any event, that is what this book is mainly about.
The e are no so-called 'musical examples' quoted. Transcription, it seems
to me a from being an aid to understanding improvisation, deflects attention
towar s peripheral considerations. In fact there is very little technical
description of any kind, simply because almost all the musicians I spoke to
chose to discuss improvisation mainly in 'abstract' terms. In fact there was a
commonly held suspicion that a close technical approach was, for this subject,
uninformative. In general, intuitive descriptions were preferred and, as
Thomas Clifton says: 'The question is not whether the description is
subjective, objective, bi ased or idiosyncratic, but very simply is whether or not
the description says something significant about the intuited experience so that
the experience itself becomes something from which we can learn and in so
doing learn about the object of that experience as well... No one is saying that
any particular intuitive description, taken as true, is the whole truth. Intuitive
descriptions erect their st ructures very much in the same way that scientific
descriptions do: slowly, methodically with frequent erasures and backtrack-
mg. Both kinds of description are concerned with inrersubjecrive
confirmation. '3
I have used the terms 'idiomatic' and 'non-idiomatic' to describe the twO
main forms of improvisation. Idiomatic improvisation, much the most widely
used, is mainly concerned with the expression of an idiom - such as jazz,
flamenco or baroque - and takes its identity and motivation from that idiom.
3 From 'Some comparisons between Ifltuillve and SClenlilic descriptions 0' mulJic', Thomas Ctifton in Joomal 01 Music Thet:xy
xi
Non-idiomatic improvisation has other concerns and is most usually found in
so-called 'free' improvisation and, while it can be highly stylised, is not usually
tied to representing an idiomatic identity. I have also followed what seems to
be the usual practice in writings about 'straight' music, of treating the
contemporary as a special, quite segregated musical activity. Here one finds
'specialists' in 'new' music as though music, in order to be normal and
un specialised, has to be a sort of sonic archaeology.
The word improvisation is actually very little used by improvising
musicians. Idiomatic improvisors, in describing what they do, use the name of
the idiom. They 'play flamenco' or 'play jazz'; some refer to what they do as
just 'playing'. There is a noticeable reluctance to use the word and some
improvisors express a positive dislike for it. I think this is due to its widely
accepted connotations which imply that improvisation is something without
preparation and without consideration, a completely ad hoc activity, frivolous
and inconsequential, lacking in design and method. And they object to that
implication because they know from their own experience that it is untrue.
They know that there is no musical activity which requires greater skill and
devotion, preparation, training and commitment. And so they reject the word,
and show a reluctance to be identified by what in some quarters has become
almost a term of abuse. They recognise that, as it is generally understood, it
completely misrepresents the depth and complexity of their work. But I have
chosen to retain that term throughout this book; firstly because I don't know of
any other which could effectively replace it, and secondly because [hope that
we, the other contributors and myself, might be able to redefine it.
xii
Introduction to revised edition
The difference between the present musical climate and that of the mid-1970s,
when this book was first written, could hardly be greater. Most surveys of the
intervening decade and a half tend to be lamentations on the galloping artistic
cowardice, shrivelled imaginations and self-congratulatory philistinism which
typified the period. Other assessors, applauding the strenuous efforts evident
in all areas of music to be more 'accessible', speak of a Golden Age. Either way,
and significant as they are, the changes that have taken place seem to have
made very little difference to improvisation. Transient musical fashion, of
course, is unlikely to have any effect on something as fundamental as the
nature of improvisation but even in its practice improvisation seems to have
been, if at times diverted, as prevalent and irrepressible as ever.
Essential changes to the book, then, were only rarely necessary and
revision has mainly taken the form of additions; new voices appearing, some
for no more than a single remark, others in extended interviews.
Turning once again from improvising to writing about improvisation was
done reluctantly; they are very different activities, it seems to me, and not
always compatible. Writing did provide, however, the opportunity to look at
the whole thing again through other peoples' eyes, an instructive experience
and one intensified this time because I was simultaneously working on a series
of TV films based on the earlier edition of this book. That brought its own
revelations, as much about television as about improvisation, and while not
everything covered in the programmes is of relevance here - TV making its own
highly specialised demands - a number of quotations from the discussions held
around and during filming are included. Most useful, though, was the
opportunity once again to make contact with some of the endlessly various
approaches towards improvisation and to be able to further draw on the
wealth of insight and practical experience available in virtually all musics as
testimony to this bedrock of musical creativity.
Derek Bailey, London, September 1991
xiii
PART ONE
INDIAN MUSIC
( 1)
Hindustani (North Indi an) and Carnatic (South Indi an) musi c are usually
considered as two quite distinct musical areas with differences in nomencla-
ture, style and musical grammar. The division in many ways reflects the
different cultural and political history of the two areas: South Indi a with its
relatively undisturbed Hindu culture producing a music very heavily tied to
tradition, conservati ve in outlook, proud of its rigorous conformity to Sanscrit
texts, and earl ier saint/composers; Hindustani music, comi ng from an area
which has seen 4000 years of almost continuous invasion and migration
beginning with the Aryans and finishing, hopefully, with the English, naturally
enough reflects the syntheses it has undergone and is less restricted by inherited
convention, although a marked respect for tradition is a prominent part of all
Indian music. One effect of this division is that there is a much heavier
emphasis on improvisation to be found in Hindustani than in Carnatic music.
And the ' type of attitude customaril y associated with improvisation -
experimental, tolerant of change, with an interest in development - is much
more readily found in the music of the North than that of the South. But in
practice, the presence of improvisation is of central importance to all Indian
musIC.
One of the effects of the colli sion between the Islamic and Hindu cultures
occurring in Northern India was to produce a music of a less speci fi ca ll y
religious nature than that in the South. A shifting of attention from the
traditional texts ro the more purely musical side leads to a less rigid, more
advenrurous attitude in Hindustani music. But hisrorically and theoretically,
all Indian music is embedded in the spi ritual life of the counrry. The principles
of the music are spiritual principles, the laws of the music arc spiritual laws and
their authority is of a religious nature. Aesthetics and devotional thinking are
inextricably connected. A hisrory of Indian music is largely a catalogue of
Hindu and Muslim sainrs, their teachings and their deeds; a book of musical
theory is indistinguishable from a book of religi ous instruction and although
there is a large body of literature concerning the music there is 3n almost
complete absence of systematised, purely musical theory.
The implications and effects of this on the spiritual life of the musician
must, of course, be great, and could certainly bc considered as belonging
within the scope of the subject of this book but it seems to me that one of the
1
most striking advantages that this background has to confer on the Indian
musician is of a secular nature. What he is saved from is the burden of having
his music constantly monitored by a self-appointed theoretical authority of
doubtful utility and, as regards the business of actually playing the music, he is
left with enormous practical freedom. In short, the purely theoretical advice he
receives is almost entirely of an aesthetic not technical nature. For the
development of his musicianship the student in Indian music is left with no
alternative but to find practical instruction from a performing musician and,
with guidance from his master, to pursue his own personal development and
musical self-sufficiency.
•••
The framework within which improvisation takes place in Indian music is the
raga, a variable framework. The basic intervals used, the sruti and the svara,
and the rhythmic cycle, the tala, are also variable. Consequently, the main raw
materials used by the Indian musician are of an unfixed, malleable nature.
Improvisation for him is a fact of musical life.
THE SRUTI
In Sanscrit meaning 'to hear', the sruti is the smallest interval used and is
considered the most important single element in Indian music. Its exact size is
elusive. The octave in Indian music is divided into seven main, unequal units
called svaras. The sruti is the subdivision of the svara and its relation to the
svara can be 2: 1,3: lor 4: 1, that is, a sruti can be a halfor a third or a quarter of
the svara, an interval which itself does not have a clearly defined size. The
octave, however, does have an exact size and there are 22 srutis to an octave.
Again these divisions are not equal.
Arguing about the exact size of the sruti, in any of its versions, seems to
have been one of the main tasks of the theorist in this music for over 2000
years. In practice it is clear that a micro-tonal music which is often played on
instruments using low-tensioned strings, where rnost small rnovement is by
glissandi, means that the exact size of the srmi is in many instances purely a
matter of personal choice, a choice depending on the musician's knowledge,
experience and instinct. The difference between one raga and another can be
decided by the size of one sruti, but in practice this is always judged in the
context of the raga being played, judged in relation to a svara, and judged
aurally. But srutis, too, can be considered as the element which guarantees the
basic variability of the rnusic; a constant shifting to 'sharpness' or to 'flatness'.
The precise opposite of the tempered scale.
2
Since the arrival on the scene of the Western musicologist the debate
about the sruti has intensified. One French scholar, after awesorne research,
concluded that there were 24, not 22, sruris to the octave. I found an adequate
description of the importance and function of the sruti in the work of two
Indian writers who were largely unconcerned with precise measurements and
exact labels. R.Srinivasan in Facets of Indian Culture, writes: 'It is the use of
these very short intervals that rnakes the individuality of the Indian sys-
tem ... the spirit of a Raga or a melody-type is best expressed through the use of
these rninute divisions of the scale. The expertness of a musician depends to a
large extent on his capacity to use them so as to add to the richness and
sweetness of his songs.' For a rnore 'technical' description Shri
N.M.Adyonthaya in his Melody Music of India offers that 'a further
explanation of the basis of the srutis may be found in the audio phenomenon
that when two notes of the same pitch are struck simultaneously and one of
them is raised gradually higher and higher in pitch relationship or pitch ratio,
one of them serving as a basic note of reference, the ear responds and tolerates
at certain definite points and there are 22 such points at each of which the
degree of tolerance, consonance or dissonance is varying. These 22 points have
been the basis of the 22 srutis of Indian music from tirne immemorial.'
THE SVARA
The seven unequal and variable divisions of the octave, usually compared to a
scale, have been more accurately described as the rnolecular structure of the
raga. Although they provide the main tonal points, their identity is not
established primarily by their relationship to a tonic and their use is not step-
like or sequential. One of the meanings of 'svara' is 'self-sufficient'.
The svara and the sruti form the two basic pitch divisions in Indian music
- a music which is, in the Western sense, non-harmonic. The notes relate to
each other purely by their continuity and their juxtaposition. A svara is
selected and used as a centre around which melodic activity can take place.
Mostof this activity is in srutis acting as satellites of the svara. The whole of the
activity can take place over a continuous drone or fundamental. If a singer is
taking part in the performance the drone, or shadja, is chosen by the singer and
all the instruments tune to that. If there is no singer any player of a melody
instrument will choose it.
THE TALA
The tala, which in Sanscrit means the palm of the hand, is the rhythmic cycle
over which the second part of the raga is played and is treated mainly as a base
for rhythmic variations of fixed metrical length, for example 16, 12, or 8 matra
3
(beats); the sub-division of this cycle can become quite complex. Although
there are probably over one hundred tala available to the Indian musician there
are only about a dozen in general use. The tala is, of course, an integral part,
one of the main characteristics, of Indian music but of more importance
rhythmically is the laya.
THE LAVA
An important part of all idiomatic improvisation is using the 'feel' of the
rhythm, the forward movement sense as opposed to the mathematical
understanding of the rhythm. In Indian music this is the laya. Usually described
as the overall tempo of a piece, it is much more than that. It is its rhythmic
impetus, its pulse. The musician who displays an exceptional rhythmical 'feel',
whose work has great rhythmic facility and ease, is described as 'having a good
laya'. The origin of the word is connected with the Hindu belief in the 'all-
embracing comprehensive rhythm of the universe as personified in Shiva, Lord
of the Dance'.
The vocabulary of Western classical music contains no equivalent for
laya, either being incapable of recognising its existence or preferring to ignore
it. Probably the terms encountered in the description of space and energy serve
better: continuum, kinetic, dynamic, equivalence, ballistic, centrifugal. Or-
like those coined in Western improvisation: groove, swing, rock, ride - words
of sexual derivation. The Indians say: 'The laya is the father and the sruti is the
mother of the raga.'
The framework within which these elements are working, the raga, is as
adaptable and as malleable as they are; not in any way imprecise or unclear in
its intentions and requirements, but having the strength and resourcefulness to
adapt to any musical direction.
THE RAGA
Until its performance the raga is unformed. It is a set of ingredients all of which
are themselves variable and out of which the musician must fashion his
performance, his interpretation of these elements. The elements that can be
fixed, such as the sthaya, the first statement of any melody which might be used
at the beginning of the gat, and some of the decorative phrases (gamakas) are
used voluntarily and, if used, the placing and phrasing is chosen at the moment
of performance. As with most of the terms used in Indian music there is an
ambiguity about the raga which makes a precise definition always, in some
respects, misleading. But one can make a generalised description. It is, firstly,
an ascending and descending series of svaras, a specific collection of notes
which do not, on their own, establish the identity of the raga; one particular
4
row of svaras can be common to more than one raga. The distinction might be
in how the svaras are treated, how they are approached, how they are ordered
or grouped, how they are left, which svara is selected for emphasis (vadi).
The raga is also the framework within which the musician improvises. It is
divided into two halves. The first, the alapa, forms an out-of-tempo slow
introduction. The second, the gat, is played over the tala, the rhythmic cycle,
and the characteristic material of the raga is treated in various standard ways.
The twO halves are further sub-divided but there are many versions of
how many sub-divisions there should be. However it is fairly standa rd in
practice that the following sequences take place:
THEAL.APA
The svaras to be used are established and the dominating notes selected. At this
point there is no tala. Melodic patterns are established and the pace quickens.
A pulse is introduced but no tala.
THE GAT
The raga melody is stated and the tala introduced. There is movement into a
higher register, the introduction of set decorative pieces, and a concentration
on the rhythmic properties of the performance. Dialogue between the
performers increases in intensity and pace.
This outline is probably used, wholly or in abbreviation, in most
performances but my impression is that there is no shortage of exceptions.
* * •
So a raga provides the material, certain standard ways of treating the material,
and the framework for the performance. There are also many decorations and
graces which are standardised. But the whole thing is in flux, achieving its final
state only at the moment of performance. One further point, something
common to most improvised music, is that different constituents do not have
obvious hierarchical values. Anything which can be considered as decoration,
for instance, is not in some way subservient to that which it decorates. The
most powerful expression of the identity of a piece might be in the smallest
details.
Finally, concerning the raga, O.C.Gangoly in Ragas and Raginis writes:
'A raga is more than its physical form ... its body. It has a soul which comes to
dwell and inhabit the body. In the language of Indian poetics this soul- this
principle - is known as the Rasa, or flavour, its sentiment, its impassioned
feeling.'
5
• ••
Representing Indian music in the programmes was Viram Jasani. Born In
Jaipur in North India where he studied with Imrat Khan, younger brother of
Vilyat Khan, Viram Jasani now lives in England. He gave me the following
account of the raga. As he talked he played the sitar, demonstrating the
different points he was making. With him was the tabla player Esmail Sheikh.
Quite a simple description, it is a succinct account of the essentials involved,
even without the musical examples. The points at which these took place ace
indicated in the text by ellipses.
When we start a performance of the raga we start very slowly. We play
what is called alapa. And the purpose of alapa is to explore the melodic
possibilities within that raga, which has nothing to do with rhythm or style.
And the first thing we do is to establish the keynote .. . This can be done with a
drone or just by playing a phrase up the keynote ... Then the improvisations
take place in the lower register ... And here you do in fact apply a simple
mathematical process. But not all of these possibilities may be allowed in the
raga. You've got to decide which ones are allowed and which ones to play and
how to play them. And you take out one note ... and concentrate on that one
note ... And in this way you work your way up the scale. The whole thing is
then repeated on the basis of a rhythm created, in this case on the sitar, on the
drone ... And concentrating on this note ... and building up my phrases to end on
that point ... And you pick out each note in this scale as you go up the scale and
your phrases are created and improvised around each particular note, and this
is why it takes such a long time, perhaps, to playa good performance. Now all
this is done without any rhythm whatever. Where the drums come in, and this
is where improvisation perhaps begins to get a little less, is where one has a
fixed composition - one can either make up a composition or you can playa
traditional tune from your style of music; one which your teacher is famous
for, perhaps. And this tune may have a certain length in time. and there is an
emphasised point in that tune which corresponds to the emphasised point in
the time cycle. And we both meet on that point ... And while I repeat this tune
over and over I am maintaining this time cycle, which leaves the tabla player.
the drummer, free to improvise. while the time cycle is still being maintained.
If we just have an example of him playing and he will come back and end his
improvisations at the same point of emphasis ... Then he maintains the cycle
and I am free to improvise, and we alternate; and this is where one tends to
play much faster phrases, which may seem a contradiction, to its slower
atmosphere. But that's Indian music. Full of contradiction, I am afraid.
6
INDIAN MUSIC
(2)
The learning process in improvisation is invariably difficult to detect. Although
a large number of books and courses offering instruction and advice on how to
improvise are available it seems impossible to find a musician who has actually
learned to improvise from them. The great majority of these studies concern
themselves either with organ improvisation, the earliest of which appeared
over 200 years ago, or conventional jazz. And the instruction offered usually
concerns the manipulation of scalar and harmonic ingredients in those
particular styles. What they have to say is, in most cases, helpful for an
appreciation of those idioms and, naturally, an understanding of the idiom is
essential in order to improvise in it. But a discourse which concerns itself
exclusively with pitch relationships - melodic or harmonic - can say
practically nothing about that which is essentially to do with improvisation.
In the face of the possibility that no improvisor anywhere has ever learned
to improvise from a book or other documentary source, the argument usually
offered to support the publication of these manuals is that whi le 'great' players
can somehow suddenly appear fully endowed with every necessary ski ll , more
ordinary players have to find more ordinary means. The truth is probably that
improvisation is learned - perhaps acquired would be a better word - in pretty
much the same way by everybody who is lucky enough to stumble on the right
method. An ability to improvise can't be forced and it depends, firstly, on an
understanding, developed from complete familiarity, of the musical context in
which one improvises, or wishes to improvise. As this understanding develops
so the ability to improvise can develop. The important thing is to have an
objective, the recognition of which can be intuitive, so strongly desired as to be
almost a mania. In idiomatic improvisation this objective is usually repres-
ented by an admired player whose performance one wishes to emulate. In the
early stages this admiration is most useful if it takes the form of unquestioning
idolatry. Alain Danielou, writing of the traditional method of learning in
South-East Asia, says: 'In [his sort of personal instruction artistic training
precedes the technical. The pupil is in constant contact with the work of art in
its most developed form and he is conscious of the goal which he should
eventually attain: the content of the music is never separated from its form.'
Later the path to musical self-development comes through increasing confi-
dence and the inevitable increase in critical awareness.
7
Most musicians learn to improvise by accident; or by a series of observed
accidents; by trial and error. And there is of course an appropriateness about
this method, a natural correspondence between improvisation and empiricism.
Learning improvisation is a practical matter: there is no exclusively theoretical
side to improvisation. Appreciating and understanding how improvisation
works is achieved through the failures and successes involved in attempting to
do it. Indian music with its long complex relationship between teacher and
pupil has the only methodology or system which acknowledges these basic
characteristics of improvisation.
Vitam Jasani described to me how improvisation 'arrived' during his
yeats of study.
The time that we spend with a Guru is purely spent in trying to
understand the framework in which Indian music is set. And a Guru doesn't,
or your teacher doesn't, really tell you how to improvise. That is purely up to
the stude11t to gain by experience and to intuit the various methods of playing
the music. What he directly learns from his teacher is the framework in which
improvisation or performance of Indian music takes place. But the teacher in
Indian music is not usually an academic, he's 110t a theoretician, therefore a
good teacher is able to show you and give you guidelines as to how to perform
Indian classical music. He gives you the scope and the field in which to gain
your experience and if you're a good student you take advantage of this
opportunity that he gives you and then it becomes something that one
develops on one's own.
Could Viram Jasani be more specific about his teacher's methods and
could he recall his first attempts at improvi sing?
It's difficult to pinpoint a particular time when you start improvising.
What happens is that your teacher, when he's in the mood to teach you a
particular raga, won't say to you, <this is the scalic structure of the raga and
these are the notes used in that raga' - what he will do is to play to you and tell
you to listen and perhaps ask you to imitate certain phrases that he is playing.
And gradually, after hearing him do this several times, what you do is to
acquire a feeling for that raga and you can immediately recognise it when it's
played by other musicians or by your teacher again. And so you start playing
those phrases and eventually you get to the stage where you don't repeat the
phrases your teacher has taught you, you start creating your own different
phrases within that raga. And you intuit when you're playing a phrase which is
out of context, out of that framework. In other words, when you learn a raga
you are really learning something which is very abstract and you don't learn a
raga in terms of its tonal content.
Viram Jasani demonstrated what he meant.
8
I'll playa few phrases within this raga, without any direct ... implication as
to how one actually improvises in this raga but just to demonstrate to you how
to feel for the raga and then I'll at one point deliberately play something which
you will automatically recognise as not part of the raga - just to show the
power of the raga and how you immediately realise that something is not
correct ...
This almost uses the same intonation ... one note is incorrect ... that is, as
you would say, the natural seventh, which should have been the flattened
seventh. Now your teacher doesn't tell you that these are the notes that you use
so that you know which ones not to use. What he does is to play you phrases
and play you the general...give you an idea of the gait of the raga ... how it
should be played. There are plenty of ... what we call meend or slides, between
notes. And there is more emphasis...on the lower notes in the lower register.
This all goes to make up an atmosphere of sobriety, of austerity. But ultimately
I don't think musicians think in terms like these. They are musicians and they
think of the feeling they have for the notes, and the feeling that they derive
from the notes.
Because we are learning, if you like, a language of music, it comes
naturally to us to think of our own phrases and our own representation of a
performance of a raga.
Ours is a very intuitive music, you learn intuitively, the feeling for a raga
is acquired intuitively.
I suggested to Viram Jasani that one of the purposes of improvisation
might be to intensify the mood of a raga.
That's absolutely right. To bring out the most in that raga. In purely
mathematical terms a series of notes can be combined in hundreds of different
ways. But it's useless in your improvisation to go through all of these.
Theoretically it might be correct but it doesn't allow for the feelings of the
raga, it doesn't allow for music.
One has to figure out a way in which the possibilities of that raga will
enhance its mood.
And, of course, a raga can be considered a limiting thing. How, after a/l,
do you recognise a raga? Because you recognise certain characteristic features
about it. And if you are going to play that raga you can't help but play those
characteristic features. So this, perhaps, is not improvisation. But your
improvisation comes into play when you are trying to use the information
presented to you in terms of musical facts, using your ability, and the
experience acquired over the years of practicing that raga, and listening to
other people play that raga, to put all this together and create some new phrase
or put a new idea within that raga.
9
When asked how he judged the quality of an improvisation, what made
one improvisation better than another, Viram Jasani, like most improvising
musicians, couldn't offer a formula or a set of rules that one could apply.
It's the combination achieved by, tempo _ what's happened before -
what's going to come after - the tone of the instrument _ the particular tone
you bring out of the instrument at that time - the mood created - perhaps a
phrase which isn't necessarily new but just put in a different context.
I asked Viram Jasani if there was any deliberate attempt at some sort of
evolution in his improvising- whether over the years he was actually trying to
move it somewhere.
That is, in fact, how ragas evolve. Because a musician is trying to use
whatever liberty he has within the raga to extend the limits of that raga
without destroying its basic features. And if you take a raga today and look at
it in terms of its history you may find that it has changed considerably. But it is
changed not by one performer but by a succession of performers. So the
changes are imperceptible over any short period of time. They become part of
the raga. f think a raga is a product of time and people playing that raga over a
period of time. ft's a product of peoples' changing attitudes and tolerances.
Something common to most musics in which improvisation is tradi-
tionally found is an absence of any accurate notation system. Curt Sachs in The
Wellsprings of Music writes: ' ... music without notation is not limited to
scriptless societies. Many ancient notations were merely devised by priests for
priests and cantors and some were even kept secret. While in religious music
notation had a definite place in order ro prevent the present and future
generations from breaking sacred traditions, secular music relied on free
invention and memory, in Western civilisation as well as those of the East.
Notation became indispensibl e only under the pressure of worked-out
polyphony.'
'Written music' in Indian music usually refers to books of music theory
(accepted as being quite separate from music practice, the one rarely
interfering with the other). Consequently, instruction has to be aural, by rote,
and personal. But there are other implications to the lack of written music.
Whether reading music is a disadvantage ro an improvisor is a question
which gets quite a lot of discussion amongst improvising musicians who work
in areas such as popular music, where they might be expected both to
improvise and to read music. The argument usually revolves around the point
whether the skills and attitudes necessary to be a good sight-reader are, or are
not, inhibiting factors when it comes to improvisation. There is an unmistak-
able suspicion that the acquisition of reading ski ll s in some way has a blunting
effect on improvising skills, an acceptance that these are very often two things
10
which do not go together. So, of course, in musics where there isn't an
'accurate' notation system, that possible problem, or distraction, disappears.
But more important than the removal of a possible inhibition or contrary
discipline from the performer is the fact that the absence of a music writing!
reading tradition gets rid of the composer.
Writings of a spiritual and of an aesthetic nature or poems which have
inspired musicians are the only types of scripted works which are allowed to
influence and affect the Indian performing musician. In practice the only part
of the music which might be identified as 'composed music' is the possible use
of certain melodies with certain ragas. Written by, or associated with, historic
figures of Indian music, usually great performers or religious teachers of the
past, their use, once a symbolic act of piety, is now.a matter of musical choice.
The ragas, the bedrock and stuff of the music, develop and evolve through the
type of process described earlier by Viram Jasani. One of the few sustained
efforts to deliberately mould or shape the course of the music has been the
attempt in recent years to synthesise or combine different ragas. Bur here again
the experiments are carried our by performers and receive their 'tests' in
performance.
So, as with all improvisors, there is an assumption by the player that the
music is hi s; his creation, his presentation, his responsibility. I had this
exchange with Viram Jasani:
Does the amount of improvisation used increase as you go on? Would it
be possible to say that?
I don't understand what you mean when you say <amount of improvisa-
tion used'.
Would you introduce more of your own ...
The whole thing is one's own ... the whole performance IS one's own
interpretation on that raga.
Improvisors in all fields often speak of ' my music'. It is not a claim of
ownership but a complete personal identification with the music they play.
They, 'the musicians', are the embodiment of the music. And in India, where,
as Yehudi Mehuhin says, • ... music has continued unperturbed through thirty
centuries or more, with the even pulse of a river and with the unbroken
evolution of a Sequoia tree', the continuance and evolution of their music has
throughout the centuri es been the successful charge of the improvising
performer.
11
FLAMENCO
The profusion of documentary material, mostly of a contradictory, somewhat
ambiguous nature, found in Indian music, is paralleled by an almost total
absence of any literature, reliable or otherwise, concerning flamenco. It is
possible to find brief accounts of Spanish dance but the music which first
accompanied it and then developed into a completely self-sufficient genre has
been very little described. The advantages for the performing musician in this
situation are numerous. In fact, Debussy, writing about Spanish song, implied
that a lack of documentation was of benefit to everyone. 'Fortunate is the
country which jealously guards these natural flowers, preserving them from
the c1assico-administrative.' So most of my information has come from
musicians who play flamenco. Incidentally, when I checked with them the
small amount of documentary evidence I could uncover, they found it
contained very little that could be recognised as accurately reflecting the music
they played.
My main informant and guide was Paco Pena. One of today' s finest
flamenco guitarists, he was born in Cordoba, and from the age of twelve has
worked professionally; first as an accompanist with a number of dance troupes
and then either as a soloist or with his own Flamenco Puro group. In 1972 he
gave a recital in the Conservatorio da Musica in Cordoba, becoming the first
flamenco guitarist ever to play in a conservatorio in Spain. An event not only of
great personal distinction for Paco Pena but a nice indication of the
relationship existing between the academic and flamenco music worlds.
1
Andalucia, the home of flamenco, has, like Northern India, a musical
background built up from the influences and cultural remnants left by the
various peoples who passed through or settled on its land. Similarly, Andalucia
was under Moorish domination for many centuries - Cordoba being at one
time the capital of the Western Islamic world. Paco Pena gave me the following
account of how flamenco arose from this background.
In the 15th century, many tribes of gypsies found their way into
Andalucia as a branch of immigrants who around 1447 entered Spain by
Catalonia. They lived mainly in the fields, nomadically, and in poor
I II seems that in 1922 wher1 judging a oompetilion held 10 assist ' native' pet10rmers toenler a Spanish music college. the composer
Manuel de FaUa used the occasion to advise and instruct the applicants in authenticity. Oemonstrating yet again the combination of
ignorance and arrogance w ~ h which high Ct.Ilture usually approaches anything beyood its own narrow tarmory.
12
conditions. Traditionally the gypsies were not great poets - hardly surprising
considering their circumstances - but they had a remarkable facility for
rhythm and music, and in Andalucia they found a rich, colourful folklore of
exceptional poetic charm. Unlike other music they had come across elsewhere
in Spain, this folklore suited their character and came to form part of their
lives. They assimilated it and added something different to it. This 'marriage'
gave rise to the phenomenon of Cante Flamenco, neither <gypsy music' nor
Andalucian folklore, but both. So, it can be said without doubt that there are
two main elements in flamenco: Andalucia with its old musical background,
and the gypsies - without both, flamenco would never have existed.
Nobody knows for certain when it all started because there are very few
written records available. The first notice we have is about a singer of
seguirillas, Tio Luis el de la juliana, around 1780. But even that is a little
dubious because it was not mentioned until a century later - in 1881 - by
Antonio Machado Alvarez (,Demofilo'); in fact the Seguiriya seems to have
developed later from another style, Tonas.
There are three main periods in the history of flamenco. From the
beginning of the 19th century to 1860 it was part of the life of Andalucian
gypsies and poor people who kept it for themselves and never performed
outside their communities. From 1860 to 1910 was the era of the 'Cafe
Cantantes', special tablaos or places dedicated wholly to flamenco music.
Since then flamenco has emerged from its original environment to become
known throughout the world.
No evidence exists that guitars were used during the first period. But as
flamenco emerged ('Cafes Cantantes'), the guitar, which was already the
instrument of Spain, was brought in to accompany and enhance the human
voice. Paradoxically, 'it is the guitar as a solo instrument rather than the
singing, which has made flamenco popular, when in fact the guitar, like the
dancing, derives all its inspiration from the Cante Jondo - flamenco singing-
the purest expression of Andalucian art.
A complete flamenco performance is a group performance with singing,
dancing, and instrumental music, and containing possibilities for improvisa-
tion by all the participants. Paco Pena outlined the role of the guitarist:
When accompanying, the function of the flamenco guitarist is to help the
singer or dancer to bring out the best of his talent. He must create an
atmosphere suitable to each piece, and he must provide a good clear rhythm
and follow the voice in whatever nuances the singer may bring to it. Also he
must colour it by playing falsetas, or very brief melodic sequences between
verses. The guitarist is then at the absolute service of the singing and from it he
takes all his inspiration.
13
But when playing solo, the guitarist must convey the whole atmosphere
of flamenco. The falsetas become much more elaborate and musical to
resemble the singing. The rhythm becomes stronger and more elaborate to
resemble the 'foot-work' of the dancer.
As in Indian music the framework within which the musician works and
the constituents within that framework are variable, receiving their final form
only in performance.
The framework in flamenco is referred to as the style and it is the dance
style or song. This is distinguished by its compas. The compas is the rhythmic
unit: a set number of beats with certain accents. This is fixed, but the overall
length of the piece and its proportions are alterable at any time. The harmony is
common to all styles but its use varies greatly. Usually it consists of the most
basic chords, tonic, dominant, and sub-dominant, with, in some styles, the
chords on the steps of the Phrygian mode used as 'passing' chords. Addi-
tionally, there is a heavily instrumental aspect to the harmony. Many 'mixed'
chords are used which obviously have as their source the guitar and its
chromatic nature. The selection of chords used may be associated with the style
being played, but how they are used is decided largely in performance.
Although the harmony will not differ much from performance to performance,
what will differ is the time spent with each chord. There is no set sequence
length. The harmony changes when the vocal or instrumental embellishments
on that chord are completed. Improvisation is in relation to this harmonic
vocabulary and in relation to the falsetas, or melodic fragments, which
constitute the only predetermined melodic material used (although the exact
placement or phrasing of the falsetas is never fixed).
There are many styles, almost all with some geographical association and
identified by their mood. Each one will be characterised by its own special pace
and compas. The four most common, most basic, styles are: Bulerias, So/eares,
Tientos and Seguirillas.
Bulerias is something of an exceptional piece. Very light, playful, often
full of quotations, it is a piece in which anything can happen. However the
other three have much in common, and the chief of these is Soleares.
One can say that Soleares is the perfect form of Cante Flamenco where
beauty and depth of feeling are in harmony. Ever since I remember playing the
guitar I remember playing Soleares. It's a very beautiful style- it moves but it's
not very fast.
The compas, or rhythmic unit, of the Soleares has 12 beats accented in the
following manner: 1 2 3 4 5 (; 7 II 9 10 11 12. Everything played must
be accommodated within this gait. Whether actually played or not these
accents are always felt and expressed.
14
Paco Pefia made it clear that the foregoing technical matters were, in his
view, of only peripheral significance to the subject we were discussing.
You should understand this: each song or each style of flamenco has a
different sound, and what you must do, what you normally do, is to get
involved in that sound. There is a kind of mood that you must get into - you
must get inside the music. It's an abstract thing. Even if there is no rhythm, you
produce something, you see. You move around and you dance.
•••
For the musical theorist there seems to be no description or evaluation without
technical analysis which in turn usually relies on transcription and dissection.
For the description - or evaluation - of improvisation, formal technical
analysis is useless.
Firstly, it is not possible to transcribe improvisation. There have been
some attempts; usually of jazz solos, or organ improvisations and sometimes
of 'ethnic' music. Invariably the transcription is into 'standard' musical
notation, a system which concerns itself almost exclusively with representing
pitch and rhythm within certain conventions. However, most improvisation
has scant regard for the niceties of the tempered scale, or for exactly uniform
divisions of the 'bar' or beat. Attempts to show its 'deviations' usually take the
form of arrows, dots, cent numbers, commas and all sorts of minute
adjustments hopefully scattered through the standard notation system. But at
the end of a lifetime in which he did an awful lot of transcribing, Curt Sachs
wrote: 'We know from bitter experience how unreliable and deadly prejudiced
man's senses are, how easily we project into a totally foreign style of music the
tempered melody steps and even stressed rhythms of Western tradition and
hence, how small is the documentary value of such unverified impressions.'
Even when man's senses are supplemented by such devices as the oscillator and
the frequency analyser the result is only a more exact picture of the
irrelevancies. It still has nothing to say about the forces behind the music
making. Transcription might help to establish matters to do with style or
material used but those elements which are peculiar to improvisation and to
nothing else cannot be documented in this way. But the real indictment of
transcription is that in most cases it is used to reduce a performance music to a
condition in which it can be examined as if it were composition. When the
object of examination is improvisation, transcription, whatever its accuracy,
serves only as a misrepresentation.
The improvisors I spoke to, in almost all cases, did not find any sort of
technical description adequate. It wasn't that they weren't interested in
15
technical matters. They just did not find them suitable for illuminating
improvisation. They finally chose to describe what they wanted to describe in
so-called 'abstract' terms. And it became clear that whatever its deficiencies,
,
this is the best method available. An abstract description of improvisation can
achieve, perhaps, a sighting. Close, technical analysis leads elsewhere.
I asked Paco Peiia how much the proportions of improvised to non-
improvised music in any piece would vary from performance to performance.
Would the proportions be the same in each performance or would they vary?
No, they would, in fact, vary very much. Because 1 don't consider
improvisation only to play different notes within a piece. 1 also consider
improvisation to actually change the weight of a piece from one place to
another. Change the direction. I mean you might play roughly the same piece
and yet because you are feeling quite different, you are producing a completely
different piece of music - really and truly.
You ask how much is improvised? Of course it all depends on how
inspired you are. In my experience if I feel good technically, funnily enough, if
I feel good technically and the conditions are right, I tend to improvise much
more. You see -I let myself go - I'm confident. I want to reach other levels,
you know.
Later we got back to the same point.
I like to put right something which you said iust now -1 don't want to be
dishonest about it. It seems that you may understand -you may take it-that at
the moment when I am playing 1 am creating a piece of music. This is not so.
You know, I don't improvise - and nobody that I know playing flamenco
improvises - so much that he is making everything.
I'd say that within a piece you can reach certain heights because you have
let yourself improvise, say, a little bit, not too much, but that little bit changes
the whole character of the piece, in fact you might change perhaps a quarter of
the piece, but that quarter changes the whole character of the whole piece. But
I certainly would not say that the whole piece is improvised - anyway in my
case it never is completely improvised - but it is true that it can change
according to how I feel at the moment.
This seemed to be a fairly common feeling - that the amount altered or
added or wholly invented was not of too much significance.
The wonderful thing about this music is that you are completely free. You
see, you feel so free because today you are going to play differently from
yesterday. You are not tied by a composed piece which you have to play the
same but better if you want to improve it. You could play much simpler - the
piece could be less complicated, less elaborate and yet more subtle and
therefore inspire you. You are so free - and it works both ways. Both ways
16
being that you are completely free to improvise and that you also have the
choice not to improvise. You can leave it as it is, simply because it feels better to
leave it as it is.
Did Paco Peiia make any preparation or do any particular practising for
his improvising?
Not specifically for improvising. I think I do prepare to be able,
technically, to reach anything 1 want to reach on the guitar and for that, of
course, I do my exercises and so on. But nothing specifically for improvising.
Do you think your improvising might be affected by anything outside
flamenco? Do other types of music influence you?
Well, I don't listen to much other music except classical and flamenco. I
listen to a lot of classical music, I know a lot of classical musicians, I love
classical music and, of course. 1 take as much benefit from it as 1 can; and
discussing points with other musicians helps me.
But if, shortly before a performance, you heard a recording - Segovia
playing Bach, say - might the general air of the piece have any effect on your
coming performance?
Oh yes - but for that matter anything which has art in it would have an
effect. For example, the way people move - you could see somebody moving
gracefully and that inspires you.
Another point I wanted to pursue was the purpose of improvisation. It
was obviously essential to flamenco, but why? What did it do?
Being creative within flamenco is essential ... You cannot play anybody
else's material forever - you've got to make your own otherwise you are iust
very unhappy ...
In order that I get inspired by something I have to hear it very fresh - but I
have heard a lot of flamenco, you see. In order that I fulfil myself playing I have
to play very well ... it's got to be new. If not the rhythm or the notes at least the
spirit of it should be new.
This is one of the immediate and direct effects of improvisation. It secures
the total involvement of the performer. Better than any other means it provides
the possibility for the player to completely identify with the music.
The responsibility to and for the idiom shown by Viram Jasani was the
same in Paco Peiia. His work served flamenco and flamenco provided a
complete framework for his playing. Beyond everything else his main concern
was for the authenticity of his music. But authenticity for him did not mean
undeviating allegiance to a fixed historical manner transforming the music into
a present day dead-letter representation of an earlier time. Improvisation
provided the means by which he could maintain authenticity and still have
change, freshness and development in the music. And an improvisation was
17
valid in so far as it served that end. I asked Paco Pena what he would do if he
played something which interested him but was not characteri stically fla-
menco? He didn't seem particularly worried about the possibility.
The point is that it would be a failure, but not a very unhappy failure. You
see it is a failure because 1 should really be able to resolve what I want to do
within the idiom of flamenco.
No idiomatic improvisor is concerned with improvisation as some sort of
separate isolated activity. What they are absolutely concerned about is the
idiom: for them improvisation serves the idiom and is the expression of that
idiom. But it still remains that one of the main effects of improvisation is on the
performer, providing him with a creative involvement and maintaining his
commitment. So, in these two functions, improvisation supplies a way of
guaranteeing the authenticity of the idiom, which also, avoiding the stran-
glehold of academic authority, provides the motor for change and continuous
development.
We have learned from our elders what they had learned from their elders.
But we assimilate the music and treat it in our own way, as they did before.
Flamenco is not a museum piece but a living developing art form, and as such it
allows for the personal interpretation of the artists.
18
PART TWO
BAROQUE
( \ )
The petrifying effect of European classical music on those things it touches-
jazz, many folk musics, and all popular musics have suffered grievously in their
contact with it - made the prospect of finding improvisation there pretty
remote. Formal, precious, self-absorbed, pompous, harbouring rigid conven-
tions and carefully preserved hierarchical distinctions; obsessed with its
geniuses and their timeless masterpieces, shunning the accidental and the
unexpected: the world of classical music provides an unlikely setting for
improvisation.
And yet improvisation played an important part throughout most of its
early history. The working out and early practice of Gregorian chant and of
polyphony was in both cases largely through improvisation; the 17th century
school of organ music was mainly developed through performers' extempo-
ri sations, and throughout the 17th and 18th centuries accompaniment both in
opera and in concerted chamber music was generally left to be improvised over
a figured bass which itself grew out of improvised counterpoint. At the
beginning of the baroque period improvised ornamentation extended equally
to secular and sacred forms, to the arias of opera and oratorio, to cantatas and
'sacred concertos', to songs and solo vocal pieces of all sorts and it appeared
also in the newly rising forms of instrumental music, especially sonatas and
concertos. Hardly a single form of vocal or instrumental music of that time is
conceivable without some degree of ornamentation, sometimes written down
but much more usually added in performance: the passaggi of the Italians, the
agrements of the French, the graces of the Engli sh and the glosas of the
Spani ards. Even much later than the baroque period Paganini could write: 'My
duties require me to play in two concerts each week and I always improvise
with pi ano accompaniment. I write this accompaniment in advance and work
out my theme in the course of the improvisation."
1 .The most impressive documenCation concerning improvisation that I discovered during my admittedly haphazard researches for
thi$ book were the volumes by Ernst T.f eraoo, f irstly, Improvisation in Niflff Cenruries 01 Western Musk, which is a comprehensive
accoun,t ot, Improvised, mainly vocal, decoration edited by f efaoo aoo PlJblished in 196t (Arno Volk Verlag) aoo also his Die
tmpr.OVIS8bon in dar Musik, Zurich, 1938, There is also a pamphlet, The Howling in Seconds of rhe Lombards, reprinted lrom the
<:>Uarterly, July 1939, in which ferand touches on uses 01 improvisatiOn in early European music, Intended mainly as a
OOfltribuhon to a somewhat arcane debate on the 'Ialse' counterpoint alleged to have taken ptace in the 15th century, the pamphlet
a couple _01 relerences to improvisation, including: 'Instead of the consonances 01 the filth and the lovrth, the sharpest
- majOr, aoo minor seconds, mnths, and sevenths - predominate: and, in contrast to the arrangement customary in
dlSCant. the main VOICe (tenor) is in the upper part while the aocompanying voice (here called succenlus) is in the tower part.
19
The gradual restriction and eventual elimination of improvisation in this
music also seems to have taken place over the same period that saw the
increasing ascendancy of the orchestral conductor, the composer's proxy. In
Crowds and Power Elias Canetti likened him to a chief of police. 'The
immobility of the audience is as much part of the conductor's design as the
obedience of the orchestra. They are under a compulsion to keep still. Until he
appears they move about and talk freely among themselves. The presence of
the players disturbs no-one; indeed they are scarcely noticed. Then the
conductor appears and everyone becomes still. He mounts the rostrum, dears
his throat and raises his baton; silence falls. While he is conducting no-one may
move and as soon as he finishes they must applaud. All their desire for
movement, stimulated and heightened by the music, must be banked up until
the end of the work and must then break loose ... Presence of mind is among his
essential attributes; law-breakers must be curbed instantly. The code of laws,
in the form of the score, is in his hands. There are others who have it too and
can check the way it is carried out, but the conductor alone decides what the
law is and summarily punishes any breach of it ... He is the living embodiment
of the law, both positive and negative. His hands decree and prohibit. His ears
search out profanation:
• • •
One part of European music where improvisation has achieved, if not survival,
at least a sort of embalming is in the re-creation of baroque music. Lionel
Salter, the well known harpsichordist and director of baroque ensembles,
explained to me where improvisation originally lay in baroque.
Start from the viewpoint that the music as written down was only a kind
of memory iogger. It represented a skeleton of what was played, so that a
violinist, for example, would expect to have to ornament what was on his part;
to that extent there's some improvisation.
When it came to slow movements particularly, of course, you find that the
notes written down represent a very bare outline, and people who try and play
... let's say Handel sonatas, strictly according to the text, end up with
something at which Handel would probably have laughed uproariously,
(\ coni.) According 10 Gafori. this remartabIe survival 01 a primitive polyphony was used in the AmbrOSian fiturgy at solemn vigils in
honour 01 martyrs. at lamentalions, and at masses lor the clead, In view 01 this special usage, one may assume thai the dissonanoes
mentioned wera ~ quite deliberately and indeed 11'1 improvisatory fashion as ·expressionislic· means for ac::tveving dramatic
effects.' The same pamphlet also contains a descriplion 01 the step from polyphony to a chofdal c:oncepIiOn 01 music as it came about
in improviSlld part Singing. Apart from the usefulness of his InformatiOn it really .....as refreshing to come across a scholar whose
approach to improvisation was based on an appreciation and acc;epIance 01 its POWIfS, not on 0Ifl examination of what ~ didn't do.
20
because he never expected it to be played cold·bloodedly, iust like that. In
those days composers expected to perform their own works and sometimes
out of sheer lack of time they wouldn't write everything down on paper, they'd
just put a thing down to remind themselves that here they were going to do
something rather special.
How did they view their improvising? Would they view it as improvisa-
tion or as a sort of expediency? Was it a skill they might have developed? Were
they conscious of it as a special part of their musicianship?
I don't think they separated it in their own minds at all. It was all part of
the performance. If you have a continuo instrument, such as the harpsichord,
its function is not merely to fill out the harmony and keep things together, it's
much more than that. The continuo player was often the, as it were, conductor
for the group. He had to provide a rhythmic spur to the other people. It was a
way of integrating all that was going on. The composer wrote simply a bass
line, the harmonies were either implicit or he put it down in shorthand by
means of the figures, and the keyboard player constructed a part which made
musical sense. And this I think is where many people get the wrong impression
altogether of continuo playing. It was neither a part to show off how clever
you were as a keyboard player, nor simply a dreary series of chords, but it was
part of the ensemble, it had to fit in with the general style - with the texture,
and act as a stimulus to the other people in the group, It is a two-way thing.
The violinists, and the other string players in the group, spurred the
harpsichordist on to invent something and vice versa ... the harpsichordist
might then think of something first and they would follow him.
• ••
In the history of Western European music the baroque period finds its origins
in the 16th century and continues, in some form or other, well into the 18th. It
was a period remarkable for new developments and innovations. Baroque in
its own time was an evolving music, in some ways experimental, the new music
of that time.
In all styles of baroque, whatever period, whatever country, improvisa-
tion was always present, integrated into both the melodic and harmonic fabric
of the music. To decorate, to supplement, to vary, to embellish, to improve, as
it was often called, was an accepted part of being a performing musician, He
would have at his fingertips many standard embell ishments and graces,
frequently abbreviated when written, or represented by signs, and he would be
expected to interpret them with a certain freedom. Couperin: 'What we write is
different from what we play.' In many types of performance one of the
21
standard structures used - ABA - always contained one section, the
recapitulation of the first section after the contrasting middle section, in which
the performer was expected to make the greatest contribution. Singers and
violinists were judged on their ability to provide bravura technical displays; the
fioratura - the heavily decorated phrase or passage _ was a feature of any
musician's performance. This improvisation was to be found in the essentially
melodic side of the music but it was in the realisation of the figured bass - the
basso continuo or thorough-bass - that improvisation found its greatest
expression and its main opportunities.
Every study of baroque music stresses the importance of the thorough-
bass. The years between 1600 and 1750 have been called 'the era of the
thorough-bass'. Although capable of great complexity and sophistication,
thorough-bass was essentially the transforming of a single note bass harmony
into a fuJI and complete accompaniment. J.D.Heinichen wrote in 1728: ' And
what actually is the playing of a thorough-bass other than to improvise upon a
given bass, the remaining parts of a full harmony?' Of the many books
published concerning the realisation of the thorough-bass accompaniment, the
first really comprehensive one was Der General-Bass in der Komposition from
which the above quotation was taken. Written by Johann David Heinichen
and published in 1711, a later version, re-written and greatly extended, was
published at his own expense in 1728. It is this later edition, running to 960
pages, excluding preface and index, which must be considered as the greatest
source book of the period.
His lifespan, 1683 to 1729, covered the high point of the late baroque
period. During this time German culture was experiencing the impact of Italian
artists in all spheres but particularly in connection with the rise of opera. These
were the years in which German music achieved a synthesis of many conflicting
national trends, and Heinichen was throughout his career in contact with
many of the important musical events of that era, working and studying in
three of the great centres of baroque: Leipzig, Venice and Dresden. As an active
practitioner, composer and performer, completely involved in the music of the
time, Heinichen was probably the ideal man to write on what was essentially a
performance music.
The practice of thorough-bass could vary widely - there being distinc-
tions in accompaniment for sacred, operatic, chamber and orchestral styles as
well as regional and the main national- Italian and French - variations. The
harmony, however, was always indicated by a combination of bass note,
numbers and accidentals, a code from which the player would develop his
accompaniment. (It is a system with many present day parallels, usually found
whenever the emphasis is on practical music-making.)
22
It was the practice during this period to construct and organise chords on
an actual, not a theoretical bass, the construction relating to and deriving from
the lowest note, not to a theoretical root. In post-baroque period writings2
references to inversions are found, for example a 2/4/6 construction on a sub-
dominant might be referred to as the third inversion of the dominant 7th, but
this would never be considered as such by the performer of the time. It would
be considered only as a chord constructed on the sub-dominant. Probably this
led to some of the subsequent confusion and haggling over doubling. At any
event it was normal practice to double up to 4, 5 or 6 parts, and liberties taken
with voice leading, inconsistencies in the number of parts, unconventional
doubling in chords - all the freedoms taken with harmonic and contrapuntal
practices that might repel an unimaginative theorist but might be essential to
an improvisor looking for an interesting accompaniment - were certainly
common practice. There were many rules available to the player but with
stylistic consistency as his main aim it is likely that his observation of them
would be largely pragmati c.
From this information then the accompanist would fashion his part,
deciding the general harmonic sound and density by his chord voicing. But the
continuo was not to be just a succession of chords. Heinichen again: 'The art of
the embellished thorough-bass, however, really consists of not always simply
playing chords but of using an ornament here and there in all parts
(particularly in the outermost part of the right hand, which usually stands out)
and thereby giving more elegance to the accompaniment which can be applied
with ease in four parts and, upon occasion, in five and six-part accompani-
ments.' Because he believes that embellishments depend less on rules than on
practice and judgement and that they will, anyway, vary according to each
performer's experience and taste, Heinichen is quite cautious and undogmatic
in his advice. He divides embellishments into two groups, the first of which
consists of those embellishments with a single, unchanging execution, a set
device added to the accompaniment atthe performer's discretion. He lists them
as : the trill, transitus (passing notes), Vorschlag (appoggiatura), Schleiffung
(slide), mordent and acciaccatura. He adds, ' ornaments are numberless',
referring to the infinite variety of French Agrements and the (possibly even
more prolific) Italian embellishments which were never, sensibly enough, fully
codified or documented. These, Heinichen advi ses, ' we must leave to the visual
2 In the late and posI baroque period a tormalised, theorebcal f r a ~ 01 rules was gradualy mposoo on the musiC. TNs, I mortal
~ 10 Iny ~ music. manifested itself partly in a IIood 01 textbooks on OOCOralion. Convnenting on these. FeJl nd writes:
... /they) point to a certain waning oIlhe impulse to I ~ ~ a truly ereabYe an 01 ornamentation stimulated by the inspiration oItha
moment is replaced by the rationalistic mechanising trend toward!; the convenient employment 01 diminution IoImuIas $I,Ipplied
" relCl)l made".' There is an unmiSlakabie pariliel between the siluation described by FeJa nd a nd the condition 01 jazz in re¢ent years
W'hefe. I S development comes to a staodslill and the role klf Invention diminishes, the numberot college COtJrses. summer schools
and text books devoted to it grows.
23
demonstration of a teacher or to the individual industry and experience of the
student'. Heinichen's second group of embellishments include melody,
passaggi (scalar patterns), arpeggios and imitation. These are all standard
devices used in any harmony-based improvisation but in current baroque
practice the arpeggio would appear to overshadow all the other embellish-
ments of this second group and in its most common form is a full-voiced chord
broken from the lowest note of the left hand to the highest of the right. Or
again, quite commonly, a simple arpeggio in the left hand combining with an
unbroken chord in the right hand. There is no evidence that much attention is
now paid to Heinichen's advice to ' seek to learn from fine performers the many
other ways of breaking chords'. The other ornaments in Heinichen's second
list seem hardly to have survived at all. Certainly, melody improvisation, or the
improvisation of a separate part, is rarely found now and if attempted is likely
to be heavily disapproved of. A nice example of the change in attitude towards
this practice is found in Mr.j.Westrup's Musical Interpretation published in
1971. He tells how J.S.Bach 'would, on occasion, accompany a trio in such a
way that by adding a new melodic part he converted it into a quartet', then,
realising the seditiousness of such an idea, adds, 'there is no need to suppose
that we should take this as a criterion for accompanying Bach's own music or
any other music of the same period'.
Melody improvisation, or the improvisation of a completely separate
part, in accompaniment as opposed to solo playing, was always somewhat
controversial. But that it was widely practised seems to be undeniable and is
born out by the constant references to it by contemporary writers such as
J.E.Daube, C.P.E.Bach, F.Gasparini, J.Matheson
3
, and, of course, Heinichen,
all of whom while bemoaning its prevalence, offer instruction in it and
certainly don't suggest that it should be abolished. Post-baroque period
authorities (including F.T.Arnold, whose The Art of Accompaniment from a
Thorough-Bass (1931) is considered the most exhaustive account of thorough-
bass playing) treat melody improvisation as an unnecessary evil. But it is plain
that the theoretician has always seen it as part of his duty to keep a stern eye on
the activities of the executanr4 and, as far as possible, limit the damage he can
do. As Mr Westrup says: 'The enjoyment of performers can hardly be accepted
as an aesthetic criterion.'
And so we arrive at the 20th century view of things. But before turning to
the current practice of baroque I would like to take a final quotation from
3 In addition \0 his KIeIoo G6neral..ssss SchuIe (1735) . whidl o t t ~ comprehensrve instruction in the art of accompanying from the
IIrst rudi menlS 10 lhe ITlO5I complex figures. J.Matheson wroIe IWO books on the ar1 of e)(!emporislog solo pieces'rom giv1:tn basses.
4 Hermann Finck. writing abouI4·part vocal improvisation in 1556. warns his readers that ·No doubt a sharp-eyed one can be 'ound
who will search anxlol.lsly through everything and dissect it ative \0 see if he can deled anything .. . 10 which he feels he mUSI 00jecI.'
24
J.D.Heinichen. Discussing the prevalence of controversy and argument,
particularly between young and old in his time, he writes: 'The old musicians
side more with reason, but the new with the Ear; and since both parties do not
agree on the first fundamental, it is evident that the conclusions and
consequences made from two contrary fundamental principles should breed
just as many controversies of inferior rank and thousands of diametrically
opposed hypotheses. Musicians of the past, we know, chose two judges in
music: Reason and the Ear. The choice would be correct since both are
indispensable to music; yet, because of the use of these two concomitants, the
present cannot reconcile itself with the past, and in this the past is guilty of two
errors. First, it wrongly classed the two judges and placed the Ear, the
sovereign of music, below the rank of Reason or would divide its commanding
authority with the latter. Whereupon the blameless Ear must immediately cede
half of its monarchical domain. In addition, unfortunately, the composers of
the past poorly explained the word ratio. In those innocent times (in which one
knew nothing of present-day good taste and brilliance in music, and every
simple harmony seemed beautiful ) they thought Reason could be put to no
better use than the creation of supposedly learned and speculative artificialities
of note writing ... Thus, one no longer had cause to ask if the music sounded
well or pleased the listener, but rather if it looked good on paper. In this way,
the Visual imperceptibly gained the most in music and used the authority of the
imprudent Reason only to cover its own lust for power. Consequently, the
suppressed Ear was tyrannized so long until finally it hid behind tables and
chairs to await from the distance the condescending, merciful glance of its
unsurpatores regni (ratio & visus} ... It is ... absurd if one should say along with
pedants: this is outstanding music because it looks so fine (I mean pedantic) on
paper, even though it does not please the eat, for which music is surely made ...
As we must now admit unanimously that our Finis musices is to stir the affects
and to delight the ear, the true Objectum musices. it follows that we must
adapt all our musical rules to the Ear.'
25
BAROQUE
(2)
That the present revival of baroque should produce a music which is
completely different in character from the original is, perhaps, inevitable. The
aims and philosophy of a revival are hardly those of an exploration. William
J.Mitchell, in the introduction to his 1949 translation of C.P.E.Bach's Versuch
uber die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen, complains: 'The extemporaneous
realisation of a figured bass is a dead art. We have left behind us the period of
the basso continuo and with it all the unwritten law, the axioms, the things that
were taken for granted: in a word, the spirit of the time.' Lionel Salter in
explanation:
Well, this is partly because of the conditions of the present day. We've all
become so conditioned by modern recording techniques and by broadcast·
ing ... everybody's afraid to put a foot wrong. You see, these days, if you're
going to have a record which is going to be played many times then a simple
thing which didn't fit terribly well on one occasion wouldn't matter, but on
repeated hearings it's going to ;ar like anything. So, we are all inhibited by
recording into playing something which is set and perfect and therefore the
element of chance - and after all there is always the chance that things won't
come off - has been neglected. And this is totally at variance with the whole
spirit of the baroque.
I'm not at all sure that recording is useful for anything more than
reference. You have to react to the conditions of performance - the actual
circumstances. You play differently in a different hall. The acoustics make a
difference. The instrument makes a tremendous difference. You may be feeling
more - I don't know - you may be feeling more worked up on this occasion -
you feel something brighter is needed. You go into the music in a kind of-
unbuttoned way, and if you play something which doesn't fit absolutely
perfectly, well, it doesn't matter too much. You've really got to be on your
toes, to be alert to do something which occurs to you which may seem a good
idea, and be prepared also to find that it doesn't absolutely work. But it
wouldn't matter because then the thing is alive, it's got some vitality in it.
A serious regression, in the current practice of baroque has been the
appearance of 'authorised versions' for the continuo parr. In many cases now
the performer is presented with a fully written out accompaniment to play. Did
Lionel Salter come across this situation?
26
Oh yes, in some cases they are very good, and, if you haven't the skill in
improvisation, then by all means use them. But, more probably, [ think the
thing is to use this as a guide, as a basis, until you have got to the stage of being
able to improvise your own part. What is necessary is that you have a real
understanding, first of all, of harmony - keyboard harmony. That is the most
important thing of all. Then a sense of style, then a rapport with whoever you
are playing with. Then you will find yourself imitating lines and making
counterpoints against them. You haven't really a model, you know. You can
read all the various authorities on the subject, some more detailed than others,
but the only thing which is common to them all is that they contradict one
another madly. So at the end of it all you are not really very clear as to what
was done. But you have to learn - (or example - to differentiate between
French and Italian style. You have to differentiate among various periods, and
very often these days, with the great popularity of the harpsichord, you get a
great many people who sit down at the histrument and proceed to show off
their skill at continuo, and one hears something which is totally out of keeping
with the genuine style of the music. So that you need, in fact, a fairly strict
knowledge of the period, and then, within that, you need the freedom to do
what you think is fit. But you still get conductors, you know, who don't
understand what a continuo part should be and who are unprepared to let the
performer do anything at all.
There are many things you can do. You can take the melodic outline of the
violin part and imitate it. Sometimes you think that particular phrase will be
useful, sometimes you pick on another one. [t just depends on what you think
at that moment. But it's something which has to be spontaneous. This is the
essential part of it.
In recent years, authenticity in the performance of baroque music has
become a barnyard of debate, at times deeply acrimonious. All kinds of
intriguing notions about the performance, even the purpose, of music have
been raised. Understandably, improvisation is rarely, if ever, mentioned in
these wrangles. If the object of the activity is to reproduce as exactly as possible
some agreed, authenticated example of the music of an earlier time, improvisa-
tion clearly becomes a problem. The one ineradicable difference between then
and now must be the performer's attitude towards style, his way of performing
the music, in effect his authenticity. However assiduously practised, the
adoption of an earlier, preserved, and undevelopable style can, in improvisa-
tion, only be an inhibition unknown to the player of the former time. He, being
the embodiment of the style - being the source of the style - couldn't have that
type of problem. While he would be aware of the regional and national
differences, performing baroque music would be for him his natural way of
27
playing. And not the least part of this would be his assumption that
improvisation was an automatically accepted part of performing music. What
is quite certain is that his main concern was not the preservation, in as
unchanged a state as possible, of a 250- year-old music .
• • •
One of the strengths, one of the unique qualities of improvisation, is that it can,
on occasion, transform a performance into something much better, much
higher, than expected. Whether through the performance of an individual or of
a group, and regardless of material, the music can be elevated by an unexpected
development produced by the improvisation. I tried to discover from Lionel
Salter whether this sort of thing was possible in the present day performance of
baroque. Could the performance ever be remarkable because of a performer's
contribution rather than for the composer's music? His reply reflected, I think,
the general view held in this music.
That would be an absolute artistic crime.
So, whatever the position in earlier times, it seems that improvisation,
when found, now has a strictly defined, controlled role in baroque. A role
which is confined to complementing the fixed, documented part of the
tradition. In effect, in order to preserve what is now the unchanging face of
baroque, improvisation has been deprived of its usual function of being the sap
through which music renews and reinvigorates itself and, if used at all, IS
retained to serve only as a carefully controlled decorative device.
28
ORGAN
(1)
'From writings of the Church fathers and other reports, it is unequivocally
clear that the rites of worship of the early Christians were marked by a religious
ecstasy that manifested itself in unhampered, purely emotional, spontaneous
expression.' From the earliest time onward there is copious documentary
evidence of the extensive part played by improvisation throughout the
development of all church music. In vocal music improvising on all the
intervals and internal combinations appearing in Gregorian chant was
systematically practised by singers and choirboys. Later, instrumentally, there
is evidence that musicians such as the 14th-century blind organist Francesco
Landini became well-known for their improvising abilities.
The ways in which the drive to improvise manifested itself amongst the
early organists and harpsichordists was most clearly observed as:
1) Embellishment (coloration, diminution) of a vocal or instrumental melody
either borrowed or newly invented. (There are instruction manuals in this
particular art dating from the 16th century).
2) The polyphonic treatment of a liturgical or secular cantus firmus by adding
contrapuntal voices, as well as the spinning out of given or newly invented
motifs in imitative style.
3) Free improvisation employing the possibilities inherent in the instrument
for chord playing and passage work which led to the first autonomous
forms of purely instrumental music - preambles, preludes, toccatas and
fantasias.
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries improvisation continued to playa
major part in the development of church organ music, so much so that a
comprehensive historical account of improvisation at this time would need a
number of books (and authors) of its own. Even in the mid and late 19th
century, which otherwise seems to have been a depressing time for European
improvisation, there continued to be many organists who were known as
improvising virtuosi.
1
In the 20th century the main development seems to have
been concert improvisation which has become, particularly in France, a
specialised and highly developed activity.
t 5 .S.Wesley. 181()-'1876. was reputed 10 have anticipated lat8f harmonic developments in his playing. which is no4 a surprising
10 anyone tamHiar the of impo-ovisation.
29
The main reason for the survival and continuous development of
improvisation in organ playing, when throughout the rest of European
classical music improvisation was being neglected or suppressed, is probably
the adaptability and purely practical inventiveness required of any church
organist in his working situation, a situation in which the creation of music is a
necessity. For, although there is an enormous repertoire of music for use in any
form of church service, it is normal practice for the organist to 'provide' music
in many parts of a service. Voluntaries, interludes and postludes are often
improvised. Even in playing written music, the tradition of Pavlovian
exactitude found in orchestral playing is absent and the performer is 'allowed'
considerable freedom. But also the instrument, the organ, in all its many forms
and developments, has probably played a part in encouraging improvisation in
this field. Even now, and in former times the position was much more extreme,
there is no such thing as a typical organ. Every instrument is likely to contain so
many individual characteristics that the first use of it will probably be in some
measure exploratory. Then there is the somewhat indeterminate general
character of the organ: the lack of a single accepted instrumental sound, the
imprecise nature of even the best actions, the infinite vatiations of tone made
possible by chorus and stop combinations; all these features give it a peculiar
appropriateness for improvisation. Faced with such an enormous variety of
instrumental possibilities, choice becomes an essential part of any
performance.
Whatever the reasons for it, extemporisation, which seems to be the
preferred word here, is now a completely accepted and integrated part of the
organist'S musicianship. It has, in fact, received the 'straight' world's ultimate
acceptance and become a formal academic study. What effect this has had on
the practice of improvisation is difficult to say, but it might account for the fact
that this seems to be the only area in which musicians speak about - or even
write about - their improvising in a technical way, although the organists with
whom I discussed improvisation were in no way confined only to that
approach.
Organ improvisation exists mainly in two clearly defined areas: strict-
improvisation within set forms (composition forms); and free - which is
simply improvisation not within set forms. The former is usually found in a
concert situation and free improvisation is usually employed as it is required by
the church organist. One is the formal presentation of improvisation, the other
is its practical application in the church. Strict improvisation is the area with
which the academic world is mainly concerned and it is also the subject of
much of the very extensive literature on organ improvising.
30
Improvisation d [,Orgue, published in 1925 and generally considered as
the definitive work on improvisation, was written by the French organist,
improvisor and composer Marcel Dupre (1886-1971). A student of the
improvisor and teacher Alexandre Guilmant (pupils of Dupre's having a close
interest in improvisation included Joseph Bonnet, Louis Vi erne, Olivier
Messian, Jean Langlais and Nadia Boulanger), Dupre for many years always
concluded his recitals with an improvisation and it is believed that a number of
his compositions ate transcriptions of his improvisations.
Dupre makes it clear that he is offering no simple task. 'Pour etre bon
improvisateur il faut non seulement avoir acquis une technique souple et sure,
mais encore sa voir I'Harmonie, Ie Contrepoint, la Fugue, et n'ignorer ni Ie
Plein-Chant, ni Ie Composition, ni I'Orchestration.' He then sub-divides his
book in the following way:
Chapter 1: Organ technique.
Chapter 2: Harmony.
Chapter 3: The Theme, includes a section on oriental and occidental modes-
rhythm - analysis of theme.
Chapter4: Counterpoint, a number of exercises and analyses of movements in
different forms and Chorale (4 forms), examples from Catholic
hymns and from J.S.Bach.
Chapter 5: Suite, describes and gives examples.
Chapter 6: Fugue, analyses subject and gives description of plan. Gives many
examples of subjects used in Paris Conservatoire examinations
between 1897-1923.
Chapter 7: Variations, description of different types and styles found 10
composition.
Chapter 8: Symphonic form, description of construction and examples.
These chapters describing set form constitute 95% of the book and deal with
composi tional technique, general musicianship, explain the framework within
which improvisation must work and give some account of materials which can
be used. Any element which is essentially to do with improvisation does not
appear. There is one remaining, very brief, chapter on free improvisation
(formes libres) and an appendix which discusses where improvisation is used in
the different Catholic Offices.
A clearer indication of the nature of improvisation might sometimes be
found in discussions of what is referred to as 'free' improvisation. This is
mixed in somewhere with the generalised advice, the 'practical hints'
SectIon, which is often a feature of organ instruction books. In fact there is a
of organ literature which is exclusively devoted to offering this sort of
adVIce. These books, comaining tips and practical hints, seem very often to
31
date from the period 1910-1940 and are usually written by a working church
organist for the edification and assistance of his peers and they often contain
really useful advice for any kind of improvisor. Concerned exclusively with
practical matters, problems organists might meet in their working situation,
they contain the fruits of a great deal of improvising experience. In books such
as Playing the Organ, The Country Organist and Choirmaster, Church Organ
Accompaniment, Organ Playing and The Complete Organist, it is usually
possible to find something useful about the practical aspects of improvising.
And there are books wholly concerned with that side of the subject -
H.Schouten in his Improvisation on the Organ, referring to the formal settings
for improvisation which arc normally studied, says: 'This, however, is not the
last word about improvisation, for all church organists are confronted by
improvisation problems Sunday after Sunday. The average church organist
does not need to improvise fugues and passacaglias, rondos and scherzos ...
Every church organist, however, must be able to elaborate on a musical phrase
taken from the liturgy in a simple, cohesive and responsible way.' (Schouten's
book is actually very thorough and is divided into sections which cover
harmonic improvisation, polyphonic improvisation and improvising poly-
phonic chorale preludes. He modestly stresses that his book should be
regarded purely as an introduction to the art of improvisation, something
which is worth emphasising about any book on the subject.)
Not quite in the category of the pocket-sized hints book is The Art of
Improvisation by T.Car! Whitmer, published in 1934. This is more com-
prehensive, with quite an extensive technical section. But what is most
remarkable about this book is its lack of defensiveness. Unusually for this area,
Whitmer doesn't find it necessary to apologise for improvisation and looks
upon it not only as a necessary expedient but also as a preferred activity. And
there is no mention at all of 'instant composition' . However, he does take the
student through all the usual manipulative devices, but his method is very
compact and, usefully, he employs the same two bar phrase for every treatment
throughout the book. This idea, of practising improvisation on a single limited
idea, is often very effective.
Whitmer says: 'In general there are two ways to improvise. The first is by
expansion and the other is by use of a set form.' On improvising on a set form,
he says: 'It is not necessary to remember all details but it is necessary to recall
plan and method and general character. Whenever in doubt use some set form,
but experiment with expansion until you get this one thought deep down, "In
expansion the form is generated. It makes itself'.'
The following are a few typically vigorous pieces of advice from
Whitmer's ' General Basic Principles':
32
' Don't look forward to a fini shed and complete entity. The idea must
always be kept in a state of flux.'
' An error may be only an unintentional rightness.'
'Do not get too fussy about how every part of the thing sounds. Go ahead.
All processes are at first awkward and clumsy and "funny".'
' Polishing is not at all the important thing; instead strive for a rough go-
ahead energy.'
' Do not be afraid of being wrong; just be afraid of being uninteresting.'
He also has something to say about the usefulness of sheer imitation -
following a model- and also its dangers. 'When it comes to the point of the
pupil apeing his teacher the adult is in greater peril than the child. Children are
naturally insurgent and when they have once acquired a measure of assurance
they will fight for their own ideas as few adults care to do.'
Whitmer's enthusiasm for the uniqueness and special musical character of
improvisation is, however, fairly untypical. It is much more common to find
improvisation recommended only as a useful adjunct to the organist's
musicianship. As regards its musical worth, the usual view is that it can, at its
highest, be compared to composition.
2
• • •
Stephen Hicks, through his studies with Nadia Boulanger and with Andre
Marchal, has close connections with the French school of organ improvisation.
Presentl y organist of Weybridge Parish church, he is an authority on early
French music and has undertaken a great deal of research into English
ornamentation. I asked him about prizes for improvisation, something which
is peculiar to the organ world.
Yes. In France a prize for improvisation is every bit as valuable as a prize
for interpretation. The course at the conservatoire, I think, is based on
improvisation. Interpretation is considered almost less important. Although I
think it is a bad idea to think of interpretation and improvisation as different
things because interpretation has to have an element of improvisation as well.
Improvisation can be a great communicating link and if that link isn't there in
the interpretation then I think you lose something.
What is the criteria for awarding prizes ? What is looked for?
2 This view of i mprovlsallon as aspiring to be mistaken for oomposibon is present throughout European dasslcal muslc·s relationship
With improvisation. It is expressed by Weber alief hearing Hummel improvise: ·He used. with masterly control. figures ol all kinds in a
supremely logical way in innumerable positions. One could not be more pure and exact in a notated work Ihan he was on this
occasion.· The catalogue of well-known improvisors In this music usually goes ·Bach, Beethoven. Vogler. Mozart . Paganini. Chopin.
Liszt, Woo. Frank. etcetefa· - all composers. A little closer to Whitmer·s Vi ew is that of J.S.Pelri who. writing In 1782. daims that the
Improvised fantasy is ·the highest degree of composition - where meditation and execution are directly bound up with one another·.
33
Absolute control of technique. And I don't mean physical technique, I
mean musical technique. If you like, the same sort of technique as you need fOT
composition. And then after that, I think, imagination.
Are you asked to improvise in particular styles, particular periods?
Not normally. But you can do, of course. If there's a fugue you wouldn't
normally do a fugue in a modern idiom. But, usually, there is a free
improvisation as well which takes either the form of an improvised symphony
- variations - sometimes they iust say 'Prelude and fugue'.3
How would you define the difference berween 'frec' and 'strict' in organ
improvisation ?
Strict improvisation is normally on a theme and it's in a set pattern. Like
the plain chant themes of earlier times. You either do a fugue. a canon, 4 or 5
part counterpoint - like the old masters. The style would depend on the
material used. In practice, that is in services, this is not always suitable for
modern improvisation. Free improvisation is left entirely to the player and
should be modern or at least 20th Century in style. It does not necessarily have
to be on a theme.
If you didn't choose a theme where would your material come from?
From imagination entirely.
What do you think makes a good imptovisation?
My own reaction to improvisation is not only one of self-expression but
of the necessity to fill a need in the course of the liturgy. It is important to be
able to improvise in any style in order to be able to play suitably at every
occasion. One cannot stress too much the importance of total mastery of the
old disciplines of harmony, counterpoint, all types of canon and fugue. Too
many improvisations fail because of a lack of polyphonic thinking in the
player's musical and technical armour. This leads to an inability to cope with
larger canvases even when they are largely harmonic in style.
I think liturgical improvisation depends entirely on atmosphere. That's
the main point of improvising. to give an atmosphere at a particular time of
service. To give a sense of communion with something, you see. Concert
improvisation - I think that requires a certain showmanship, as well.
Concert improvisation for the organist is a somewhat specialist field.
Here the musician demonstrates in public his ability to play extempore in all
the basic composition forms and structures. He takes a theme - sometimes
proposed by a member of the audience - and presents it in a succession of
3 Testing the skill 01 church organists in this way na5 II long hostory. The 'regolameolO' in Iorce even before 1540 al St.Mark's In
Venice required the lIpplic::anllirst to playa fantasy on a gIVen theme from a Kyrie Of a motet in strict 4-part senlng. Alter whid'l he was
expected to lead a canlus firroos 'rom the choir·book fugatty through alt four parts and finally to imitate and answer in II modulation a
VllfSll from an unfamitiar tompasilion sung by the chorus.
34
musical guises; - minuet, scherzo, march, waltz, rondo, sonata form, canon,
fugue, basso ostinato, passacaglia. It seems to be common practice to have a
certain amount of preparation before the performance - something to be
found in all types of improvising, I think. Whitmer's advice on concert
improvisation is: 'After all preparations are complete, go to it without any
hesitancy, knowing that not more than one in the audience can do it any
better:
I asked Stephen Hicks if he thought in terms of success or failure in his
improvisation.
Occasionally you play and you think - yes, that was quite good - but
most of the time .. .! think an improvisation should be played and then
forgotten.
It's appropriate or not and that's it?
It's either good or bad but if you listen to an improvisation over and over
again it just gets worse. You hear more fifths, more octaves, more things you
would never want to do again.
But it's of the nature of improvisation, I would have thought, that you
don't listen to it over and over again. Without recording you couldn't, could
you?
No, you couldn't, and I don't think you should. It's something that
should be heard, en;oyed or otherwise, and then completely forgotten.
It may be that opponents and supporters of improvisation are defined by
their attitude towards the fact that improvisation embraces, even celebrates,
music's essentially ephemeral nature. For many of the people involved in it, one
of the enduring attractions of improvisation is its momentary existence: the
absence of a residual document_
35
ORGAN
(2)
In any discussion of presenr·day organ improvisation it quickly becomes
apparent that the centre of that particular world is Paris. Stephen Hicks
repeatedly referred to his studies there and to the many outstanding
improvisors he had heard in Paris. Consequently I went there, listened to some
of the music, and spoke to Jean Langlais, who was part of the Paris school of
improvising organists for almost 50 years. A pupil of Marcel Dupre, he was the
organist at St. Clothilde, the most recent of a long line of brilliant musicians to
occupy that position, a succession which includes Charles Tournemire, Gi lbert
Pi erne, and Cesar Franck, all of them known as outstanding improvisors. I
asked him about some of the earlier improvisors he had known, those who had
established Paris as the centre for organ improvisation.
Widor was not a very fine improvisor. A great composer, a great organist,
but I must confess his improvisation was very boring. There was Guilmant and
there was Vierne. Vierne was a fantastic improvisor. And Tourntimire.
Tournemire was a really great improvisor. I heard him one day in St.Germain
des Pres. He improvised for 45 minutes without any interruption and it was
magnificent all the time. I also heard him once at Vespers where for the
Magnificat he improvised alternate verses with the choir - the choir sang one
verse - he improvised the second - the choir sang the third and Tournemire the
fourth. The regular Magnificat is not too long, you know. If you sing
everything it will last perhaps two minutes maximum but with Tournemire's
improvisations it lasted twenty-four to twenty-five minutes.
In a long improvisation would it take place on a series of set forms or
would it be free improvisation?
I don't think there is such a thing as free improvisation because for
improvising it is necessary to know hannony, counterpoint and fugue plus
improvisation. But Tournemire improvised everything; the fonn and the
music, and that is very difficult. Dupre, for instance, improvised a lot of
symphonies all over the world. And I too have played two hundred and
seventy four recitals in the United States and in that time I did many
symphonies, sonatas in five movements. But that is like an exercise one has
practised for years. It is improvisation but using many things that one has
practised for many years. The most important thing for an improvisor is to be
able to think quickly. Fast.
36
It's common to find improvisation described as a type of instant
composition, bur are they not completely different types of activity producing
completely different results?
Yes, an example of that is the difference between Tournemire's
improvisation and his composition. And the same for Dupre. When Dupre
composed he wrote music that was, I should say, modem. And when he
improvised he was not so modern. He was a little bit classical. They were quite
different. And you know, for me, right now, the greatest musician for the
organ is Olivier Messiaen. He is a very good friend of mine for many years. We
were together in Marcel Dupre's class and he did many things for me when I
studied orchestration with Paul Dukas. Because I did not have the scores in
Braille, Messiaen read the scores for me for many many years. If you are
familiar with Messiaen's work and then go to the Trinite and listen to his
improvisations you will not recognise him as the same musician. Very
different. And sometimes, but this does not apply to Messiaen, sometimes the
improvisor is more interesting than the composer.
Why has improvisation remained with organ playing even when in other
parts of European classical music it more or less disappeared?
Because in churches we are obliged to improvise all the time. If a priest is
very slow, we are obliged to adapt to that. If the priest is very fast we also have
to adapt. We cannot playa Bach prelude, say. So we improvise everything. I
don't think it is possible to bean organist if you are not also an improvisor. But
people are also very interested in concert improvisation. Particularly the
people who submit themes. I think composers are very interested to submit a
theme and see what happens to it .
Because M.Langlais is blind I wondered exactly how he received a theme
from a member of the audience.
I have two possibilities. The theme might be played by whoever submits
it. Or someone dictates the theme and 1 write it down in Braille. And
sometimes my son is with me and he plays the theme before I improvise. For
example, I have played several times in the Royal Festival Hall in London and
on one occasion a theme was submitted by Benjamin Britten. They gave the
envelope containing the theme to my son, he opened the envelope and he
played the theme, and then I started. That is really an improvisation. The
theme was very good. It was in C minor, I remember.
I referred to a popular misconception about improvisation: that it is a
totally instantaneous event completely lacking in forethought or preparation.
Earlier I mentioned that Messiaen studied in Marcel Dupre's class at the
same time as I did. Well, the day he won the first prize in the competition he
improvised a splendid fugue. But he practised two years for that. And he was
37
Messiaen. And we have only one Messiaen. We have a technique for practising
improvisation like we have a technique for practising scales and arpeggios.
The first thing you have to practise is to be able to reproduce on the organ what
you are thinking. And any exercise for improvisation should allow less and less
time for its performance so that the improvisor is obliged to think faster and
faster. One exercise that is useful is to playa series of chords and improvise
with each voice separately. But to improvise takes a very long time. Two weeks
ago 1 was in Sweden and in between the concerts [ gave classes. And 1 met a
very gifted man, both for the organ and for improvisation. He was the winner
of a competition in Haarlem. He said to me '[ would like to improvise
something for you'. I gave him three themes. And he did something really free.
I then realised that he was very gifted but that his background was not
developed sufficiently. Then I said 'this is a very brief theme, do a trio with
that'. And he was unable to do a trio. Well, now he has decided to come to
Paris to study improvisation with me. He realised he was not informed about
everything. And he was a prize winner. Improvisation can be very compli-
cated. Those people who say 'I can improvise easily' - they are amateurs.
Do you think there are many different approaches to improvisation?
Of course, but I repeat, the most important thing for improvisation is to
be able to think very quickly. And theoretically, a great improvisor must be
able to improvise everything. Dupre said to us 'If you can improvise a trio, a
classical trio, you are able to improvise a symphony'. And he was right.
Why do some musicians not improvise?
I don't know. Probably they are not interested or they do not have the
background or they have no necessity for it . But modern composers say now '[
cannot say how long my work is. It depends on how long the orchestra
improvises'. That is ridiculous.
Are you interested in any of the recent developments in composition
which have to do with improvisation?
No. I accept everything if it is valuable or if it is a comparable progression
within a system. But if you sit on the manuals - I don't agree.
Do you think there is any musical language that is more appropriate for
improvisation than any other?
No, I don't think so. It depends on the improvisor. You know, that
reminds me of a story. Vincent D'Indy was asked if he had any idea what the
musical future was to be. D'Indy answered: 'The future will be what a genius
decides it will be.' Improvisation is like that.
38
PART THREE
ROCK
Many rock instrumentalists and singers who have very little concern for the
skills of instrumental improvisation nevertheless employ what could be called
an improvising principle. Their material, although it might change very little,
has to be at least flexible and capable of immediate adjustment. A performance
is never entirely fixed and must be sensitive to unique performing factors.
There is no abstract ideal, no scripted external yardstick, which stands above
the performance and against which any performance has to be measured.
Where anything is written down it serves not as a perfect expression of the
music to be played but as a starting point, a guide. 'It doesn't matter who wrote
it as long the right person is playing it.' However, as a clearly defined
instrumental force which might affect the course of the music or in which a
player might find his expression, improvisation wasn't much in evidence in
rock until around 1967/68. I asked Steve Howe, the guitarist with the group
Yes, who provided the above quote, about this.
Yeah, the '67 period of psychedelic music brought it all in. All the young
guitarists and other musicians as well felt that they could play on these planes-
play long improvised solos. I was doittg it myself and so were a lot of other
guitarists and keyboard players. For some reason that particular period, and
the feeling that was going on between the people everyone was working with,
was very much that one could have a song - and improvisation was really to
expand the whole idea of what a song had been up to then in a single way. It all
ties up with the expansion of the selling commodity - the change from the
single to the album. As soon as there was some more space there was time to be
more loose and to play. I think there were more people just trying to get out of
the rut of playing a song that repeated its first strain and then its middle eight
and then the first eight again, you know. I think a lot of things were understood
better after that time. I felt like that, I let loose for about a year. You have to be
very, very good to make it work. The music did widen out a lot at that time.
Because there was the country influence coming back; jazz affected it, which
is one o( the most important aspects (or me; and there was the Indian music
thing. All of a sudden it seemed to be all there at once. It was becoming a much
warmer thing where people could improvise much more freely.
The derivation of almost all improvisation in rock is the blues. The main
model for a rock musician is usually to be found amongst the black American
39
blues players. What little improvising there is oursideof this influence is usually
of an experimental nature deriving mainly from electronic music.
People have thought of the guitar for years in a blues vein and Hendrix
did coordinate the blues and modern rock, you know, but in addition to that
sort of thing and the experimental things there is a third role which I've wanted
to fill most of all. I've always wanted to be a total middle guitarist in rock,
doing the fundamental rock thing as well as forming some more modern
cliches. But I don't think everybody fits into these categories. Once you come
down to it there are many missing links between the actual and the labelling in
any kind of music. Improvisation really moves when it's a top rate somebody
who sets some kind of standard and has a style. And I think people search for
this in their improvisation.
What makes one improvisation better than another?
Basically a certain feeling of clearness of thinking about what I am doing.
Very often I can accept virtually any improvisation I do. I've done things at
home, just improvised once and said 'That's fine'. Other times I've got
involved in it and reached for something a bit more completely free of cliches
in phrasing, you know. Not necessarily notes, but more in phrasing - I keep
using the words accurate and exact - clarity of phrasing. This thing really
excites me- that's what I will accept ... It's got the notes well pushed out -each
note having a value for itself I think that's a thing people, most people, strive
for. Some positiveness about it. I can meander endlessly and if I'm making a
recording I think I know what I'm after. I'm after grasping something. There's
a little bit more than I think I am capable 0(, you know, and i(T can get it then
I' m happy. I try and set a standard. In fact, I think this applies to groups; that
there is a standard in improvisation which until you've reached that you can't
possibly play well- not really united. Once you've really played well together
on an improvised section I think that raises the whole standard of the tour.
You mentioned earlier how you improvise into a cassette recorder and
listen back {O it and how that was part of your composing method.
I do exactly that. What I usually try and do is mix the idea of writing
music and improvising together, if you like. So, if I am working on any kind of
music I might play that and then wander off into something - something else
off the top of my head. And if I really like it I usually try mId use it because I feel
that if something came like that - well, l like things that come easy.
Improvising does come reasonably easy. I virtually always improvised, even
my earliest kind of work when I used to play in pubs, when l was 14 or 15,
before I left school. I used to improvise ill one way or another. I'd be interested
now to hear what l played.
40
One of the things about improvising: it's very hard to ;udge it until after
you've gone through a period of a few years. I tend to look back on things that
I've played as things that used to do something to me and think 'Well, you had
that a few years ago, but does it still get me off?' In the same way I try to watch
my progress, judging it by the improvisation quite often.
Have you ever tried actually reproducing an improvisation of your own
from a cassette made earlier? Something you like, so you try and run it off
again?
I had to do it with an album. When we'd finished I rushed home and
learnt two or three of the guitar breaks.
When you are playing them later what's the difference between the first
time you played them and reproducing them?
It's never quite as magical. But then again it turns into a piece of music, a
tune. It's now a melody. It changes from the idea of being an improvisation to
playing a melody.
We discussed a section of the Yes album Topography of the Ocemrs which
featured a guitar improvisation and I asked Steve Howe if he had recorded it in
one take, or whether, in fact, he had recorded a series of improvisations and
selected his preferred one for the record.
I think over a few days I had quite a few goes at it. Normally I do a few
takes and have a listen to them and then, hopefully, I know the direction. I
wanted a slightly melancholy beginning, building up to a lavish kind of finish,
which is only ended by the group stating seven beats - it's our seventh album
and lots of things happen in sevens, and that particular side starts with seven
beats. I think the sensation 1 was trying to get was that the guitar was behind
the group. It was trying to catch up with the group. The group kept moving to
another chord and the guitarist is just reaching - yes! he got it. Then they
climbed again and it climbed again. I used every fret on the guitar on this one, I
think.
When you start to playoff the top of your head, that's when the truth is
really known about people. I think that is why there is a certain amount of
caution in talking about it. Somebody said that if you try to look at inspiration
too closely it disappears. Well, it's like that. Untangible.
• ••
Nothing reflects change more speedily than popular music, and the cultural
climate in which the improvising rock instrumentalist flourished in the 1960s
and '70s is pretty much extinct. By the 1990s, his skills are likely to have been
superseded by the latest piece of technology. The fact that improvisation,
41
irrepressible as ever, has seeped into many of the uses of that technology is
probably not much compensation to the redundant instrumentalist.
Seemingly untouched by the vagaries of fashion and taste, however, is The
Grateful Dead. For over a quarter of a century they have continued pl aying and
while this is not unique, even in this area, they are the only rock band whose
performances are based on the idea of improvisation and, unusual in any area,
whose reputation is based on the expectation of change.
The following is drawn from conversations I had with Jerry Garcia in
1990. He is, for many people, the improvising rock guitar player. I asked him
what he thought about discussing these things, the unsuitability of the
language normally used in discussing music.
It's not an appropriate language because most people don't speak it and it
only talks about proportions and so forth. It doesn't really say much about
emotional content, for example, or character or any number of other things.
You've talked about chaos obscuring other kinds of organisation.
It 's a matter of how many levels you can apprehend. I don't think there's
really much limit to layers of visual information but with sound there are
diminishing returns. It has to get up to where it's almost totally blanket noise
before you can hear a lot. In The Grateful Dead when when we're playing very
open with no structure, sometimes the sound level can speed a sensory
overload of a kind which starts to become a physical experience rather than a
musical one and that also has a certain kind of value. What's interesting to me
is the accidental, the chaotic. You know, the stuff that you can't control or you
can't predict.
There's another side to that isn't there, which it seems to me you're
interested in. Magic ...
This is part of the tradition of music, where music comes from. A magic of
one sort or another. For us, for The Grateful Dead, that has been part of
what's kept us going all this time. It's sort of stumbling into this area where
there's a lot of energy and a lot of something happening and not a lot of
control. So that the sense of individual control disappears and you are working
at another another level entirely. Sometimes this feels to me as though you
don't have to really think about what's happening. Things just flow. It's kind
of hard to report on but it's a real thing. I mean we've checked it out with each
other and after twenty-five years of exploring some of these outer limits of
musical weirdness this is stuff that we preUy much understand intuitively but
we don't have language to talk about it. But it's reported back to us by people
in the audience too so this is one of those things where we're sort of collecting
data without really knowing quite where it's leading or what it's about but we
feel a certain custodian relationship to it. It 's not something that we're creating
42
exactly, in a way it's creating us. Musically speaking we're not really making
decisions about it and we certainly don't discuss it. It's something that breaks
out every now and again. We can't make it happen either. It defies analysis but
it's certainly something to wonder about.
You've had this almost unique experience in that because of your
neurological illness and your subsequent recovery you've had to learn to play
the guitar twice and I wondered just what that meant from an improvisation
point of view.
It was as though my whole experience as a player were Some fragile
crystal chandelier or something and somebody took a hammer and smashed it.
Something like that. So there are fragments all over the place. The thing of re-
learning the neuro pathways, regrouping the neuro pathways, so that 'this'
means a finger moves, and 'that' means another finger moves, that whole
biological language, was in there somewhere and a certain amount of it my
muscles remembered, even if I didn't . So I could play say a B flat major seventh
without knowing that that was what it was. Having the concept over here and
the facility over there and bringing the two of them together, that's what it was
like. I was aware of both sides but it was a matter of bringing them together
seamlessly. In a way, it made it so that everything was fresh again. So all of a
sudden the Blues was great you know and the simplest structures, the simplest
tunes, it just made it all really great. It's like hearing everything with a fresh
ear. I mean the nice thing about having Alzheimers Disease is that you only
need to know one ;oke and it's funny every time you hear it. You forget what
the punch line was. Music, everything, became fresh to me again and it
enthuses your playing. So I think now I'm probably playing better than I used
to play. That thing of having to shift in point of view, I think, is very valuable.
43
AUDIENCE
The relationship between any music which is improvised and its audience is of
a very special nature. Improvisation's responsiveness to its environment puts
the performance in a position to be directly influenced by the audience.
Invoking professionalism - the ability to provide at least a standard
performance whatever the circumstances - usually has a deleterious effect on
improvisation, causing it to be confined to the more predictable aspects of
idiom or vocabulary. Therefore, the effect of the audience's approval or
disapproval is immediate and, because its effect is on the creator at the time of
making the music, its influence is not only on the performance but also on the
forming and choice of the stuff used. From the excesses of the improvised
cadenza in the 19th century to the more bizarre parts of Norman Granz's Jazz
at the Philharmonic in the 1950s, the dangers to an improvisor of audience
'appreciation' have been regularly demonstrated. Alain Danielou, writing
about the difficulties for Asian musicians working within the Occidental
entertainment system describes exactly the problem which has also affected
Western performance musics such as flamenco, jazz and, increasingly, 'free'
music. 'When the musicians note a positive reaction from the public, they are
tempted to reproduce the effect which provoked this reaction and conse-
quently one can understand how the rapid deterioration of the music
performed could occur. The musician becomes little by little an actor who
repeats his tricks when he notices that the public reacts favourably. His
concerts change gradually into a music-hall number from which inspiration is
excluded or is transformed into a commercial method.'
And yet, to improvise and not to be responsive to one's surroundings is a
contradiction if not an impossibility. $0 a lot of questions can be asked about
improvising before an audience and apparently answering them is not easy.
Undeniably, the audience for improvisation, good or bad, active or passive,
sympathetic or hostile, has a power that no other audience has. It can affect the
creation of that which is being witnessed. And perhaps because of that
possibility the audience for improvisation has a degree of intimacy with the
music that is not achieved in any other situation.
Steve Howe: I think the audience do contribute an awful lot, but I don't
quite know how to talk about it because it can make me so excited. I've seen
myself on film improvising and been surprised at what I happened to do -
44
wandering around - moving my face - not really conscious of that at the time.
And I start to see a connection between - once you start leading a piece of
music you do start walking out towards the audience. You start kind of
directing yourself at the audience. Well, you get this kind of call, almost.
The improvisation you make at home must be very different to the
improvisation you do in public?
Steve Howe: That's possibly a thing I've thought about most - I consider
what I play at home as being quite unique against what I do on stage. I think
when the audience is there there's a demand for it to be good, and when you're
at home, because there's no demand, it's so laid back that I think you can come
up with some of your best music ... when there is no call.
Ronnie Scott, who gives his views on improvisation in jazz in the next
chapter, had something to say about audiences.
You can't divorce playing this kind of music from the fact that there is an
audience, you can't play it in a vacuum. It's got to be something that
communicates otherwise it doesn't mean very much. I mean, you could sit in
your front room and think you are playing fantastically and if there's no
audience it doesn't mean anything.
And yet you could think you were playing fantastically?
Ronnie Scott: Well- you'd think 'My God, my technique is good today
and I couldn't play that last night' - something like that - but then go out in
front of an audience and play - it's a different thing, I find.
Later in the conversation: I'd just like to go back to one thing: you
wouldn't feel that it would be possible to get a peak performance, if I can put it
that way, without an audience?
Ronnie Scott: There must be someone there, because 1 can't think that it
means very much if you're playing to nobody, I mean even if it's other
musicians in the group you're playing with.
It's nothing to do with the size of an audience, then?
Oh no, I don't think so but it's some kind of communication on that level
which is peculiar to music ...
The views of Ronnie Scott and Steve Howe on this subject contrasted
quite sharply with those expressed by Viram Jasani and Paco Pena.
Viram Jasani: I personally feel that with a lot of Indian musicians it's
actually at the time that they practice that their best creative powers come out,
because they are really free - they're not worried about an audience sitting
there and this is a time when they really let themselves go - a musician
obViously will try to put on his best performance before an audience, but he
feels restricted. He's very careful.
45
Paco Perla had this to say: The audience for flamenco has never been as
wide as it is now and really, it doesn't seem natural.
What doesn't seem natural?
Paco Perla: If you have a large audience. you know, it's somehow -
somehow it doesn't seem to give it a chance to be what it really is. Playing
before an audience is always a compromise.
Among improvisors, Jerry Garcia has a unique relationship with his
audience. Not only is it huge but for The Grateful Dead there are thousands of
people who, sometimes over a period of years, attend their concerts regularly
in order to enjoy the changes in the music. Deadheads, as their fans call
themselves, attend successive concerts and compare- in a magazine published
largely for this purpose - reports of the band's performances, reports which
highlight and discuss the changes and differences between one performance
and another.
I put it to Jerry Garcia: You have a very special audience in that many of
them come to see you over and over again and they don't come to hear what
they've heard before.
Absolutely not.
So perhaps you've got a kind of ideal improvisor's audience?
Well, I think that you have to train the audience, that's all. I think if you
say - what we're doing here is we're inventing this as we go along and you too
are involved in this experience and it's never going to be this way again, this is
it for this particular version - then there's value to that and I think an audience,
our audience, is the proof of that. These are people who will come back to
every performance. If we do ten days somewhere a lot of them will be back
every night and they know that it's gonna be different every night. Another
interesting thing: my perception of what's a good night for us may be totally
different from everybody else's perception. The audience has a great night
listening to us struggle, feeling that we never quite get together. Sometimes we
struggle the whole night without ever feeling like we've agreed on anything
and sometimes the audience loves that. You know for them sometimes that's
the best stuff. So again the reporting is difficult. They're very involved and they
feel in fact as responsible in some ways as we do. They share the responsibility
for the music, which I think is appropriate. I mean they' re there and they're
culpable you know. If not guilty then certainly culpable.
What's the difference when you are playing on your own, when the group
plays without an audience?
... 1 think we're more adventurous publicly. I think we go for it more
before an audience because that's been our structure, that's our place, you
know. The audience expects us to do it, we're comfortable doing it, and so we
46
tend to be more experimental, I think. We don't do our best playing privately,
which is backwards from a lot of musicians. The audience has gotten to be a
homebase for us which allows the freedom to explore, I think.
• • •
So you can take your pick out of these opinions. Ernst Fischer wrote: 'It is
essential to distinguish between music the sale purpose of which is to produce a
uniform and deliberate effect, thus stimulating a collective action of an
intended kind, and music whose meaning is, in itself, expressing feelings, ideas,
sensations, or experiences, and which, far from welding people into a
homogeneous mass with identical reactions, allows free play to individual
subjective associations.'
Which might explain everything; but this is now a pretty unfashionable
view. The conventional wisdom now allows only one audience and it knows no
limits, it is omniscient and it is to be courted by everyone. To play in a manner
which excludes the larger audience or, worse, to prefer to play before a small
audience, is taken as an indication that the music is pretentious, elitist,
'uncommunicative', self-absorbed and probably many other disgusting things
too. So what can an improvisor say about audiences? The propaganda of the
entertainment industry and the strenuous, if futile, efforts of the art world to
compete with it, combine to turn the audience into a body of mystical
omnipotence. And what it seems to demand above all else is lip-service.
Incidentally, the solution offered by the jazz musician Charlie Parker to
the problem of improvising in front of an audience was to turn his back on it, a
position favoured by the church organist. A bit extreme, perhaps, but
speaking, it's doubtful if Parker would have done any better
prostrating himself before it.
47
JAZZ
(1 )
There is no doubt that the single most important contribution to the
revitalisation of improvisation in Western music in the 20th century is jazz. A
unique music with, in its earlier years, boundless vitality, the enormous
musical and sociological importance, the world-wide influence, of jazz is now
largely recognised. But for the Western musician its greatest service was to
revive something almost extinct in Occidental music: it reminded him that
performing music and creating music are not necessarily separate activities and
that, at its best, instrumental improvisation can achieve the highest levels of
musical expression.
It was probably during the 1950s that jazz first gave signs of running out
of steam. By the 1960s it had moved into a series of changes which led Rex
Stewart in 1965 to prophesy: '\n the foreseeable future most of the vitality and
beauty of this U.S. art form will be found only in other countries in an
adulterated form.' The results of these changes, such as free jazz and a sequence
of hyphenated hybrids the most pervasive of which is jazz-rock, are not
considered here. This chapter is concerned with improvisation in 'conven-
tional' jazz. During the jazz revival of the late-1980s, this kind of playing-
essentially formed in the 1940s and '50s - came to be accepted as the standard
way of playing jazz. Perhaps a recognition that the various developments of the
'60s and '70s were 'adulterated forms' which, in jazz terms, lead nowhere and
left no alternative but to go back to the last period which manifested 'vitality
and beauty' and to stick with that.
The easiest way to distinguish between conventional jazz and its offshoots
is to describe the improvisation in conventional jazz as being based on tunes in
time. The simple mechanics are that the improvisation is derived from the
melody, scales and arpeggios associated with a harmonic sequence of a set
length played in regular time. This vehicle is invariably one of the usual
popular song forms or the blues (of the strict 12 bar kind). As the essentials of
improvisation have very little to do with mechanics this type of description, as
usual, gives absolutely no idea of how infinitely sophisticated this process can
be. Some indication of the resourcefulness of this device, if it can be so
described, is that one tune worked in this way might serve an improvisor as a
productive vehicle for years. The repertoire of a jazzman such as Dexter
Gordon or Lee Konitz, for instance, contains probably a fairly small number of
48
different 'songs'. But they will provide an adequate working context, perhaps
for a lifetime. Within these boundaries there is a continuous process of renewal
in which old material is re-shaped and adjusted, sometimes rejected, and new
material introduced. 'If I do an hour show, if I'm extremely fertile, there will be
about fifteen minutes of pure ad-lib. But on an average it's about four or five
minutes. But the fact that I've created it in ad-lib seems to give it a complete
feeling of free form.'
This quote doesn't come from a musician, but from a comedian. Lenny
Bruce often compared his working methods to those of the jazzman and here
he emphasizes the importance of the introduction of new material. It doesn't
only supply fresh stuff to work on, it imbues the whole with a spirit of freedom.
(Paco Pena describes this phenomenon on page 16) It ejects what is no longer
useful and revitalises the remaining material. Although the main concern is
almost always for the maintenance of the identity and quality of the idiom it is
the introduction of some, however little, new material which ensures the health
and guarantees the survival of the whole.
• • •
For years the health of jazz has been a source of seemingly endless debate.
While enthusiasts chant their support from the sidelines, the music itself now
seems capable only of looking backwards. Each successive revival sees a
further mining of its history and a music once rightly described as 'the sound of
surprise' is now chiefly enjoyed as a reminder of yesteryear. The few surviving
originators, musicians once justly renowned for their adventurousness and
musical vision, are now celebrated in an endless round of festivals and
as the guardians of a tradition. Meanwhile, much of the music is
represented by a host of younger players who have also, it seems, taken on the
curatorship of 'rheir' tradition. This takes the form of uncannily accurate
reproductions of the playing styles of an earlier period, archaisms sometimes
reinforced by period dress and manner.
The reason usually offered as to why during the 1980s so many young
players should have wanted to play so much old music - part of a politically
reactionary time, with matching fashions - sounds convincing enough but at
a contributory cause might be that the mechanics of this particular style-
Its somewhat stylistic rigidity, its susceptiblity to formulated method - created
a field day for the educators. Taking the music made by, say, Jack Teagarden or
by Albert Ayler and extracting from it a 'method' is difficult to imagine. On the
other hand, be-bop has obviously been the pedagogue's delight. It has proved
to be one style of improvising which can be easily taught. And taught it is; in
49
colleges, music schools, night classes, prisons; through a constant flow of
tutors, methods and 'how to' books, resulting in perhaps the first standardised,
non·personal approach to teaching improvisation. The mechanics of the style
are everywhere; of the restlessness, the adventurousness, the thirst for change
which was a central characteristic of the jazz of that period there seems to be no
sign at all.
There is a strange parallel between the course of jazz history and the
career of Louis Armstrong, perhaps its greatest exponent. This is a con tempo·
rary account of his early playing: 'Louis Armstrong would improvise on the
same theme for a full half·hour, taking twenty choruses in a row ... His
imagination seemed inexhaustible; for each new chorus he had new ideas more
beautiful than those he had reproduced for the preceding chorus. As he went
on, his improvisations grew hotter, his style became more and more simple-
until at the end there was nothing but the endless repetition of one fragment of
melody - or even a single note insistently sounded and executed with
cataclysmic intonations' (H.Panassie in Hot Jazz). Whatever else might be
said about it, that description is obviously about a quite different sort of
musical experience from the totally formalised, ritual performances of old
favourites with which Louis Armstrong in his later years never failed to
transport his admirers. And it is possible to recognise a corresponding change
in jazz as a whole. With Louis Armstrong, of course, the usual erosions of time,
the wear and tear of a lifetime spent as a travelling musician and the exigencies
of show business on a man who combined, perhaps uniquely, being a supreme
creative artist with being one of the century's outstanding entertainers, are
reasons enough for the change. Whether similar reasons can also account for
some of the enfeeblement which has taken place in jazz, is at least a possibility.
In any event, jazz, whatever the reasons, seems to have changed from an
aggressive, independent, vital, searching music to being a comfortable
reminder of the good old days.
•••
Although its influence has been worldwide, from a playing point of view jazz
has been unshakeably American. Europe, for instance, although virtually
colonised by it, has still produced only Django Reinhardt as a possible
exception to the rule that all great jazz musicians are American. (Of course,
there is also the proposition that all the really significant figures in jazz are
black. As these 'greats' seem to be recruited exclusively from that tiny
proportion of the world's black population which is also American, that
reinforces the point.)
so
In Britain, jazz has been played since the 1920s but, apart from a
scattering of individuals, the local audiences' preference has always been,
naturally enough, for the American variety. So, deprived, by definition, of the
opportunity to compete artistically on equal terms and reduced by limited
employment opportunities to the status of a side-line, British jazz, even at the
best of times, has never shown any aspirations to be anything other than a
deferential second best. Miraculously, in spite of this crippling musical
environment, Britain has managed to produce a handful of very fine players.
Players who in addition to being good jazz players have succeeded in the
difficult task of maintaining a permanently wholehearted commitment to jazz
while working as musicians in Britain.
Ronnie Scott is one of these. As far as I know he might agree with very
little or none at all of the above but I chose to speak to him about improvisation
in conventional jazz because, over many years, he has shown how it is possible,
even for a non· American, to play within the central tradition of jazz and keep
some independence of attitude and style. He has also, as theownerof one of the
world's best known jazz clubs, been in a unique position to hear at the closest
possible range all the greatest jazzmen of the past thirty years. But it was his
own improvisation about which I asked him to talk.
When I started to play I didn't know really that there was such a thing as
improvising. I used to think that the thing was to play the saxophone in a dance
band. The realisation of improvisation grew with learning to play the
instrument and then listening to records of jazz soloists and associating with
other musicians of my own age who were trying to improvise. I think it grows
from there and I think it's never ending, well, at least, I hope it is.
I feel that my own ability to improvise, such as it is, arises from a
c011)bination of experience - one learns what one can play and what one can't
play - and that conjunction of sounds which is pleasing to one's ear, because I
don't have a great hannonic knowledge, by any means. But I'm also convinced
that there are as many attitudes and conceptions of, and manners of,
improvisation, and ways of working towards improvisation, as there are
people. Oscar Peterson for instance. is a very. very polished. technically
immaculate, performer who - I hope he wouldn't mind me saying so - trots
out these fantastic things that he has perfected and it really is a remarkable
perfonnance. Whereas Sonny Rollins, he could go on one night and maybe it's
disappointing, and another night he'll iust take your breath away by his kind of
imagination and so forth. And it would be different every night with Rollins.
We got into the question of judging the quality of an improvisation.
I find there is a difficulty for me - I mean you can practice for hours, I've
never really done it, but I've done what for me is a great deal of practice over a
51
period of two or three weeks, and then played in public, and my technique feels
worse than ever before. whereas, by the same token one can not touch the
instrument for a few and go out and be free and loose with the
instrument, so, as far as the original question is concerned, how do I judge
whether what I've played is ... satisfactory, it is very difficult because what
seems to happen is that one becomes unconscious of playing, you know, it
becomes as if something else has taken over and you're just an intermediary
between whatever else and the instrument, and everything you try seems to
come off, or at least, even if it doesn't come off it doesn't seem to matter very
much, it's still a certain kind of feeling that you're aiming for - or
unconsciously aiming fOT - and when this happens - inspiration - duende -
whatever you like to call it - a happy conjunction of conditions and events and
middle attitudes -it will feel good. It will feel that '1 should be what 1 am' kind
of thing.
1 think you are conditioned by the instrument you play, also by the
influences that other players before you or your contemporaries have had.
There is a certain kind of feeling one gets when one finds oneself influenced by
great players. There can be a danger when you're playing that, if it doesn't
sound like one of the great players then it's not valid. This is something that 1
find myself, as 1 get older, growing farther and farther away from, you know,
which 1 think is a good thing. One becomes much happier to sound like oneself
rather than sounding like one of the recognised great tenor saxophone players.
But there was a time when, if I didn't sound like whoever was the main man,
then 1 didn't feel happy about it.
1 would like ideally to be able to express my -1 don't know - personality
or whatever - musically, to the limits of my ability. 1 think that's all anybody
can aim for, and 1 don't feel that 1 personally am the kind of musician that is
going to come out with some fantastic innovation of any kind, but what I'm
happy to do is to try and play in such a way that it would be recognisable as me,
and it would express something to people about the way 1 feel about things. As
I say, there are so many, almost limitless, attitudes towards improvisation
dependent on one's talent and one's capabilities.
• • •
Jazz provides a good example of the dangers of sequacity in a largely
improvised music. R.Strinavasan speaks of the same problem in Indian music:
'The enemy is mere imitation without imbibing the inspiration which makes
the art a living thing.' The tendency to derivativeness and the prevalence of
imitative playing in all idiomatic improvisation seems to have produced in jazz
52
a situation where increasingly the music became identified with the playing
style of a handful of musicians. Strangely enough, the number of acceptable
models appears to get smaller as time goes on. The performing style of the rest,
the vast majority of players, is invariably identified by association with or
reference to one of the 'great' players on his instrument (' he plays like .. .' is
enough to establish all that needs to be known about a new musician.) In fact it
is common in jazz to find exact, identical in every detail, replicas of well-known
stylists. Nobody is fooled, of course, by these imitations except, possibly, the
mimic
1
but it is a situation which is generally accepted and considered as
normal: a huge proportion of the music played is almost totally derivative.
This situation, which can be one of the main drawbacks in any improvised
music, stems, of course, from practices which are an intrinsic part of it. Firstly,
the learning method in any idiomatic improvisation does have obvious
dangers. It is clear that the three stages - choosing a master, absorbing his skills
through practical imitation, developing an individual style and attitude from
that foundation -have a tendency, very often, to be reduced to two stages with
the hardest step, the last one, omitted. Imitating the style and instrumental
habits of a famous player who is in all probability a virtuoso is not necessarily
an easy matter and, successfully achieved, is an accomplishment which can
supply a musician with considerable satisfactions; not the least of which is the
admiration of those musicians less successfully attempting the same thing. In
jazz, to say that someone 'sounds just like' a well-known somebody is usually
meant as a compliment. So the pressure to conform, to be no more than a very
good imitator is considerable. The second danger is in the search for
authenticity.
For a performer, a concern for authenticity most easily avoids deteriorat-
into formalism when its expression is unselfconscious, but the main
corrective is provided by the naturally innovative or developmental side of
improvisation. When the balance between these two forces - a regard for the
authenticity of the music and the intrinsically explorative nature of improvisa-
tion- is disturbed, the effect is to drag the music one way or the other, to take it
in purely innovative directions or to lead it into unconscious self-parody.
Something undeniably went wrong with the balance in jazz. Increasingly,
development became the preserve of a minute body of'innovators.' For the rest
the only game was follow the leader.
1 TheJe illII'I unlikely·sounding but probably true Story about LestIII' Young. One of his admire<s. a tenor player whose style 04 plaY'"!!
based e_elusively on Lesler"s. made the pilgrimage 10 to his icIoI. Young. a musician 01 very rare in
1iIU, produced a QUite uncnaractlll'istlC performance. The diSCiple. enraged, shouted at hom 'You ain't you, I'm )'0\1' .
53
JAZZ
(2)
The American soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, like many jazzmen in recent
years, has chosen Europe as the base for his activities, first living in Italy and
subsequently Paris. During the 1950s and early '60s he lived in New York and
at that time took part in many of the developments and changes then taking
place - events which led to what was later called 'free jazz'.
I suggested to Steve Lacy that the extreme changes that came about in the
late '50s and early '60s were possibly due to an increase in self-consciousness
on the parr of jazz musicians, an increase in artistic self-awareness.
Of course, the thing comes more to the surface. The longer you do
something the more aware you become of it. That's inevitable, and you lose
your innocence, collectively and individually. And you lose your youth and the
music loses its youth.
We discussed how jazz in earlier times didn't seem too concerned with its
past- its 'roots'. It seemed more of a totally contemporary activity.
For me that's where the music always has to be - on the edge - in between
the known and the unknown and you have to keep pushing it towards the
unknown otherwise it and you die. The changes which began in the late '50s
and were probably completed by the middle '60s came about because in the
'50s jazz was no longer on the edge. When you reach what was called 'hard
bop' there was no mystery any more. It was like - mechanical- some kind of
gymnastics. The patterns are well-known and everybody is playing them.
When 1 was coming up in New York in the '50s 1 was always into the radical
players but at the same time I was contemporary with some of the younger
accepted players. And sometimes 1 would go up and play with them. People
like Donald Byrd and Herbie Hancock. They were the newer accepted people.
1 was also working with Cecil Taylor, Mal Waldron and other people who
were the radicals. I was really mainly concerned to work with the radical
people but at the same time I couldn't ignore the non-radical elements. But for
me playing with the accepted people never worked out. Simply because they
knew all the patterns and 1 didn't. And 1 knew what it took to learn them but 1
just didn't have the stomach for it. 1 didn't have the appetite. Why should 1
want to learn all those trite patterns? You know, when Bud Powell made them,
fifteen years earlier, they weren't patterns. But when somebody analysed them
and put them into a system it became a school and many players joined it. But
54
by the time 1 came to it, 1 saw through it - the thrill was gone. Jazz got so that
it wasn't improvised any more. A lot of the music that was going on was really
not improvised. It got so that everybody knew what was going to happen and,
sure enough, that's what happened. Maybe the order of the phrases and tunes
would be a little different every night, but for me that wasn't enough. It
reached a point where 1, and many other people, got sick and tired of the 'beat'
and the '4 bars' - everybody got tired of the systematic playing, and we just
said <Fuck it'.
But 1 think the question of appetite is very important. Some people are of
a progressive bent and some are not. And you can't ask either of them to
change. Some people are interested in carrying on an old tradition and they can
find their kicks in shifting round patterns and they are not in any rush to find
new stuff They can rummage around the old stuff all their lives. People
become obsessed with not just maintaining a tradition but with perfecting it.
Some people search for the perfect arrangement of the old patterns and that is
progress for them. Other people want to beat down the walls and find some
new territory.
What Cecil Taylor was doing started in the early '50s. And the results
were as free as anything you could hear. But it was not done in a free way. It
was built up very, very systematically but with a new ear and new values. But
there was complete opposition to what he was doing in the' 50s. To me in New
York he was the most important figure in the earlier '50s. Then when Ornette
hit town, that was the blow. On the one hand there were all the academic
players, the hard-boppers, the 'Blue-Note' people, the 'Prestige' people, and
they were doing stuff which had slight progressive tendencies in it. But when
Ornette hit the scene, that was the end of the theories. He destroyed the
theories. 1 remember at that time he said, very carefully, 'Well, you just have a
certain amount of space and you put what you want in it'. And that was a
revelation. And we used to listen to him and Don Cherry every night and that
really spread a thirst for more freedom.
But I think the key figure just then was Don Cherry. Cherry was freer, in a
way. He didn't worry about all the stuff that Ornette was worrying about and
his playing was really free. He used to come over to my house in '59 and '60,
around that time, and he used to tell me, ' Well, let's play'. So [said 'OK. What
shall we play'. And there it was. The dilemma. The problem. It was a terrible
mOment. I didn't know what to do. And it took me about five years to work
myself out of that. To break through that wall. [t took a few years to get to the
point where 1 could just play.
It was a process that was partly playing tunes and playing tunes and
finally getting to the point where it didn't seem to be important and it didn't do
55
anything for you, to play the tunes. So you just drop the tunes. And you just
played. It happened in gradual stages. There would bea moment here, a fifteen
minutes there, a half hour there, an afternoon. an evening, and then all the
time. And then it stayed that way for a couple of years. No tunes, nothing. Just
get up and play. But it all had a lot to do with the musical environment. You
have to get some kindred spirits. And at the time that was in the air. It was
happening everywhere. But I think that jazz, from the time it first began, was
always concerned with degrees of freedom. The way Louis Armstrong played
was <more (ree' than earlier players. Roy Eldridge was <more free' than his
predecessors, Dizzy Gillespie was another stage and Cherry was another.
And you have to keep it going otherwise you lose that freedom. And then the
music is finished. It's a matter of life and death. The only criterion is: 'Is this
stuff alive or is it dead?'
The revolution that was free jazz is long over and a process variously
described as maturing, re-trenchment, rationalisation, consolidation - all the
usual euphemisms for a period of stagnation and reaction - has turned much of
free jazz into a music as forma l, as ritualised and as un-free, as any of the music
against which it rebelled. Like the rest of jazz it now seems to have very little
existence outside the perennial festivals at which it presents its stars demon-
strating whatever it was that made them stars. But in these situations free jazz
seems to fulfil a somewhat peripheral role and has never managed to integrate
in any way with the main body of jazz which, after first greeting the free
development with scorn and vituperation, has ever since contrived to ignore it.
In recent years there has been a movement towards a new conception of
jazz as 'black classical music'. Stemming from attitudes held in free jazz the
intention is, I think, to cover the whole of jazz with this label. In many respects
it seems an appropriate move as increasingly jazz assumes the postures and
attitudes of white classical music, more and more it becomes a clearly defined
rigid music, self-consciously insisting on a set of values and judgements by
which it can assess not only itself but everything around it. Increasingly it
displays an obsession with its own antecedents and a concern that its practice
and its past should be institutionalised in conservatory and museum. There's a
desire to present to the world a respectable 'official' face authenticated by a
phalanx of academics and propagandists, an authority to counter-balance the
institutional and academic authority of white classical music. These are
strange ambitions in a music which once so clearly demonstrated the empty
fatuity of all these things.
A couple of by-products of jazz's retreat into academicism are an increase
in the sort of critical rhetoric which, to quote Duke Ellington, 'stinks the place
up', and a greater divisiveness in a music already prone to factionalism.
56
Anthony Braxton, who works, as did many of his great predecessors, to extend
his tradition and not merely to celebrate it, has been at various times a
favourite target of the propagandists, attacking him for: betraying his race (as
was Louis Armstrong); being an intellectual {as was Charlie Parker}; and
diluting the musical putity of his ttadition (as was John Coltrane) . In short, he
stands accused of just about all those things which have previously served to
enrich and strengthen jazz. Braxton, recognised by the musicians who work
with him as an outstanding musical figure, is unlikely to be deflected by this
sort of stuff but if jazz no longer values the sort of qualities he represents then it
has a pretty arid future.
Fortunately, jazz has always had its share of unruly spirits, players
unconstrained by either prevailing fashion or any single imposed aesthetic.
Cecil Taylor, almost forty years after his first explorations and discoveries, still
looks to expand his playing horizons and, showing the courage which has been
evident throughout his career, continues to seek out new situations and
musical challenges. But of young players seeking adventure, there's little sign.
•••
In 1990, I had an opportunity talk with Max Roach about some of these
things. As one of the founding fathers of modern jazz drumming and no
stranger to any of the succeeding frontiers of jazz development, he very much
represents one of the older jazz traditions, that of innovation. I put it to him
that the apparently inexhaustible succession of innovators which characterised
jazz in its earlier days appears to have dried up. He responded in a way which, I
think, typifies the present attitude in jazz to such a question. He ignored it,
pointing instead to the perceived advantages in the present situation, the
wealth of the legacy which is now available to jazz musicians.
This music, which has been developing throughout the twentieth century,
really excites me. Especially when I know that I can go all the way back with,
say, New Orleans music and on up to Cecil Taylor and en;oy it all and get so
much out of it. And it all stems from improvisation.
And for Steve Lacy, a musician who has always valued independence and
freedom, the commitment to jazz through improvisation remains unchanged.
I'm attracted to improvisation because of something I value. That is a
freshness, a certain quality, which can only be obtained by improvisation,
something you cannot possibly get {rom writing. It is something to do with the
'edge'. Always being on the brink of the unknown and being prepared for the
leap. And when you go on out there you have all your years of preparation and
all your sensibilities and your prepared means but it is a leap into the
57
unknown. If through that leap you find something then it has a value which I
don't think can be found in any other way. I place a higher value on that than
on what you can prepare. But I am also hooked into what you can prepare,
especially in the way that it can take you to the edge. What I write is to take you
to the edge safely so that you can go on out there and find this other stuff. But
really it is this other stuff that interests me and I think it forms the basic stuff of
jazz.
58
Sonny Rollins (Caroline Forbes)
Ronnie Scott (Val Wilmer)
Steve Lacy and Evan Parker (Caroline Forbes)
Max Roach (Val Wilmer)
Anthony Pay (Caroline Forbes) John Zorn (Caroline Forbes)
Tony Oxley, Hugh Metcalf, Phil Wachsmann, and Wolfgang Fuchs
(Caroline Forbes)
Derek Bailey (Courtesy The British Library)
Gavin Bryars (Caroline Forbes)
John Stevens (Caroline Forbes)


Han Bennink (Caroline Forbes)
PART FOUR
The Composer
• ... the subject of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight was chosen because, after
thinking about it for thirty years or so, he now felt ready to deal musically with
Gawain's confrontation with his real self. '
The larger part of classical composition is closed to improvisation and, as its
antithesis, it is likely that it will always remain closed. But, starting in the early
19505, there have been continuing attempts to re-integrate improvisation and
composition. Mainly this has been through a broadening of the concept and
role of notation. In the past, the main means by which improvisation was
restricted and removed was through the development of notation, a process
here described by Jacques Charpentier: 'When, at the end of the Middle Ages,
the Occident attempted to notate musical discourse, it was actually only a son
of shorthand to guide an accomplished performer, who was otherwise a
musician of oral and traditional training. These graphic signs were sufficiently
imprecise to be read only by an expert performer and sufficiently precise to
help him find his place if, by mishap, he had a slip of memory. Consequently, as
we see, it was not a question of precise notation but rather a mnemonic device
in written symbols. Later on, the appearance of the musical staff on the one
hand, and symbols of time duration on the other, made it possible to move on
,to real notation which reflects with exactitude the whole of the musical
mater ial presented in this manner. At this point in history it does not seem as if
the contemporaries of that time fully realised the consequences of their
discovery. For in actual fact, from that moment on, a musical work was no
longer strictly musical; it existed outside itself, so to speak, in the form of an
object to which a name was given: the score. The score very soon ceased to be
the mere perpetuator of a tradition, to become the instrument of elaboration of
the musical work itself. Consequently the analytical qualities of musical
discourse took precedence in the course of centuries over its qualities of
synthesis and the musical work ceased to be, little by little, the expression of an
experienced psycho-physiological continuum - on the spot and at the moment
it is experienced; and instead became what is more and more prevalent today in
the Occident- that is a wilful, formal and explicative construction which finds
in itself alone its substance and its justification.'
59
The efforts in recent times to loosen the stranglehold that notation came
to have on the music came partly through a re-introduction of a certain amount
of flexibility in the role of the performer, providing him with the possibility of
affecting the creation of the music during its performance. Some of these
developments, while removing some degree of control from the composer,
have not necessarily introduced the possibility of improvisation. But there are
composers who have deliberately turned towards improvi sation. Earle Brown,
the American composer, was possibly the first to move in this direction. His
notation is here described by Morton Feldman: 'The sound is placed in its
approximate visual relationship to that which surrounds it. Time is not
indicated mechanistically, as with rhythm. It is articulated for the performer
but not interpreted. The effect is twofold.
'When the performer is made more intensely aware of time, he also
becomes more intensely aware of the action or sound he is about to play. The
result is a heightened spontaneity which only performance itself can convey.
Brown's notation, in fact, is geared to counteract just this discrepancy between
the written page and the realities of performance.'
His 'time notation', however, was only one reflection of Earle Brown's
interest in improvisation. He described to me how
... in 1952 when I was experimenting with open form and aspects of
improvisation, my influences to do that were primarily from the American
sculptor Alexander Calder and the mobiles, which are transforming works of
art, I mean they have indigenous transformational factors in their con-
struction, and this seemed to me to be just beautiful. As you walk into a
museum and you look at a mobile you see a configuration that's moving very
subtly. You walk in the same building the next day and its a different
configuration, yet it's the same piece, the same work by Calder. It took me a
couple of years to figure out how to go about it musically. I thought that it
would be fantastic to have a piece of music which would have a basic character
always, but by virtue of aspects of improvisation or notational flexibility, the
piece could take on subtly different kinds of character.
Indeterminate composition, which might be described as any kind of
composition in which the composer deliberately relinquishes control of any
element of the composition, seems to be concerned with utilising two quite
different concepts; aleatoric and improvisation. I asked Earle Brown what, for
him, was the difference between them.
Well, aleatory is a word that Boulez used in an article a long time ago
which means throwing of dice and so forth. It's really chance, and I am
vehemently against considering improvisation as chance music ... Cage was
literally {lipping coins to decide which sound event was to follow which sound
60
event and that was to remove his choice, his sense of choice, and it was also not
to allow the musician to have any choice either, and I was not interested in that
at all. At the same time that he was organising strictly and fixedly by chance
process, I was working with improvisational forms.
In the Universal Edition score (no.15306) of his String Quartet (1965),
Earle Brown writes:
I have fixed the overall form but have left areas of flexibility within the
inner structures.
And among the directions for performance is:
The relative pitch duration and rhythm are indicated by the graphics, and
the instrumental techniques are given - only the precise 'pitches' are left to the
discretion of the performers. (This has been aptly described as an 'action
notation'; the actual pitches sounded are a function of accurately performing
what has been given.) All four parts are included in each part so that an eye-ear
ensemble is possible.
More radically his instructions for the last, the ' open form', section of the
work are:
There are 8 or 10 events for each musician, separated from one another
by vertical dotted lines. Each musician may play any of his events at any time,
in any order and at any speed. In some cases the technique, the loudness and/or
the rhythm may be 'free' for the individual musician to determine; where these
elements are given they must be observed. All of the materials in these events
have appeared previously in the work, but not necessarily in the part in which
they appear in this section. This section is, in effect, a free coda, to be
assembled spontaneously by the quartet. The section includes very articulate
materials, 'below-bridge' sounds, and sustained sounds. These can be
sPQntaneously assembled in any sequence and position; but through sensitive
ensemble listening I believe that spontaneous 'rational' continuities of
techniques wilJ arise. So that, for instance, a statistical area of inarticulate
sounds moving into a 'below-bridge' area, into an area of primarily articulate
materiai...or any other sequence of statistical similarities of texture and style is
created. I prefer that such 'ordering' should come about in this intuitive-
conscious manner spontaneously during each performance. A complete pre-
performance ordering of these materials - which I could very well arrange
myself- would eliminate the possibility of the intense, immediate communica-
tion of ensemble collaboration which is an extremely important aspect of
'music-making' as I see it.
Having passed over some control to the musicians, how much did Earle
Brown want to retain? I quoted an instruction from the score of the Quartet,
' Play events between dotted lines in any order independently, conscious of
61
you know? ... It's one of the reasons I started using graphic notations and some
degree o( improvisation. I remember John Cage when he was doing his - I
mean he's still doing it - chance music where he {lipped coins and got
sequences o( things and then they were per(ormed by a stopwatch ... a(ter
chance had made the arrangement. the way of performing it was with a
stopwatch. One minute, thirty-three seconds somebody goes 'chic-boom',
(orty-(our seconds later an instrument goes 'blup'. I sat through a lot o(
concerts of chance music. my own and other people's. and I really felt that was
a very cold thing, you know?
Very anti-duende, I should think.
And because they were organised by chance the continuity was very
strange so they were in one sense very good. But they were the antithesis of
what I was interested in. which is performer intensity; the relationship of one
person to another ... I wanted to give the musician a little breathing space. I
guess I like that (eeling o( space, {lexing, breathing, you know?
I would have thought that to give the performer more space and flexibility
was a particularly apt thing to do since the introduction of electronic music,
which actually does give a composer the chance to realise his compositions
absolutely accurately. The availability of that technology seems to set the
performer apart in a way - release him. If you want complete discipline -
absolute accuracy - your best field would be electronics, perhaps.
But you see. most every composer who was into electronic music early -
the others would have to tell you what they think - but (or me I believe that we
all (elt the kind o( coldness in this thing. And (or my part I (ound it very boring
just to sit down in the studio and cut and splice tape and combine these things.
I mean I really like the society o( making music with people. you know? And
that's what I try and create in my scoring.
Before the end of our conversation I asked Earle Brown about a
forthcoming concert of his music to be performed in Rotterdam, in which fully
notated pieces and December '52, an almost totally improvised piece, were to
be performed by the same musicians. What sort of problems did he expect?
Well, in a certain sense, I have to teach improvisation every time I do that
piece with di((erent people ... I must teach the nature o( the piece and create a
mental and sonic condition for the piece.
Nevertheless, I believe affirmatively that improvisation is a musical art
which passed out o(Western usage (or a time but is certainly back now. And I
(elt that it would come back which is why I based a lot o( my work on certain
aspects o( it. It's here and I think it's going to stay. And it's not going to do
64
away with the writing o( music but it's going to bring an added dimension - o(
aliveness - to a composition and bring the musician into a greater intensity of
working on that piece.
65
THE COMPOSER AND THE NON-IMPROVISOR
As improvisation is present to some degree in almost all musical activities it
would seem that the ability to improvise might be a basic part of every player's
musicianship. There are, however, musicians who not only cannot improvise
but to whom the whole activity is incomprehensible. As might be expected, the
non-improvisor is usually to be found in classical music, but he can even he
found in areas of music where improvisation plays an integral part. A high
measure of skill in other aspects of instrumental playing is no guarantee of the
ability to improvise. Earle Brown: 'As a matter of fact, some of the most
brilliant performers on instruments go completely dead if you ask them to
imagine something.'
The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1954), which defines
improvisation as 'The art of thinking and performing music simultaneously',
seems by implication rather unkind to the non-improvisor. Stephen Hicks, the
organist, didn't believe in him. 'If they have absolute control and a real
knowledge of harmony then, with practice, anyone can improvise. ' Steve
Howe pointed to a disadvantage shared by most non-improvisors: <If they've
had classical training they usually can't improvise ... because they can't see into
it, you know, how simple it really is.'
Any sort of strict classical training does seem to be the biggest single
handicap to improvising. The standard instrumental technique itself probably
contains certain disadvantages but the main block is the instilled attitude
towards music-making which seems to automatically accompany this type of
education. An attitude which could not appreciate something like: 'You hear
people trying out things, they make a mistake and they perhaps even develop
that mistake and work out something nice from that which happened without
them meaning it to. ' Paco Perla here does not indicate any lack of responsibility
towards the music he plays or any reduced concern for the quality of the
performance. He is expressing a recognition that music is, of its nature, not
fixed and is always malleable, changeable. Performance in classical music
seems designed to disprove that idea. In the straight world the performer
approaches music on tiptoe. Music is precious and performance constitutes a
threat to its existence. So, of course, he has to be careful. Also, the music
doesn't belong to him. He's allowed to handle it but then only under the
strictest supervision. Somebody, somewhere, has gone through a lot of trouble
66
to create this thing, this composition, and the performer's primary respon-
sibility is to preserve it from damage. At its highest, music is a divine ideal
conceived by a super-mortal. In which case performance becomes a form of
genuflection.
It is undeniable that for many musicians, performing music is a matter of
being a highly skilled executant in a well-rehearsed ensemble, and it is also true
that this role has its satisfactions. But it does seem that to be trained solely for
that role is probably the worst possible preparation for improvisation. And the
biggest handicap inflicted by that training is the instilling of a deeply
reverential attitude towards the creation of music, an attitude which unques-
tioningly accepts the physical and hierarchical separation of playing and
creating. From this stems the view of improvisation as a frivolous or even a
sacrilegious activity.
Perhaps none of this would matter if it were nor that musicians with this
sort of background are sometimes asked to improvise. Fortunately, there are
very few composers na"ive enough to instruct the normal symphony orchestra
to improvise - certainly I don't think any of them ever try it twice. But even
members of specialist new music ensembles very often bring to improvising no
preparation or training other than what they have received for orchestral
playing - an utterly alien activity. These specialist ensembles, mentioned
earlier by Earle Brown, are usually made up of musicians with a conventional
orchestral background and training but who have a particular interest in new
music and the instrumental techniques and developments associated with it.
They do not necessarily have any knowledge of, or even interest in,
improvisation.
Anthony Pay, the distinguished clarinettist, who at the time of our
conversation was with the London Sinfonietta, had never improvised and
probably never considered improvising until confronted with the necessity to
do so in his work with the Sinfonietta. He described for me some of the
problems he had experienced in this situation.
You see, when you play modern music you often come upon very difficult
technical situations. You might be asked to play complicated rhythms. You
might be asked to play things the execution of which demands complete
concentration, and I am the sort of player who is more disposed to start off
from the accuracy point of view rather than starting off from the musical point
of view. You can, with some modern music, start off and say: Tm not going to
pay a tremendous amount of attention to the notational aspects of it, but
initially I'm going to decide what the music is about, the gestures - and
language - the sort of thing that, if you are improvising, you have to deal with.'
Now, I tend, when I'm approaching a modern score, to start off by trying to
67
get, as accurately as 1 can, what he's actually put down on paper. And that can
be, as 1 say, very constricting. If you are trying to play seven against nine or
something like that then you can be involved in thoughts which aren't specially
musical ones. I don't think I'd ever appreciated the sort of thing that could
come out of improvisation before I was involved with Stockhausen. I don't
think that there are many contemporary scores which require total improvisa-
tion. People who do improvisation are generally outstanding performers who
are interested in improvisation and who do it in an exclusive sort of way. And
it is true that people who are good at improvisation need not necessarily be
very good at realising what a composer actually intends in a precisely notated
work, and the difficulty comes when you have to mix these two things.
As you have no improvising background, where, in the absence of specific
instructions from the composer, does your material come from? The jazz
musician, say, in your position might draw on his usual improvising
vocabulary (which might or might not suit the composer). Where would you
look for your material?
Well it's not precisely clear where I do look for it. Perhaps I just let it
happen. Perhaps you just wait and you listen as closely as possible to whatever
is going on and you just react. Of course, that is why group improvisation is
much easier to do. Because then you can listen to what happens and you can
try and contribute to what is going on, or you can try to destroy what's going
on. Those are two goals that you can consider.
It might be thought that in interpretation the non-improvisor might be
dealing with musical matters close to the heart of improvisation. But one of the
main differences between interpretation and improvisation was pointed out by
Anthony Pay.
There is a crucial difference in terms of the way in which performers
approach music. If you are playing in a symphony orchestra or if you are
playing a piece of chamber music, you are trying, often against fairly heavy
odds, to find out what somebody has meant when they said something. And I
think that a jazz player, for example, is saying what is in him. He puts very
much more of his total personality into what he does. I think he's a much
happier individual in many ways.
What is the main difference that you find between playing strictly notated
music and improvising? Do you deliberately loosen certain standards of
accuracy, or something like that, when you turn to improvisation?
Technically there are a tremendous number of things from which you are
immediately liberated. For example, precise pitch; you can bend notes around
all over the place, you can get microtonal effects. You can play practically
inaudibly and you don't feel that you are doing a disservice to something. But I
68
think for me truly to assess what improvisation will be for me I would have to
spend quite a long time doing it with a few people who I felt had the same sort
of ideas and did the same sort of things. It's always noticeable that there is
someone who doesn't quite do the sort of things that you want him to do-
whether it's playing Mozart or Brahms or whatever-and I just think that that
is also true of improvisation. You can't just throw a group of people together
and get it right. And I think that is something I ought to concentrate on for my
own development as a musician. The difference is, as far as I am concerned,
that one is unknown poetry in which 1 can progress. In playing written,
precisely notated music I'm not actually progressing. I'm just learning to do
better what I already do.
69
THE COMPOSER - IN PRACTICE
( \ )
The unique experience for a composer in the use of improvisation must be the
relinquishing of control over at least some of the music and, even more
critically for the composer, passing over that control not to 'chance' but to
other musicians. Earle Brown in 1952 gave, as he says, 'almost a blank page to
the musicians', and his object in doing that was (0 investigate performance
procedures. In that particular case presumably whatever the musicians played
would be acceptable as data for those investigations. However, in most of its
uses by composers impro vi sation is employed for more preci se compositional
aims. In other words, what the improvisors play is of great importance indeed
to the composer. Usually, he has specific musical expectations of the
improvisors, and their inventions are required to serve his predetermined ends.
Anthony Pay:
One sort of improvisation that we can be called upon to do is when
composers want a certain sort of texture at some point and then they will give
you a thing called the box technique, and composers have used this quite
frequently. What happens is that you're given a box in which there are a
number of notes. and you're asked to improvise upon those particular notes.
The unfortunate thing about that is that it does tend to always sound pretty
much the same. People have developed a kind of technique for dealing with
that sort of thing, and it very rarely has a very clear relationship to the idiom of
the work involved. It 's a useful technique to provide a sort of sound ambience
- I think its a device which composers have used to try and get away from the
complications which arise when you try to notate things which don't actually
coincide. If you start writing fives and sevens and nines so that people don't
play things together then it creates complications.
One of the most active composers in this area during the 1960s and '70s
was Karlheinz Stockhausen. Anthony Pay, as a member of the London
Sinfonietta, worked with Stockhausen on a number of his pieces. Here he
describes rehearsing Stockhausen's Ylem with the composer.
This piece had a clearly defined structure - it was concerned with
mirroring the contraction and the expansion of the universe - which meant
that the durations of the improvisations and so on were precisely controlled. It
started off with very, very fast repeated notes, all of which got slower and
slower and the ranges within which these notes were confined go wider and
70
wider so that you found yourself not only playing notes which were central in
the range of your instrument but which become higher and lower. And as the
range got wider the time between each attack of these notes got longer and
longer and, in fact, at the centre point of the piece the time between each attack
was a minute and a half. Stockhausen said, you must only play for a fifth of the
interval of attack (approximately 18 seconds) so that there is more silence than
playing. By that time, of course, you couldn't be iust playing a single note. You
had to be playing something which was centred on a single pitch so that your
improvisation had - not a tonal centre - a sort of note centre. When we did
rehearsals of this particular piece Stockhausen had a number of us playa
section of the piece and then we each, individually, criticised each other's
interpretation of the instructions. Somebody would say - 'You played for too
long' - or - 'You always play phrases that go 'ba-bum' - and so on.
I asked if there was any attempt to get an idiomatic consistency, to confine
the music to a particular style.
Stockhausen always tried to mix free pieces with composed pieces in a
concert. And that. of course, makes for a relationship between the idiom of the
extemporisation and the idiom of his pieces as they are when they are precisely
notated. But, in this particular piece he was after variety. you see. If it's
supposed to be representative of the universe then anything goes, as it were.
So Stockhausen wouldn't have found, sa--y;a quotation from Puccini
inadmissibl e?
Well, yes, he did mind that sort of thing. As a matter of fact he obiected to
something of that sort which was played.
Would the composees likes and dislikes be important to you in your
improv isations? Although not specifi call y indi cated in the score, would your
awareness of the composer's preferences influence your choice of what to play?
For instance if, for reasons whi ch arose in the playing situation at the time, you
thought it would be singularly appropriate to play something tonal would the
fact that Stockhausen might not like that inhibit you?
I don't think it would inhibit me. My experiences with Stockhausen lead
me to suppose that quite often he can be impressed by something that people
do which ;s contrary to what he has suggested. There was a striking example of
this in the piece Ylem which we have been discussing. We played it, I think.
seven or eight times and then we recorded it. It was late at night in an Abbey
Road studio and the version we recorded lasted 22 minutes. And then we
listened to it . And then we recorded another version and listened to that. Then
We recorded a third version and listened to that. And then we aJivoted as to
which version we thought was the best representation of this particular piece.
Now in the middle of the second performance the trumpet player seemed to
71
have a brainstorm. Although according to Stockhausen's instructions he was
only allowed to play, in the middle of the piece, for at the most eighteen
seconds out of each minute and a half, he played for thirty to thirty-five
seconds then after a short pause went off again. And, although it was very
inspired in many ways it was completely outside the bounds of that particular
piece, and we were all flabbergasted. Well, when it came to the vote we all
agreed that the third performance was the best. It was the most controlled, it
had the right amount of individuality and the right amount of group spirit and
everything else. But Stockhausen, after first agreeing with us, then changed his
mind and said he now preferred the second version, the one in which the
trumpet player had taken off So I said, ' But that's ridiculous, we've all been
rehearsing it the way you say it ought to be done, with this controlled pattern
you asked for, and you pick the second version which you must agree doesn't
fit into that pattern at all.' And Stockhausen said 'Yes, oh yes, but it was very
interesting.' And so after writing this piece and rehearsing it for a long time to
get the pattern as he wanted it, he was, nevertheless, prepared to accept the,
well, the individual thing that was brought about by this trumpet player. '
Would it be possible to indicate how the trumpet player had been so
effective?
He made it sound not like a trumpet at all. It was most curious. He took
some of the tubing out of the instrument, and he played on the mouthpiece
only for part of the time. It was a remarkable demonstration. I was very
annoyed at the time. I thought 'what on earth is he doing? He's completely
ruined this'. And that was a reaction which, although appropriate to the way in
which I was approaching the piece, wasn't necessarily the right reaction. It's
very difficult to say. I mean how much are you entitled to be free with music?
Why do you think the trumpet player did that? Did he offer an
explanation?
Oh, I just think he was off in his own world. Perhaps Stockhausen would
say that he was in communion with the universe. Stockhausen's actual way of
dealing with people can, on occasions, be very mystical. He invites you, for
example, to play in the rhythm of the molecules which constitute your body.
Or in the rhythm of the universe. There's a story of a second violin player who
said, 'Herr Stockhausen, how willi know when I am playing in the rhythm of
the universe?' Stockhausen said, with a smile, <I will tell you'.
It might be worth noting that an Indian musician asked to play in the
rhythm of the universe would immediately know what to do. The origin of the
word laya - the right feel or pulse for a performance (discussed on page 4) - is
1 The recording discvssed is on Deulsche·Grammophon 2530442.
72
connected with the Hindu belief in the all-embracing, comprehensive rhythm
of the universe as personified in Shiva. So the Indian musician could have
complied exactly with Stockhausen's instructions. That doesn't mean, of
course, that what he played would have been acceptable to Stockhausen.
One of the things which quickly becomes apparent in any improvising is
that one spends very little time looking for 'new' things to play. The instinctive
choice as well as the calculated choice is usually for tried material. Improvisa-
tion is hardly ever deliberately experimental. When the 'new' arrives, if it
arrives, it appears to come of its own accord. I asked Anthony Pay if the
composer, during the seven or eight performances of Ylem, encouraged the
players to aim for deliberately different versions?
He said to us that perhaps we should try and prepare ourselves for each
performance by thinking of something that we hadn't ever done before. That
after each performance we could prepare ourselves in a mental way for the
next performance by thinking of something new and, perhaps, that would find
its way into the context of what everyone else was doing and contribute to the
piece. There are certain simple things that you can do which are always
effective. You can, for instance, playa very loud, very high note at an
appropriate point - that could be extremely effective. It 's not precisely what
you did, it was also when you did it that made it terribly appropriate. I
remember in one of the recordings something amazing happened. We were
playing long notes and all the wind players happened to start at one particular
time and drift into a common chord and then out again. And when we listened
to the playback it was a moment which was, for us, tremendously meaningful.
Partly,] suppose, because it was a total accident. But] think improvising styles
change very slowly in those people who have a very developed improvising
style. Sometimes the strength of the way in which a player plays something lies
in his depth of approach in one particular area. ] think that to say that so and so
always improvises in the same sort of way is not necessarily a criticism. It's
often a very great strength and people can explore in depth one particular way
of going about improvisation.
Anthony Pay also talked about some of the more general aspects of
playing modern music.
When you are playing a lot of modern music perhaps your capacity for
invention becomes stultified because, to some extent, you are reduced to being
a machine in a certain sort of style. Things have become so complicated that
it's difficult to get outside of the actual complications that you are trying to
represent. I think it's a great advantage if we can.] mean, what makes people
who can play modern music is not people who have the capacity necessarily to
do the complicated things that are required of the performer but people who
73
have a brainstorm. Although according to Stockhausen's instructions he was
only allowed to play, in the middle of the piece, for at the most eighteen
seconds out of each minute and a half, he played for thirty to thirty-five
seconds then after a short pause went off again. And, although it was very
inspired in many ways it was completely outside the bounds of that particular
piece, and we were all flabbergasted. Well, when it came to the vote we all
agreed that the third performance was the best. It was the most controlled, it
had the right amount of individuality and the right amount of group spirit and
everything else. But Stockhausen, after {irst agreeing with us, then changed his
mind and said he now preferred the second version, the one in which the
trumpet player had taken off. So I said, 'But that's ridiculous, we've all been
rehearsing it the way you say it ought to be done, with this controlled pattern
you asked for, and you pick the second version which you must agree doesn't
fit into that pattern at all.' And Stockhausen said 'Yes, oh yes, but it was very
interesting.' And so after writing this piece and rehearsing it for a long time to
get the pattern as he wanted it, he was, nevertheless, prepared to accept the,
well, the individual thing that was brought about by this trumpet player.'
Would it be possible to indicate how the trumpet player had been so
effective?
He made it sound not like a trumpet at all. It was most curious. He took
some of the tubing out of the instrument, and he played on the mouthpiece
only for part of the time. It was a remarkable demonstration. 1 was very
annoyed at the time. I thought 'what on earth is he doing? He's completely
ruined this'. And that was a reaction which, although appropriate to the way in
which 1 was approaching the piece, wasn't necessarily the right reaction. It's
very difficult to say. I mean how much are you entitled to be free with music?
Why do you think the trumpet player did that? Did he offer an
explanation?
Oh, I just think he was off in his own world. Perhaps Stockhausen would
say that he was in communion with the universe. Stockhausen's actual way of
dealing with people can, on occasions, be very mystical. He invites you, for
example, to play in the rhythm of the molecules which constitute your body.
Or in the rhythm of the universe. There's a story of a second violin player who
said, 'Herr Stockhausen, how will I know when I am playing in the rhythm of
the universe?' Stockhausen said, with a smile, 'I will tell you'.
It might be worth noting that an Indian musician asked to play in the
rhythm of the universe would immediately know what to do. The origin of the
word laya - the right feel or pulse for a performance (discussed on page 4) - is
1 The .ecording diSC!Jssed is on Deulsche.(i'ammop/lon 2530442
72
connected with the Hindu belief in the all-embracing, comprehensive rhythm
of the universe as personified in Shiva. So the Indian musician could have
complied exactly with Stockhausen's instructions. That doesn't mean, of
course, that what he played would have been acceptable to Stockhausen.
One of the things which quickly becomes apparent in any improvising is
that one spends very little time looking for 'new' things to play. The instinctive
choice as well as the calculated choice is usually for tried material. Improvisa-
tion is hardly ever deliberately experimental. When the 'new' arrives) if it
arrives, it appears to come of its own accord. I asked Anthony Pay if the
composer, during the seven or eight performances of Ylem, encouraged the
players to aim for deliberately different versions?
He said to us that perhaps we should try and prepare ourselves for each
performance by thinking of something that we hadn't ever done before. That
after each performance we could prepare ourselves in a mental way (or the
next performance by thinking of something new and, perhaps, that would find
its way into the context of what everyone else was doing and contribute to the
piece. There are certain simple things that you can do which are always
effective. You can, for instance, playa very loud, very high note at an
appropriate point - that could be extremely effective. It's not precisely what
you did, it was also when you did it that made it terribly appropriate. I
remember in one of the recordings something amazing happened. We were
playing long notes and all the wind players happened to start at one particular
time and drift into a common chord and then out again. And when we listened
to the playback it was a moment which was, for us, tremendously meaningful.
Partly, I suppose, because it was a total accident. But I think improvising styles
change very slowly in those people who have a very developed improvising
style. Sometimes the strength of the way in which a player plays something lies
in his depth of approach in one particular area. I think that to say that so and so
always improvises in the same sort of way is not necessarily a criticism. It's
often a very great strength and people can explore in depth one particular way
of going about improvisation.
Anthony Pay also talked about some of the more general aspects of
playing modern music.
When you are playing a lot of modern music perhaps your capacity for
invention becomes stultified because, to some extent, you are reduced to being
a machine in a certain sort of style. Things have become so complicated that
it's difficult to get outside of the actual compHcations that you are trying to
represent. I think it's a great advantage if we can. I mean, what makes people
who can play modern music is not people who have the capacity necessarily to
do the complicated things that are required of the performer but people who
73
have a feeling for what modern music is trying to convey. There are people
who seem inherently incapable of understanding what it means to play
modern music. They think it's terrible, they think it has nothing to do with
music, that it's unmusical, that you can't be agood musician and want to make
the sort of sounds that modern music can be involved with.
I suggested that this rejection of modern music often accompanied, and
was possibly caused by, an almost religious allegiance to tonality. He thought
that to some extent this might be so, and continued:
I think there is a great split between musicians nowadays; between those
who regard contemporary music as being largely arbitrary and basically
unmusical, and those who are excited by what is actually going on. But it
seems to me that musicians obviously have to be interested in what's going on.
What reason has one for existing other than to be involved with what is
actually being created in your particular time?
Anthony Pay summed up his attitude to the improvisor/non·improvisor
question by saying:
If you can understand what it means to be disciplined and to be accurate,
committed and involved with something which is purely notated, and also be
capable of being free, of being able to step outside the inhibition that notation
produces, and do something which is your own and relevant, then I still think
that combination is probably the highest form of instrumental talent that there
is. And it is only the really great instrumentalists who can do that, who are free
of their instrument to that extent.
74
THE COMPOSER - IN PRACTICE
(2)
Since the foregoing discussions, carried out in the early 1970s, the situation in
contemporary composition, as in everything else, has changed radically. 'New
Music', flinching from the no·nonsense philistinism which characterised the
1980s, now has quite a different look, dressed as it is in armour which it
assumes to be more appropriate to the times. Key words now are retrench-
ment, repetition, retrospective, revival; other key words are usually preceded
by 'neo' or 'post'; overriding all: accessibility.
While these developments can hardly be expected to provide much of a
stimulus for improvisation, it still seems to find a way into this music. There is
evidence, even, of a more sophisticated approach, a recognition that
improvisation is a creative force of incalculable power, not simply a way of
achieving a more or less interesting set of instrumental devices.
John Zorn composes in a variety of contexts and genres and is perhaps
best known for what have been described as 'vernacular' pieces - abrupt
juxtapositions of different musics, including popular styles - a kind of live
musique concrete. He has also written, over a number of years, a series of
compositions which deal with improvisation, or more accurately, improvisors.
His aim is not, as is usually the case, the realisation of a pre·ordained result
through improvisation, but the stimulation, or the releasing, of the network of
relationships possible between a group of players.
·The following is taken from a number of conversations held in 1990 and
'91. As he describes, his background is largely in improvisation:
I grew up in a scene of improvisors who over the course of the years
developed personal languages on our instruments. We grew through playing
with each other, listening to all kinds of music and creating a personal
approach towards our instrument .. What I was really fascinated with was
finding a way to harness these improvisors' talents in a compositional
framework without actually hindering what they did best - which is
improvising. An improvisor wants to have the freedom to do anything at any
time. For a composer to give an improvisor a piece of music which said, 'play
these melodies - then improvise - then play with this guy - then improvise -
then play this figure - then improvise', to me, that was defeating the purpose of
what these people had developed, which was a very particular way of relating
75
to their instruments and to each other. And [ was interested in those
relationships.
I don't talk about any sounds that anybody might make, I talk about the
improvisors themselves: <you can play with this person if you chose to or in
alternation with that person. But what you play is totally up to you and who
you decide to play with is up to you.'
Traditionally, composers create an arc on a time line, a structure that
begins in one place, goes to a middle and then ends. I began composing my
game pieces by using a time line but abstracting everything away from sound
and talking about people.
The series of compositions that Zorn has written dealing with improvisa-
tion are based on games or 'game plans'.
A piece like Archery, which was done in '79, is a long list of a hundred and
thirty-odd combinations for a twelve-piece group. Where I really started
eliminating the time line, eliminating the idea that the composer has to create
in an are, waS in a piece like Cobra where the sequence of events can be
ordered at any time by anyone. There, [ just created relationships, abstract
concepts that the players can order in any way they want, so that, at any
moment in the piece, if they want to do something like play solo or play duo, or
have the whole band play, they can actualise that.
My early game pieces were sports, like Lacrosse, Hockey, Pool, Fencing,
and I got bored with those and started using war games, kind of bookshelf
games. The rule books were intense, so thick, you know, and if you write the
rules out for the game Cobra they are impossible to decipher. But when
someone explains the practice of it, it's very simple. These games, like Cobra,
have a kind of oral tradition. I was very influenced by these complex war
games and I like the idea of the guerrilla systems in Cobra. Everything I
learned in myoId pieces got incorporated in the next piece and so on. Cobra is
like the sum total of working with these game pieces.
What John Zorn has to say about the incomprehensibility of the
instructions when written down was certainly borne out when I came to
transcribe his description(,just briefly, without getting too specific') of just how
Cobra worked. But rehearsal, I found, is crucial for Zorn's piece and, echoing
something noted by Cornelius Cardew, rehearsal is a kind of training. There's
nothing specific, nobody is told what they should play, but there's a training in
how to incorporate the instructions into their playing and an investigation of
the possibilities opened up by them. Well, that's in practice. Here's what his
instructions look like written down:
I've created a series of about twenty different systems. Each one cued by
the downbeat of a card. Anyone of these basic systems can be called at any
76
time by anyone of the players at their whim. So what you get is a section lasting
as long as the least patient person in the band who then says lets go somewhere
e!se. Some of these cues are meant to create specific permutations of players
ltke a duo or a trio. I mean they could be created by complete spontaneity in
the sense that when the downbeat happens people who are playing can either
stop or change their music or people who are not playing can decide to come in
if they wish to. So with the downbeat there's gonna be a change but you have
no idea who's gonna come in and who's not and you have no idea of what to
expect and that could last for 5 seconds. Someone could give another
downbeat, like the <runner' downbeat, which is a very specific call: <[ want to
play with this person'. I point to the people who are chosen at the downbeat
and those people play. There's a substitute change, which means when the
downbeat happens the people who are playing must stop and people who
aren't playing may come in if they wish to. So you have a very clear idea who's
not gonna play, then there are other calls that create games within the group.
Duo games: when the card comes down anybody in the group can look at
anybody else and do a duo with them but everybody is doing this sim-
utaneously so it could be one duo at a time or it could be all12 people playing 6
drfferent duos each ending at different times and then starting
up new duos. Tradmg systems, where people toss ideas back and forth: I'll
play and then the next person will play and then the next will play and then the
next person and so on .
.one card is music change. The group stays the same but the style of the
musIc changes. It doesn't matter what they change it to, just as long as it
changes. Or the opposite of that would be something you saw a bunch of times
loday: the group changes but the music stays the same. Say, if three people
playing raise their hands and people who are playing choose them
to Imitate their sounds. Then at the downbeat we actualise that. Then there are
memory systems- ways of when you hear something you like, it's logged into a
memory and then recalled later ...
true [ pick the bands and in that sense the Ellington tradition, the
selectIon of the people, is very important. Everybody is vilal. You lake one
person out and the chemistry is going to be different. Its like that with choosing
bands for these game pieces. You need people who are aggressive, you need
people who are going to be docile, you need people with a sense of humour
people who are ass holes, you need a wide variety to really get th;
gomg and picking musicians for the most part is not so much <I need a
vlolrn and [ need a cello and I need a keyboard alld I ne d 't" h
e a gUI ar , Its more t e
people themselves that are important.
77
I basically create a small society and everybody finds their own position in
that society. It really becames like a psycho drama. People are given power and
it's very interesting to see which people like to run away (rom it, who are very
docile and iust do what they are told, others try very hard to get more control
and more power. So it's very much like the political arena in a certain kind o(
sense.
Some players are really kind o( conceptual, thinking about structuring a
piece o( music, using these signals and trying to create some kind o(
compositional flow in their heads spontaneously. While others are, you know,
creating problems. I think I am that kind of player. Bill Frisell is the kind of
player who sits back and lets everybody else make decisions and iust plays his
butt off Ultimately he was the one that was making the sound of the music
while other people were dealing with the structure of it. Those are all valid
positions to be in in the society that exists on stage when these pieces happen.
78
THE COMPOSER - IN QUESTION
The debate about how composition can best utilise improvisation, while of
interest to the composers concerned, is of only peripheral interest, not to say
irrelevant, to some players. These players consider improvisation to be an
activity which has no necessary connection with composition at all. As Earle
Brown says,'we all have blank pages', and there are some of us who prefer
filling our blank pages with our own signs rather than with those of other
people. But we are a minority. Most improvisors do both.
Here are two different views expressed by experienced improvisors about
working both under the direction of a score, and also without a score - in the
free situation. Both musicians have a central interest in improvisation. The first
sees advantages and validity in a collaboration between composer and
improvisor and the second considers it mainly disadvantageous and limiting
for the improvisor. They are both discussing working with the type of
composition in which the performer is called upon to provide all aspects of the
music.
Hugh Davies, improvisor, instrument-maker and composer, is discussing
the performance of a piece by Stockhausen, for whom he worked for many
years. It is 'Intensitat' from Aus den Sieben Tagen and it is a so-called t e x t ~
piece. The total information available to the players is:
for ensemble
INTENSITY
play single sounds
with such dedication
until you feel the warmth
that radiates from you
play on and sustain it
as long as you can
1
Hugh Davies: Nothing more is given. Looking at the elements of this text that
relate to musical structures and procedures, at the beginning it has 'play single
sounds'. For each sound a player may choose to playa texture more complex
than a single pitch, which in some cases may become almost a phrase (the same
German word is deliberately translated in some texts by 'sound' and in others
I Prinled by kind permi$llon or Univenal Edition.
79
by 'tone/note'}. The continuation, 'with such dedication/until you feel the
warmth/that radiates from you', implies a development of this basic element,
including the probability that the performers will individually introduce new
elements from time to time, but always with the tendency towards increasing
the intensity of their play and their involvement in the production of each
sound. Finally 'play on and sustain it/as long as you can' gives an indication of
the way in which the performance ends, which is likely to be either an abrupt
halt by the whole ensemble while at full strength or a fairly rapid dying away as
the musicians end one after another. No direct co-ordination between the
players is mentioned.
Performing such a piece, especially in an ensemble that works together
regularly and specialises in such areas of music, one is very conscious of
playing a definite composition, even though the nature of it is such that one
need only think the text over quietly to oneself before starting to play, and then
everything happens intuitively - one need not be fully conscious of what one is
playing, one 'becomes the music'. In many ways this is very close to a group
improvisation, with the difference that - in spite of frequent comments from
various quarters about the performers and not the composers being the ones
who should collect the performing right fees for such music - one remains
aware of the composer influencing the performance from a distance through
his score. And the structural indications in the score discussed above ensure
that those elements at least will make the result completely different from a
free improvisatimt.
• • •
Evan Parker, the saxophonist, who must be one of the most widely experienced
musicians in the performing of 'composed' open form improvisation and also
in 'free' open form improvisation, gave his views on this subject in an address
to the Society for the Promotion of New Music. The following is an excerpt:
I am a performing musician, but 1 don't use scores and it's not that the
score has refined itself out of existence, as Werner Goldschmidt seemed to
think was the case for the New Phonic Arts Group. It has never existed for me
except as something to look at and think about, to compare with others of its
type. Now that I am forced to rationalise this attitude, it is along these lines: if
the score represents some kind of ideal performance why does it ever have to
be performed? Surely it would be better for the music-lover to read the score,
alone or with others, conducted or un conducted as his preference dictates? Ifit
is objected that this attitude is too unemotional, then I would reply that the
score is itself too unemotional; and since it concerns itself with the description
80
rather than the emotions themselves it would be more appropriate to consider
score-making as an esoteric branch of the literary arts with its own criteria
rather than as anything to do with music. In fact I think that this possibility has
already been noted and acted on by some score-makers. That symphony of
Nam-June Paik's for example, where some of the durations are measured in
hundreds of years. It's a very beautiful score to read ... Everyone can recognise
differences between the score and the performance. Things are added, altered
or taken away. While this has presumably always been the case, the gap
between score and performance is perhaps wider in much contemporary music
than ever before. Aloys Kontarsky's comments on the contrast between the
austerity of an Earle Brown score which contained only black horizontal and
vertical blocks and lines and its performance in Darmstadt are very interest-
ing: 'So the performance contained trills, glissandi, crescendi, sforzati and
even all kinds of solo licks which could not have been derived with even the
best of intentions from the scanty design on the page.' Leaving aside the score
as the embodiment of an ideal performance. a score can also be considered a
recipe for possible music-making. That's an idea I can have much more
sympathy with, taking into account as it does much more than the composer
and his muse. Other ingredients that a composer with this attitude might
include are: performability, how much rehearsal time, which musicians will be
playing the piece, where it will be played, even possibly how the audience
might react. Nonetheless the most careful consideration of all the unknowns
before the event cannot guarantee that the music will fit the occasion. There
will still be some slack to be taken up between what the score says and what it
means .
I suppose the implication in all this is obvious. I'm suggesting that if
anyone in the production of a music event is dispensable. it is the score-maker,
or the 'composer' as he is often called. My 'ideal music' is played by groups of
musicians who choose one another's company and who improvise freely in
relation to the precise emotional, acoustic, psychological and other less
tangible atmospheric conditions in effect at the time the music is played.
81
PART AVE
FREE
Freely improvised music, variously called 'total improvisation', 'open
improvisation', 'free music', or perhaps most often simply, 'improvised music',
suffers from - and enjoys - the confused identity which its resistance to
labelling indicates. It is a logical situation: freely improvised music is an
activity which encompasses too many different kinds of players, too many
different attitudes to music, too many different concepts of what improvisa-
tion is, even, for it all to be subsumed under one name. Two regular confusions
which blur its identification are to associate it with experimental music or with
avant-garde music. It is true that they are very often lumped together but this is
probably done for the benefit of promoters who need to know that the one
thing they do have in common is a shared inability to hold the attention of large
groups of casual listeners. But although they might share the same corner of the
market place they are fundamentally quite different to each other. Improvisors
might conduct occasional experiments but very few, I think, consider their
work to be experimental. Similarly, the attitudes and precepts associated with
the avant-garde have very little in common with those held by most
improvisors. There are innovations made, as one would expect, through
improvisation, but the desire to stay ahead of the field is not common among
improvisors. And as regards method, the improvisor employs the oldest in
music-making.
The lack of precision over its naming is, if anything, increased when we
come to the thing itself. Diversity is its most consistent characteristic. It has no
stylistic or idiomatic commitment. It has no prescribed idiomatic sound. The
characteristics of freely improvised music are established only by the sonic-
musical identity of the person or persons playing it.
Historically, it pre-dates any other music - mankind's first musical
performance couldn't have been anything other than a free improvisation -
and I think that it is a reasonable speculation that at most times since then there
will have been some music-making most aptly described as free improvisation.
Its accessibility to the performer is, in fact, something which appears to offend
both its supporters and detractors. Free improvisation, in addition to being a
highly skilled musical craft, is open to use by almost anyone - beginners,
children and non-musicians. The skill and intellect required is whatever is
available. It can be an activity of enormous complexity and sophistication, or
83
the simplest and most direct expression: a lifetime's study and work or a casual
dilettante activity. It can appeal to and serve the musical purposes of all kinds
of people and perhaps the type of person offended by the thought that 'anyone
can do it' will find some reassurance in learning that Albert Einstein looked
upon improvisation as an emotional and intellectual necessity.1
The emergence of free improvisation as a cohesive movement in the early
sixties and its subsequent continuous practice has excited a profusion of
sociological, philosophical, religious and political explanations, but I shall
have to leave those to authors with the appropriate appetite and ability.
Perhaps I can confine myself to the obvious assumption that much of the
impetus toward free improvisation came from the questioning of musical
language. Or more correctly, the questioning of the 'rules' governing musical
language. Firstly from the effect this had in jazz, which was the most widely
practised improvised music at the time of the rise of free improvisation, and
secondly from the results of the much earlier developments in musical language
in European straight music, whose conventions had, until this time, exerted a
quite remarkable influence over many types of music, including most forms of
improvisation to be found in the West.
Two important pieces of reading concerning free improvisation are Leo
Smith's book Notes: 8 Pieces and Cornelius Cardew's 'Towards an Ethic of
Improvisarion' , which is from his Treatise Handbook (published by Peters
Edition). Each of these documents is written by a musician with a great deal of
experience of free improvisation and they write of it with insight and
pertinence. They are however totally different from each other. Smith speaks
of free improvisation almost exclusively as an extension of jazz and Cardew
considers it mainly in terms of European philosophy and indeterminate
composition. And both accounts are valid, each reflecting perfectly one of the
twin approaches to free improvisation which took place in the sixties. It is
necessary to point out that for Leo Smith the predicament of the black man in
America, particularly as this applies to the black musician, is of far greater
significance than the purely musical matters dealt with here. In a rather similar
way Cardew's objections to his situation were later to take a purely political
form. But these documents also indicate that for musicians of integrity, in
either field, wishing for a direct, unadulterated involvement in music, the way
to free improvisation was the obvious escape from the rigidity and formalism
of their respective musical backgrounds.
1 Alexander Moslkowski reported that in 1919 Einst9ln told him · ... improvisation on the piano was a neoessily 01 his I ~ e . Every
journey that takes hIm away lrom the insltument lor some tIme excites a ho!ne-sidlness lor his piano, and when he returns he
longingly caresses the keys to ease himsell 01 the burden 01 the tone experiences that have mounted up in him, giving them u"erartee
In improvisations.' Conversations wilh Einstein, published 1921 . •
84
•••
Opinions about free music are plentiful and differ widely. They range from the
view that free playing is the si mplest thing in the world requiring no
explanation, to the view that it is complicated beyond discussion. There are
those for whom it is an activity requiring no instrumental skill, no musical
ability and no musical knowledge or experience of any kind, and others who
believe it can only be reached by employing a highly sophisticated, personal
technique of virtuosic dimensions. Some are attracted to it by its possibilities
for musical togetherness, others by its possibilities for individual expression.
There is, as far as I know, no general view to be given. So I propose to base my
account of free improvisation largely on my own playing experiences within
the music. Objectivity will, I am sure, be quite beyond me, but whenever
possible I shall quote other views and opinions. I should emphasise that it is not
my intention to try and present an overall picture of the free music scene, nor to
give a definitive account of the groups mentioned. I intend only to point to
certain aspects of certain groups and situations which seem to me to illustrate
some of the central tenets of free improvisation.
2
~ Nor,s it. my intention to make II c:o"tribution .to the increaSingly frequent ,e,wroting 01 the hIstory 01 the begInnings of Iree
Ifl"IprovISShon. e x ~ pemaps to menhon that my .1i.rstlnVOlvement W1th It - wtuch lett me totatty confused and alienated _ was in t 95 7
h was a conlrontatlOfl which has no musical SlOn,locaf"lCfl In this account but it does "'OVid ""_ . . .
wasn't 'started' by anybody. . ,.. e some eVh ••"nce that froo ImprOVisatIOn
8S
JOSEPH HOLBROOKE'
This group, which existed from 1963 to 1966, initially played conventional
jazz and by 1965 was playing totally improvised pieces. From then on it
continued to play both totally improvised and part-improvised pieces. The
musicians in the group were Gavin Bryars, who was then a bass player, Tony
Oxley the percussionist, and myself. The stages of our collective development
from playing a standard idiomatic improvisation through to playing freely
improvised music seemed at the time, and even more so in retrospect, almost
imperceptible. As far as one can tell, they consisted in accepting the
implications of the most logical and appropriate developments in our playing,
and following where they led.
While my background as a professional 'commercial' musician employed
in dance halls, night clubs, and studios meant that I was always in touch with
some of the practical usages of improvi sation - in fact without the ability to
improvise it is very difficult to survive as a musician in the musical demi-monde
where most working musicians make their living - it was the other two
members of the group who provided the twin bases for the development into
free improvisation.
Simplified, the position was that Oxley provided the connection and
interest in what were then contemporary jazz developments - from Bill Evans
through John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy to Albert Ayler-while Bryars' interest
was in contemporary composers: Messiaen, Boulez, Stockhausen, Cage and
their followers. This combination of interests, enthusiasms, obsessions, which
of course overlapped in all directions, led logically and organically to a
situation where the only way to pool our efforts and the only comprehensive
expression of this confluence was through a freely improvised music.
It is important to stress that the following are recollections of what
happened. The main distortion of this retrospective description is to greatly
simplify the whole process and, most particularly, to give the development of
1 The group's name came from Tony Oxley although it could ~ i t e easily have come from Gavin Bfyars who althal time was
beginning 10 show what was 10 beoome a lasting in .... esl in earty 20th century English music, Joseph (sometmes Josef) Ho/brOOke.
once descrbId as the 'cockney Wagner', was a composer 01 prodigious output who, although (tealng something of a slir in hiS own
lifetime has been atmosI1OtaIIy ignored Since. tnvestigalions about ~ produced diIIer-ent dates lot hiS birth (1875 Of t878) and
diIIerent dates lor hi, death (1958 Of 1961)laising !he consideration that there might be lTIOIe !han one Joseph HoIbrooke, II
speculation ntinfon:ed by the staggering amount 01 music published under that name. 1\ seemed a good cover lor OUI actiVities.
86
the music a more deliberate, more calculated, intellectual character than it
actually had. In fact, in all cases it was more an emotional, or instinctive, search
to find something that was logical and right, or at least appropriate, to replace
the inherited things which we found stilted, moribund and formal.
Initially, we were playing fairly conventionally in a jazz manner. The
improvisation was on set chord sequences, usually jazz standards, and played
in time. But it seems that almost from the very beginning there was a movement
to expand these boundaries. The regular metre was always under attack;
systematically so when Tony Oxley evolved a method of super-imposing a
different time feel over the original, creating not a poly-rhythmic effect but a
non-rhythmi c effect. He and Bryars practised working with this until the
feeling of a regular pulse was totally removed. Additionally, harmonic
experiments were taking place, an example of which is a composition of
Bryars', a more or less conventional tune in 3/4 time, in which the soloist
improvised not on the chord being played but on the following chord, the
chord about to played. We were also following at that time certain aspects of
the recorded work of Scott La Faro and John Coltrane. All these moves
constituted an attack on the harmonic and rhythmic framework within which
we were working but when we did eventually break that framework it was
once again only through gradual, not wholesale, moves. One of the first of
these was to break the metre down. Having reached the point where the aural
effect we were achieving was one of playing out of time it began to seem almost
perverse not to actually play out of time. A soloist would now stay on each
chord for as long as he wished to improvise on it, making the change to the next
chord how and when he wished, taking his accompanists with him. Tony
Oxley: 'This was rhythmically very useful to me. It was a release from the
dogma of the beat.' The move away from a set harmonic sequence was to
modal playing. The vehicles for this were usually either John Coltrane pieces
from that period or a series of modal pieces written at that time by al1 three of
us. We spent much time playing modally, and our earliest 'free' improvisations
had a definite modal orientation.
This was probably the easiest way to starr. Except, of course, that it
wasn't free. It was modal. Still, it provided a base from which we could explore
rhythmic and scalar relationships fairly freely. In order to escape the constant
threat of the eternally suspended resolution we turned our attention to
intervallic manipulation of pitch. Our influences here were partly a belated
interest in Webern and partly some aspects of John Coltrane's improvisations.
The main stimulus, however. was to escape from the lack of tension endemic in
tonal or modal pitch constructions. The 'tension and release' myth upon which
most scalar and arpeggio patterns, phrases and designs are based seemed to us
87
no longer valid. In these closed systems there is a circular quality to the
improvisation which means that the release is built into the tension, that the
answer is contained in the question. The effect is of slackness, blandness. The
modal setting parti cularly, without the restriction or discipline of an idiom,
seemed to invite a facile, vacuous type of improvisation. It was to escape from
this that we turned to a more atonal, non-causal organisation of the pitch.
Much of our language now was arrived at by the exclusion of the elements we
didn't want, which very often turned out to be mainstays of our previous tonal
language, and by a much more consistent use of the more 'dissonant' intervals.
There was some use of serial devices.
Bryars introduced what he describes as 'the serial equivalent of a free jazz
ballad'. We each had a series of notes, with alternatives, and each note was held
as long as the player wished. So there was a continuous changing harmony.
There were attempts to improvise serially. Working in 3 or 4 note cells, 1 or 2
notes being held in common between successive cells. Oxley at this time started
to change his instrument from a kit designed to supply set rhythmic patterns to
one with an increased potential for varied sounds, timbres and percussive
effects. An example of this is the occasion when, after hearing Bryars' newly
acquired record of Cage's First Constructions in Metal, Oxley, impressed by
the gong glissando effect, tried to find a way to emulate it. This he eventually
did by tying a piece of cloth to a cymbal in such a way as to be able to bend the
cymbal after it had been struck. It was probably years later that we discovered
that the gong gliss effect was created by immersing it in water. But this was the
sort of thing that was influencing the music we played. About his bass playing
at this time, Bryars says: 'I very often played chords on the bass: triple stops,
double stops, I always played 3 finger pizzicato, and I played horizontally
across the strings like a flamenco guitarist. Ascending was usually in fast runs,
descending in disjunct leaps. Scale steps going up and large steps down. But
when these things became cliched I can remember consciously trying to drop
them. I would at all times try and avoid playing the pulse of the music. '
These were some of the means by which we reacted against the
restrictions of the inherited improvising language, its nostalgia, and looked for
fresher, less worn material with which to work. By this time most of the music
was collectively improvised and solos were unaccompanied. Such accompani-
ment as happened was a sort of occasional commentary from the other
instruments.
So the whole was somewhat atonal in character, played in a discon-
tinuous, episodic manner, with two instruments - amplified guitar and
percussion - matched to the volume of a very softly played double-bass. But
the experience of playing freely soon had the effect, as it always does, ,of
88
producing a set of characteristics unique to that particular grouping of
musicians and of producing an identity only a small proportion of which was
established by the technical, purely musical constituents.
I asked Tony Oxley, years after the events, ifhe could recall any particular
musical landmarks in this period.
The actual technical details weren't for me the most rewarding part. It
was the involvement in something that was challenging. Although the results,
of course, were how we judged each stage. Sometimes there were disappoint-
ments, sometimes it was good. But the whole thing, the two or three years
process, that was the important thing to me. There were times that were
significant that one remembers but my main impression is one of continuous
development. The search was always for something that sounded right to
replace the things that sounded predictable and wrong. But there is something
I would like to point out. During the whole of that time I don't think I ever
made any intellectual decision to limit myself. The exclusion of the ;azz
vocabulary was an emotional act of feeling. Sometimes there's an assumption
that this sort of thing is done ;ust to be different. That's totally wrong. It 's an
emotional demand that you have to meet. When you're wearing chains you
don't become aware of them through intellectual processes. You can feel them.
At the time, the reasons for changing are not considered. They seem
irrefutable. It is the details that you are involved with. You get on with it.
There's no question about the reasons behind it. The philosophy is plain and
accepted.
One of the things which was recalled was the spaciousness in the group. It
was a group which seemed to offer a great deal of room or space which had a
logical , appropriate feeling about it. This is difficult to come by. It is easy
enough to play silence but difficult to get it to sound right.
That was the thing about the music that was most marked, particularly
for percussion: the fact that silence was valid. The music started from silence.
It didn't start from the rhythm section 'getting it on'. It started from what we
accept as silence. And every move meant something. And for percussion that
was fantastic. Because <let's get swinging' was one of the percussionist's
chains. So, to be able to make a sound and for it to mean something was a great
release for me. In other terms, that contributed to the musical environment by
representing, in spite of the obvious energy that was about, a respect for what
the other person was doing. That was a great liberating force from the point of
view of developing the necessary intense concentration on what was going on
around you. One of the remarkable things about the Sheffield experience for
me was that I felt that I suddenly wasn't involved with the jazz language but
that I was involved in a universal language. And I feel that now. A music that
89
carries its own judgements and intentions and is not something simply tagged
on to the end of jazz. That was an enormous liberating force.
•••
In discussing Joseph Holbrooke with Gavin Bryars I mentioned being amazed
that when we first played freely it appeared to work; something I hadn't really
expected. Gavin Bryars:
I think it worked for a lot of reasons. The main one was that we had gone
through a period of inventing procedures together and all that stuff was
insurance against things falling flat when we did work without guidelines. The
fact that we did all that meant that the music retained some coherence. The
earlier stuff served as a sort of training. We had been in that 'swimming'
situation before, but now we moved from the shallow to the deep end. And
aurally our first excursions into free playing were probably very little different
from our so-called 'conventional' playing. We were already working harmon-
ically, melodically and rhythmically in areas that were very remote from the
original material. In those earlier things there was a certain energy, a certain
questioning going on that was exciting.
During this period we worked every evening in a nightclub, an environ-
ment where the response to this kind of thing, although not uniformly hostile,
could carry drastic sanctions. So, these developments came about mainly
through private, daytime, playing and also at a weekly lunchtime concert we
organised throughout that two and a half year period in a small upstairs room
over a pub. During that time we collected a small audience which attended
these performances with astonishing regularity and faithfulness, the bulk of
them coming to the 'club' throughout its existence. Most audiences appear to
prefer knowing exactly what they are going to get. Our audience couldn't have
been sure of that. I asked Gavin Bryars what he thought the reasons were for
their faithfulness or, perhaps, their tolerance.
There was a social aspect to the activity and there was some sort of respect
- a recognition of our seriousness. It was certainly quite different from most
other jazz clubs in the area. I think one reason that the audience stuck with us
was that the music did have a powerful dramatic quality. There was a sense of
expectancy, things did change and resolve, and so it had a kind of drama.
It was at the club that we occasionally augmented the basic trio, adding
whoever might be interested to play with us. And a number of musicians were
interested but as time went on the group obviously presented increasing
difficulties to 'sitters in'. Gavin Bryars:
We never fully accepted other musicians into the group. They hadn't been
through that period of working together and, although one welcomed their
90
contribution, we were always vaguely suspicious that they didn't understand
what was going on. We took each other seriously because of our mutual
development but maybe we couldn't extend that trust to people who hadn't
shared it.
Did you consider what we did to be jazz?
The earliest stuff certainly was jazz and some of the early developments
followed contemporary jazz developments but after a while it became anti-
jazz, and after that there was a complete ignoring of possible jazz aspects in
the playing. Although it did retain a rhythmic energy and certain jazz details.
But it was not a uniform texture. Things came and went. We stopped, after a
while, following jazz events in America. In fact the last time I can recall any
outside jazz reference was when Tony taped a Czechoslovakian group from
the radio. And I didn't want to hear it. But it was the case that the only outlet
for this thing we were doing was through a situation, and a music really, that
was based on jazz. By about '65 though, I was barely interested in jazz at
all. At that time I got the '61 Cage catalogue and I ordered things every week
through the local music shop. So I was getting all those pieces and studying
them and there was something strange about trying to reconcile that
information with what we were doing. I had also got Cage's Silence by this
time and the ideas in that had quite a strong effect on me and at the same time I
was studying composition with George Linstead. So I was actually listening to
and thinking about and studying classical music far more than anything else.
Messiaen at that time became a particular study of mine and I bought a lot of
his scores and also the recording ofChronocromie.In fact there was an organ
piece L'Ascension which I arranged for piano and bass which we played at the
club.
I remember the long bass solos where the room was absolutely silent and
actually, sometimes, there wasn't much coming out of the bass either.
I would play very quiet harmonics with the bow and get the volume very
low indeed. It wasn't for dramatic effect but it did produce that. Arco things
were, I think, more sparse. I was not listening to other bass players then.
Except LaFaro and that was for nostalgic reasons. But I had become very
much involved in the instrument and I think a lot of things I did were to see
what the instrument could do. It was very subjective. We spent a lot of
attention, individually and collectively, on single sounds. There was a very
tight concentration - almost a Zen quality - in the music. Making sure that we
didn't do anything superf/uous. There was nothing that could be called
decoration. It wasn't austere though. In fact it could sound, I think, absolutely
voluptuous. But there were times, particularly later, when we were prepared
to let people be on their own for long periods. For instance we would have the
91
drums playing alone for a long time but with occasional interjections from the
other instruments. And there were cadenza-like passages in the music. Solos
were usually completely solo and what accompanying there was would be
more like prompting but it wasn't a question and answer thing. It was, I think,
much more subtle than that. Even now I have a lot of respect for the music we
played and it had qualities which I haven't heard in any other improvised
music.
The music in terms of time was pretty expansive. Originally we might
play eight or ten pieces, probably more, in a couple of hours. When we were
playing freely we would play maybe three or four at the most. So each piece
was tending towards a half hour duration.
Sheffield, the city in which all this was taking place, is my hometown and I
had left it some ten years before these events in search of a more stimulating
musical environment believing at the time that Sheffield represented, in its
musical life, all the deadliest aspects of provincialism. Now, having returned
for reasons unconnected with music, there was a certain irony in stumbling
into such a fertile musical situation. The transformation was, of course, more
to do with people than place but Gavin pointed to the advantages of isolation
for what we were doing.
I think the fact that we were isolated, musically, helped us. Normally I'm
suspicious of that idea, particularly the idea of composers in isolation, but I
think for us it made a lot of difference. Had we been playing in London, say,
some area with a large musical community, most of the developments would
have been nipped in the bud. Over two and a half years there was constant
contact between us and, as far as our creative musical activities were
concerned, we only worked with each other. In London or some other centre
there would have been other interests and influences. We developed a
collective language. Not a consciously articulated language but step by step -
each step by a different person - a symbiotic thing. The total exceeded the sum
of the individual parts. It was a very real case of that. It was absolutely a
collective thing. The ideas that were contributed individually all coloured the
development but we were in a position to trust each other sufficiently to share
those things, to allow the individual contributions to come in and be used
collectively.
Amongst the many things enjoyed by that group was the productive
contrast between the musical personalities of Gavin Bryars and Tony Oxley.
Bryars had a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward the group then, never sure
if he should be there at all, but knowing, I think, that it suited his musical
position at that time (he subsequently became a composer). Combined as it
was with a certain natural anarchic tendency it contrasted sharply wIth
92
Oxley'S direct, totally committed stance. This kind of juxtaposition has the
effect of producing a continuous, slight, musical friction which is, I think, very
productive in an improvising group. But that was only one among a host of
benefits which flowed from being able to work so closely with two, quite
differently, exceptional musicians and which made being a part of Joseph
Holbrooke an incomparable musical experience for me.
93
THE MUSIC IMPROVISATION COMPANY
From shortly after its formation in 1968 to its disintegration in 1971 the Music
Improvisation Company was Evan Parker, saxophones; Hugh Davies, live
electronics; Jamie Muir, percussion; and myself, guitar. For the last year or so
of its existence Christine Jeffrey was in the group. Her role was usually
described as voice which, although inadequate, was probably the only possible
description of her extraordinary sonic abilities.
The live electronics were introduced into the group as a further extension
of the alienation, in materials and sounds, from idiomatic improvisation; a
continuation of the search for a style· less, uncommitted area in which to work.
As Evan Parker says:
We were looking to extend the range of timbres available and to balance
the overt virtuosity that was central to our instrumental approach at the time
with another type of playing approach. We wanted some sounds which
weren't associated with instrumental improvisation.
In practice it wasn't always like that. After an initial period of adjustment
the live electronics developed a more conventional instrumental presence, in
some respects, than the other 'normal' instruments. His adoption of the
amplified long string, for instance, resulted in Davies often producing the sort
of electric guitar open string sound that I was at pains to avoid. There was often
a greater variety of timbre to be found in the saxophone than in the live
electronics. The few tonal references found in the music were usually produced
by the same source. So instead of the anticipated result, the live electronics
served to extend the music both forwards and backwards, so to speak, and
Davies helped to loosen what had been, until his arrival, a perhaps too rarefied
approach. Altogether it was a good example of a musician creating a role from
hi s own musical perceptions, not allowing it to be dictated solel y by the
' nature' of his instrument or the expectations of his colleagues. Evan Parker
points to other aspects of Davies' contribution.
Hugh's virtuosity was expressed more in the building of an instrument
than in the playing. Playing most of his instruments was often a matter of
letting them speak, but at the right time and at the right dynamic level. His
work with the group also hastened the development of the several 'layers'
approach to improvising, extending the basic dialogue form of the music
which has been called ping-pong.
94
Davies' own view of the MIC, as expressed in an issue of Musics
Magazine, is:
... you could play in the secure knowledge that one or more of the other
players, almost always particular players that one was 'aiming at', would react
to you in a particular way, without necessarily playing the sort of thing that
you might have expected them to play - in other words a security which
enabled unrestricted exploration of the new musical possibilities to take place.
When I indicated to Hugh Davies that it surprised me that the Music
Improvisation Company gave anyone a feeling of security he gave the
following example of what he meant.
The most specific memory - indeed virtually the only one - that I have of
a particular 'incident' during one of the performances of the Music Improvisa-
tion Company, is of a concert that we gave in Durham. At one point Evan
Parker began to play extremely high notes on his soprano saxophone, fairly
fast figuration within a small pitch-range, very intense and clearly quite an
effort to maintain. I knew that he was expecting another musician to join him
up there - musically speaking it was almost as if he was asking one of us to do
so - and at that moment I was not only perhaps the most obvious choice
because of the suitability of my instruments, but also I was not playing at the
time and thus was free to join him. However, I waited until he had very nearly
given up for lack of response, before suddenly taking up his invitation, which
meant that he then had to continue, for longer than he had 'intended' when he
started out; musically it would have been virtually impossible for him to desert
me immediately, as it would have destroyed the logic of what he had just been
playing (possibly, even if he actually remembered this situation, Evan would
disagree about this!). 1 took this decision for purely musical reasons, without
verbally rationalising it for myself, as it created a musical tension that
developed out of Evan's initial gesture that seemed to me to be appropriate. Of
course it was also typical of the way in which we functioned as a group, both
musically and on the level of personal interaction (which are virtually
identical, and certainly inseparable). Had my action been on a verbal level, it
could have been interpreted by an observer as being rather cruel, but it was
more in the nature of teasing and at the same time intended to create a
mutually stimulating musical tension. This is only possible when improvising
musicians know each other well enough for a common language to have come
into being, and a mutual trust in each other permits one to push against the
limitations of that language and the relationships on which it is based.
Here Hugh Davies is pointing to a feature of some free improvisation
which might be described as mutual subversion. Some improvisors find this
95
feature unhelpful, others thrive on it. But the MIC contained it to an unusually
large degree.
Perhaps a clearer idea of the different forces at work in the group can be
gained from the views of Jamie Muir. In an issue of the now defunct magazine
Microphone he gave the following account of his musical philosophy.
Well let me put it another way - [ much prefer ;unk shops to antique
shops. There's nothing to fmd in an antique shop - it's all been found already;
whereas in a ;unk shop it's only been collected. But a rubbish dump-a rubbish
dump has been neither found nor collected - in fact it's been completely
re;ected - and that is the undiscovered/unidentifiedlunclaimed/unexplored
territory - the future if only you can see it. Now some, like Yamashta, would
take a rubbish dump and turn it into an antique shop - thal's real alchemy, but
it smacks of the gold rush and a kind of greed - of 'staking out a claim', taking
from the earth but never putting back (who throws away antiques?) - he
civilises vast hunks of unexplored territory and builds safari clubs all over it so
you can view the beauties of the wilderness in luxurious comfort and from a
safe distance - a remarkable feat but you're back safe and sound in the antique
shop again where everything, you can bet your life, has already been
found ... and will be catalogued. However there is an alternative.
Instead of transmuting rubbish into music with a heavily predetermined
qualitative bias...leave behind the biases and structures of selectivity (which is
an enormous task), the 'found' attitudes you inherit, and approach the rubbish
with a total respect for its nature as rubbish - the undiscovered/unidentifiedl
unclaimed - transmuting that nature into the performing dimension. The way
to discover the undiscovered in performing terms is to immediately re;ect all
situations as you identify them (the cloud of unknowing) - which is to give
music a future.
It was to this compound of attitudes and philosophies that Christine
Jeffrey added her contribution, which Evan Parker describes thus:
Christine's effect was through a combination of trance and whimsy,
peculiarly her own at that time. To incorporate her range of expression
required that we broaden the emotional continuum of the music considerably.
The sound of the group, its whole character in fact, would depend on who
was 'leader' at the time. Who was leader wasn't a matter for discussion or
democratic decision. It depended on whichever member's influence, extended
through psychological alliances and conspiracies, was predominant at the
time. One member's leadership or dominance could have any lifespan but
usually seemed to last about three or four months. During this time the group
would reflect, not always without a struggle, his preferences and performing
style until, exhausted by his responsibilities, the leader would be overthrown
96
and returned to the rebellious ranks. Or that is how it seemed to me. But
strangely, the overall result of the apparently contradictory forces and
attitudes at work in the group was the achievement of a consistent, almost
'tight' group feeling, regardless of its changes in identity.
The bulk of the music played, as with the great majority of free
improvisation, is best described, I believe, as instrumental improvisation.
Instrumental as defined by Curt Sachs, writing in The Wellsprings of Music.
'The original concepts of vocal and of instrumental music are utterly different.
The instrumental impulse is not melody in a 'melodious' sense, but an agile
movement of the hands which seems to be under the control of a brain centre
totally different from that which inspires vocal melody. Altogether, instrumen-
tal music, with the exception of rudimentary rhythmic percussion, is as a rule a
florid, fast and brilliant display of virtuosity ... Quick motion is not merely a
means to a musical end but almost an end in itself which always connects with
the fingers, the wrists and the whole of the body.' That would serve as a
description of one of the underlying forces in free improvisation.
It is the attitude of the player to this tactile element, to the physical
experience of playing an instrument, to the 'instrumental impulse' which
establishes much of the way he plays. One of the basic characteristics of his
improvising, detectable in everything he plays, will be how he harnesses the
instrumental impulse. Or how he reacts against it. And this makes the stimulus
and the recipient of this impulse, the instrument, the most important of his
musical resources.
97
THE MIe - THE INSTRUMENT
In the non-improvisor, particularly the straight player, there is no sign of the
instrumental impulse. One reason why the standard Western instrumental
training produces non-improvisors (and it doesn't just produce violinists,
pianists, cellists, etcetera: it produces specifically non-improvisors, musicians
rendered incapable of attempting improvisation) is that not only does it teach
how to play an instrument, it teaches that the creation of music is a separate
activity from playing that instrument. Learning how to create music is a
separate study totally divorced from playing an instrument. Music for the
instrumentalist is a set of written symbols which he interprets as best he can.
They, the symbols, are the music, and the man who wrote them, the composer,
is the music-maker. The instrument is the medium through which the
composer finally transmits his ideas. The instrumentalist is not required to
make music. He can assist with his 'interpretation' perhaps, but, judging from
most reported remarks on the subject, composers prefer the instrumentalist to
limit his contribution to providing the instrument, keeping it in tune and being
able to use it to carry out, as accurately as possible, any instructions which
might be given to him. The improvisor's view of the instrument is totally
different.
About learning to play an instrument John Stevens says: 'Improvisation is
the basis of learning to playa musical instrument. But what usually happens?
You decide you want a certain instrument. You buy the instrument and then
think to yourself, "I'll go and find a teacher, and who knows, in seven or eight
years' time I might be able to play this thing". And in that way you miss a mass
of important musical experience. Studying formally with a teacher might be
the right way to achieve certain specific aims, but to do only that is a very
distorted way of approaching a musical instrument. It has to be realised that a
person's own investigation of an instrument - his exploration of it - is totally
valid.'
• • •
There seem to be two main attitudes to the instrument among improvisors.
One is that the instrument is man's best friend, both a tool and a helper; a
collaborator. The other attitude is that the instrument is unnecessary, at worst
98
a liability, intruding between the player and his music. The division between
these views is not as distinct as it might seem, but the first, the pro-instrument
view, is the most widely held and is found in all areas of improvisation. With
the instrument, as with other things, attitudes and practices found in
'conventional' forms of improvisation can be found, sometimes developed and
extended, in free improvisation; but the instrument, in free playing, can
assume an absolutely central position, a position to which its historic functions
might be quite irrelevant. Steve Lacy: 'The instrument- that's the matter- the
stuff - your subject.'
There is no generalised technique for playing any musical instrument.
However one learns to play an instrument it is always for a specific task. The
Indian player, after successful study with his master, is fitted to play Indian
music. The flamenco player learns flamenco, the jazz player jazz, and so on.
And in some respects the better he is at his chosen idiom the more specialised
his abilities become.
The standard European instrumental education thinks of itself as being an
exception to this rule. It is of course a very good example of it. It equips a
musician with the ability to perform the standard European repertoire and its
derivatives, and perhaps more than any other discipline it limits its adherents'
abiliry to perform in other musical areas.
Although some improvisors employ a high level of technical skill in their
playing, to speak of 'mastering' the instrument in improvisation is misleading.
The instrument is not just a tool but an ally. It is not only a means to an end, it is
a source of material, and technique for the improvisor is often an exploitation
of the natural resources of the instrument. He might develop certain aspects of
the instrument that appeal to him, that seem particularly fruitful. The
unorthodox technique is commonplace, its function being to serve only one
man's purpose: 'technique for the improvisor is not an arbitrary consumption
of an abstract standardised method but rather a direct attunement with the
mental, spiritual and mechanical energy necessary to express a full creative
impulse' (Leo Smith)'.
Probably a large partof most improvising techniques is developed to meet
particular situations encountered in performance. But most practical musical
situations imply other hypothetical situations, and so one technical device
might be developed to cover a wide range of possibilities. An extension of
technique might have certain musical implications which might in turn
1 John speaks 01. similar.1O 'ArOUnd the we made Karyobin, !though' . 'lhere's my arms. 1hefe's my legs,
IS enough ne.ibi!lty . All! had to lind was a way 01 applying myselt. And I didn' , wan110dabble with thai
ne.'billty. I didn'l wan110 practise or anyt.hing. So I_nllh'ough thaI period and at that lime il wor\(ed. Now it" s dIHElfet1I.! like 10 pia
the drums alilhe lIme. BUI tor lhat II wor\(ed. And t still believe In it. Application Is even mOI"B Important than tech ' I' T Y
because applicalion is the key to laking part. 10 beIng involved ' nlca aCllty.
99
produce further technical implications, which might reveal further musical
implications - that sort of extrapolation or rationalisation is one of the many
ways in which the instrument can supply the music. Almost any aspect of
playing an instrument can reveal music. Virtuosity doesn't have to be empty,
however irresistible that phrase might be for the critic. The instrument's
responsiveness to its acoustic environment, how it reacts to other instruments
and how it reacts to the physical aspects of performing, can vary enormously.
The accidental can be exploited through the amount of control exercised over
the instrument, from complete - producing exactly what the player dictates -
to none at all-letting the instrument have its say. Habits- technical habits and
musical habits (cliches) - are quite consciously utilised by some performers.
And there is a type of creative impetus which can come from playing well
technically which can't be achieved in any other way. There also seem to be
direct technical benefits from a concentration on the creative, not on the
executive, side of playing.
In addition to developing a personal instrumental technique it is common
amongst pro-instrument improvisors to develop, and literally to extend, their
instruments. Some of these changes can be quite minimal; a loose string added
to a guitar, altered mutes and mouthpieces for a trombone, the usual sort of
'preparations' for a piano. More radically, extension is made by amplification
and electronic treatment. Although this is mainly confined to string players,
many improvisors are attracted to the use of electronics and it is one of the
many kinds of instrument extension to be found amongst percussion players.
Any object at all can be included in an improvising percussionist's
equipment. The usual basic stuff- drums, cymbals, wood blocks, xylophones,
etcetera - is supplemented by gongs, saucepans, gunshells, hand bells and all
the other early-Cage paraphernalia. There are also devices used which would
probably find their antecedents in the armoury of futurist composer Luigi
Russoio, who used to describe his noise-makers as 'howlers, roarers, cracklers,
whistlers, rubbers, buzzers, exploders, gurglers and rustlers'.
The percussionist Frank Perry, describing his kit, writes: 'superimposed
about these [drums and cymbals] are a variety of sound sources. These
comprise small bells, wood blocks, cowbells - chimes, hubcaps. The various
things hanging include: knives and forks, stones, plastic spoons, sea shells,
brass fittings and bamboo. Wire knitting needles, chopsticks and other strikers
obviously extend these characteristics.'2
2 This quotation Is taken 110m the June t972 iS$ue 01 the magazine Microphone. unlortunatety delunct , This !$Sue 01 "'e:
worn which I have already taken some lemarks 01 Jamie Muir's, was given over to the views and comments of
pen;ussionists. In lhe same lasue, Paul Lytton said 'the 5OUroes have remained Ihe same: wood, plashC. metal, wire, rubber, skin.
liQuid,gas'
100
Quite differently, Tony Oxley's percussion equipment, although includ-
ing many acoustic items, leans more to electronic extension. The acoustic part
is : drums - eight, various sizes and textures; cymbals - fourteen, various sizes,
thicknesses, weights, sounds; cowbells - five, from 6 inches to 16 inches; wood
surfaces - five, wood blocks and oriental skulls; saucepans - two. The
amplified section of the kit is: amplified frame containing cymbals, wires,
various kitchen equipment, motor generators, springs, used with 3 contact
mikes (home-made), 2 volume pedals, 1 octave splitter, 1 compressor, 1 ring
modulator and oscillator, 1 amplifier and 2 speakers.
Since the heyday of the mammoth percussion kit, when they were
measured in the number of hours needed to erect and dismantle them, there has
been a definite tendency towards more modest constructions, and the contrast
between the pro· and anti- instrument view, amongst percussion players at
least, is not now so vivid.
•••
The anti-instrument attitude might be presented as: 'The instrument comes
between the player and his music.' 'It doesn't matter what sort of instrument
you play, a Stradivarius or a tin drum, it's the person behind it that counts.'
Technically, the instrument has to be defeated. The aim is to do on the
instrument what you could do if you could play without an instrument. Ronnie
Scott expressed this view when he said: 'I practise to become as close to the
instrument, as familiar with it, as possible. The ideal thing would be to be able
co play the instrument as one would playa kazoo.' And in conventional or
traditional improvising it does usually mean the musician would li ke co be in
such complete control that the instrument ceases to be a consideration, In free
improvisation where one's intentions do not necessarily have a prescribed
aural definition, this attitude can lead to a rejection of the instrument entirely
and the utilisation of other sonic resources, usually accompanied by an
increase in theatrical activity. More usually, though, the second attitude leads
to a limiting of technique and a reduction of the instrument to its 'essentials',
Again percussion players provide the best examples: one plays a three piece toy
drum set; another only a military snare drum. Most of the musicians in
this grouping share an' almost pathological hatred of anything which might be
called electronic.
Instruments very much in favour with this school are, naturally enough,
those which are ethnic in origin or, at least, in appearance. These meet the
requirement that the instrument should have a fixed, very limited capability
and that very little instrumental skill is needed to play it. The idea is, I think,
101
that because of the limited opportunities for technical virtuosity, a more direct
expressiveness is possible. Some of these players have shown a great interest in
the practices and rituals of ethnic music and particularly in what is taken to be
primitive uses of the voice. So, in performance, grunts, howls, screams, groans,
Tibetan humming, Tunisian chanting, Maori chirping and Mozambique
stuttering are combined with the African thumb piano, Chinese temple blocks,
Ghanian soft trumpet, Trinidadian steel drum, Scottish soft bagpipe, Aus-
tralian bull-roarer, Ukrainian stone Aute and the Canton one-legged monster
to provide an aural event abollt as far removed from the directness and dignity
of ethnic music as a thermo-nuclear explosion is from a fart.
At one time or another, most players investigate both the pro- and the
anti-instrument approaches, some oscillate continuously between them and
some contrive to hold both views at once, so there is no clear division into two
groups of musicians. But the attitudes are quite distinct, it seems to me, and
both can be heard in almost any piece of improvised music.
102
THE MIC - RECORDING
My songs are part of my soul and if the demon in the white man's box steals my
soul, why, I must die. Eskimo refusing to record for ethnomusicologist.
Describing a musical event as a "free improvisation", recording it and
issuing it for people to listen to in their front rooms lays a philosophical and
aesthetic minefield. From a review by Michael Thorne of Free Improvisation
(Deutsche Grammophon, 3-box set).
The Music Improvisation Company made fWO records: the one on the Incus
label provides the best example of the group's recording style and establishes
the identity of the group at that period (1969-70). But in common with other
recordings of free improvisation - possibly any improvisation - what it does
not do is present a piece of the group's music. Too little of improvised music
survives recording. One of the reasons is quite simple. The technical illusions
practised in recording ('live' or studio) are inimical to the constantly changing
balances and roles which operate within most free improvisation. Recording
devices such as reduction, 'presence', compression limiting, filtering and stereo
picture, usually serve only to fillet out or disturb quite importanr clements.
But much more important than the limitations of the technology is the
loss during the recording process of the atmosphere of musical activity - the
musical environmenr created by the performance - 'the matching of music
with place and occasion', as Peter Riley describes it, which is one of the main
strengths of improvisation. Ronnie Scott says: 'J hate making records, I really
detest making records, because to me the way I play is really a kind of
momentary thing, an in-person momentary thing, that one can't hope to
capture on a record, simply because it is a record.' Cornelius Cardew,
discussing the recording of free improvisation, says: 'What recording produces
is a separate phenomenon, something really much stranger than the playing
itself, since what you hear on tape or disc is indeed the same playing but
divorced from its natural context. What is the importance of the natural
context? The natural context provides a score which the players are
unconsciously interpreting - a score that co-exists inseparably with the music,
standing side by side with it and sustaining it.' Lionel Salter on recording
baroque music: 'I'm not at all sure that recording is useful for anything more
than reference.' Alain Danielou: 'Of the living music in which improvisation
103
plays an essential part, a gramophone record gives us only a frozen or fixed
moment, like a photograph of a dancer.' All that a recording can offer are
certain identifiable features. Features which, although completely unique and
personal to that group or individual, are useful only for purposes of
identification. That it should provide evidence of musical identity or of changes
in identity is all that is usually claimed for a recording.
The intermittent fuss over the validity of recording improvisation
overlooks certain realities. Recording is an adjunct to all musical activities
except those which exist as an adjunct to recording. Many of the reservations
expressed about recorded improvisation apply equally well to other recorded
music. Records simply supply a different listening experience to listening 'live';
for the majority of people, apparently, a preferable one. Perhaps the debate
over recording improvised music keeps rearing its head because, unlike other
recorded music, there is no apparent economic justification for it.
• • •
Compared to some groups, the Music Improvisation Company had a relatively
short life span. After less than three years, and after a particularly fruitful late
period, it came apart. Evan Parker, referring to the last twelve months of the
group's existence, says:
Being part of the group through this period opened me to the point
where, when the wind's in the right direction, I'm ready to play with anyone.
The last few occasions the M.l. C. played remain sharply etched in my memory
and are amongst my most highly valued playing experiences.
104
SOLO
Improvisors are, as a rule, musically gregarious, preferring to work with other
musicians in any combination from duo up to quite inexplicably large
ensembles. For most people improvisation, although a vehicle for self
expression, is about playing with other people and some of the greatest
opportunities provided by free improvisation are in the exploration of
relationships between players. In this respect solo improvisation makes no
sense at all. However, at some time or other, most improvisors investigate the
possibility of playing solo. Historically, the earliest documentation of
improvisation, almost the only documentation of improvisation, concerns solo
playing. Much of this deals with the organ, but there are also accounts
describing the popularity of solo improvising on all the string and keyboard
instruments. Solo improvising, in fact, attained a quite exceptional pre-
eminence in Europe during the 17th century when great facility in this art was
considered, apparently, to be a sign of good breeding. Curiously, in our own
time, never outdone in hyperbole, the efforts of an improvisor to make sense of
the solo situation have been described as noble.
My conversations with other improvisors on the topic of solo playing
produced a variety of opinions, to which I will return, but no general view
emerged that I could detect so again I'll attempt, without too much optimism,
to describe what I think is my own approach to solo playing. This, I find, has
changed considerably as time has gone on. Much of what I assumed about my
own solo playing when I first tried to write about it fifteen years ago no longer
seems particularly relevant to what I think I do now. The implications of this
for the permanence of my present assumptions will be obvious.
For me there has always been an attraction in solo playing, perhaps partly
explained by the nature and tradition of the guitar, the instrument I play. But
when, around 1970/71 after a period of some years playing in improvising
groups of many different styles and sizes, I turned almost exclusively to solo
improvising, I did so out of necessity. The need, after a considerable time
thinking only in group terms, was to have a look at my own playing and to find
out what was wrong with it and what was not wrong with it. I wanted to know
if the language I was using was complete, if it could supply everything that I
wanted in a musical performance. The ideal way of doing this, perhaps the only
way, it seemed to me, was through a period of solo playing. Alternating periods
105
of group playing with solo playing is something I have tried to maintain ever
since.
LANGUAGE
The analogy with language, often used by improvising musicians in discussing
their work, has a certain usefulness in illustrating the development of a
common stock of material-a vocabulary - which takes place when a group of
musicians improvise together regularly. With a successful improvising group
the bulk of their material will be initially provided by the styles, techniques and
habits ofthe musicians involved. This vocabulary will then be developed by the
musicians individually, in work and research away from the group, and
collectively, in performance. In a wider sense, Steve Lacy speaks of a
'brotherhood of language. Each player who comes along affects the common
pool of language. When you hear a new player- and you make it your business
to hear anyone who comes along who has something new- then you have to go
back and rethink everything.'
In the choice and development of material the solo improvisor works in
similar ways to the group improvisor. Building a personal vocabulary and
working to extend it in both performance and preparation. The material is
never fixed and its historical and systematic associations can be ignored. The
improvisor can also look for material which will be appropriate for, and which
will facilitate, improvisation. This last consideration, for me, provides the
main purpose and the continuing interest in solo playing. It forms part of the
search for whatever is endlessly variable, the construction of a language, all
parts of which are always and equally available.
The most obvious differences to group improvisation - greater cohesive-
ness and easier control for the soloist - are not, in improvisation, necessarily
advantages and an even greater loss, of course, is the unpredictable element
usually provided by other players. In this situation the language becomes much
more important and there will be times in solo improvisation when the player
relies entirely on the vocabulary used. At such times, when other more
aesthetically acceptable resources such as invention and imagination have
gone missing, the vocabulary becomes the sole means of support. It has to
provide everything needed to sustain continuity and impetus in the musical
performance. This, it seems to me, is where the main danger in solo
improvisation arises.
Improvising alone, before an audience, is not without its terrors. The
temptation, when nothing else seems to be offering itself, to resort to tried and
proven procedures, to flog those parts of the performance which are most
palatable to an audience - and no musician who has spent time playing in
106
public is in any doubt about what they are- is not easily resisted and it is clear
that in solo improvising, as with a great deal of performed music, a successful
audience response can be the cause of rituals and formulae being repeatedly
trotted out long after they have lost any musical motivation. At this point the
credibility of the activity is in the balance and maintaining it simply depends on
the courage of the player. Once solo playing descends to being the recycling of
previously successful formulae its relevance to improvisation becomes pretty
remote.
• • •
The developments in my playing following on from those described in the
chapter on Joseph Holbrooke continued along the same lines and for the same
reasons: to find a way of dealing with a freely improvised situation in which a
conventional vocabulary proved inadequate. Again, a written description -
any description - is, inevitably, a distortion, ossifying and delineating a process
which was fluid and amorphous - and almost always empirical.
Beyond the immediate influence of the musicians I was playing with, the
bases of my improvising language came from an interest in the music of
Schoenberg's pre-serial,'free' atonal period, the later music of Web ern and also
certain early electronic music composers. (Musicians who shared, it is fairly
safe to say, a deep antipathy to anything remotely connected with improvisa-
tion. ) Apart from the fact that [liked the stuff, [ thought (and I still think) that
intervallic manipulation of pitch is less restricting and more productive than
other ways of pitch management, and that the very clearly differentiated
changes of timbre which characterised some early electronic music was the sort
of thing which could assist in assembling a language that would be literally
disjointed, whose constituents would be unconnected in any causal or
grammatical way and so would be more open to manipulation. A language
based on malleable, not pre-fabricated, material. Generally I was looking, I
think, to utilise those elements which stern from the concepts of unpredict-
ability and discontinuity, of perpetual variation and renewal first introduced
into European composition at the beginning of the 20th century.
But this ' improvising language' was, of course, superimposed upon
another musicallanguagej one learned, also empirically, over many years as a
working musician. Working musicians, those found earning a living in night
clubs, recording studios, dance halls and any other place where music has a
functional role, spend very little time, as I remember it, discussing 'improvising
language', but anyone lacking the ability to invent something, to add
something, to improve something would quickly prove to be in the wrong
107
business. In that world, improvisation is a fact of musical life. And it seems to
me that this bedrock of experience, culled in a variety of situations,
occasionally bubbles up in one way or another, particularly playing solo. Not
affecting specifics like pitch or timbre or rhythmic formulations (I've yet to find
any advantage in quoting ditectly any of the kinds of music I used to play) but
influencing decisions that affect overall balance and pace - judging what will
work. The unexpected, not to say the unnerving, can also occasionally appear.
Recently, it seems to me, some reflection of the earliest guitar music I ever
heard occasionally surfaces in my solo playing; music I have had no connection
with, either as listener or player, since childhood.
Once a vocabulary of some homogeneity is assembled and is working and
has proved to be usable in a playing situation, material can be included, at least
for a period, from any source. And that's a necessity, because the need for
material is endless. A feeling of freshness is essential and the best way to get
that is for some of the material to be fresh. In a sense it is change for the sake of
change. Change fot the sake of the benefits that change can bring.
Eventually, the attempt to analyse one's playing in this way reveals,
among other things, the limitations of the vocabularyllanguage analogy. The
flute player Jim Denley points out the automatic simplification that occurs
whatever kind of explanation is attempted:
For the improvisor the physicality of producing sound (the hardware) is
not a separate activity to the thoughts and ideas in music (software). In the act
of creation there is a constant loop between the hierarchy of factors involved in
the process. My lungs, lips, fingers, voice box and their working together with
the potentials of sound are dialoguing with other levels which I might call
mind and perception. The thoughts and decisions are sustained and modified
by my physical potentials and vice versa but as soon as I try and define these
separately I run into problems. It is a meaningless enterprise for it is the very
entanglement of levels of perception, awareness and physicality that makes
improvisation. '
•••
Talking with other improvisors about solo playing revealed that most people
see it as a vehicle for self-expression. A way of presenting a personal music.
One curious uniformity of attitude, or at least explanation, was the use of Paul
Klee's 'Taking a line for a walk'. Evan Parker, Christine Jeffrey and Phil
Wachsmann have all quoted it at different times in talking about what they do.
1 From 'Improvisation: the entanglement of awareness and physicality', 11 paper by Jim Denleypublisl1ed in the impfovisalion Issue
(Summer 1991) 01 Sounds Australisn
108
Leo Smith says: • ... one improvisor creates a complete improvisation with
more than one instrument and of mixed character (eg trumpet, flugelhorn,
percussion instruments and flute. )' And then the opposite approach is
suggested by Tony Oxley: 'In solo playingatthe moment I'm limiting myself to
certain aspects of the kit, just a part of the vocabulary. I find that an interesting
thing. It's obviously more secure than the wide open thing:
It is clear that in solo playing the instrument achieves a special potency
and its importance to this kind of music-making is at its most obvious here. In
some cases, the music is literally constructed from the instrument, as with
instrument builders such as Hugh Davies and Max Eastley. The German guitar
player Hans Reichal, who seems to have spent the greater part of his career
playing solo, has built a series of guitars of unique design, each modification
reflected in the music he plays on them. For others, special instrumental
techniques form the basis of their approach.
Solo playing, in fact, has produced some remarkable, even spectacular,
performances, usually of a dense, furiously active nature: a panic of loneliness;
a manic dialogue with the phantom other; virtuosic distortions of natural
bodily functions unequalled since the days of La Petomaine. Missing, is the
kind of playing which produces music independent of the characteristics of
instruments or even individual styles (' ... who played that? .. '), unidentifiable
passages which are the kind of magic only possible, perhaps, in group playing.
The most interesting soloists to my ears often turn out to be trombonists.
Paul Rutherford and George Lewis, in their different ways, both seem to make
improvisation the basis of their solo playing and also take advantage of the
'singleness' of the solo situation; happy for the music to sound like one person,
playing alone. Vinko Globokar, on the other hand, the trombone player who
initiated much of the vocabulary widely used by improvising trombonists
(contentious area this), dismisses solo improvising as meaningless.
PRACTISING
Paco Peiia: I prepare to be able, technically, to reach anything I want to reach
on the guitar and for that, of course, I do my exercises and so on. But not
specifically for improvising.
Evan Parker: It seems to me the only practising of improvisation you
could do is either to improvise or to think about improvising.
Ronnie Scott: I've dmre what (or me is a great deal of practising and then
played in public and my technique (eels worse than it's ever been before,
whereas, one can not touch the instrument for weeks, and go out and be free
and loose.
109
There is almost unanimity here. But concerning improvising at the organ
Jean Langlais says: 'We have a technique for practising improvisation' (page
38).
With group improvisation the logic of not rehearsing is obvious, although
a number of groups have examined the possibility of a kind of preparation for
improvisation. Cardew says: '[there is] the proposition that improvisation
cannot be rehearsed. Training is substituted for rehearsal, and a certain moral
discipline is an essential part of this training.'
But with solo improvisation, as Jean Langlais indicates, there are definite
possibilities for practise. Not a pre-fixing of material nor preparing devices but
something which deals with and, hopefully, can be expected to improve the
ability to improvise.
The practise I do divides into three areas. Firstly, the normal basic
technical practise, the musical equivalent of running on the spot, the sort of
thing which might be useful to the player of any music. The benefit that this
sort of thing has for improvisation is debatable. Perhaps I do it because I
actually like practising, but it does assist in keeping instrumentally fit, which is
a playing condition that I would have thought was fairly important to an
improvisor. The second area of practise is centred on exercises worked out to
deal specifically with the manipulative demands made by new material. These
have a bearing on the material being used and if that changes they also have to
change. The third area, and I suspect this type of practise is done by many
improvisors, if they practise at all, is similar to something known in jazz circles
at one time as 'woodshed ding' . (Do jazz players not do this now or do they call
it something else?) It is the bridge between technical practise and improvisa-
tion. As personal as improvisation itself, it approximates to it but is really quite
different.
Aurally this difference might manifest itself in a greater deliberateness,
occasional stops and starts, and perhaps repetitions for obvious technical
reasons. Or the difference between the two might not be aurally apparent at all.
But it will be there and it lies in the improvisor's relationship to what he is
playing. He listens to himself in a different way. He might be much more
analytical and much less involved in aspects of playing created by the impetus
or the tension of performance. The playing might be much the same as when
improvising but the focus of attention will be on the details of playing rather
than on the totality, and what is being exercised is choice.
This is the way in which I work, and I can imagine that to some
improvisors it all adds up to heresy. They might subscribe to an approach
which prefers an abrupt confrontation with whatever is offered by each
110
performing situation. A self-contained unique experience undiluted by any-
thing in the nature of preparatory musical press-ups or carefully stored
ammunition. The aesthetic is faultless and perhaps leads to the ultimate ideal
of improvising once and never again. Which is another reason why I favour the
other, the practising, approach. The continuity of involvement which is
available in solo improvisation is, for me, its main reward.
FORM
Perhaps I have given the impression that there is no forward planning, no
overall structure, no 'form'. Adverse criticism of free improvisation - pretty
nearly the only kind available - almost always aims itself at the same two or
three targets and the clear favourite of these is 'formlessness'. As the criteria for
assessing a piece of music, any piece of music, is usually inherited from the
attitudes and prejudices handed down by the mandarins of European straight
music this is to be expected. Nowhere is the concept of form as an ideal set of
proportions which transcend style and language clung to with such terrified
tenacity as by the advocates of musical composition. 'The necessity for design
and balance is nowhere more imperative than in music, where all is so fleeting
and impalpable - mere vibrations of the tympanic membrane.' Although
written many years ago, that is still probably a fairly accurate indication of the
importance attached to form by those people concerned with composed music.
Even in those parts of contemporary composition where the earlier types of
overall organisation no longer serve, a great deal of ingenuity is exercised in
finding something upon which the music can be <based'. Myths, poems,
political statements, ancient rituals, paintings, mathematical systems; it seems
that any overall pattern must be imposed .to save music from its endemic
formlessness.
There is no technical reason why the improvisor, particularly the solo
improvisor, should not do the same thing. Most musical form is simple, not to
say simple-minded. Bur generally speaking, improvisors don't avail themselves
of the many 'frameworks' on offer. They seem to prefer formlessness. More
accurately, they prefer the music to dictate its own form.
In practice, this works in many ways and, as the subconscious aim is
probably to invent a form unique to every performance, giving a precise
account of the complex forces that govern the shape and direction of an
improvisation, even if such a thing is possible, would have no general
significance. But there is a forward-looking imagination which, while mainly
concerned with the moment, will prepare for later possibilities. Rather in the
way that memory works, perhaps, a piece can be criss-crossed with connec-
tions and correspondences which govern the selection and re-selection of
111
events as well as guiding the over-all pacing of the piece. Simultaneously,
events remembered and events anticipated can act on the present moment. As
Evan Parker says: 'Improvisation makes its own form'; and similarly, Carl
T.Whitmer: 'In expansion the form is generated.' Frank Perry, the percussion-
ist: 'For me, improvisation has meant the freeing of form that it may more
readily accommodate my imagination.'
• • •
The need to isolate and examine the problems of language, to connect and to
extend it, are adequately answered by solo playing. But solo playing for the
improvisor can be more than that and above all can offer a method by which
one can work continuously on all aspects of a body of music; an uninterrupted
activity which relies not on time and place or structured opportunities for its
occasion or on any of the different levels of acceptance and approval upon
which performed music usually depends for its viability, but relies only on the
player's ability to develop his music, to maintain its evolution, and so
guarantee his own continuing involvement.
Maintaining solo playing which remains meaningful from an improvising
point of view is an elusive business, not least because the easier it becomes to
play solo the harder it becomes to improvise solo, but it provides many rewards
and is, at times, essential.
But ultimately the greatest rewards in free improvisation are to be gained
in playing with other people. Whatever the advantages to solo playing there is a
whole side to improvisation; the more exciting, the more magical side, which
can only be discovered by people playing together. The essence of improvisa·
tion, its intuitive, telepathic foundation, is best explored in a group situation.
And the possible musical dimensions of group playing far outstrip those of solo
playing.
Paradoxically, perhaps, I have found that the best base from which to
approach group playing is that of being a solo improvisor. Having no group
loyalties to offend and having solo playing as an ultimate resource, it is possible
to play with other musicians, of whatever persuasion, as often as one wishes
without having to enter into a permanent commitment to any stylistic or
aesthetic position. This might be, I think, the ideal situation for an improvisor.
112
PART6
OBJECTIONS
Perhaps this is a good point at which to acknowledge that the world is not
divided into improvisors, those who can, and non-improvisors, those who
cannot. There are, of course, musicians who can improvise, who have
considerable experience of improvisation, and who have found it, for various
reasons, unacceptable to them. What follows is a transcription of a conversat-
ion between Gavin Bryars and myself in which he describes his disenchantment
with improvisation. I think it also indicates one of the main differences
between a composer's and an improvisor's attitude towards making music.
I decided to stop working as a practicing musician, to give up the playing
job I was doing and go into teaching. For some time before that I had been
getting more and more interested in theoretical aspects of music. 1 had been
reading Cage and had been involving myself more in questions of aesthetics
and composition. This was the general background. But 1 can point to certain
specific occasions which 1 can now recognise as being significant in my turning
from improvisation.
One of them was the last time Joseph Holbrooke played together. There
had been quite a long gap, maybe months, since we had worked together and
because of the demands of teaching I had not spent very much time practising
the bass. When we played together regularly I was always playing, but on this
occasion I think I had lost touch with the instrument a bit. And the fact that I
was called upon to play just as we used to play and the fact that I was neither
emotionally nor physically trained for it meant that the experience was
inadequate and that 1 was trying to recapture something that had been
happening in the past. And that seemed morally wrong. Then I witnessed some
of the things that were going on in the London scene at that time. There was a
bass player, for instance, who by his performance convinced me that he had no
idea of what he was doing. I had always been insistent that technically I had to
know exactly what 1 was doing on the instrument. Just achieving the 'general
effect' type of playing didn't interest me. And he was doing his fantastic runs
and so on and although it sounded in the genre, the appropriate thing in the
context, as far as I could see he had no idea what he was doing - he was a
clown. He had no conceptual awareness of what he ought to be doing. 1
thought he was playing a part. And when I realised that it was possible for
someone to sham like that it depressed me immensely and I never played my
113
own bass again after that. I have played other basses in a number of fairly
undemanding situations but from then on I did no further work on the bass,
and my own bass, which at that time needed repairing, still needs repairing.
Later, after going to America and studying with Cage, and returning here and
joining in, on live electronics, etcetera, some of the playing that was going on
around 1967 and '68 I was becoming more and more ideologically opposed to
improvisation. I began to find improvisation a dead end. I could only get out of
improvisation what I brought into it. But now I come to think of it that wasn't
the case when we played in Sheffield, but later I found more and more with
improvisation - my own improvisation maybe - that I got no more out of it
than I brought to it. I was limited entirely by my own personality and by that of
the people I played with. Unlike the situation in Sheffield, I found the situation
usually produced less than the sum of its parts. It was not possible to transcend
the situation I was playing in.
Now on the other hand, I found that by composing I could. Composing, I
could reach conceptions that I could never reach in a limited, defined,
performing time. I couldn't reach an equal conceptual excellence in improvis-
ing as in composing. The inadequacy may have been in myself, but, if so, I
transferred it to improvising. In improvisation you could develop a whole
armoury of devices and things you could do and then do them. You might
permutate the order but you were limited to those things you could do. It
could, if you worked very hard, be very sophisticated, but you were always
going to finish up manipulating those things you had developed. The epitome
of that is the skilful jazz player.
That's right. The whole point of a jazz player's improvisation is that he
works within a clearly accepted and circumscribed idiom. And he accepts these
boundaries, in fact revels in them, because they define his music. Now I would
have though that one of the main things free improvisation provides is the
opportunity to avoid just that situation.
I had always thought that too, and that's why I admired it and enjoyed
doing it with Joseph Holbrooke. But later I met musicians who gave the lie to
that. I knew they were practising effects during the day and playing them in the
'improvisation' at night. And the call and response type of playing adopted by
so many improvising musicians was unattractive to me. And pieces always
started tentatively, something big in the middle, and then finished quietly.
That sort of arc happened every time. If there are no more formal devices than
that it's pretty empty. Possibly I'm criticising particular improvisors or
particular improvisations.
In the time you are referring to, the late '60s, there was a lot of confusion
between free improvisation and free jazz. To a lesser extent it still exists. In fact
114
free improvisation is very often confused in its identity or in its attempt to find
an identity. Yet I think there is a type of playing which it is appropriate to
describe as free improvisation. But it does seem difficult, firstly to get hold of it,
and secondly, to keep hold of it. The tendency is often for the music to slide off
into some more readily identifiable area, jazz or comedy or into very obvious
forms such as you described. Another aspect of the same problem is that the
longer you play in the same situation or group - and this certai nly applies to
playing solo - the less appropriate it becomes to describe the music as 'free'
anything. It becomes, usually, very personalised, very closely identified with
the player or group of players. And then you suddenly find yourself in the
business of peddling 'my music'. But I believe that that ossifying effect can be
counteracted by playing with as many different sorts of improvisor as possible.
One of the main reasons I am against improvisation now is that in any
improvising position the person creating the music is identified with the music.
The two things are seen to be synonymous. The creator is there making the
music and is identified with the music and the music with the person. It's like
standing a painter next to his picture so that every time you see the painting
you see the painter as well and you can't see it without him. And because of
that the music, in improvisation, doesn't stand alone. It's corporeal. My
position, through the study of Zen and Cage, is to stand apart from one's
creation. Distancing yourself from what you are doing. Now that becomes
impossible in improvisation. If I write a piece I don't even have to be there
when it is played. They are conceptions. I'm more interested in conception
than reality. Because I can conceive of things that don't have any tangible
reality. But if I'm playing them, if I'm there at the same time, then that's real.
It's not a conception.
A lot of improvisors find improvisation worthwhile, I think, because of
the possibilities. Things that can happen but perhaps rarely do. One of those
things is that you are 'taken out of yourseW. Something happens which so
disorientates you that, for a time, which might only last for a second or two,
your reactions and responses are not what they normally would be. You can do
something you didn't realise you were capable of. Or you don't appear to be
fully responsible for what you are doing. Two examples of this might be the
production by some member of the group of something so apt or so
inappropriate that it momentarily overwhelms your sensibility - and the
results of this type of thing are literally incalculable. Another example, on a
totally different time scale, might be Joseph Holbrooke where three people
produced over a period of years something they could not have achieved
individually or, in fact, could not have expected to achieve collectively. Aren't
these things which it is impossible to identify with? Wouldn't this be an
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example of improvisation producing something not totally determined by the
players?
But in the act of the music being made there is no discrimination between
the music made and the people making it. The music doesn't exist elsewhere as
some general concept.
* * *
The above conversation took place in 1975. Some years later Gavin resumed
improvising. In 1991 he described how that came about and gave his current
views on improvisation.
My ambivalent feelings about improvisation are still there and some of
my conceptual objections to it still remain. In a way my ongoing caveats about
improvisation no longer come from a possible hostility between the
improvisor and the composer, but rather stem from my perception of
difficulties within the activity of improvisation itself. Perhaps the following
sequence of events might make this clear.
I have found myself being drawn back into improvisation, little by little,
chiefly because of the demands of teaching. Until 1978 I had been teaching in a
Fine Art department and so I did not have to confront the question of
improvisation as a burning issue in terms of musical practice - although I did
even find improvisational painters less interesting to me than those who took a
more considered, cerebral approach! But once I started teaching music again,
that is dealing with musicians rather than visual artists, in deciding what to
teach one of the first things that concerned me was the need to avoid passing on
to musicians, or embryo musicians if you like, the kind of difficulties or hang-
ups that I'd had as a player or as a composer. That is, my own tastes, my own
prejudices which arise from accumulated experience, should not be transmit-
ted to them in such a way that they become their own unquestioned premises.
If I was to give a history lecture about a composer for whose work I had little
sympathy (I am thinking, for example, of, say, the middle period of
Schoenberg, of serial composition, of some aspects of European modernism)
then my distaste for some of that music should not be transmitted to the
students, at least not at undergraduate level or when they are encountering the
music for the first time. I felt that I should discuss the music as it is in itself, and
as it was hoped to be received. I could describe it; 1 could discuss it within a
relatively objective framework and say what its merits are within its own
terms. Only if 1 were pressed would I express my own feelings about the music.
This 'distant' approach corresponds a little to the way that I was composing
during the early 1970s.
116
But of course some of the student musicians were aware that, in the past, I
had been a serious bass player and improvisor and asked me, on occasions, if I
would help them with their own work by playing with them. The first instances
were when some students were playing transcriptions of jazz solos and
wanted a bass player (there were none in the department at the time) to play
bass lines. I did help by playing, initially not on my own bass but on a poor
college bass (made, I think, of Czechoslovakian plywood). This gave me little
sensation of what playing such music was like, but at least it gave the students
some experience of being accompanied. I found myself talking about jazz in a
historical context too, and I recognised that there were substantial aspects of
jazz that had helped form me as a musician and my own repudiation of those
should not become part of their thinking. I talked about people like Bill Evans,
Lennie Tristano, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Scott LaFaro and others,
to put forward the view that their music is as important as any other music of
the twentieth century. Little by little I found myself moving more and more
towards accepting the music and even tak:ng pleasure in hearing it.
Eventually I found myself playing this music again. I also developed
improvisation projects for students, on approaches to <free' improvisation,
and a number of visiting musicians contributed to these projects. 1 also put
improvising musicians into part-time teaching positions. Serious improvisors
like Evan Parker and Paul Rutherford began to work as instrumental teachers
and, at the same time, help inform the atmosphere of the department. So, for
me, improvisation came alive again as an important aspect of a music
curriculum, an aspect which 1 see as academically essential. Musicians should
be given the opportunity to encounter improvisation as a serious musical
activity and to develop an informed response to it both practically and
intellectually, especially where they are being taught by a sceptic. I have also
found that more and more, with my own compositional work, the musicians I
respect as colleagues or with whom 1 collaborate are those who have some
experience of improvisation, and who are capable of adjusting their playing or
of playing with the kind of freedom that I would not get from a musician who
is tied exclusively to notation.
My main objections to improvisation have not been eradicated, they have
been assimilated into a broader musical practice. The principal conceptual
difficulties still remain for me: that of the personalising of music, and of the
unity of performer and music. I find it above all uncomfortable to watch
improvisors work, and I find recordings of improvisations seldom rewarding.
If I have to experience improvisation I would rather it be as a player than from
the outside.
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CLASSROOM IMPROVISATION
Adapting the only proven effective way of teaching improvisation, the
traditional way as exemplified by the Indian method" to teaching in a
classroom raises many problems: maintaining the necessary degree of empiri -
cism, maintaining the non-documentary, purely practical character of the
activity, avoiding the establishment of a set of generalised rules and always
allowing an individual approach to develop; these are essentials which, in a
classroom situation with, perhaps, a large group of people, are in danger of
being lost. And the only places where, to my knowledge, improvisation is
successfully taught in the classroom is in those classes conducted by practising
Improvisors.
Tn England the first musician to run an improvising class was John
Stevens. Stevens has always been a teacher. From the time in the middle 1960s
when he emerged as the leading organiser of free music in London, having an
idea, for Stevens, has been only a prelude to persuading his friends and
colleagues to adopt it. Not surprisingly, his improvisation classes have been
successful. Many people who subsequently became regular players have at one
time or another attended his classes, many of them meeting each other, and free
improvisation, for the first time through him.
He described to me how he came to be teaching improvisation.
I don't know where it started. Something that I often found myself doing
long before I started playing free music or almost any music was grabbing
people to play, I remember getting together with a brass band comet player in
the army. There was no-one else in the block at that time and I said to him
'come in here and play' and he said 'what shall I play then?' and I said 'play
anything you like and I'll drum with it'. He said 'but I can't do that'. And I said
'but you can - iust blow a note-any note - and I'll play this and you play that'.
And so that was a sort of beginning. And when I teach now it's not that
different.
You know I've always been interested in large ensembles. Well, quite
often, in order to get one together it would be necessary to have people in the
ensemble who, although they were open to playing the sort of music we were
playing, would also be professional musicians. I mean that in the bad sense.
1 Described in Part 000, Indian Musk: 2 {pages 7-9).
118
When somebody is a professional musician it often means that his involvement
is a bit limited. So, I turned more towards people who were actually getting off
on the music but not necessarily playing it. People who were excited by the fact
that there was a group of people who were struggling towards some sort of
group experience within a free improvisation. These were the listeners and
what was required of them would be a real feeling for what was going on. And
quite often there were people who were more spirited - more involved in the
activity - off the stand than some of those who were on it. There were always
people such as the regular members of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble who
were totally involved but there might be people playing with us who were less
involved.
I remember once in the Little Theatre Club suggesting to the audience
that if they wanted to take part there was something they could do in relation
to us that was simple and which would create a collective experience within
the club. And they did it - and it was a nice experience and some of them,
because of hearing us play and because of that experience, started taking up
instruments. Their approach to taking up instruments was based on their
having listened to us and the way we were playing our instruments so that was
the beginning. It was the beginning of people asking me questions and the
beginning of me getting involved with people other than developed musicians.
Up to then it had always been people like yourself or Evan, developed
musicians, people who had gone through other music.
So it started really with the audience at the Theatre Club which actually
developed into a group. And because it varied from people who had iust
started playing to people who had been playing a little longer, then what I
would do is get them to do something like - say - inhale deeply, playa long
note, as evenly as possible, and get into a collective continuum as a group.
Initially, what everyone is looking for is comfort. So if they start on one note
and it provides difficulties, they change to something more comfortable. Once
they are comfortable with this process of inhaling, exhaling and blowing a
note, then they can allow the note to change in sympathy with the group. So
that is simple enough for anyone to do. And that includes people using penny
whistles, or if they have no instruments, their voices. Another thing that I see as
important, in relation to working with groups of people, is staying in touch
with the whole group of people all the time. Keeping watch for the equivalent
of the little kid at school who is shy - who feels the more things are going on the
more he is excluded. And the way I would set up something would always be in
direct relationship with that person feeling comfortable. That's a priority. So
the method, or process, that you are teaching has to be simple enough to
communicate easily to the group as a whole, and for all of them to be able to do
119
it. But it also pas to be demanding enough of concentration to satisfy those
who are mar; developed musicians. So, for instance, in the continuum
exercise, the long note thing, the breathing is one part that any musician can
concentrate on and find useful.
Another t,hing I would use is something else which is basic to people, like
numbers. Just counting numbers or using words. Say, for instance, the use of
words. A phraie. We'll use the phrase 'a phrase' as an example. If you are
going to say 'a phrase' and repeat it, you are going to say it in your own way
and it's not so jar removed from singing. You're not actually singing, you are
saying the words, but in a musical context that can be very close. And because
it's simple, whe!'l somebody repeats it they realise how close they are to taking
part in music. ,So if you say 'a phrase', accenting the fa', you have already
provided at ledst a rhythmic element. And that might seem better, more
complete, if YOl.' say fa phrase is'. In which case you've improvised.
This thing is so wide and over the years I've developed what you might
call pieces and exercises, which do actually work. I don't know how many
there are, but it's a lot. They are not written down. I carry them in my head.
They are iust tpings that I can use. They are my tools, shall we say. Some of
them deal with rhythm, others deal with group involvement, and spontaneity.
By that I mean ,11oment by moment involvement. The piece will be designed to
require a mom;nt by moment involvement and you are trapped into that. It
gives them an lxperience of how quickly they can relate to each other and
forces them to lieep their ears open to the rest of the group. So the pieces come
out of a need til want to get across a certain experience I might have had. I
found the best ,vay to transmit information that I had was to actually do it. I
get them to do it in the hope that they will then share my experience of that
thing and so kn?W it in the way that I know it. I have this complete faith that if
the players can be made to feel a thing working they will then know the
essential part afout how to do it.
When I go out to do a workshop, though I've been doing it for a long time,
as I approach tEe place there is no real confidence in me about what is going to
happen. I alwars have the same sort of feeling. I can never take it for granted.
And walking inTo the room I'm always apprehensive. And sometimes I wonder
'What am I doing? I'm still doing this and worrying about it.' And there was
one period recently which, because of other problems, was particularly hard.
And as I traveued towards the place I would think: 'I'll have to give this up. I
just don't have lhat sort of energy any more.' Then I would get there, walk into
the room, and there would be about 15 people in there all playing their arses
off-great! The impact was iust beautiful. And they, the 'pUPils', got me there
during that timp· Then it was easy. The energy came from them.
120
What's interesting. one of the things that I see as important, is this: I've
had to try and avoid a situation where they relied on me to come in and set the
whole thing up. I made a rule: I said to them 'You're coming here because
you're supposed to want to play. This is a room in which you can play, so, as
soon as you get in this room you are going to prove you want to play by getting
on and playing. If you don't want to do that, none of what I'm doing here
makes any sense whatsoever. If there are four or two or even if you are the first
to arrive, as soon as you get here - start playing. And if someone comes who's
new to the class then it's the responsibility of the people who are experienced
in the class to invite the newcomer to play. In a sense, that is what it is about.'
Well, that took a long time to initiate but now there are always people playing
together. And now it provides me with a great lift.
The thing about workshops, or improvisation classes, is that you will
have some people for, say, three weeks on the trot, and there is something
developing. It 's becoming almost like a group. Then, a couple of new people
will come in. Now, you have to be prepared to let go of the development you
have and go wherever the addition of those new people takes it. Whether they
can play or not. It's got to go back to a common point.
What I have to keep in touch with at the workshop is a feeling of freedom
about playing music, and coupled with that, the feeling of wanting other
people to have that same freedom.
Most teaching concerns itself with transmitting a type of proficiency, with
imparting a skill, technical ability or know-how. The aim of teaching usually is
to show people how to do something. What Stevens aims at, it seems to me, is
to instil in the people he works with enough confidence to try and attempt what
they want to do before they know how to do it. Encouraging them to work
empirically, and trusting that they will then learn, with some guidance, from
the attempted playing experience.
My object is to incorporate all the people in the room in an experience. A
free playing experience. (Relatively free because my presence there as a
'teacher' is always a bit weird.) You get them to apply themselves to this ioint
experience and some point arrives where we are all 'doing it'. When they walk
away from there, that's when the other bit comes in. They are going to
examine that experience and try to decide how it happened and what they did
to help it happen. And they are going to try and work out how to make it
happen again. And the teaching comes in when you provide them with the
group experience. Which they provide themselves anyway. And even though
this is to do with free playing and it is possible to enter into this without being
able to play in tune, or to be able to do anything really, if you are going to
continue in music - any kind of music - that group activity experience should
121
be useful to any musical situation you might find yourself in. So it has a general
usefulness, I think.
We talked about the non-improvisor and went through the business dealt
with in a previous chapter of how the non-improvisor is often a musician who
is blocked off from improvising by his training. A training which builds up an
attitude towards playing music which prohibits the attempt to improvise:
If somebody says to me 'I can't improvise!' -and they could be somebody
with the biggest chunk of classical training imaginable in their background - I
would find that very inspiring. Because I know that within a very short time
they will be doing it and saying 'Oh, is that it?' And then they will do it again.
You see, it's the most natural thing in the world.
Subsequently,John Stevens collected his experience of teaching in this
way into a book, Search and Reflect, which is now used as the basis of all
teaching carried out by Community Music of London, who also publish it.
•••
A musician whose approach to improvising is in many ways totally different to
that of John Stevens is the Dutch drummer Han Bennink. For a long time he
took, jointly with Misha Mengelberg (his partner in a regular improvising
duo), a weekly class in free improvisation. Teaching at a conservatory, the
Muziekschool in Haarlem, Holland, meant that the people taught by Han
Bennink were, unlike those in John Stevens' classes, trained musicians. We had
the following discussion about his approach to teaching them free
improvisation.
I do nothing when I go there.
Nothing?
We play records sometimes - say Korean music. Maybe we talk about
;azz - how it was. We get them to talk about themselves.
Do you play with them'
Yes, we use those little rules we used to use years ago, you know. Split
them into groups - get quiet instruments to play very loud -loud instruments
very quiet - play staccato passages - long lines - we use those sort of
indeterminate scoring instructions. We used to divide the day into three parts,
one part theory, one part analysis, one part playing. Now Misha and I go as the
duo - as though we were going to playa gig. We playa little, stop and discuss
it, maybe Misha analyses it. Maybe we all talk about it. We keep busy.
Everything develops from that. We try and give a little energy to the pupils.
Give energy to the pupils?
I do nothing when I go there. I ask them to think of their own ideas. Any
person who is busy with music can think of better ideas than I can. So what I
122
try is to get the ideas coming from the pupils. When it comes to the point that
they offer nothing then, of course, I've got some tricks.
Tricks?
If they are not producing anything themselves, then 1 have some simple
statements, some ideas, on which we can work to provoke them, to start them
off. For instance, last week [ took a radio and turned to the end of the F M scale
where you can hear a sort of code, here in Holland. It repeats but after a couple
of seconds it's altering- it's that sort of sign, you know. Well, we take that sign
and we analyse it, find the notes, the rhythms, and we start to play with it. This
week I'll take a kettle with a whistle which, when it boils, produces different
pitches in rather an odd, unpredictable way. If it is necessary, we will use that.
If it doesn't work out too well you can always say it wasn't your cup of tea.
After a suitable pause, Han returned to the idea:
There you go, it's ;ust the idea - the kettle - certain tones, what's
happening with the water and why do you boil water. Is it music and what
makes music and what doesn't make music? Examining the idea from every
angle- being busy with the idea. That's the whole thing. Looking for each way
to come to the middle of it. You can take anything -a piece of paper, a record.
The people Han and Misha teach are either graduates or in their last year
at the conservatory, and in addition to being composers and teachers all
possess a fairly high level of instrumental ability.
Many of them improvise anyway, you see. Some play the blues or
something. Always a borrowed music. Narrow. We try and introduce a
broader scale of improvising - as broad as daily life. We are teaching them to
make music out of their own background, not someone else's background.
Learning what you are. In my eyes that's all you can do. Let people find out
what they are and where they are and where their musical influences and
preferences come from. Teach them to explore their own background.
It will have become obvious, I hope, that many of the characteristic
features of idiomatic improvisation are to be found in free improvisation. In
some particulars what can be said about one area of improvisation can be said
about all areas. It is true of teaching. The traditional way of learning to
improvise - studying with an experienced improvisor in a practical way -
joining him in his work - is what is offered to their students by John Stevens
and Han Bennink.
123
PART$EVEN
THE LONG-DISTANCE IMPROVISOR
One of a variety of reasons that led me in 1974 to start purring this book
together was a suspicion that freely improvised music as an identifiable
separate music was finished. Like some early 20th century 'ism', I vaguely felt,
it had run its course and would probably continue to exist, if at all, only as
some kind of generalised influence. By 1973/4 there had been a noticeable
reduction in playing activity and a few defections. And it was around this time
that the music was awarded the earliest of its regular obituaries; ill-disguised
celebrations which, over the years, have been persistently repeated by those
who obviously believe that it should never have happened in the first place.
In fact, this proved to be the start of a period during which the music
underwent a considerable expansion. Whereas up until this point the small
number of people who played this music not only knew each other but quite
regularly played together, now there was an influx of newer players who
brought with them a whole range of new musical attitudes and resources.
One group which in some way typified the 'second generation', as they
were often called, was Alterations. Although not formed until 1977, all the
musicians in it had been around for some time before that - in the case of the
percussionist, Terry Day, since the mid-60s - but were identified with 'newer'
approaches to playing. The guitarist Peter Cusack formed the group and I
asked him how Alterations had come about.
I remember I was living in Holland in 1976, and the group that became
Alterations was one of a number I tried at the time. I had no idea that it would
do what it did and go on for so long but the reason I settled on that particular
One was that I hoped it would sound completely different from other
improvising groups then playing. This was because the individuals in it
sounded different. Steve Beresford had his tunes and his sense of humour,
David Toop, who played an enormous range of (lutes at that time which
nobody else in the music was doing and Terry Day, the percussionist, who was
always very individual in his approach to his instruments. So, I thought it
would be different. And it was.
What was the difference?
One of the main differences was that we seemed to have no problem
including anything in Alterations - it could be any instrument, a tape of bird
song or quotes from any style of music. There was nothing which was taboo.
125
How is that different from what Han Bennink and Misha Mengelberg
were doing at that time?
They were probably a pointer for me. Having iustgot to Holland, I heard
them and other continental groups that I had never come across before. Until
then, I didn' t know too much about what was happening outside London.
However, Alterations took thiHgs in its own direction. For example, we started
out not using electric instruments although all of us otherwise played them.
We then quickly realised that there was no reason why we couldn't include
these in improvised music. And so - it just blossomed and everything was
included.
One of the ways which struck a listener as a complete departure seemed to
be the assumption of a performing environment completely alien to that of
most of the improvisation that had gone before - you set up to playas you
might in a rock venue - with all that that means - group amplification etc.
That wasn't how it started. But yes, after we started using electric
instruments - and there was flO conscious decision to do that, everybody just
brought more, or different, things along as time went on - there were three
electric guitars, a bass, a full drum kit and electric keyboards on stage. We
could use, and htdeed needed, a PA and were pretty loud at times. It naturally
developed in that direction. It sounded like rock music sometimes. Rock
venues and rock people were more willing to listen to us than they would to
another group of improvising musicians.
Recognisable references had previously been to jazz, new music or
electronic music. Alterations introduced other references, popular music, for
instance.
I remember at the time quite deliberately wanting to play with Steve and
David and Terry because of that. At the start, David's main references were, in
fact, based on his knowledge of non- Western musics. Steve's were a whole
range of styles, never just any one. Terry was similarly wide- ranging; later on,
he often brought his poetry into the group. I was fairly conscious of wanting a
group that would take those other areas and use them as improvising
references. Another thing was, we had quite a serious attitude towards
recording. Everybody, particularly Steve and David, were involved in other
sorts of playing and especially those where recording technique was much
more of a creative process than just a purely documentary one. The influence
of various musical ideas that started life in the studio - dub and reggae
techniques, for instance - you can begin to hear in our music. Towards the end
we used drum machines and other such devices. So, similar to many in popular
musics, we had a strong interest in the relationship between recording
techniques and live performance.
126
There's an obvious connection between Alterations and much improvised
music which has happened since - particularly in the U.S.
Pity we weren't from New York.
Some groups continue for ever in some form or other. Why did
Alterations finish after 9 years?
We all gradually diverged as people and in our musical interests. I
suppose all of us felt that towards the end it just wasn't working as well as it
used to. But the actual trigger was the point at which David left and stopped
playing live music altogether and, although we didn't discuss it, it became clear
that we just didn't want to carryon with a replacement. Alterations was these
four people.
• ••
Perhaps it is again necessary to stress that this is an attempt to write about the
music, not its history. Bur these patterns - fluctuations in the visibility of the
music, new 'generations' arriving - are part of the way this music has
continued.
Another constant feature is the transients, the through-traffic. Those
people who come to this kind of playing for a time, find it briefly serves their
musical interest, and then take off. There have been quite a few of those.
But most striking is the continuance of those musicians who first appeared
with this kind of playing when it claimed an identity for itself twenty-five or so
years ago. Virtually all these players, the first generation, have continued to
make music in this manner up to the present time.
The ways of survival have sometimes taken odd turns: 'Instant Composi-
tion' is, apparently, a broad enough concept to encompass re-arranging the
music of Thelonious Monk or Wolfgang Mozarti some players have, at times,
been prepared to sit in a big band and play the kind of music that formerly
aroused their contemptuous derision, revealing in middle age previously
unsuspected jazz 'roots', discoveries which happily coincided with an increase
in the popularity of jazz. But these are, probably, simply the kind of
manoeuvres sometimes found necessary to safely negotiate the mire thrown up
in culturally inclement times.
Then again, it might be that expediency and compromise, the seemingly
inevitable rolls exacted by the music industry from those who play music in
public, have finally crept into some parts of improvised music. In any event,
such deviations are of little consequence. From Paganini to Dizzy Gillespie the
most exalted performers of music have at times resorted to all kinds of antics.
127
• • •
Evan Parker, who has maintained at least two continuous musical
ships over many years, one with Paul Lytton in duo, trio and quartet
formulations and one as part of the Alex Schlippenbach Trio, points to the
musical advantages of continuity.
Things that are established as known between yourselves probably form
as useful a context for the evolution of something new as anything. But the
inter-personal relationships should only form the basis for working, they
shouldn't actually define the music too clearly, which they very often do. In
practice, the closest I would get to a laboratory situation is working with the
people I know best. It can make a useful change to be dropped into a slightly
shocking situation that you've never been in before. It can produce a different
kind of response, a different kind of reaction. But the people I've played with
longest actually offer me the freest situation to work in.
The really remarkable achievemem by the early improvisors, it seems to
me, is the survival of the earliest improvising groups. Three of them, MEV,
SME and AMM, still function. Their shared taste for acronyms might be a
throwback to their formative period, since all these groups began in the
mid-60s. With few changes in personnel and with a continuing commitment to
their. original musical aims all three groups are active more than 25 years later.
Holding together an ensemble for a quarter century, as anyone involved in any
kind of music will confirm, is a rare achievement. That three of the very small
number of improvising groups active in 1966 should still be playing in 1991
might be significant.
Perhaps the most consistent has been AMM. Since 1965 the musicians
making up AMM have been Eddie Prevost, percussion; Keith Rowe, guitar;
Lou Gare, tenor sax; and Cornelius Cardew, cello. Since Cardew's tragic death
John Tilbury, piano and Rohan de Saram, cello have also been regular
members. Occasionally other musicians have played with the group but never
establishing anything beyond a brief tenure. Twenty six years after its
formation it still appears to pursue its original aims with undeviating
commitment.
In some way, AMM are the 'official' improvising group, something of an
institution. In addition to their longevity, this is partly an acknowledgement of
their overt seriousness, a stance not immediately apparent in many
improvisors or groups and violently rejected by some. It's a seriousness
reflected not only in their playing but in their concern for the philosophical and
educational implications of improvised music, articulated in lectures, state-
ments and writings of various kinds. Eddie Prevost, for instance, recently held
128
a post as Visiting Lecturer of Improvisation at the Hull Regional College of
Art, is founder-co-ordinator of the 'Improvised Music as an Educational
Resource' programme and is currently chairman of AIM - the Association of
Improvising Musicians. The following is Eddie's 're-working of material
derived from tape-recorded discussions' between us.
At this time (1991), with the re-introduction of Lou Gare to AMM the
original three members are now playing together again. This is after Lou's
absence of over ten years. Until recently there had never been any duplication
of personnel on our dozen or so albums. So our recordings, contrary to the
general perception of the ensemble, reflect a constantly shifting membership.
Consequently, the music reflects the contributions of each musician and
whatever configuration of players is featured.
I'm aware of differences in your group playing since the '60s butthat's not
surprising, what is surprising is how little it has changed, how little the
character of it has changed.
The personalities within the ensemble are clearly defined. They have
maintained their integrity. Part of AMM's philosophy, its ethos if you like, is
the idea of concurrent commentary: separate voices speaking at the same time,
interweaving and interleaving. But each voice is not atomised or individuated.
Paradoxically, it may be that individuality can only exist and develop in a
collective context. So when the musical situation seems chaotic, when we are
caught up in the maelstrom of sound, in which at times it is almost impossible
to tell who or what is going on, that is the point when you have to 'distinguish'
yourself, delineate your contribution, or else the enterprise is a meaningless
cacophony. And, in the final analysis. it's up to each musician to ensure that
this does not occur.
Does that explain why it's gone on for over 25 years?
It could. The inner psychology of any long-term ensemble is bound to be
complex. We called our 1987 album The Inexhaustible Document. There is a
lot of work to be done. After all, we are part of a movement that has, arguably,
remade music. Maybe it's not 'music' according to the convention but it is
certainly a new 'sound using' activity; laden with new meanings and cultural
implications that differ from what went before. I'm inclined to think of it, at
the moment, as a meta-music. One of the generative themes of this meta-music
is the relationship between musicians. The music exists and develops through
the interchange, the dialogue of the musicians. They set and re-set the agenda-
in a continuum. Of course, there are strong feelings between the players - the
experience of AMM is perhaps the most important single phenomenon in our
lives. (A very un· English kind of statement that). The sharing of such an
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intense creative experience is in itself instructive. And maybe this psychologi-
cal inter-action is an important part of the cultural differences that this music
offers. We can't blame a composer for making us play such difficult (or banal)
music. It's certainly no cosy little club. I doubt if our strong friendships could
survive very long without the creative vehicle of AMM. It gives the meaning to
our association.
What seems extraordinary to me is how many people have continued to
pursue this activity over such a long time given the lack of economic, or any
other kind, of encouragement. AMM, for instance, hasn't been kept together
by market forces.
But surely this points to the strength of the music. It is an endless source of
intellectual enquiry, inspiration and enjoyment for the musicians-and for the,
albeit small, audience that we serve. What more could you ask for? Of course
there is no encouragement from those who are in a position to create a more
positive environment in which we could work. This is because the music has
meanings which do not reflect or celebrate the priorities of the current
philosophical/political hegemony. I can't speak for all improvised musics that
have arisen in industrial societies (which are, I am sure, qualitatively different
from musics arising out of pre-industrial social forms even though they may
share certain 'informal' characteristics) and it is impossible, as well as
undesirable, to reduce AMM's music to a simple formula. But, there are two
dominant generative themes in our work: 'heurism' and 'dialogue'. However,
these active, practical ingredients achieve their true significance through
investment of meaning and through group and self-definition. The activities of
problem-solving within performance and dialogue are techniques which
eschew the certainties, the avowed immoveable givens, we are offered upon
entry into this life. And this is part of what AMM is about.
Cardew said: ' ... Training is substituted for rehearsal, and a certain
amount of moral discipline is an essential part of this training. In improvisation
a kind of training is possible.' Did that translate into anything you specifically
didin AMM?
No, they were Cornelius's ideas. Ironically, Cornelius never really
engaged in discussions with us about improvising. In fact, he kept outof that to
a large extent. I suspect he knew that talk could somehow disturb, or pre-
empt, the creative act. But I have always valued what he did say about the way
in which he thought AMM was experimental. 'We are searching for sounds
and for the responses that attach to them rather than thinking them up,
preparing them and producing them. The search is conducted in the medium of
sound and the musician himself is at the heart of the experiment.'
130
And the reasons for the survival, so far, of improvised music in an
apparently hostile environment?
Alienation strategies. One thing many of us experienced when we began
playing 'free' improvised music was a sense of alienation from the avai/able
models - playing models - mainly jazz and classical music. The critical
response to what we did was, 'its not jazz'. In some very important sense
those remarks were so wrong, but I won't go into that. But irksome though
they may have been, those hostile attitudes helped. I suspect that most of us
didn't care what it was called, we just wanted to go on playing - and finding
out about this new activity in which we were engaged. Being forced to cut what
were, in fact, imaginary bonds helped us to recognise our wider cultural and
social bearings. It is then that you can begin to calculate where you really want
to go. Before, you had been travelling along in someone else's dream. Even if
our music began as a negation it seems to have transcended and superseded
those earlier formative aspirations - those unfocussed ideas of 'being a jazz
musician'. We have gone beyond all that and its attendant imprisoning ethos.
This music, of which AMM is a part, goes on, survives and grows. Precisely
because it has these reasons for being, these meanings. I get more of an
appetite for it as the years go on. I can't think of anything else I would rather be
doing.
. , ,
The last word on these marathon alliances should go to the Dutch duo, Han
Bennink and Misha Mengelberg, a quite different kettle of fish. Lost in the
mists of time, its origins are not clear but they are certainly the longest- running
of all long-running improvising groups. Of their duo, Misha says:
I would not know what Bennink means with his music, but when our
misunderstandings are combined we think that sometimes things are fitting,
sometimes complementary. That's maybe a reason for playing duo music. One
of the things that inspires me in making any gesture, musically and
theoretically, is its relation with daily life in which there is no such thing as an
exclusion. One moment I meet you and the next 1 am washing dishes or
playing chess. So many facets on many levels whether you like them or not. Of
course, I don't mean daily life transformed into music but in certain respects
there are parallels between the music and daily life. For example in the respect
that very vulgar things are happening near to very aesthetic things; people go
pissing one moment and have deep philosophical thoughts the next. Or maybe
both at the same time. Improvisation starts for me at the moment it is needed
and it's always in a context in which there are fixed points to refer to. So, the
131
term 'free' is meaningless. The sort of improvisation I am interested in is the
sort that everyone does in their lives. They improvise in taking six or seven
steps to the door. scratching their heads with one or two fingers. Group
improvisation takes place according to common points of education. aims and
subjects and is interesting as far as the material reaches. When there is nothing
more to develop it should stop.
• • •
These endless sagas are anything but typical. The universal practice in this
music, followed by everyone including members of long-lasting groups, is to
spend much of their time playing in brief, non-permanent alliances. It is,
perhaps, obvious that most casual collaborations should quickly exhaust their
areas of mutual interest and consider their common ambitions to be either
satisfied or unrealisable. Inevitably, in a music which relies so heavily on
invention and for which the feeling of freshness is essential, there is a gradual
using up of these resources. At the point when this becomes unmistakable,
when the indefinables get defined and the mysteries solved, most groups
disband and their members look for fresher, more fruitful alliances. Contact
with other musicians and with new musical situations is one of the ways in
which improvising musicians look to top up their musical reserves. The
tendency is to form a grouping for one or two performances and then re-group,
running constant permutations within the available musicians. This, it seems
to me, has a natural affinity with free improvisation and, given the diversity of
musical approaches that are available, offers a rich resource.
132
COMPANY
Company seems to have been fomled in such a way as specifically to invoke the
confrontation of difference and unity. Peter Riley.
It was the increasingly diverse nature of freely improvised music, not its
specializations which attracted me and it was in order to take advantage of, to
plunder, its expanding resources, that I formed Company. This is how I tried to
express it in a programme note for the first Company concert in 1976.
For some time it has seemed to me that the most interesting results in free
improvisation come from semi-ad-hoc groupings of musicians ... there is a
growing pool of musicians, in England and in other countries, who work
together regularly but not continously and not on the basis of being members
of a set. permanent group. It is this type of ensemble. not fixed in personnel or
style ... which now offers, I believe, the greatest possibilities to be found in free
improvisation. Company's structure. such as it is. is based on the idea of the
repertory theatre company; a pool of players out of which groupings might be
drawn for specific occasions and performances.
There were other, more personal, reasons for forming Company. In this
kind of playing I had always found the early stages of a group's development
the most satisfying, the most stimulating. Once the music hardens its identity
to the point where it becomes susceptible to self-analysis, description and, of
course, reproduction, everything changes. The group, having got its act
together, discovered 'our music', reaches a stage where, although it might
continue to develop musically, and be more marketable-an almost irresistable
combination - nevertheless at this point the music becomes less relevant to, less
dependent upon, improvisation.
My preference for the early stages of a group's life was something I had
been aware of for some years. The Music Improvisation Company, for
instance, grew out of a nameless, audience-free situation, to which I would
each week invite different musicians. The first one to become a regular was
Jamie Muir and gradually the situation evolved into the group described
earlier. An almost inevitable process. Once a particular grouping of musicians
has played together successfully on a number of occasions the tendency is
always, not surprisingly, to turn it into something permanent. But, however
strong, almost irresistable, that path is, I came to see it as a deflection from
133
what I wanted to do. So, an important intention in forming Company was to
try and establish the 'semi-ad-hoc' procedure as something in itself. Not steps
toward either the foundation of a successful group or the abandoning of an
unsuccessful one, not some endless search for the perfect combination of
musicians, but a recognition that the shifting process itself provided the perfect
foundation for making this kind of music.
Inevitably, Company has reflected, sometimes stimulated, the successive
changes that have taken place in improvised music, changes which can be seen
most clearly in the Company Weeks, which are described below. But since
Company's inception the primary aim has remained the pursuit of improvisa-
tion as an end in itself: to elevate the method of music-making above its various
stylistic results.
* , *
Developing 'semi-ad-hoc' relationships, paradoxically, needs a certain amount
of time and an essential part of Company events has always been to have
something longer than the single concert situation. This led to the introduction
of Company Week.
Company Week is an annual event which has taken place in London since
1977. (In fact, it rarely lasts as long as a week, more usually five days; it is not
annual, it didn't happen in '85 and '86 and it has taken place in a number of
other cities too, principally New York.) It is self- organised. Five or six concerts
on successive evenings for 9 or 10 musicians playing on every concert is the
kind of idea that makes music promoters, a notably timid breed, take to the
hills. So we - friends, helpers, me - do it.
For the second Company Week in 1978 the programme note read: 'As in
1977 the aim this week is to present free improvisation in a context which is
encouraging to the best possibilities in this type of music-making. Company,
the collective name for the musicians taking part, was formed for this purpose.
It is a pool of musicians of changing personnel whose membership reflects a
variety of improvising styles and attitudes. The size and personnel of the
groups will be decided by the musicians each night immediately prior to the
performance. '
These earlier events in '77 and '78 drew their membership largely from
improvisors who, although not sharing formal music-making relationships,
would be familiar with, or at least aware of, each other's work. For instance,
Leo Smith and Tristan Honsinger, both in the ' 77 Company Week, had
previously worked in quite separate areas but were both improvisors of long
experience. Later versions of Company looked to recruit players from virtually
any part of the musical spectrum.
134
In '80 and '81 the more theatrical tendencies apparent in improvising
circles at that time turned up in Company: a clown, a dancer, performers 'into
performance' were sometimes included. It was in this period that the events
probably most closely resembled the widely held, completely mistaken, view
that free improvisation is a species of chaos: anything goes and nobody cares.
A fallacy not shared by anyone with any experience of this activity, as far as I
am aware. Company Week 1981, as I remember it (it was recorded, as are most
Company Weeks, but there is no technology yet invented which would have
adequately documented this particular week) involved lots of water being
slung around, the duetting trumpets ofToshinori Kondo and Charlie Morrow
extending beyond the confines of the theatre and out into the arms of the
London constabulary, and persistent verbal exchanges between the players in
half a dozen different languages including gibberish, but throughout this
bedlam all the usual self-imposed disciplines and restrictions were present.
Occasionally, in fact, someone finds these limits too irksome and makes a dash
for total freedom. It never seems to work but people keep trying it. There was a
case of this in '81. The Japanese dancer Min Tanaka initiated an experiment in
which people simply walked on and off the stage playing wherever, whenever
and whatever they chose for as long as they liked. Some hours later (this was an
all-day concert) the stage was deserted except for Min, centre stage, trembling
with exhaustion. Everybody else, it seemed, was in the bar. If the first discipline
of improvisation is spontaneity, as Virgil Thompson claims, then the second
might be a sense of what is practical.
In 1982, I started inviting non-improvisors, initially the pianist Ursula
Oppens. The sleeve note to Epiphany, a record of performances from that
week, explains:
... In Company's earlier years the musicians I invited were always from
among those who were primarily involved in improvisation although I would
usually try to bring together people for whom improvisation served different
ends and who were in many cases unfamiliar with each other. The procedure
worked well enough, I think, but by 1982 had come to feel iust a little cosy.
Perhaps this was something we picked up from the stagnant condition of music
generally where almost all areas, then as now, share an increasingly
enthusiastic commitment to total predictability or maybe it had simply
become so commonplace for any improvisor to play with absolutely any other
improvisor that differences no longer made any difference. In any event, I had
begun to find it useful to invite people who were not primarily, sometimes not
at all, involved in improvisation to join us in our improvising. So, for Company
Week in 1982, we were ten musicians most of whom had never previously met
and some of whom had not previously improvised.
135
There is, after all, some very basic idea behind 'improvisation': it means
getting from A to C when there is no B; it impli es a void which has to be filled.
Sometimes, in improvising circles, that absence is missing. One way of
retaining it was to introduce non-improvisors. My impression is that an
improvisor having to deal with a non-improvisor finds it totally different to
having to deal with another improvisor, known or unknown. Assumptions
have to be dumped, practices usually taken for granted can no longer be relied
upon. I also get the impression that it rarely presents much difficulty for a non-
improvising musician, working with improvisors, to sort out the various
musical signposts, the indications of intent that are common sensory practice.
It might take a few days, but it's those few days that I'm interested in.
I don't see the idea of 'progress' as being particularly relevant to what
Company does but if the original scheme has developed it is through the range
of musical input, the musicians invited, which has widened. Occasionally - in
'88 and '90- there have been much larger events. Company conventions, so to
speak, where I invite a much larger number to take part; in 1988 we had 29
people, in 1990 34. But the structure and the intention of the Weeks have
remained the same. The time avai lable, the way of choosing the groups, the
musicians invited: all are designed to remove as far as possible any preconcep-
tions as to what the music might be, to make improvisation a necessity, and
keep it at the forefront of the activity.
• • •
The assembling of a Company Week - who I invite - is neither haphazard nor
meticulously planned and to some extent the choice of musicians might simply
reflect the people I have worked with over the preceding period.
1
But there are
many exceptions to this and sometimes it takes a long time to get the right
people in the right place at the right time. [might keep somebody in mind for a
long time before actually inviting them to a particular event and that will only
be when the relationship between them and the other players on that event, the
degree of unfamiliarity and the potential for compatibility, seem right. Except,
it's not quite as straightforward as that. Sometimes a wild card can be very
effective.
Company is about mutual music-making and, at times, demands the
sacrifice of individual preferences. It calls for musical generosity, curiosity and
sensitivity, the ability to respond instinctively and constructively to new and
1 ,'ve found writing about Company the fI'I05t diffICUlt part 01 putting this booII IOgeIher, The WeeI\s partic:ularty are emotiOnal,
muSically intoXicating experiences: pretty much my ideal way 01 working. Any kind 01 obj8CIiYe anaJysis is very remole from. my
relationship w ~ h these events so 1 am partieularty obliged toJohn Fordham, Chris Blackford and Kenneth Ansell tor their suggestlOllS
and the use 01 inlerview material in this chaplar.
136
unfamiliar situations. The people I invite are more often than not highly
individual players, distinctive in instrumental styles and artistic attitudes, so it
is a source of continuing amazement and gratitude to me that the commitment
and enthusiasm with which they pursue these projects is virtually always total
and unreserved, Whatever the initial difficulties and in spite of the obvious
risks, once the process is underway people seem to become immersed in it,
almost taken over by it.
There is an intimacy about this process - building music through group
improvisation - which, as it develops, demands a kind of surrender. Not too
many people have the courage, or the humility perhaps, to talk about these
things; the singer Vanessa Mackness does. Of taking part in Company she
said:
You have to be prepared to take risks. Sometimes 1 feel that I've made a
terrible fool of myself But then 1 think, no, you have to be prepared for that. 1
think you gradually develop a way of saying less. 1 think the more mature
musicians really have a sense of that. Maybe you could hear that in the last
piece we played tonight. Everybody waited and built the piece gradually. That
really does take maturity. It also requires patience both from the musicians
and the audience.
For me the whole thing was a very profound experience, the problems,
the development, the creative struggle, everything. The reality of everyone's
role, everyone's humanity. 1 shall never forget it. It has fortified me and helped
me grow .
Leo Smith, who took part in some of the earliest events, looks at it like
this:
Whenever 1 play with Company 1 play the music of Company. It's not my
music as you would otherwise hear it. I would not choose this medium to
totally dominate my creative output but it's nice to come together and deal
with other aspects of creative music.
Company Week 1984, which, the programme note says, featured
musicians' ... from different parts of the musical universe who in some cases are
completely unfamiliar with each other's work', included two non-improvisors
- Anthony Pay, who appears earlier in this book discussing being a non-
improvisor, and also Philip Easrop, the horn player, at that time working with
the London Sinfonietta. About playing on that Week, Philip said:
I suppose 1 was a bit nervous at first because I'd never sat in front of an
audience before without a piece of printed music in front of me. And although
I kept saying to myself' Look, this is what you've always wanted to do', when it
came to doing it, I was quite worried about it. Then once it came to playing, it
137
was just like being given a pair of wings; it was an incredibly liberating
experience - at last I could play what I wanted.
He then described the difficulties he encountered as he exercised that
liberty:
On the first night I was in two or three pieces and I used up all my general
ideas, like double-stopping, lip trills and certain kinds of sounds. By the second
night, I had to start repeating them and by the third night I wished I'd been a
bit more sparing with them. Then I thought 'Am I being spontaneous in
working in that way?' The difficulty is knowing how to approach improvising.
And I had to evolve, very quickly, a new way of listening. I was never sure
whether to play with people, against them, or to react to them ... I think I tried
everything.
• • •
At the present time of writing, in the period immediately following Company
Week 91, I am still under the influence of that event, marvelling at how
beautifully it worked. Not at how good or bad the music was - much of the
playing was very fine indeed - but simply at how it had taken place, the
alchemy which had produced it.
The violinist Alexander Balanescu was one of the musicians who took
part. When he was interviewed by Chris Blackford about his experiences in
Company Week 91 he said:
It's a great adventure. It's also a learning process for me. Every night I
find things out about myself as well as the other musicians. It gives me a lot of
strength. This is quite a difficult thing for a classically trained musician to be
doing. You don't have the music to hide behind, you are very much on the line.
After each night I feel a sense of achievement because I've gone through it and
managed to express something.
Two American musicians taking part in the same Week were the
improvisor/composer/saxophonist John Zorn and the rock guitarist Buck-
ethead. About working with them Balanescu said:
Tonight's concert was very entertaining, there was a lot of variety and
humour. I found it interesting working with John Zorn who works in this
filmic way, with things changing very quickly. On the other hand, somebody
like Buckethead stays on one thing for quite a long period of time.
When asked about Buckethead's volume level, described as 'loud,
agressive and dominating', Balanescu said:
Yes, but I find that it's quite lyrical as well as being aggressive. He's
always playing melodies and it's interesting to contrast him with Derek who's
138
much more of a textural player. I think it's great that all these different
personalities have the opportunity to come together.
Asked if his classical background was of any use in this improvising
context he said:
Yes, it is. If I try to observe my own mental process when I'm improvising,
all kinds of memories of things one's heard surface. I don't try to exclude any
influence.
Yves Robert, the virtuoso French trombonist, experienced in jazz,
theatre, film and freely improvised music, also took part in the '91 Company
Week. He said:
Playing improvised music is like writing without a pen. It demands great
concentration to hear everything that is happening from other musicians and
at the same time to be playing yourself You also have to be able to remember
what has happened the second before and the minute before and so keep in
mind the shape of what's happening, how the piece is being constructed. It all
depends on the people you are improvising with. Sometimes they have a very
different way of working to yourself. Sometimes it might work perfectly and at
other times there's too much happening. Obviously you have to adapt your
way of playing depending on who you are working with.
In music, strangely, adventurousness seems to be a rare commodity. And
yet, it is the one characteristic shared by all of the many different kinds of
players who have taken part in Company. Perhaps it is a quality which is
generated, or released, by improvisation. In any event, year after year these
groups of very special individuals have taken my invitation and have
collectively transformed it into unique music which, never less than worth-
while, has been at times truly remarkable.
139
LIMITS AND FREEDOM
In 1987, seven musicians, all closely associated with improvisation, took part
in a public discussion staged as an adjunct to a series of concerts.
1
Inevitably,
the first subject up for consideration concerned the relationship between
improvisation and composition. After forty minutes of collective incoherence
and mutual misunderstandings, the predominant view to emerge was that
there is no such thing as improvisation, or, if there is, it is indistinguishable
from composition. Furthermore, composition, should there be such a thing, is
no different to improvisation. Having established that, there didn't seem to he
anything else to discuss and the group dispersed, gratefully returning to
playing music: improvising, in fact.
This, in a sense, is where we came in. Improvisation is not a word which is
highly thought of, particularly by improvisors, some of whom will go to
considerable lengths to avoid being tarred with what they have found to be an
unhelpful brush. But, additionally, there was a view struggling to be expressed
which is, I think, a fundamental belief for some people: musical creativity (all
creativity?) is indivisable; it doesn't matter what you call it, it doesn't matter
how you do it. The creation of music transcends method and, essentially, the
composition/improvisation dichotomy doesn't exist.
This kind of spongy generalisation often obscures, perhaps by design,
more than it reveals but, pushed to its limits, it still can't hide the fundamental
difference that separates composition and improvisation. In any but the most
blinkered view of the world's music, composition looks to be a very rare strain,
heretical in both practice and theory. Improvisation is a basic instinct, an
essential force in sustaining life. Without it nothing survives. As sources of
creativity they are hardly comparable.
None of these lofty projections, however, are necessary to reveal the
manifest and multiple differences between composition and improvisation.
Here's one, for instance, discovered at street level by composer/improvisor
Frederic Rzewski and improvisor/composer Steve Lacy. Frederic tells the
story:
1 This took place at the BIM House In Amst6fdam. The musicians involved were: Cecil Taylor, John 10m, Geotge Lewis, to4isha
MengelOOrg. Butch Morris, Gerry Hemingway and me. The uanscribed resu"s eventually appeared in Jaarboek 7published by Van
Gennep, Amsterdam.
140
In 1968 I ran into Steve Lacy on the street in Rome. I took out my pocket
tape recorder and asked him to describe in fifteen seconds the difference
between composition and improvisation. He answered: <In fifteen seconds the
difference between composition and improvisation is that in composition you
have all the time you want to decide what to say in (zfteen seconds, while in
improvisation you have (zfteen seconds.'
His answer lasted exactly fifteen seconds and is still the best formulation
of the question I know.
2
• • •
These discussions are conducted only, I think, within the world of freely
improvised music and arise from the contradiction inherent in attempts to
organise or to combine composition and 'free' improvisation. Other areas of
improvisation - 'idiomatic' - combine fixed and improvised naturally enough,
both working organically from a common base. Perhaps the nearest thing to a
successful combination of fixed and freely improvised music is in the long
serving improvising groups where, as Evan Parker admits, 'I think we accepted
long ago those aspects of each other's playing that we are never going to be able
to change and we work upon the parts that are negotiable'.
The debates, of course, are unimportant. In fact, external matters -
aesthetics, musical fashion, even economics - are to a unique degree irrelevant
to the practice of this kind of music making. There seems to be no apparent
correlation between the viability and the visibility of improvisation. Its
survival, its general health, even, seems to be unaffected by the shifting security
of its precarious toehold on the treacherous slopes of the music industry. There
are now, to be sure, a number of improvising virtuosi operating on the fringes
of one or other of the established music markets, and U.S. improvisors
particularly have conducted a sustained assault on the outskirts of rock, but in
virtually all cases where some kind of uneasy alliance with the wider music
world has been achieved the improvisor's function amounts to little more than
peripheral decoration, accepted, if at all, for its novelty value. The bulk of
freely improvised music, certainly its essential part, happens in either
unpublicised or, at best, under-publicised circumstances: musician-organised
concerts, ad hoc meetings and private performances. In other words, simply in
response to music-making imperatives. And it's easy to see that the more
conducive the setting is to freely improvised music, the less compatible it is
likely to be with the kind of presentation typical of the music business.
2 From 'usten 10 Lacy'. a bfochure publiShed by Willner Musik Galerie in 1990 10 accompany a series of concerts.
141
Speculations about the future of free improvisation - its possible
popularity or extinction - seem to me totally to misunderstand the function of
the activity. Rather like presuming that the course of the sun is affected by the
popularity of sun-bathing. It is basically a method of working. As long as the
performing musician wants to be creative there is likely to be free improvisa-
tion. And it won't necessarily indicate a particular sryle, or even presuppose an
artistic attitude. As a way of making music it can serve many ends.
Paradoxically, and in spite of the earlier arguments, it seems to me now
that in practice the difference between free improvisation and idiomatic
improvisation is not a fundamental one. Freedom for the free improvisor is,
like the ultimate idiomatic expression for the idiomatic improvisor, something
of a Shangri-la. In practice the focus of both players is probably more on means
than ends. All improvisation takes place in relation to the known whether the
known is traditional or newly acquired. The only real difference lies in the
opportunities in free improvisation to renew or change the known and so
provoke an open-endedness which by definition is not possible in idiomatic
improvisation. And this is certainly a great enough difference, bur in its
moment to moment practice the essentials of improvisation are to be found, it
seems to me, in all improvisation, and its nature is revealed in anyone of its
many forms.
In all its roles and appearances, improvisation can be considered as the
celebration of the moment. And in this the nature of improvisation exactly
resembles the nature of music. Essentially, music is fleeting; its reality is its
moment of performance. There might be documents that relate to that moment
- score, recording, echo, memory - but only to anticipate it or recall it.
Improvisation, unconcerned with any preparatory or residual document,
is completely at one with the non-documentary nature of musical performance
and their shared ephemerality gives them a unique compatibility. So it might be
claimed that improvisation is best pursued through its practice in music. And
that the practice of music is best pursued through improvisation.
I believe the above to be true. But improvisation has no need of argument
and justification. It exists because it meets the creative appetite that is a natural
part of being a performing musician and because it invites complete
involvement, to a degree otherwise unobtainable, in the act of music-making.
142
BIBLIOGRAPHY
Adyonthaya, Shri N.M., Melody Music of India, Mangalore 1965
Arnold, F.T., The Art of Accompaniment from a Thorough-bass, Oxford
University Press 1931
Blackford, Chris, Rubberneck 9, Basingstoke 1991
Canetti, Elias, Crowds and Power, London 1962
Cardew, Cornelius, 'Towards an Ethic of Improvisation', Treatise Handbook,
Edition Peters, London
Cauldry, N., 'Turning the Musical Table - Improvisation in Britain in
1965-1990', Contemporary Music Review, Harwood Academic Publishers
1991
Clifton, Thomas, 'Comparison between Intuitive and Scientific Descriptions of
Music', Journal of Music Theory 1976
Dean, R, New Structures in Jazz and Improvised Music since 1960, Open
University Press 1991
Danielou, Alain, The Situation of Music and Musicians in the Countries of the
Orient, International Music Council 1971
Dupre, Marcel, Cours Complet d'Improvisation a tOrgue, Paris 1925 (2
volumes)
Ferand, E.T., Die Improvisation in der Musik, Zurich 1938
Ferand, E.T., 'The Howling in Seconds of the Lombards', Musical Quarterly,
July 1939
Ferand, E.T. (ed), Improvisation in Nine Centuries of Western Music, Cologne
1961
Fischer, Ernst, The Necessity of Art (1959), Penguin 1963
Gangoly, O.c., Ragas and Raginis, np nd
Globokar, V., Komposition und Improvisation, Breitkopf & Hartel, Wies-
baden 1977
Grace, Harvey, The Complete Organist, London 1920
Hamilton, A., 'The Aesthetics of Imperfection', Philosophy, July 1990
Heinichen, J.D., Der General-Bass in der Composition (1728), ed G.Buelow,
University of California] 966
Koestler, Arthur, The Roots of Coincidence, Pan Books 1974
Kofsky, F., Lenny Bruce, Monad 1974
Lambert, Constant, Music HOI, London 1936
143
Lewis, G., Phenomenology, unpublished thesis 1979
Lucas, Clarence, Musical Form, London 1905
Matheson, J., Kleine General-Bass Schule, 1735
Microphone (percussion issue), London June 1972
Moszkowski, Alexander, Conversations with Einstein, London 1921
Netd, B., 'Thoughts on Improvisation', Musical Quarterly 60, 1-19. 1974
Pressing, ]., Improvisation: Methods and Models, Oxford University Press
1985
Pressing, ].,Cognitive Processes in Improvisation, La Trobe University 1984
Sachs, Curt, The Wellsprings of Music, London 1944
Sachs, Curt, The Rise of Music in the Ancient World, East and West, New
York 1943
Sartre, Jean-Paul, Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions, London 1971
Schouten, H., Improvisation on the Organ, Paxton, London 1955
Smith, Herman, The World's Earliest Music, London 1902
Smith, Leo, Notes: 8 pieces, Hamden 1973 (see p.84)
Srinivasan, R., Facets of Indian Culture, Bombay 1970
Stevens, J., Search & Reflect, Community Music, London
Stewart, Rex, Jazz Masters of the Thirties, London 1972
Wachsmann, K., The Changeability of Musical Experience, Society for
Ethnomusicology, Inc. 1982
Westrup,J., Musical Interpretation, BBC, London 1971
Whitmer, T.e., The Art of Improvisation, New York 1934
Williams, D., The Improvisor (magazine). 6 Glen Iris Park, Birmingham,
Alabama, USA
Zonis, Ella, Classical Persian Music, Harvard UP 1973
These are some of the books and articles I looked at, a number of which are
mentioned in the text. There has been a substantial increase in recent times in
writings dealing with improvisation. Recordings of improvising musicians
discussing their work, perhaps a more promising source of information, are
also increasingly available. In Britain, the National Sound Archive has an
extensive reference library, and a wide range of recorded interviews which are
available for public listening.
144
acct!ssibility xii;, 75
Adyonthaya, Shri N.M. 3
Alterations 125.127
AMM 128-131
Andalucia 12
Armstrong, Louis 50,56-57
Arnold, f.T. 24
atonality 88
audience 44-47, 107, 119,
126
Ayler, Alben 49,86
Bach, C.P.E. 24,26
Bach,J.S. 24
Bailey, Derek 85n,86-92,
105-108,133-134
Balanescu, Alexander 138
Baroque music 20·28;
authentic performance 27
Bennink, Han 122-123,
131-132
Beresford, Stevt! t 25
Bonnet, Joseph 31
Boulanger, Nadia 31,33
Boulez, Pierre 60,86
Braxton, Anthony 57
Britten, Benjamin 37
Brown, Earle 60·65,66-67,
79,8 1; 1952 70; String
quartet (1965) 61; time
notation 60
Bruce, Lenny 49
Bryars, Gavin 86-92,
113-117;
teaching 116·117
Buckethead 138
Byrd, Donald 54
Cage, John 60-61,64,86,
88,91,1 13-115; chance
music 64; First
constructions in metal 88
Calder, Alexander 60,62
Caneni, Elias 20
Cardew, Cornelius 76, 103,
110,128,130; 'Towards
an ethic of
improvisation' 84
Charpentier, Jacques 59
Cherry, Don 55
Church music 29
Classical music
(European) 19-38
Clifton, Thomas xi
Coleman,Ornettt! 55
Coltrant!, John 57,86·87
Community Music
(London) 122
Company 133-139
INDEX
composition 59·81,
114-116; aleatoric 60;
compared with
improvisarion 140-141;
indeterminate
composition 84; open
form 61; tension and
release 87·88
conductors 20
continuo 21·26
Couperin, Francois 22
Cusack, Peter 125-127
Danielou, Alain 7,44,103
Daube,J.E. 24
Davies, Hugh 79-80,94-95,
109
Day, Terry 125
Debussy, Claude 12
Denley, Jim 108
D'indy, Vincent 38
Dolphy, Eric 86
Dupre, Marcd 31,36·7.
Improvisation a l'orgue
31
Eastley, Max 109
Eastop, Philip 137
education see music
education
Einstein, Albert 84n
Eldridge, Roy 56
electronic music 64, 107; li ve
electronics 94
Ellington, Duke 56,77
ethnic musicial
instruments 101-102
Evans, Bill 86
exploration (of a musical
instrument) 98
extemporisation 19
Falla, Manuel de 12n
Feldman, Morton 60
Ferand, ErnstT. ix, 19n, 23n
figured bass 19,26
Finck, Hermann 24n
Fischer, Ernst 47
flamenco 12-18;
bulerias 14; compas 14;
duende 52,63; historical
development 12-13;
soleares 14; tientos 14
Franck, Cesar 36
free improvisation see
improvised music
freely improviSt!d music see
improvised music
FriscH, Bill 78
Gafori 20n
145
Gangoly,O.C. 5
Garcia,Jerry 42-43,46-47
Gare, Lou 128·129
Gasparini, F. 24
Gillespie, Dizzy 56
Globokar, Vinko 109
Goldschmidt, Werner 80
Gordon, Dexter 48
Granz, Norman 44
The Grateful Dead 42-43,46
Gregorian chant 19,29
group improvisation 86-104,
127-139;
leadership 96-97;
rehearsing 110
Guilmant, Alexander 31
Hancock, Herbie 54
Handel, George Frideric 21
Heinichen, Johann
David 22-23; 'Ear and
Reason' 25
Hendrix, Jimi 40
Hicks, Stephen 33-36,66
Holbrooke, Joseph 86n
Honsinger, Tristan 134
Howe, Stt!vt! 39·41,44-45,
66
Hummel, Johann
Nepomuk 33n
improvisation: compared to
composition 140-141;
experimental 73;
idiomatic xi, 18,53,142;
learning 7;
musicianship 66;
non-idiomatic xi-xii;
practising 17, 109-111;
rehearsing 76;
techniques 99;
transcribing xi,15;
tuition (instruction) 7,38,
49-50,64,66-67,76
improvised music 83-142;
form 1 II; future 142;
history 127·132;
nomenclaturt! 83;
objections 113·116;
practising 109·111;
recording 103·104,117,
126; teaching 7·9,
11 7·123; tht!ory 84;
vocabulary 106·107
Indian music 1·11;
alapa 5·6; Carn:;itic I;
gat 5; Hindustani I;
laya 4,72; raga 2,4-6,9;
sruti 2; svara 3; tala 3-4
instrumentalists 98
interpretation 68·69,98
Jasani, Viram 6,8- 10, 17,45
JATP Uazz At The
Phi lharmonic) 44
jazz 48-58, 11 7;
authemiciry 53; be-bop
49; (as) black classical
music 56; blues (as
structure) 48; British
jazz 51; (ree jazz 56; hard
bop 54; imita[ion 53;
mechanics of
improvisation 48-49;
revivals 49; tuition 49-50
jeffrey, Christine 94,96, 108
joseph Holbrooke
(group) 86-93, 107,
113- 11 5
juliana, Tio Luis el de la 13
keyboard harmony 27
Khan,lmrat 6
Kl ee, Paul 108
Kondo, Toshinori 135
Konitz, Lee 48
Komarsky, Aloys 81
Lacy, Steve 54-56,99,106,
140
LaFaro, SCOtt 87,9 1
Landini , Francesco 29
Langlais, j ean 3 J, 36-37,
11 0
Lewis, George
(trombonist ) 109
Linstead, George 91
Little Theatre Cl ub 11 9
London Sinfonietta 67
Lytton, Paul l OOn, 128
Machado Alvarez, Antonio
' Demofilo' 13
Mackness, Vanessa 137
magic 42
Marchal, Andre 33
Matheson, J. 24, 2411
Mengdherg, Misha 122-123,
126,131-132
Menuhin, Yehudi 11
Messiaen, Oli vier 31,37,86,
91
MEV 128
Mitchell, Williamj. 26
modern classical music:
performing 73-74
Morrow, Charlie 135
Moszkowski, Alexander 84n
Muir,jamie 94,96, lOOn,
133
music education 98-99,
11 6- 123,129
The Music Improvisation
Company 94- 104, 133
musical instruments 98- 102;
extended 100;
technique 98- 99, 113
musicianship 98-102;
reading 10,98
notation systems 10, 15,59,
67; 20th-century
developmems 60-64; box
technique 70; score 59,80
Oliver, Michael xn
Oppens, Ursula 135
organ improvisation 29-38;
concert improvisation 29,
34; French school 31,33,
36-38; practising 38;
tuit ion 38
ornamentation 19
Oxley, Tony 86-92, 101,
109
Paganini, Nicolo 19
Paik, Nam-june 81
Parker, Charl ie 47,57
Parker, Eva n 80-81,94,104,
108-109,112,117,128,
141
Pa y, Anthony 67-69,70-74,
137
Pena, Paco 12- 18,45-46,49,
63,66,109
percussionists 100- 101
performance: differences
between notated &
improvised 68-69
Perry, Frank 100,112
Persian music x-xi
Peterson, Oscar 51
Petri,j.S. 33n
Pi ernc, Gilbert 36
Pollock, jackson 62
Powell, Bud 54
Prevost, Eddie J 28-129
psychedelic rock 39
Reichal, Hans 109
Reinhardt, Django 50
Riley, Peter 103, 133
Roach, Max 57
Robert, Yves 139
rock 39-43; blues
influence 39-40;
technology 41-42
Rollins, Sonny 51
Russolo, Luigi 100
Rutherford, Paul 109, 11 7
Rzewski , Frederic 140
Sachs, Curt 10,15,97
Salter, Lionel 20,26,28, 103
Sa ram, Rohan de 128
Schlippenbach, Alex 128
Schoenberg, Arnol d 107,
11 6
146
Schouten, H. 32;
Improvisation on the
organ 32
SCOtt, Ronnie 45,5 1-52,
101,103,109
serial ism 88,116
Sheffi eld 92
Sheikh, Esmail 6
silence 89
Smith, Leo 99,109,134,
137; Notes: 8 pieces 84
solo improvisation 105-112
sound recordings 103-104,
126
Spontaneous Music
Ensemble 119,128
spiritualiry I
Srinivasan, R 3,52
Stockhausen, Karlheinz
68-73,79-80,86; Aus den
sieben Tagen 79-80;
Ylem 70-73
Stevens, John 98, 99n,
11 8- 122
Stewart, Rex 48
Tanaka, Min 135
Taylor, Cecil 54-55, 57
Teagarden, jack 49
tension and release 87-88
Thompson, Virgil 135
Thorne, Michael 103
thorough-bass 22-23;
embell ishments 23-24
Ti lbury, j ohn 128
tonality 87-88
T oop, David 125
Tournemire, Charles 36-37
transcription xi,15
Viernc, Louis 31
virtuosity 100
vocal techniques 102
Wachsmann, Phil 108
Waldron, Mal 54
Weber, Carl Maria von 33n
Webern, Anton 87,107
Westrup,j. 24-25
Wesley, S.S. 29n
Whi tmer, T.Carl 32,112;
The art of
improvisation 32-3
Widor, Charles-Marie 36
Yamashta 96
Yes 39; Topography of the
oceans 41
Young, Lester 53n
Zen Buddhism 115
Zonis, Ella x
Zorn,john 75-78,138;
Archery 76; Cobra 76-77
I
~
c
....
In
~
....
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~
improvisation
Its Nature and
Practice in Music
Derek Bailey
MUSIC
IMPROVISATION
Its Nature and Practice in Music
by Derek Bailey
"This second edition is a welcome expansion and reorganization of Derek
Bailey's seminal 1980 book on improvisation, originally titled Musical Im-
provisation. ... Like Bailey's music, Improvisation is suggestive and con-
tingent rather than a statement of certainties. Because of its breadth, it is
essential reading not only for listeners and players of improvised music,
but for aficionados of all types of music." -Option
"This is the most important book on improvisation--the craft, the edge,
the leap--that you're likely to meet." - Wire
"A creative and highly original improviser, Bailey has influenced a genera-
tion of guitarists in Europe and North America. His book ... treats per-
ceptively the relationships among different traditions of improvisation."
-New Grove Dictionary of Jazz
"Through the voices of practitioners from a variety of fields, Derek
Bailey's Improvisation insightfully examines its subiect matter without re-
ally defining it. . .. Improvisation, with its pithy, easily comprehensible
narrative, is a valuable tool for anyone interested in music at any level."
-Cadence
Derek Bailey's Improvisation, originally published in 1980, and here up-
dated and extended with new interviews and photographs, is the first
book to deal with the nature of improvisation in all its forms-lndian
music, flamenco, baroque, organ music, rock, jazz, contemporary, and
"free" music. By drawing on conversations with some of teday's seminal
improvisers-lnciuding John Zorn, Jerry Garcia, Steve Howe, Steve Lacy,
Lionel Salter, Earle Brown, Paco Pena, Max Roach, Evan Parker, and
Ronnie Scotl--8ailey offers a clear-eyed view of the breathtaking spec-
trum of possibilities inherent in improvisational practice, while underpin-
ning its importance as the basis for all music-making.
Guitarist Derek Bailey has performed solo concerts throughout the world,
played with most of the musicians associated with free improvisation, and
recorded over ninety albums. He lives in London, where he divides his
time between solo performances; organizing and playing in Company, an
international ensemble of improvising musicians; running his own label,
Incus Records; writing; and ad hoc musical activities.
US $15.00 I $22.95 CAN
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examining the idea from every angle - being busy with the idea. That's the whole thing. Looking for each way to come to the middle of it Han Bennink I've always tried to provoke the musician to go beyond his habits Earle Brown the accidental, the chaotic. You know, the stuff that you can't control or you can't predict Jerry Garcia it's something that should be heard, enjoyed or otherwise, and then completely fotgotten Stephen Hicks when you start to playoff the top of your head, that's when the truth is really known about people Steve Howe a musician is trying to use whatever liberty he has within the raga to extend the limits of that raga without destroying its basic features Viram Jasanl the most important thing for an improvisor is to be able to think quickly Jean Langlais it started from what we accept as silence. And every move meant something Tony Oxley the violinists, and the other string players in the group, spurred the harpsichordist on ... the harpsichordist might then think of something first and they would follow him Lionel Salter an improvisor wants to have the freedom to do anything at any time John Zorn the basic characteristic of music-making is improvisation Derek Bailey

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data Bailey, Derek. Improvisation: its nature and practice in music I Derek Bailey. p. em. Originally published: Ashborune, England: Moorland Pub. in association with Incus Records. c1980. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 0-306-80528-6 1. Improvisation (Music). 2. Music-Performance-History. I. TItle.

for K

MJA30.7.B25 1993 781.3'6-<lc20

93-24899 CIP

First published in the United Kingdom in 1992 by The British Library National Sound Archive First published in the United States of America in 1993 by Da Capo Press, supplemented with photographs.
Copyright C 1992 by Derek Bailey

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Published by Da Capo Press, Inc. A Member of the Perseus Books Group All Rights Reserved Manufactured in the United States of America

CONTENTS
Introduction Introduction to revised edition
PART ONE
IX
XW

Indian music (1) Indian music (2)
Flamenco
PART TWO

1 7 12 19 26 29 36

Baroque (1) Baroque (2) Organ (1) Organ (2)
PART THREE

Rock
Audience

jazz (1) jazz (2)
PART FOUR

39 44 48
54

The composer The composer and the non-improvisor The composer - in practice (1)

59

66 70
75

The composer - in practice (2)
The composer - in question
PART FIVE

79
83 86

Free joseph Holbrooke
The Music Improvisation Company

The MIC - the instrument The MIC - recording Solo
PART SIX

94 98
103 105

Objections
Classroom improvisation
PART SEVEN

113 118
125 133 140 143 145

The long distance improvisor

Company Limits and freedom
Bibliography Index

a doubtful expedient. Jeremy Marre.Author's Note Introduction Improvisation enjoys the curious distinction of being both the most widely practised of all musical activities and the least acknowledged and understood. essentially non-academic. must of necessity present an incomplete. They are the book. E. Obviously this is not intended as a history of improvisation. without taking into account the improvisational element in living musical practice.Ferand in his Improvisation in Nine Centuries of Western Music can write: 'This joy in improvising while singing and playing is evident in almost all phases of music history. His perception of the social and spiritual powers of improvisation lead me to a greater understanding of its universal significance. George Clinton. Janice Christianson. passages in the book which derive from conversations held with many players over many years. The book is divided into sections ranging from the traditional uses of improvisation (in Indian music. It concludes with an examination of some aspects of the recent rise of free improvisation and the correspondences found between all types of improvisation. My feeling was that there was an important part of improvisation not easily indicated or conveyed by its results. VIla Lytton. even appropriate. This is an attempt to cover the practice of improvisation in the main areas in which it is found and to reveal those features and characteristics common to all improvisation. Defined in anyone of a series of catchphrases ranging from 'making it up as he goes along' to 'instant composition'. Michael Oliver. Primarily. Mandy Davidson. Mick Beck. Marion Rout. scarcely a single musical technique or form of composition This book is an account by practicing musicians from various idioms of their use of improvisation. too elusive for analysis and precise description. My purpose in undertaking such an unlikely project as. improvisation is generally viewed as a musical conjuring trick. in some respects. Even about its presence in Occidental music. the most inhospitable area for improvisation. Among those who helped in a variety of other ways. But I would also like to thank all those musicians whose ideas and words appear without acknowledgement. And. Rudy Koopmans. Beryl Towns and Paul Wilson. Peter Riley. ix . Charles Fox. would be a vast and probably endless undertaking. its relationship to its audience. Improvisation is always changing and adjusting. was to show the significance of improvisation through the experience of those who use it. Peter Butler. indeed a distorted picture. its relationship to recording. in Jazz and in Rock. My thanks also to Harcourt Films and Channel 4 Television for permission to use certain quotations from the series of TV films based on the earlier edition of this book. Particularly. While it is today present in almost every area of music. Frank Long. or even a vulgar habit. John Fordham. a misrepresentation. Paul Lytton. and then assembling a book combining these programmes and further discussions with these and other players. I have particular reasons to thank Alistair Bamford. a task which. its place in music and their speculations on its nature. if it were ever attempted.T. Chris Clark. It was always a powerful force in the creation of new forms and every historical study that confines itself to the practical or theoretical sources that have come down to us in writing or in print. For there is scarcely a single field in music that has remained unaffected by improvisation. firstly. instigating a series of radio programmes in which practising musicians from different idioms discussed their use of improvisation. The widespread presence of improvisation in music. Flamenco and Baroque music) through its uses in church organ playing. I am indebted to all the musicians whose words I quote in the book. its uses in the classroom and some of the recent developments involving improvisation in contemporary Western composition. Perhaps this is inevitable. Henry Kaiser. This suspicion arose mainly as a resultof the almost total absence of comment concerning improvisation and the hopeless misconceptions usually expressed in the comment which does occur. there is an almost total absence of information about it. never fixed. more than that. So in this book the intention is to present the views on improvisation of those who use it and know it. I am indebted to the director. Karen Brookman. Acknowledgements The number of people who have helped me with the book from its inception through its various stages and revisions is countless. a part which perhaps only those involved in doing it seemed to be able to appreciate or comprehend. means that any single volume will inevitably be selective. Laurent Goddet. combined with a scarcity of documentation concerning it. any attempt to describe improvisation must be. Martin Davidson. for there is something central to the spirit of voluntary improvisation which is opposed to the aims and contradicts the idea of documentation.

flamenco or baroque . as Thomas Clifton says: 'The question is not whether the description is subjective. the section on Indian mu sic exam ines the usual method of learning to improvise..pr8S$lOl'l open to the pertormef The composition stood or Ie. intuitive descriptions were preferred and.and takes its identity and motivation from that idiom. For instance. uninformative. It would include many parts of Islamic music (notably Persian guslf":h ). for no rule or custom is inviolable. but very simply is whether or not the description says something significant about the intuited experience so that the experience itself becomes something from which we can learn and in so doing learn about the object of that experience as well. fter ldting that 'Persian music theorists. to use the different secnons not only to present an account of improvisation in that area or idIOm but to highlight a characteristic most obviously demonstrated by that area. objective.that did nor originate in improvisatory practice or was not essentiall) influenced by it. wherein the dictates of traditional procedures are integrated with his immediate mood and emotional needs. however. Flamenco deals with improvisation and authenticity. And even they can run into serious difficulties. ignores the warning and plunges in. and so on . Transcription. deflects attention towar s peripheral considerations. the Pol ynesian 'variable' musics' and all the many forms of vocal improvisation found in settings as culturally different as the Presbyterian chapels of Stornoway2 and the markets and bazaars of Ca iro. on whethef Of not it provided a good vehiCle for imprOVIsatIon 2 The collec1lve imprOVlsatlOfl Dy the congr(!9atlOflS ot these chapels has been described 13 'elat>orate melismata around an extremely slow IllOYlflg metrical psalm tune. methodically with frequent erasures and backtrackmg. being present without Interruption !rom the earliest known muSICS 10 the present day Early vocal and IIlStrumental mprovisatlOfl. but almost impossible to learn. biased or idiosyncratic. in fact. I couldn't imag111t: a meaningful consideration of improvi satio n from anything other than a practical and a personal point of view.do not consider it in their writings'. Idiomatic improvisation. would make an extensive list. Intuitive descriptions erect their st ru ctures very much in the same way that scientific descriptions do: slowly. Thomas Ctifton in Joomal 01 Music Thet:xy x xi . that is what this book is mainly about. At the actual time of performance. For there is no general or widely held theory of improvisa tion and I would have thought it self-evident that improvlsanon has no exisrence outside of its practice. much the most widely used . is mainly concerned with the expression of an idiom . 3 From 'Some comparisons between Ifltuillve and SClenlilic descriptions 0' mulJic '. considering improvisation to be ntuJ tl . In general.. However. we must admit that the performer is not bound by them.. Both kinds of description are concerned with inrersubjecrive confirmation. '3 I have used the terms 'idiomatic' and 'non-idiomatic' to describe the twO main forms of improvisation. (Michael Oliver. Not infrequently.' So the omissio ns. I hope I have managed to avoid doing that. to say nothing 01 one's sense of what is harmonically proper'. is the whole truth.. II was an end Iflltsell· the means 01 e.' After examining the various structures and constituents in Persian music she later concludes: 'Afte r considering all these procedures. No one is saying that any particular intuitive description.. in Persian music.stect but as a means 01 celebratIng the Ict 01 musIC' making. taken as true. the musician does not calculate the procedures that will guide his playing. Turkish music. One must rea lise from the beginning that in Persian music there is no 'always'. the essential factors in a performance are the feeling of a player and those of his audience.' I hope it will be adequate if I refer to the 'p ractice of practice' as practice. was not uS«! mefeiy to aher what already e. One has to unlearn the tempered scale to begin WIth. The mUSICS covered here hav e been chosen simply because I had the opportunity to talk to an active practitioner from each of those fields. Ella Zonis in her book Classical Persian Music. but intuitively. simply because almost all the musicians I spoke to chose to discuss improvisation mainly in 'abstract' terms. What could be said about improvisation in one area could be said about it in another. many African musics. it seems to me a from being an aid to understanding improvisation. 'A further obstacle in this area is the readily apparent discrepancy between t The procedure 01 vanabOrll$ one of the oldest and most petSlSlent ot peI1OfTT1109 pnncIpies. an astonIshing sound. while it might take the Ionn 01 embeI~shmenl.such as jazz. Under these conditions the player performs not according to the "theory of practice". I have tried. the blues. for this subject. Rather he plays from a level of conscious ness somewhat removed from the purely rational. according to the "practice of practice". The e are no so-called 'musical examples' quoted. For. those musics which have to be excluded In order to avoid the book assuming encyclopedic proportions. after a lengthy interview regarding performance practices a performer will illustrate the aspects of practice he has just described by playing something entirely different from what he has just said ought to be played. In fact there was a commonly held suspicion that a close technical approach was. it did become increasingly clear during my contacts with different musi cians and their musics that the main characteristics of Improvisa tion could be discerned in all its appearances and roles. Those and man y other forms of mu sic involving the use of improvisation are not here. the chapters on church organ playing present something of the schol astic attitude to improvisation. In any event." a leiter to the author) the theory of practice and the practice of practice. In fact there is very little technical description of any kind . The whole history of the development of musIC IS accompanied by manifestations of the drive to improvise. Among improvising musicians rhere is endless speculation abou t its narure but only an academic would have the temerity to mount a theory of improvisation.

They know that there is no musical activity which requires greater skill and devotion. could hardly be greater. They recognise that. and while not everything covered in the programmes is of relevance here . though. the opportunity to look at the whole thing again through other peoples' eyes. lacking in design and method. Here one finds 'specialists' in 'new' music as though music. Most useful. I think this is due to its widely accepted connotations which imply that improvisation is something without preparation and without consideration. and not always compatible. And so they reject the word. September 1991 xii xiii . Introduction to revised edition The difference between the present musical climate and that of the mid-1970s. of course. of treating the contemporary as a special. the changes that have taken place seem to have made very little difference to improvisation. quite segregated musical activity. it completely misrepresents the depth and complexity of their work. firstly because I don't know of any other which could effectively replace it. it seems to me. Most surveys of the intervening decade and a half tend to be lamentations on the galloping artistic cowardice. then. the other contributors and myself. however.a number of quotations from the discussions held around and during filming are included. I have also followed what seems to be the usual practice in writings about 'straight' music. and significant as they are. Essential changes to the book. That brought its own revelations.Non-idiomatic improvisation has other concerns and is most usually found in so-called 'free' improvisation and. And they object to that implication because they know from their own experience that it is untrue. Other assessors. preparation. They 'play flamenco' or 'play jazz'. in describing what they do. while it can be highly stylised. training and commitment. and show a reluctance to be identified by what in some quarters has become almost a term of abuse. Either way. is unlikely to have any effect on something as fundamental as the nature of improvisation but even in its practice improvisation seems to have been. has to be a sort of sonic archaeology. Turning once again from improvising to writing about improvisation was done reluctantly. as it is generally understood. Idiomatic improvisors. Writing did provide. use the name of the idiom. and secondly because [hope that we.TV making its own highly specialised demands . in order to be normal and un specialised. was the opportunity once again to make contact with some of the endlessly various approaches towards improvisation and to be able to further draw on the wealth of insight and practical experience available in virtually all musics as testimony to this bedrock of musical creativity. Derek Bailey. an instructive experience and one intensified this time because I was simultaneously working on a series of TV films based on the earlier edition of this book. if at times diverted. is not usually tied to representing an idiomatic identity. might be able to redefine it. were only rarely necessary and revision has mainly taken the form of additions. London. as much about television as about improvisation. frivolous and inconsequential. a completely ad hoc activity. new voices appearing. Transient musical fashion. as prevalent and irrepressible as ever. some for no more than a single remark. speak of a Golden Age. shrivelled imaginations and self-congratulatory philistinism which typified the period. when this book was first written. applauding the strenuous efforts evident in all areas of music to be more 'accessible'. others in extended interviews. some refer to what they do as just 'playing'. But I have chosen to retain that term throughout this book. There is a noticeable reluctance to use the word and some improvisors express a positive dislike for it. The word improvisation is actually very little used by improvising musicians. they are very different activities.

style and musical grammar. hopefully. purely musical theory . Aesthetics and devotional thinking are inextricably connected. comi ng from an area which has seen 4000 years of almost contin uou s invasion and migration beginning with the Aryans and finishing. The division in many ways reflects the different cultural and political history of the two areas: South India with its relatively undisturbed Hindu culture producing a music very heavily tied to tradition. One of the effects of the collision between the Islam ic and Hindu cu ltures occurring in Northern India was to produce a music of a less specifi ca ll y religious nature than that in the South. the laws of the music a rc spiritual laws and their authority is of a re ligious nature. a book of musical theory is indistinguishable from a book of re ligious instruction and a lthough there is a large body of literature concern ing the music there is 3n a lmost complete absence of systematised. and could certainly bc considered as belonging within the scope of the subject of this book but it seems to me that one of the 1 . The implications and effects of this on the spiritual life of the musician must. conse rvati ve in outlook. A shifting of attention from the traditional texts ro the more purely musical side leads to a less rigid. all Indian music is embedded in the spi ritu a l life of the counrry.is much more readily found in the music o f the North than that of the South. and earlier saint/composers. the presence of improvisation is of central importance to all Indian musIC. One effect of this division is that there is a much heavier emphasis on improvisation to be found in Hindustani than in Carnatic music. A hisrory of In dian music is largely a catalogue of Hindu and Muslim sainrs. with an interest in development . Hindustani music. And the ' type of attitude customaril y associated with improvisation experimental. But hisrorically and theoretically. more advenrurous attitude in Hindustani music. of course. with the English.PART ONE INDIAN MUSIC ( 1) Hindustani (North India n) and Carnatic (South India n) musi c are usually considered as two quite distinct musical areas with differences in nomenclature. The principles of the music are spiritual principles. But in practice. proud of its rigorous confo rmity to Sanscrit texts. be great. tolerant of change. although a marked respect for tradition is a prominent part of all Indian music. natu rally enough reflects the syntheses it has undergone and is less restricted by inherited convention. their teachings and their deeds.

Mostof this activity is in srutis acting as satellites of the svara. their identity is not established primarily by their relationship to a tonic and their use is not steplike or sequential. not 22. is the rhythmic cycle over which the second part of the raga is played and is treated mainly as a base for rhythmic variations of fixed metrical length. ••• The framework within which improvisation takes place in Indian music is the raga. For the development of his musicianship the student in Indian music is left with no alternative but to find practical instruction from a performing musician and. the main raw materials used by the Indian musician are of an unfixed. have been more accurately described as the rnolecular structure of the raga. malleable nature. In short.Srinivasan in Facets of Indian Culture. too. non-harmonic. after awesorne research. writes: 'It is the use of these very short intervals that rnakes the individuality of the Indian system . I found an adequate description of the importance and function of the sruti in the work of two Indian writers who were largely unconcerned with precise measurements and exact labels. If a singer is taking part in the performance the drone. The difference between one raga and another can be decided by the size of one sruti. in the Western sense.. can be considered as the element which guarantees the basic variability of the rnusic. concluded that there were 24. are also variable. If there is no singer any player of a melody instrument will choose it. a sruti can be a halfor a third or a quarter of the svara. Again these divisions are not equal. the sruti is the smallest interval used and is considered the most important single element in Indian music. or 8 matra 2 3 . The whole of the activity can take place over a continuous drone or fundamental. the ear responds and tolerates at certain definite points and there are 22 such points at each of which the degree of tolerance. that is. One French scholar. R. a choice depending on the musician's knowledge. and the rhythmic cycle.. The seven unequal and variable divisions of the octave. consonance or dissonance is varying. The octave. The sruti is the subdivision of the svara and its relation to the svara can be 2: 1. means that the exact size of the srmi is in many instances purely a matter of personal choice. sruris to the octave. a variable framework. A svara is selected and used as a centre around which melodic activity can take place. in any of its versions.a music which is. unequal units called svaras. where rnost small rnovement is by glissandi. Although they provide the main tonal points. The precise opposite of the tempered scale. Its exact size is elusive. Arguing about the exact size of the sruti. experience and instinct. but in practice this is always judged in the context of the raga being played. the tala.most striking advantages that this background has to confer on the Indian musician is of a secular nature.Adyonthaya in his Melody Music of India offers that 'a further explanation of the basis of the srutis may be found in the audio phenomenon that when two notes of the same pitch are struck simultaneously and one of them is raised gradually higher and higher in pitch relationship or pitch ratio. The basic intervals used. Consequently. which in Sanscrit means the palm of the hand. is chosen by the singer and all the instruments tune to that. a constant shifting to 'sharpness' or to 'flatness'. 12. One of the meanings of 'svara' is 'self-sufficient'. But srutis.M. In practice it is clear that a micro-tonal music which is often played on instruments using low-tensioned strings. for example 16. to pursue his own personal development and musical self-sufficiency. usually compared to a scale.3: lor 4: 1.' THE SVARA In Sanscrit meaning 'to hear'. the sruti and the svara. as regards the business of actually playing the music. Improvisation for him is a fact of musical life. What he is saved from is the burden of having his music constantly monitored by a self-appointed theoretical authority of doubtful utility and. he is left with enormous practical freedom. the spirit of a Raga or a melody-type is best expressed through the use of these rninute divisions of the scale. and judged aurally. The notes relate to each other purely by their continuity and their juxtaposition. seems to have been one of the main tasks of the theorist in this music for over 2000 years. with guidance from his master. THE TALA The tala. The expertness of a musician depends to a large extent on his capacity to use them so as to add to the richness and sweetness of his songs. does have an exact size and there are 22 srutis to an octave. one of them serving as a basic note of reference. judged in relation to a svara. THE SRUTI Since the arrival on the scene of the Western musicologist the debate about the sruti has intensified.' For a rnore 'technical' description Shri N. The octave in Indian music is divided into seven main. or shadja. These 22 points have been the basis of the 22 srutis of Indian music from tirne immemorial. the purely theoretical advice he receives is almost entirely of an aesthetic not technical nature. an interval which itself does not have a clearly defined size. The svara and the sruti form the two basic pitch divisions in Indian music . however.

It is divided into two halves. THE LAVA An important part of all idiomatic improvisation is using the 'feel' of the rhythm. The first. There are also many decorations and graces which are standardised. is not in some way subservient to that which it decorates.' The framework within which these elements are working. its pulse. swing. A pulse is introduced but no tala. rock. its sentiment. It is its rhythmic impetus. The raga is also the framework within which the musician improvises. Lord of the Dance'. the alapa.is known as the Rasa. ballistic. firstly. ride . It is. One further point. for instance. There is movement into a higher register. how they are left. and the framework for the performance. and the characteristic material of the raga is treated in various standard ways. is played over the tala. of Indian music but of more importance rhythmically is the laya.APA The svaras to be used are established and the dominating notes selected. one of the main characteristics. But one can make a generalised description. if used. dynamic. something common to most improvised music. Melodic patterns are established and the pace quickens. Orlike those coined in Western improvisation: groove. such as the sthaya. and a concentration on the rhythmic properties of the performance. The distinction might be in how the svaras are treated. kinetic. equivalence. At this point there is no tala. The Indians say: 'The laya is the father and the sruti is the mother of the raga. The origin of the word is connected with the Hindu belief in the 'allembracing comprehensive rhythm of the universe as personified in Shiva. The elements that can be fixed. is as adaptable and as malleable as they are. It is a set of ingredients all of which are themselves variable and out of which the musician must fashion his performance. The tala is. how they are approached. of course. Anything which can be considered as decoration. on their own.C. In Indian music this is the laya. **• So a raga provides the material.' Until its performance the raga is unformed. Usually described as the overall tempo of a piece. is described as 'having a good laya'. the raga. Dialogue between the performers increases in intensity and pace. O. In the language of Indian poetics this soul. the introduction of set decorative pieces. an integral part. As with most of the terms used in Indian music there is an ambiguity about the raga which makes a precise definition always. which svara is selected for emphasis (vadi). or flavour.words of sexual derivation. the first statement of any melody which might be used at the beginning of the gat. The twO halves are further sub-divided but there are many versions of how many sub-divisions there should be. a specific collection of notes which do not. the placing and phrasing is chosen at the moment of performance. but having the strength and resourcefulness to adapt to any musical direction. achieving its final state only at the moment of performance. one particular 4 5 . establish the identity of the raga. it is much more than that. its body. the forward movement sense as opposed to the mathematical understanding of the rhythm. the gat. in some respects. the rhythmic cycle. in most performances but my impression is that there is no shortage of exceptions. concerning the raga. THE GAT The raga melody is stated and the tala introduced. However it is fairly standa rd in practice that the following sequences take place: THEAL. wholly or in abbreviation. an ascending and descending series of svaras. THE RAGA row of svaras can be common to more than one raga. But the whole thing is in flux. The vocabulary of Western classical music contains no equivalent for laya. its impassioned feeling.Gangoly in Ragas and Raginis writes: 'A raga is more than its physical form . This outline is probably used.(beats). how they are ordered or grouped. The musician who displays an exceptional rhythmical 'feel'.this principle . Although there are probably over one hundred tala available to the Indian musician there are only about a dozen in general use.. forms an out-of-tempo slow introduction. not in any way imprecise or unclear in its intentions and requirements. either being incapable of recognising its existence or preferring to ignore it.. The most powerful expression of the identity of a piece might be in the smallest details. The second. Probably the terms encountered in the description of space and energy serve better: continuum. whose work has great rhythmic facility and ease. misleading. It has a soul which comes to dwell and inhabit the body. the sub-division of this cycle can become quite complex. and some of the decorative phrases (gamakas) are used voluntarily and. is that different constituents do not have obvious hierarchical values. centrifugal. certain standard ways of treating the material. Finally. his interpretation of these elements.

in most cases. to its slower atmosphere. on an understanding. demonstrating the different points he was making. And the instruction offered usually concerns the manipulation of scalar and harmonic ingredients in those particular styles. This can be done with a drone or just by playing a phrase up the keynote . Born In Jaipur in North India where he studied with Imrat Khan.. And while I repeat this tune over and over I am maintaining this time cycle. In the early stages this admiration is most useful if it takes the form of unquestioning idolatry.. developed from complete familiarity. Then he maintains the cycle and I am free to improvise.. the recognition of which can be intuitive. We play what is called alapa. I am afraid.. And you take out one note . and concentrate on that one note . one which your teacher is famous for. Where the drums come in. Alain Danielou. With him was the tabla player Esmail Sheikh. perhaps. Quite a simple description. to playa good performance.. But a discourse which concerns itself exclusively with pitch relationships . In idiomatic improvisation this objective is usually represented by an admired player whose performance one wishes to emulate.in pretty much the same way by everybody who is lucky enough to stumble on the right method. The whole thing is then repeated on the basis of a rhythm created.. When we start a performance of the raga we start very slowly. and this is where one tends to play much faster phrases. He gave me the following account of the raga. An ability to improvise can't be forced and it depends..• •• Representing Indian music in the programmes was Viram Jasani. while the time cycle is still being maintained.. The great majority of these studies concern themselves either with organ improvisation.. In the face of the possibility that no improvisor anywhere has ever learned to improvise from a book or other documentary source. And you pick out each note in this scale as you go up the scale and your phrases are created and improvised around each particular note. so strongly desired as to be almost a mania.. and this is why it takes such a long time. helpful for an appreciation of those idioms and.' Later the path to musical self-development comes through increasing confidence and the inevitable increase in critical awareness.. firstly. What they have to say is. of the musical context in which one improvises. and we alternate. The truth is probably that improvisation is learned . the earliest of which appeared over 200 years ago.. The important thing is to have an objective. more ordinary players have to find more ordinary means. which has nothing to do with rhythm or style. younger brother of Vilyat Khan. And the first thing we do is to establish the keynote . says: 'In [his sort of personal instruction artistic training precedes the technical. And the purpose of alapa is to explore the melodic possibilities within that raga. And concentrating on this note . The pupil is in constant contact with the work of art in its most developed form and he is conscious of the goal which he should eventually attain: the content of the music is never separated from its form. or wishes to improvise.and building up my phrases to end on that point . free to improvise. As he talked he played the sitar. in this case on the sitar. is where one has a fixed composition . Although a large number of books and courses offering instruction and advice on how to improvise are available it seems impossible to find a musician who has actua lly learned to improvise from them.. 6 7 . Viram Jasani now lives in England .one can either make up a composition or you can playa traditional tune from your style of music. And this tune may have a certain length in time. As this understanding develops so the ability to improvise can develop. But that's Indian music. Full of contradiction. perhaps. Then the improvisations take place in the lower register .. You've got to decide which ones are allowed and which ones to play and INDIAN MUSIC (2) how to play them. But not all of these possibilities may be allowed in the raga.perhaps acquired would be a better word . the drummer.. The learning process in improvisation is invariably difficult to detect.can say practically nothing about that which is essentially to do with improvisation. And we both meet on that point . And here you do in fact apply a simple mathematical process. which may seem a contradiction. which leaves the tabla player.. it is a succinct account of the essentials involved. Now all this is done without any rhythm whatever. naturally. an understanding of the idiom is essential in order to improvise in it. and there is an emphasised point in that tune which corresponds to the emphasised point in the time cycle.. . and this is where improvisation perhaps begins to get a little less. writing of the traditional method of learning in South-East Asia. The points at which these took place ace indicated in the text by ellipses.. on the drone . If we just have an example of him playing and he will come back and end his improvisations at the same point of emphasis . even without the musical examples. And in this way you work your way up the scale.me lodic or harmonic .. or conventional jazz. the argument usually offered to support the publication of these manuals is that whi le 'great' players can somehow suddenly appear fully endowed with every necessary skill.

. One has to figure out a way in which the possibilities of that raga will enhance its mood. 8 9 .. a raga can be considered a limiting thing. it comes naturally to us to think of our own phrases and our own representation of a performance of a raga. implication as to how one actually improvises in this raga but just to demonstrate to you how to feel for the raga and then I'll at one point deliberately play something which you will automatically recognise as not part of the raga . Ours is a very intuitive music. you learn intuitively.give you an idea of the gait of the raga . what you do is to acquire a feeling for that raga and you can immediately recognise it when it's played by other musicians or by your teacher again. They are musicians and they think of the feeling they have for the notes. and the experience acquired over the years of practicing that raga. That's absolutely right. Learning improvisation is a practical matter: there is no exclusively theoretical side to improvisation. and listening to other people play that raga. as you would say. I'll playa few phrases within this raga. between notes. How. the natural seventh. of austerity. I suggested to Viram Jasani that one of the purposes of improvisation might be to intensify the mood of a raga.on the lower notes in the lower register. To bring out the most in that raga. What he directly learns from his teacher is the framework in which improvisation or performance of Indian music takes place. The time that we spend with a Guru is purely spent in trying to understand the framework in which Indian music is set. by trial and error. he's 110t a theoretician.. after hearing him do this several times. a language of music. or by a series of observed accidents. Appreciating and understanding how improvisation works is achieved through the failures a nd successes involved in attempting to do it. And a Guru doesn't. without any direct . So this. There are plenty of. In purely mathematical terms a series of notes can be combined in hundreds of different ways. and the feeling that they derive from the notes. This almost uses the same intonation . therefore a good teacher is able to show you and give you guidelines as to how to perform Indian classical music. perhaps.. This all goes to make up an atmosphere of sobriety. Vitam Jasani described to me how improvisation 'arrived' during his yeats of study.what he will do is to play to you and tell you to listen and perhaps ask you to imitate certain phrases that he is playing. Theoretically it might be correct but it doesn't allow for the feelings of the raga. won't say to you. And there is of course a n appropriateness about this method. And if you are going to play that raga you can't help but play those characteristic features. <this is the scalic structure of the raga and these are the notes used in that raga' ..Most musicians learn to improvise by accident. to put all this together and create some new phrase or put a new idea within that raga. Now your teacher doesn't tell you that these are the notes that you use so that you know which ones not to use. when you learn a raga you are really learning something which is very abstract and you don't learn a raga in terms of its tonal content.. In other words. And you intuit when you're playing a phrase which is out of context. And. But the teacher in Indian music is not usually an academic. after a/l. What he does is to play you phrases and play you the general. out of that framework.. But ultimately I don't think musicians think in terms like these. how it should be played. Viram Jasani demonstrated what he meant. Cou ld Viram Jasani be more specific about his teacher's methods and could he recall his first attempts at improvising? It's difficult to pinpoint a particular time when you start improvising. of course. That is purely up to the stude11t to gain by experience and to intuit the various methods of playing the music. do you recognise a raga? Because you recognise certain characteristic features about it.. really tell you how to improvise. is not improvisation.. And there is more emphasis..just to show the power of the raga and how you immediately realise that something is not correct .. you start creating your own different phrases within that raga .. or your teacher doesn't. what we call meend or slides. one note is incorrect . the feeling for a raga is acquired intuitively.. if you like. Indian music with its long complex relationship between teacher and pupil has the only methodology or system which acknowledges these basic characteristics of improvisatio n. But it's useless in your improvisation to go through all of these. And so you start playing those phrases and eventually you get to the stage where you don't repeat the phrases your teacher has taught you. when he's in the mood to teach you a particular raga. a natural correspondence between improvisation and empiricism.. which should have been the flattened seventh. But your improvisation comes into play when you are trying to use the information presented to you in terms of musical facts. using your ability. it doesn't allow for music. that is. He gives you the scope and the field in which to gain your experience and if you're a good student you take advantage of this opportunity that he gives you and then it becomes something that one develops on one's own. What happens is that your teacher.. Because we are learning. And gradually..

there is an assumption by the player that the music is his. by rote. inhibiting factors when it comes to improvisation. I had this exchange with Viram Jasani: Does the amount of improvisation used increase as you go on? Would it be possible to say that? I don't understand what you mean when you say <amount of improvisation used'. instruction has to be aural. The argument usually revolves around the point whether the skills and attitudes necessary to be a good sight-reader are. in musics where there isn't an 'accurate' notation system. like most improvising musicians. or are not. his creation. in fact. disappears.the tone of the instrument _ the particular tone you bring out of the instrument at that time . While in religious music notation had a definite place in order ro prevent the present and future generations from breaking sacred traditions. The whole thing is one's own . that possible problem. or associated with.... Notation became indispensible only under the pressure of worked-out polyphony. Improvisors in all fields often speak of ' my music'. Many ancient notations were merely devised by priests for priests and cantors and some were even kept secret. where they might be expected both to improvise and to read music.. Because a musician is trying to use whatever liberty he has within the raga to extend the limits of that raga without destroying its basic features. with the even pulse of a river and with the unbroken evolution of a Sequoia tree'. So.' 'Written music' in Indian music usually refers to books of music theory (accepted as being quite separate from music practice. historic figures of Indian music. Viram Jasani. Writings of a spiritual and of an aesthetic nature or poems which have inspired musicians are the only types of scripted works which are allowed to influence and affect the Indian performing musician.. So the changes are imperceptible over any short period of time. of course. It is not a claim of ownership but a complete personal identification with the music they play.a matter of musical choice. music without notation is not limited to sc riptless societies. f think a raga is a product of time and people playing that raga over a period of time. what made one improvisation better than another. 10 11 .. in Western civilisation as well as those of the East.When asked how he judged the quality of an improvisation. It's the combination achieved by. and personal. as with all improvisors. Would you introduce more of your own . I asked Viram Jasani if there was any deliberate attempt at some sort of evolution in his improvising. •. ft's a product of peoples' changing attitudes and tolerances. once a symbolic act of piety. the one rarely interfering with the other). secu lar music relied on free invention and memory. is now. develop and evolve through the type of process described earlier by Viram Jasani.the mood created . his presentation.perhaps a phrase which isn't necessarily new but just put in a different context. Curt Sachs in The Wellsprings of Music writes: ' . Whether reading music is a disadvantage ro an improvisor is a question which gets quite a lot of discussion amongst improvising musicians who work in areas such as popular music. 'the musicians'. an acceptance that these are very often two things which do not go together. the continuance and evolution of their music has throughout the centu ri es been the successful charge of the improvising performer. music has continued unperturbed through thirty centuries or more. But more important than the removal of a possible inhibition or contrary discip line from the performer is the fact that the absence of a music writing! reading tradition gets rid of the composer. The ragas. tempo _ what's happened before what's going to come after .. Something common to most musics in which improvisation is traditionally found is an absence of any accurate notation system. as Yehudi Mehuhin says. the bedrock and stuff of the music.. or distraction. usually great performers or religious teachers of the past. Written by. And in India. There is an unmistakable suspicion that the acquisition of reading skills in some way has a blunting effect o n improvising skills. their use. One of the few sustained efforts to deliberately mould or shape the course of the music has been the attempt in recent years to sy nthesise or combine different ragas. They. But it is changed not by one performer but by a succession of performers. couldn't offer a formula or a set of rules that one could apply. are the embodiment of the music. But there are other implications to the lack of written music. That is. So. In practice the only part of the music which might be identified as 'composed music' is the possible use of certain melodies with certain ragas. Bur here again the experiments are carried our by performers and receive their 'tests' in performance. the whole performance IS one's own interpretation on that raga. how ragas evolve. And if you take a raga today and look at it in terms of its history you may find that it has changed considerably. his responsibility. Consequently. where.whether over the years he was actually trying to move it so mewhere. They become part of the raga.

nomadically. An event not only of great personal distinction for Paco Pena but a nice indication of the relationship existing between the academic and flamenco music worlds. the guitar. and he must provide a good clear rhythm and follow the voice in whatever nuances the singer may bring to it. But even that is a little dubious because it was not mentioned until a century later . The first notice we have is about a singer of seguirillas. Tonas. In fact.without both. when I checked with them the small amount of documentary evidence I could uncover. conditions. neither <gypsy music' nor Andalucian folklore. like Northern India. implied that a lack of documentation was of benefit to everyone. 'it is the guitar as a solo instrument rather than the singing. Nobody knows for certain when it all started because there are very few written records available. he was born in Cordoba. From 1860 to 1910 was the era of the 'Cafe Cantantes'. The advantages for the performing musician in this situation are numerous. 12 13 . But as flamenco emerged ('Cafes Cantantes'). From the beginning of the 19th century to 1860 it was part of the life of Andalucian gypsies and poor people who kept it for themselves and never performed outside their communities. derives all its inspiration from the Cante Jondo . Unlike other music they had come across elsewhere in Spain. Traditionally the gypsies were not great poets .but they had a remarkable facility for rhythm and music. the function of the flamenco guitarist is to help the singer or dancer to bring out the best of his talent.' So most of my information has come from musicians who play flamenco. In 1972 he gave a recital in the Conservatorio da Musica in Cordoba. Also he must colour it by playing falsetas. and in Andalucia they found a rich. somewhat ambiguous nature. which was already the instrument of Spain. and instrumental music. preserving them from the c1assico-administrative. they found it contained very little that could be recognised as accurately reflecting the music they played. Oemonstrating yet again the combination of ignorance and arrogance w~h which high Ct. is paralleled by an almost total absence of any literature. It is possible to find brief accounts of Spanish dance but the music which first accompanied it and then developed into a completely self-sufficient genre has been very little described. Tio Luis el de la juliana.Ilture usually approaches anything beyood its own narrow tarmory. 1 Andalucia.flamenco singingthe purest expression of Andalucian art. many tribes of gypsies found their way into Andalucia as a branch of immigrants who around 1447 entered Spain by Catalonia. So. but both. like the dancing. first as an accompanist with a number of dance troupes and then either as a soloist or with his own Flamenco Puro group. colourful folklore of exceptional poetic charm. They assimilated it and added something different to it. this folklore suited their character and came to form part of their lives. and in poor I II seems that in 1922 wher1 judging a oompetilion held 10 assist 'native' pet10rmers toenler a Spanish music college. it can be said without doubt that there are two main elements in flamenco: Andalucia with its old musical background. a musical background built up from the influences and cultural remnants left by the various peoples who passed through or settled on its land. A complete flamenco performance is a group performance with singing.in 1881 . There are three main periods in the history of flamenco. Incidentally.Cordoba being at one time the capital of the Western Islamic world. This 'marriage' gave rise to the phenomenon of Cante Flamenco. Paco Pena outlined the role of the guitarist: In the 15th century. and from the age of twelve has worked professionally. reliable or otherwise. mostly of a contradictory.Demofilo'). special tablaos or places dedicated wholly to flamenco music. When accompanying. dancing. No evidence exists that guitars were used during the first period. when in fact the guitar. the home of flamenco. found in Indian music. the composer Manuel de FaUa used the occasion to advise and instruct the applicants in authenticity. Similarly. in fact the Seguiriya seems to have developed later from another style. concerning flamenco. 'Fortunate is the country which jealously guards these natural flowers. Paradoxically. and the gypsies . The guitarist is then at the absolute service of the singing and from it he takes all his inspiration.hardly surprising considering their circumstances . He must create an atmosphere suitable to each piece. around 1780. Debussy. Andalucia was under Moorish domination for many centuries . Paco Pena gave me the following account of how flamenco arose from this background. or very brief melodic sequences between verses.FLAMENCO The profusion of documentary material. Since then flamenco has emerged from its original environment to become known throughout the world. which has made flamenco popular. writing about Spanish song.by Antonio Machado Alvarez (. becoming the first flamenco guitarist ever to play in a conservatorio in Spain. They lived mainly in the fields. My main informant and guide was Paco Pena. and containing possibilities for improvisation by all the participants. flamenco would never have existed. One of today's finest flamenco guitarists. was brought in to accompany and enhance the human voice. has.

in almost all cases. Tientos and Seguirillas. styles are: Bulerias. There is no set sequence length. There are many styles. dominant. is to get involved in that sound. The improvisors I spoke to. The compas. serves only as a misrepresentation. usually of jazz solos. or melodic fragments. So/eares. but how they are used is decided largely in performance. with. what you normally do. There is a kind of mood that you must get into .it moves but it's not very fast. The harmony is common to all styles but its use varies greatly. the guitarist must convey the whole atmosphere of flamenco. you see. playful. Additionally. This is distinguished by its compas. The compas is the rhythmic unit: a set number of beats with certain accents. it is a piece in which anything can happen.you must get inside the music. Very light. The four most common. tonic. One can say that Soleares is the perfect form of Cante Flamenco where beauty and depth of feeling are in harmony. This is fixed. of only peripheral significance to the subject we were discussing. Everything played must be accommodated within this gait. Paco Pefia made it clear that the foregoing technical matters were. how easily we project into a totally foreign style of music the tempered melody steps and even stressed rhythms of Western tradition and hence. Firstly. Invariably the transcription is into 'standard' musical notation. what will differ is the time spent with each chord. The harmony changes when the vocal or instrumental embellishments on that chord are completed. Even if there is no rhythm.But when playing solo. But at the end of a lifetime in which he did an awful lot of transcribing.' Even when man's senses are supplemented by such devices as the oscillator and the frequency analyser the result is only a more exact picture of the irrelevancies. a system which concerns itself almost exclusively with representing pitch and rhythm within certain conventions. it is not possible to transcribe improvisation. formal technical analysis is useless. commas and all sorts of minute adjustments hopefully scattered through the standard notation system. whatever its accuracy. However the other three have much in common. you produce something. how small is the documentary value of such unverified impressions. Many 'mixed' chords are used which obviously have as their source the guitar and its chromatic nature. There have been some attempts. But the real indictment of transcription is that in most cases it is used to reduce a performance music to a condition in which it can be examined as if it were composition. or organ improvisations and sometimes of 'ethnic' music. Bulerias is something of an exceptional piece. 7 II 9 10 11 12.of improvisation. cent numbers. in some styles. which constitute the only predetermined melodic material used (although the exact placement or phrasing of the falsetas is never fixed).or evaluation . most improvisation has scant regard for the niceties of the tempered scale. but the overall length of the piece and its proportions are alterable at any time. You should understand this: each song or each style of flamenco has a different sound. As in Indian music the framework within which the musician works and the constituents within that framework are variable. or for exactly uniform divisions of the 'bar' or beat. The framework in flamenco is referred to as the style and it is the dance style or song. receiving their final form only in performance. transcription. It's an abstract thing. It still has nothing to say about the forces behind the music making. ••• For the musical theorist there seems to be no description or evaluation without technical analysis which in turn usually relies on transcription and dissection. It's a very beautiful style. dots. and what you must do. The falsetas become much more elaborate and musical to resemble the singing. When the object of examination is improvisation. Curt Sachs wrote: 'We know from bitter experience how unreliable and deadly prejudiced man's senses are. The selection of chords used may be associated with the style being played. there is a heavily instrumental aspect to the harmony. Attempts to show its 'deviations' usually take the form of arrows. Transcription might help to establish matters to do with style or material used but those elements which are peculiar to improvisation and to nothing else cannot be documented in this way. or rhythmic unit. often full of quotations. most basic. and sub-dominant. Each one will be characterised by its own special pace and compas. and the chief of these is Soleares. The rhythm becomes stronger and more elaborate to resemble the 'foot-work' of the dancer. Ever since I remember playing the guitar I remember playing Soleares. For the description . of the Soleares has 12 beats accented in the following manner: 1 2 3 4 5 (. the chords on the steps of the Phrygian mode used as 'passing' chords. Improvisation is in relation to this harmonic vocabulary and in relation to the falsetas. It wasn't that they weren't interested in 14 15 . Whether actually played or not these accents are always felt and expressed. almost all with some geographical association and identified by their mood. did not find any sort of technical description adequate. Although the harmony will not differ much from performance to performance. You move around and you dance. However. in his view. Usually it consists of the most basic chords.

The wonderful thing about this music is that you are completely free.but it is true that it can change according to how I feel at the moment. You are not tied by a composed piece which you have to play the same but better if you want to improve it. a sighting. in fact.but for that matter anything which has art in it would have an effect. I like to put right something which you said iust now -1 don't want to be dishonest about it. shortly before a performance.the piece could be less complicated. Beyond everything else his main concern was for the authenticity of his music. It seems that you may understand -you may take it-that at the moment when I am playing 1 am creating a piece of music. I'd say that within a piece you can reach certain heights because you have let yourself improvise. but why? What did it do? Being creative within flamenco is essential . I listen to a lot of classical music. I mean you might play roughly the same piece and yet because you are feeling quite different. I know a lot of classical musicians. the way people move . to reach anything 1 want to reach on the guitar and for that. It was obviously essential to flamenco.. and discussing points with other musicians helps me. Did Paco Peiia make any preparation or do any particular practising for his improvising? Not specifically for improvising. For example.. I asked Paco Peiia how much the proportions of improvised to nonimprovised music in any piece would vary from performance to performance. This is not so. of course. And it became clear that. vary very much. a little bit. And an improvisation was 16 17 . perhaps.. this is the best method available. This is one of the immediate and direct effects of improvisation. whatever its deficiencies. You are so free .really and truly. of course. say .anyway in my case it never is completely improvised . Later we got back to the same point. Change the direction. You know. they would.technical matters. simply because it feels better to leave it as it is.I'm confident. His work served flamenco and flamenco provided a complete framework for his playing. But authenticity for him did not mean undeviating allegiance to a fixed historical manner transforming the music into a present day dead-letter representation of an earlier time. In order that I fulfil myself playing I have to play very well .and it works both ways.. They just did not find them suitable for illuminating improvisation. say. funnily enough. technically.Segovia playing Bach. freshness and development in the music.. you know. I do my exercises and so on. In order that I get inspired by something I have to hear it very fresh . An abstract description of improvisation can achieve. They finally chose to describe what they wanted to describe in so-called 'abstract' terms. Close. You cannot play anybody else's material forever . 1 take as much benefit from it as 1 can. if I feel good technically and the conditions are right. less elaborate and yet more subtle and therefore inspire you. I want to reach other levels. but that little bit changes the whole character of the piece. 1 also consider improvisation to actually change the weight of a piece from one place to another. you heard a recording .you've got to make your own otherwise you are iust very unhappy . I don't listen to much other music except classical and flamenco. I love classical music and. you see. you are producing a completely different piece of music .and nobody that I know playing flamenco improvises . You could play much simpler . It secures the total involvement of the performer. But if. Better than any other means it provides the possibility for the player to completely identify with the music. Because 1 don't consider improvisation only to play different notes within a piece. not too much. you feel so free because today you are going to play differently from yesterday. The responsibility to and for the idiom shown by Viram Jasani was the same in Paco Peiia. I think I do prepare to be able. technical analysis leads elsewhere. but that quarter changes the whole character of the whole piece.so much that he is making everything. If not the rhythm or the notes at least the spirit of it should be new. Both ways being that you are completely free to improvise and that you also have the choice not to improvise. Another point I wanted to pursue was the purpose of improvisation. Improvisation provided the means by which he could maintain authenticity and still have change. I don't improvise . in fact you might change perhaps a quarter of the piece.that the amount altered or added or wholly invented was not of too much significance. I tend to improvise much more. But nothing specifically for improvising. it's got to be new. You see -I let myself go .. You see. This seemed to be a fairly common feeling .might the general air of the piece have any effect on your coming performance? Oh yes . You can leave it as it is. You ask how much is improvised? Of course it all depends on how inspired you are.you could see somebody moving gracefully and that inspires you.but I have heard a lot of flamenco. In my experience if I feel good technically. Do you think your improvising might be affected by anything outside flamenco? Do other types of music influence you? Well. But I certainly would not say that the whole piece is improvised . Would the proportions be the same in each performance or would they vary? No.

18 19 . the sharpest ~nces . aoo minor seconds. The Howling in Seconds of rhe Lombards. You see it is a failure because 1 should really be able to resolve what I want to do within the idiom of flamenco. July 1939. But we assimilate the music and treat it in our own way. BAROQUE (\ ) The petrifying effect of European classical music on those things it touchesjazz. and all popular musics have suffered grievously in their contact with it . Hardly a single form of vocal or instrumental music of that time is conceivable without some degree of ornamentation. especially sonatas and co ncertos. the 17th century school of organ music was mainly developed through performers' extemporisations.f eraoo. But it still remains that one of the main effects of improvisation is on the performer. including: 'Instead of the consonances 01 the filth and the lovrth. shunning the accidental and the unexpected: the world of classical music provides an unlikely setting for im provisation. the agrements of the French. f irstly. avoiding the stranglehold of academic authority. Improvisation in Niflff Cenruries 01 Western Musk. sometimes written down but much more usually added in performance: the passaggi of the Italians. but not a very unhappy failure . self-absorbed.majOr. We have learned from our elders what they had learned from their elders. the graces of the English and the glosas of the Spani ards. Intended mainly as a OOfltribuhon to a somewhat arcane debate on the 'Ialse' counterpoint alleged to have taken ptace in the 15th century. in contrast to the arrangement customary in dlSCant. harbouring rigid conventions and carefully preserved hierarchical distinctions. which also. I asked Paco Pena what he would do if he played something which interested him but was not characteristically flamenco? He didn't seem particularly worried about the possibility. I write this accompaniment in advan ce and work ou t my theme in the course of the improvisation. provides the motor for change and continuous development. The working out and early practice of Gregorian chant and of polyphony was in both cases largely through improvisation. as they did before. Flamenco is not a museum piece but a living developing art form. the main VOICe (tenor) is in the upper part while the aocompanying voice (here called succenlus) is in the tower part. What they are absolutely concerned about is the idiom: for them improvisation serves the idiom and is the expression of that idiom. in these two functions. reprinted lrom the MU~t <:>Uarterly. mainly vocal. which is a comprehensive accoun. and sevenths .PART TWO valid in so far as it served that end. Zurich. 1938. So.OVIS8bon in dar Musik. the pamphlet ~talns a couple _01 relerences to improvisation. and as such it allows for the personal interpretation of the artists. Even much later than the baroque period Paganini could write: 'My duties require me to play in two concerts each week and I always improvise with piano accompaniment. Formal. No idiomatic improvisor is concerned with improvisation as some sort of separate isolated activity.The most impressive documenCation concerning improvisation that I discovered during my admittedly haph azard researches for thi$ book were the volumes by Ernst T. obsessed with its geniuses and their timeless masterpieces. improvisation supplies a way of guaranteeing the authenticity of the idiom. and throughout the 17th and 18th centuries accompaniment both in opera and in concerted chamber music was generally left to be improvised over a figured bass which itself grew out of improvised counterpoint.predominate: and. And yet improvisation played an important part throughout most of its ea rly history. pompous. in which ferand touches on uses 01 improvisatiOn in early European music. There is also a pamphlet. to cantatas and 'sacred concertos'. to songs and solo vocal pieces of all sorts and it appeared also in the newly rising forms of instrumental music. The point is that it would be a failure. precious.t ot. providing him with a creative involvement and maintaining his commitment. decoration edited by f efaoo aoo PlJblished in 196t (Arno Volk Verlag) aoo also his Die tmpr. to the arias of opera and oratorio.made the prospect of finding improvisation there pretty remote. mnths." 1 . Improvised. many folk musics. At the beginning of the baroque period improvised ornamentation extended equally to secular and sacred forms.

• •• In the history of Western European music the baroque period finds its origins in the 16th century and continues. Couperin: 'What we write is different from what we play. as it was often called. nor simply a dreary series of chords.with the texture. both positive and negative.. How did they view their improvising? Would they view it as improvisation or as a sort of expediency? Was it a skill they might have developed? Were they conscious of it as a special part of their musicianship? I don't think they separated it in their own minds at all. law-breakers must be curbed instantly. would expect to have to ornament what was on his part. for example. of course.. Baroque in its own time was an evolving music. The code of laws. All their desire for movement. in the form of the score. as refreshing to come across a scholar whose approach to improvisation was based on an appreciation and acc. His ears search out profanation: ••• One part of European music where improvisation has achieved. to supplement. He would have at his fingertips many standard embellishments and graces. the new music of that time.. In all styles of baroque. but the conductor alone decides what the law is and summarily punishes any breach of it . silence falls. in some ways experimental. The continuo player was often the. The presence of the players disturbs no-one. if not survival. It was a way of integrating all that was going on. one may assume thai the dissonanoes mentioned wera ~ quite deliberately and indeed 11'1 improvisatory fashion as ·expressionislic· means for ac::tveving dramatic effects. to improve. He is the living embodiment of the law. spurred the harpsichordist on to invent something and vice versa .. let's say Handel sonatas. to vary. is in his hands.. so that a violinist. Apart from the usefulness of his InformatiOn it really .) According 10 Gafori. such as the harpsichord. In those days composers expected to perform their own works and sometimes out of sheer lack of time they wouldn't write everything down on paper. it's much more than that.. and the keyboard player constructed a part which made musical sense. the composer's proxy. While he is conducting no-one may move and as soon as he finishes they must applaud. It was neither a part to show off how clever you were as a keyboard player. and he would be expected to interpret them with a certain freedom. 20 21 .epIance 01 its POWIfS. It was a period remarkable for new developments and innovations. Start from the viewpoint that the music as written down was only a kind of memory iogger. explained to me where improvisation originally lay in baroque. as it were. whatever country. and at masses lor the clead. and people who try and play . strictly according to the text.. indeed they are scarcely noticed. at least a sort of embalming is in the re-creation of baroque music. the harmonies were either implicit or he put it down in shorthand by means of the figures. whatever period. must be banked up until the end of the work and must then break loose . but it was part of the ensemble.. It was all part of the performance.. the harpsichordist might then think of something first and they would follow him. To decorate. dears his throat and raises his baton. There are others who have it too and can check the way it is carried out. and the other string players in the group. When it came to slow movements particularly. 'The immobility of the audience is as much part of the conductor's design as the obedience of the orchestra.' The same pamphlet also contains a descriplion 01 the step from polyphony to a chofdal c:oncepIiOn 01 music as it came about in improviSlld part Singing. to that extent there's some improvisation. iust like that. He had to provide a rhythmic spur to the other people. His hands decree and prohibit. Lionel Salter. Presence of mind is among his essential attributes. He mounts the rostrum. end up with something at which Handel would probably have laughed uproariously. was an accepted part of being a performing musician. because he never expected it to be played cold·bloodedly. or represented by signs. well into the 18th. you find that the notes written down represent a very bare outline. in some form or other. not on 0Ifl examination of what ~ didn't do. this remartabIe survival 01 a primitive polyphony was used in the AmbrOSian fiturgy at solemn vigils in honour 01 martyrs.' In many types of performance one of the (\ coni. If you have a continuo instrument. The composer wrote simply a bass line.. improvisation was always present.The gradual restriction and eventual elimination of improvisation in this music also seems to have taken place over the same period that saw the increasing ascendancy of the orchestral conductor. its function is not merely to fill out the harmony and keep things together. Until he appears they move about and talk freely among themselves. they'd just put a thing down to remind themselves that here they were going to do something rather special. They are under a compulsion to keep still.. It is a two-way thing. And this I think is where many people get the wrong impression altogether of continuo playing. and act as a stimulus to the other people in the group. the well known harpsichordist and director of baroque ensembles. It represented a skeleton of what was played. integrated into both the melodic and harmonic fabric of the mus ic. at lamentalions. In view 01 this special usage. frequently abbreviated when written. The violinists. to embellish. Then the conductor appears and everyone becomes still. it had to fit in with the general style .. conductor for the group. In Crowds and Power Elias Canetti likened him to a chief of police. stimulated and heightened by the music.

unconventional doubling in chords . the fioratura .D.Ipplied " relCl)l made". It would be considered only as a chord constructed on the sub-dominant. operatic.the heavily decorated phrase or passage _ was a feature of any musician's performance. These. referring to the infinite variety of French Agrements and the (possibly even mo re prolific) Italian embellishments which were never. re-written and greatly extended. These were the years in which German music achieved a synthesis of many conflicting national trends. The years between 1600 and 1750 have been called 'the era of the thorough-bass'. in five and six-part accompaniments. in which the performer was expected to make the greatest contribution. I S development comes to a staodslill and the role klf Invention diminishes. FeJl nd writes : . the construction relating to and deriving from the lowest note. Heinichen was probably the ideal man to write on what was essentially a performance music.' There is an unmiSlakabie pariliel between the siluation described by FeJa nd a nd the condition 01 jazz in re¢ent years W'hefe. which usually stands out) and thereby giving more elegance to the accompaniment which can be applied with ease in four parts and.variations. for example a 2/4/6 construction on a subdo minant might be referred to as the third inversion of the dominant 7th. Venice and Dresden. 5 or 6 parts. Convnenting on these. numbers and accidentals.. anyway. transitus (passing notes). manifested itself partly in a IIood 01textbooks on OOCOralion. thorough-bass was essentially the transforming of a single note bass harmony into a fuJI and complete accompaniment. Written by Johann David Heinichen and published in 1711. fully codified or documented.that improvisation found its greatest expression and its main opportunities. covered the high point of the late baroque period. was published at his own expense in 1728. a set device added to the accompaniment atthe performer's discretion. Schleiffung (slide). completely involved in the music of the time. J. The harmony. running to 960 pages. Although capable of great complexity and sophistication. During this time German culture was experiencing the impact of Italian artists in all spheres but particularly in connection with the rise of opera. the numberot college COtJrses. theorebcal fra~ 01 rules was gradualy mposoo on the musiC. the first really comprehensive one was Der General-Bass in der Komposition from which the above quotation was taken.. not to a theoretical root. Probably this led to some of the subsequent confusion and haggling over doubling. the first of which consists of those embellishments with a single. As an active practitioner. Vorschlag (appoggiatura). vary according to each performer's experience and taste. the convenient employment 01 diminution IoImuIas $I. a code from which the player would develop his accompaniment. From this information then the accompanist would fashion his part. The practice of thorough-bass could vary widely . His lifespan.there being distinctions in accompaniment for sacred. the remaining parts of a full harmony?' Of the many books published concerning the realisation of the thorough-bass accompaniment. chamber and orchestral styles as well as regional and the main national. (It is a system with many present day parallels. and liberties taken with voice leading. was always indicated by a combination of bass note. really consists of not always simply playing chords but of using an ornament here and there in all parts (particularly in the outermost part of the right hand. In post-baroque period writings2 references to inversions are found. inconsistencies in the number of parts. the recapitulation of the first section after the contrasting middle section.ABA . and Heinichen was throughout his career in contact with many of the important musical events of that era. sensibly enough. He adds. It is this later edition.the basso continuo or thorough-bass . upon occasion. But the continuo was not to be just a succession of chords. excluding preface and index.) It was the practice during this period to construct and organise chords on an actual.Heinichen wrote in 1728: ' And what actually is the playing of a thorough-bass other than to improvise upon a given bass. mordent and acciaccatura. There were many rules available to the player but with stylistic consistency as his main aim it is likely that his observation of them would be largely pragmatic.standard structures used . but this would never be considered as such by the performer of the time. Heinichen again: 'The art of the embellished thorough-bass. He divides embellishments into two groups. TNs. Singers and violinists were judged on their ability to provide bravura technical displays. however.were certainly common practice. Heinichen advises. This improvisation was to be found in the essentially melodic side of the music but it was in the realisation of the figured bass .always contained one section. 'we must leave to the visual 2 In the late and posI baroque period a tormalised . unchanging execution.' Because he believes that embellishments depend less on rules than on practice and judgement and that they will. usually found whenever the emphasis is on practical music-making. summer schools and text books devoted to it grows. not a theoretical bass.Italian and French .all the freedoms taken with harmonic and contrapuntal practices that might repel an unimaginative theorist but might be essential to an improvisor looking for an interesting accompaniment . /they) point to a certain waning oIlhe impulse to I~ ~ a truly ereabYe an 01 ornamentation stimulated by the inspiration oItha moment is replaced by the rationalistic mechanising trend toward!. deciding the general harmonic sound and density by his chord voicing. Every study of baroque music stresses the importance of the thoroughbass. I mortal ~ 10 Iny ~ music. 22 23 . which must be considered as the greatest source book of the period. He lists them as : the trill. Heinichen is quite cautious and undogmatic in his advice. working and studying in three of the great centres of baroque: Leipzig. however. composer and performer. 'ornaments are numberless'. a later version. At any event it was normal practice to double up to 4. 1683 to 1729.

He tells how J.' 24 25 . Whereupon the blameless Ear must immediately cede half of its monarchical domain. but the new with the Ear. The choice would be correct since both are indispensable to music.j. or the improvisation of a separate part. the Visual imperceptibly gained the most in music and used the authority of the imprudent Reason only to cover its own lust for power. is rarely found now and if attempted is likely to be heavily disapproved of.demonstration of a teacher or to the individual industry and experience of the student'. and every simple harmony seemed beautiful) they thought Reason could be put to no better use than the creation of supposedly learned and speculative artificialities of note writing. but rather if it looked good on paper. melody improvisation. the true Objectum musices..ssss SchuIe (1735). because of the use of these two concomitants. it follows that we must adapt all our musical rules to the Ear.. realising the seditiousness of such an idea.Bach. arpeggios and imitation.. Discussing the prevalence of controversy and argument. and in this the past is guilty of two errors.Gasparini. was always somewhat controversial. As Mr Westrup says: 'The enjoyment of performers can hardly be accepted as an aesthetic criterion.Heinichen.E. Melody improvisation. one no longer had cause to ask if the music sounded well or pleased the listener. or the improvisation of a completely separate part. warns his readers that ·No doubt a sharp-eyed one can be 'ound who will search anxlol. Heinichen. passaggi (scalar patterns). F. J. limit the damage he can do. 10 which he feels he mUSI 00jecI. the sovereign of music. the present cannot reconcile itself with the past. even though it does not please the eat. and. and since both parties do not agree on the first fundamental. Post-baroque period authorities (including F. But before turning to the current practice of baroque I would like to take a final quotation from 3 In addition \0 his KIeIoo G6neral. Certainly. Consequently. 'there is no need to suppose that we should take this as a criterion for accompanying Bach's own music or any other music of the same period'. yet. adds. In this way. it is evident that the conclusions and consequences made from two contrary fundamental principles should breed just as many controversies of inferior rank and thousands of diametrically opposed hypotheses. In addition. In those innocent times (in which one knew nothing of present-day good taste and brilliance in music.Matheson wroIe IWO books on the ar1 of e)(!emporislog solo pieces'rom giv1:tn basses.Arnold. particularly between young and old in his time.S. below the rank of Reason or would divide its commanding authority with the latter.' 4 Hermann Finck. we know. Thus. of course. then. as far as possible. First. As we must now admit unanimously that our Finis musices is to stir the affects and to delight the ear.Matheson 3 . whidl ott~ comprehensrve instruction in the art of accompanying from the IIrst rudimenlS 10 lhe ITlO5I complex figures. for which music is surely made ..E. he writes: 'The old musicians side more with reason. Heinichen's second group of embellishments include melody. merciful glance of its unsurpatores regni (ratio & visus} . J. quite commonly. The other ornaments in Heinichen's second list seem hardly to have survived at all. unfortunately. on occasion. absurd if one should say along with pedants: this is outstanding music because it looks so fine (I mean pedantic) on paper. Musicians of the past. But it is plain that the theoretician has always seen it as part of his duty to keep a stern eye on the activities of the executanr4 and.P. in accompaniment as opposed to solo playing.lsly through everything and dissect it ative \0 see if he can deled anything... accompany a trio in such a way that by adding a new melodic part he converted it into a quartet'. J. But that it was widely practised seems to be undeniable and is born out by the constant references to it by contemporary writers such as J. the composers of the past poorly explained the word ratio..Bach 'would.Daube. a simple arpeggio in the left hand combining with an unbroken chord in the right hand. all of whom while bemoaning its prevalence.Westrup's Musical Interpretation published in 1971... C.' And so we arrive at the 20th century view of things. the suppressed Ear was tyrannized so long until finally it hid behind tables and chairs to await from the distance the condescending. it wrongly classed the two judges and placed the Ear.T. whose The Art of Accompaniment from a Thorough-Bass (1931) is considered the most exhaustive account of thorough bass playing) treat melody improvisation as an unnecessary evil. Or again. A nice example of the change in attitude towards this practice is found in Mr.D. offer instruction in it and certainly don't suggest that it should be abo lished. These are all standard devices used in any harmony-based improvisation but in current baroque practice the arpeggio would appear to overshadow all the other embellishments of this second group and in its most common form is a full-voiced chord broken from the lowest note of the left hand to the highest of the right.. chose two judges in music: Reason and the Ear. There is no evidence that much attention is now paid to Heinichen's advice to 'seek to learn from fine performers the many other ways of breaking chords'. writing abouI4·part vocal improvisation in 1556. It is ..

first of all. All kinds of intriguing notions about the performance. only be an inhibition unknown to the player of the former time. However assiduously practised. in some cases they are very good.has been neglected. We've all become so conditioned by modern recording techniques and by broadcast· ing. in fact. You can read all the various authorities on the subject. the things that were taken for granted: in a word. And this is totally at variance with the whole spirit of the baroque. In many cases now the performer is presented with a fully written out accompaniment to play. of harmony . and undevelopable sty le can. it doesn't matter too much.keyboard harmony. I'm not at all sure that recording is useful for anything more than reference. and be prepared also to find that it doesn't absolutely work.(or example .being the source of the sty le . perhaps. being the embodiment of the style .to differentiate between French and Italian style. You go into the music in a kind ofunbuttoned way.you may be feeling more worked up on this occasion - you feel something brighter is needed. There are many things you can do. these days. the adoption of an earlier. and. sometimes you pick on another one. complains: 'The extemporaneous realisation of a figured bass is a dead art. You see. this is partly because of the conditions of the present day.BAROQUE (2) Oh yes. This is the essential part of it. [t just depends on what you think at that moment. but the only thing which is common to them all is that they contradict one another madly. more probably. performing baroque music would be for him his natural way of recording into playing something which is set and perfect and therefore the element of chance . if you're going to have a record which is going to be played many times then a simple thing which didn't fit terribly well on one occasion wouldn't matter. within that. That is the most important thing of all. But it wouldn't matter because then the thing is alive. you need the freedom to do what you think is fit. as a basis. You've really got to be on your toes. to be alert to do something which occurs to you which may seem a good idea.E.Mitchell.and after all there is always the chance that things won't come off . a fairly strict Well. even the purpose. in effect his authenticity. if ever. authenticity in the performance of baroque music has become a barnyard of debate. until you have got to the stage of being able to improvise your own part. the sp irit of the time. and one hears something which is totally out of keeping with the genuine style of the music. He. if you haven't the skill in improvisation. improvisation clearly becomes a problem. You have to react to the conditions of performance .the actual circumstances. The instrument makes a tremendous difference. Did Lionel Salter come across this situation? 26 27 . you know. What is necessary is that you have a real That the present revival of baroque shou ld produce a music which is completely different in character from the original is. preserved.' Lionel Salter in explanation: very often these days. then a rapport with whoever you are playing with. everybody's afraid to put a foot wrong. but on repeated hearings it's going to . So at the end of it all you are not really very clear as to what was done. If the object of the activity is to reproduce as exactly as possible some agreed. You play differently in a different hall. [ think the thing is to use this as a guide.. it's got some vitality in it. we are all inhibited by knowledge of the period. In recent years. But it's something which has to be spontaneous. The aims and philosophy of a revival are hardly those of an exploration. and then. A serious regression. Then a sense of style. the axioms.I don't know . Understandably. So that you need. then by all means use them. in improvisation. authenticated example of the music of an ea rlier time. in the current practice of baroque has been the appearance of 'authorised versions' for the continuo parr. and if you play something which doesn't fit absolutely perfectly. inevitable.Bach's Versuch uber die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen. his way of performing the music. You can take the melodic outline of the violin part and imitate it.couldn't have that type of problem.. some more detailed than others. The acoustics make a difference. mentioned in these wrangles. of music have been raised. in the introduction to his 1949 translation of C. While he would be aware of the regional and national differences. and J. improvisation is rarely. But you have to learn . you get a great many people who sit down at the histrument and proceed to show off their skill at continuo. But you still get conductors. You haven't really a model. Then you will find yourself imitating lines and making counterpoints against them. you know. But.P. with the great popularity of the harpsichord. So. The one ineradicable difference between then and now must be the performer's attitude towards style. You may be feeling more .ar like anything. Sometimes you think that particular phrase will be useful. at times deeply acrimonious. who don't understand what a continuo part should be and who are unprepared to let the performer do anything at all. We have left behind us the period of the basso continuo and with it all the unwritten law. You have to differentiate among various periods. William understanding. well.

ORGAN (1) ••• One of the strengths. instrumentally. 3) Free improvisation employing the possibilities inherent in the instrument for chord playing and passage work which led to the first autonomous forms of purely instrumental music . 28 29 . there continued to be many organists who were known as improvising virtuosi. diminution) of a vocal or instrumental melody either borrowed or newly invented. Even in the mid and late 19th century. of a 250. (There are instruction manuals in this particular art dating from the 16th century). particularly in France. as well as the spinning out of given or newly invented motifs in imitative style. What is quite certain is that his main concern was not the preservation. there is evidence that musicians such as the 14th-century blind organist Francesco Landini became well-known for their improvising abilities. That would be an absolute artistic crime. 181()-'1876. controlled role in baroque. Later. on occasion. and regardless of material.S.year-old music . than expected. much higher. And not the least part of this would be his assumption that improvisation was an automatically accepted part of performing music. which is no4 a surprising 10 anyone tamHiar w~h the possibil~ies of impo-ovisation. So. 2) The polyphonic treatment of a liturgical or secular cantus firmus by adding contrapuntal voices. In vocal music improvising on all the intervals and internal combinations appearing in Gregorian chant was systematically practised by singers and choirboys. Whether through the performance of an individual or of a group. Could the performance ever be remarkable because of a performer's contribution rather than for the composer's music? His reply reflected. which otherwise seems to have been a depressing time for European improvisation. 1 In the 20th century the main development seems to have been concert improvisation which has become. A role which is confined to complementing the fixed.preambles. if used at all. so much so that a comprehensive historical account of improvisation at this time would need a number of books (and authors) of its own. is that it can. purely emotional. spontaneous expression. in order to preserve what is now the unchanging face of baroque. a specialised and highly developed activity. one of the unique qualities of improvisation.playing. documented part of the tradition. was reputed 10 have anticipated lat8f harmonic developments in his playing. whatever the position in earlier times. it is unequivocally clear that the rites of worship of the early Christians were marked by a religious ecstasy that manifested itself in unhampered. now has a strictly defined. transform a performance into something much better. in as unchanged a state as possible.Wesley. IS retained to serve only as a carefully controlled decorative device. I tried to discover from Lionel Salter whether this sort of thing was possible in the present day performance of baroque. when found. improvisation has been deprived of its usual function of being the sap through which music renews and reinvigorates itself and. ~ t 5 . toccatas and fantasias. the general view held in this music. The ways in which the drive to improvise manifested itself amongst the early organists and harpsichordists was most clearly observed as: 1) Embellishment (coloration. 'From writings of the Church fathers and other reports. preludes. I think. it seems that improvisation. the music can be elevated by an unexpected development produced by the improvisation. In effect. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries improvisation continued to playa major part in the development of church organ music.' From the earliest time onward there is copious documentary evidence of the extensive part played by improvisation throughout the development of all church music.

examples from Catholic hymns and from J. ni I'Orchestration. in fact.or even write about . general musicianship. there is no such thing as a typical organ.Bach. But also the instrument. Jean Langlais and Nadia Boulanger). chapter on free improvisation (formes libres) and an appendix which discusses where improvisation is used in the different Catholic Offices.Orgue. These chapters describing set form constitute 95% of the book and deal with compositional technique. Chapter 3: The Theme. Improvisation d [.analysis of theme. The former is usually found in a concert situation and free improvisation is usually employed as it is required by the church organist. One is the formal presentation of improvisation. which seems to be the preferred word here. choice becomes an essential part of any performance.The main reason for the survival and continuous development of improvisation in organ playing. the infinite vatiations of tone made possible by chorus and stop combinations. A student of the improvisor and teacher Alexandre Guilmant (pupils of Dupre's having a close interest in improvisation included Joseph Bonnet. when throughout the rest of European classical music improvisation was being neglected or suppressed. has probably played a part in encouraging improvisation in this field. There is one remaining. is now a completely accepted and integrated part of the organist'S musicianship. This is usu~lly mixed in somewhere with the generalised advice. a number of exercises and analyses of movements in different forms and Chorale (4 forms). Faced with such an enormous variety of instrumental possibilities.which is simply improvisation not within set forms. A clearer indication of the nature of improvisation might sometimes be found in discussions of what is referred to as 'free' improvisation. Chapter 2: Harmony. the other is its practical application in the church. Voluntaries. la Fugue. Dupre makes it clear that he is offering no simple task. ni Ie Composition. Strict improvisation is the area with which the academic world is mainly concerned and it is also the subject of much of the very extensive literature on organ improvising. although there is an enormous repertoire of music for use in any form of church service. was written by the French organist. published in 1925 and generally considered as the definitive work on improvisation. the 'practical hints' SectIon. the imprecise nature of even the best actions. Ie Contrepoint. Organ improvisation exists mainly in two clearly defined areas: strictimprovisation within set forms (composition forms). which is often a feature of organ instruction books. Chapter 5: Suite. explain the framework within which improvisation must work and give some account of materials which can be used. Chapter 6: Fugue. Olivier Messian. includes a section on oriental and occidental modesrhythm . describes and gives examples. description of construction and examples. Gives many examples of subjects used in Paris Conservatoire examinations between 1897-1923. In fact there is a cor~er of organ literature which is exclusively devoted to offering this sort of adV Ice. These books. Louis Vi erne. Every instrument is likely to contain so many individual characteristics that the first use of it will probably be in some measure exploratory. in all its many forms and developments. and free . although the organists with whom I discussed improvisation were in no way confined only to that approach. extemporisation. Chapter 7: Variations. the tradition of Pavlovian exactitude found in orchestral playing is absent and the performer is 'allowed' considerable freedom. 'Pour etre bon improvisateur il faut non seulement avoir acquis une technique souple et sure.' He then sub-divides his book in the following way: Chapter 1: Organ technique. mais encore sa voir I'Harmonie. the organ. very brief. Then there is the somewhat indeterminate general character of the organ: the lack of a single accepted instrumental sound. it is normal practice for the organist to 'provide' music in many parts of a service. Chapter4: Counterpoint. and in former times the position was much more extreme. improvisor and composer Marcel Dupre (1886-1971).S. a situation in which the creation of music is a necessity. Even in playing written music. For. analyses subject and gives description of plan. received the 'straight' world's ultimate acceptance and become a formal academic study. Chapter 8: Symphonic form. is probably the adaptability and purely practical inventiveness required of any church organist in his working situation. interludes and postludes are often improvised. comaining tips and practical hints. What effect this has had on the practice of improvisation is difficult to say. It has. description of different types and styles found 10 composition. seem very often to 30 31 . Even now. Whatever the reasons for it. Dupre for many years always concluded his recitals with an improvisation and it is believed that a number of his compositions ate transcriptions of his improvisations. et n'ignorer ni Ie Plein-Chant. all these features give it a peculiar appropriateness for improvisation. but it might account for the fact that this seems to be the only area in which musicians speak about .their improvising in a technical way. Any element which is essentially to do with improvisation does not appear.

date from the period 1910-1940 and are usually written by a working church organist for the edification and assistance of his peers and they often contain really useful advice for any kind of improvisor. Concerned exclusively with practical matters, problems organists might meet in their working situation, they contain the fruits of a great deal of improvising experience. In books such as Playing the Organ, The Country Organist and Choirmaster, Church Organ Accompaniment, Organ Playing and The Complete Organist, it is usually possible to find something useful about the practical aspects of improvising. And there are books wholly concerned with that side of the subject H.Schouten in his Improvisation on the Organ, referring to the formal settings for improvisation which arc normally studied, says: 'This, however, is not the last word about improvisation, for all church organists are confronted by improvisation problems Sunday after Sunday. The average church organist does not need to improvise fugues and passacaglias, rondos and scherzos ... Every church organist, however, must be able to elaborate on a musical phrase taken from the liturgy in a simple, cohesive and responsible way.' (Schouten's book is actually very thorough and is divided into sections which cover harmonic improvisation, polyphonic improvisation and improvising polyphonic chorale preludes. He modestly stresses that his book should be regarded purely as an introduction to the art of improvisation, something which is worth emphasising about any book on the subject.) Not quite in the category of the pocket-sized hints book is The Art of Improvisation by T.Car! Whitmer, published in 1934. This is more comprehensive, with quite an extensive technical section. But what is most remarkable about this book is its lack of defensiveness. Unusually for this area, Whitmer doesn't find it necessary to apologise for improvisation and looks upon it not only as a necessary expedient but also as a preferred activity. And there is no mention at all of 'instant composition' . However, he does take the student through all the usual manipulative devices, but his method is very compact and, usefully, he employs the same two bar phrase for every treatment throughout the book. This idea, of practising improvisation on a single limited idea, is often very effective. Whitmer says: 'In general there are two ways to improvise. The first is by expansion and the other is by use of a set form.' On improvising on a set form, he says: 'It is not necessary to remember all details but it is necessary to recall plan and method and general character. Whenever in doubt use some set form, but experiment with expansion until you get this one thought deep down, "In expansion the form is generated. It makes itself'.' The following are a few typically vigorous pieces of advice from Whitmer's 'General Basic Principles':

' Don't look forward to a finished and complete entity. The idea must always be kept in a state of flu x.' 'An error may be only an unintentional rightness.' 'Do not get too fussy about how every part of the thing sounds. Go ahead. All processes are at first awkward and clumsy and "funny".' 'Polishing is not at all the important thing; instead strive for a rough goahead energy.' 'Do not be afraid of being wrong; just be afraid of being uninteresting.' He also has something to say about the usefulness of sheer imitation fo llowing a model- and also its dangers. 'When it comes to the point of the pupil apeing his teacher the adult is in greater peril than the child. Children are naturally insurgent and when they have once acquired a measure of assurance they will fight for their own ideas as few adults care to do.' Whitmer's enthusiasm for the uniqueness and special musical character of improvisation is, however, fairly untypical. It is much more common to find improvisation recommended only as a useful adjunct to the organist's musicianship. As regards its musical worth, the usual view is that it can, at its highest, be compared to composition. 2

•••
Stephen Hicks, through his studies with Nadia Boulanger and with Andre Ma rchal, has close connections with the French school of organ improvisation. Presentl y organist of Weybridge Parish church, he is an authority on early French music and has undertaken a great deal of research into English ornamentation. I asked him about prizes for improvisation, something which is peculiar to the organ world. Yes. In France a prize for improvisation is every bit as valuable as a prize fo r interpretation. The course at the conservatoire, I think, is based on imp rovisation. Interpretation is considered almost less important. Although I th ink it is a bad idea to think of interpretation and improvisation as different things because interpretation has to have an element of improvisation as well. Improvisation can be a great communicating link and if that link isn't there in the interpretation then I think you lose something. What is the criteria for awarding prizes ? What is looked for?
2 This view of improvlsallon as aspiring to be mistaken for oomposibon is present throughout European dasslcal muslc·s relationship With improvisation. It is expressed by W eber alief hearing Hummel improvise: ·He used. with masterly control. figures ol all kinds in a supremely logical way in innumerable positions. One could not be more pure and exact in a notated work Ihan he was on this occasion.· The catalogue of well-known improvisors In this music usually goes ·Bach, Beethoven. Vogler. Mozart . Paganin i. Chopin. Liszt, Frank. etce tefa· - all composers. A little closer to Whitmer·s View is that of J.S.Pelri who. w riting In 1782. daims that the Improvised fantasy is ·the highest degree of composition - where meditation and execution are directly bound up with one another·.

Woo.

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Absolute control of technique. And I don't mean physical technique, I mean musical technique . If you like, the same sort of technique as you need fOT composition. And then after that, I think, imagination. Are you asked to improvise in particular styles, particular periods? Not normally. But you can do, of course. If there's a fugue you wouldn't normally do a fugue in a modern idiom. But, usually, there is a free improvisation as well which takes either the form of an improvised symphony - variations - sometimes they iust say 'Prelude and fugue'.3 How would you define the difference berween 'frec' and 'strict' in organ improvisation ? Strict improvisation is normally on a theme and it's in a set pattern. Like the plain chant themes of earlier times. You either do a fugue. a canon, 4 or 5 part counterpoint - like the old masters. The style would depend on the material used. In practice, that is in services, this is not always suitable for modern improvisation. Free improvisation is left entirely to the player and should be modern or at least 20th Century in style. It does not necessarily have to be on a theme. If you didn't choose a theme where would your material come from? From imagination entirely. What do you think makes a good imptovisation? My own reaction to improvisation is not only one of self-expression but of the necessity to fill a need in the course of the liturgy. It is important to be able to improvise in any style in order to be able to play suitably at every occasion. One cannot stress too much the importance of total mastery of the old disciplines of harmony, counterpoint, all types of canon and fugue. Too many improvisations fail because of a lack of polyphonic thinking in the player's musical and technical armour. This leads to an inability to cope with larger canvases even when they are largely harmonic in style. I think liturgical improvisation depends entirely on atmosphere. That's the main point of improvising. to give an atmosphere at a particular time of service. To give a sense of communion with something, you see. Concert improvisation - I think that requires a certain showmanship, as well. Concert improvisation for the organist is a somewhat specialist field. Here the musician demonstrates in public his ability to play extempore in all the basic composition fo rms and structures. He takes a theme - sometimes proposed by a member of the audience - and presents it in a succession of

musical guises; - minuet, scherzo, march, waltz, rondo, sonata form, canon, fugue, basso ostinato, passacaglia. It seems to be common practice to have a certain amount of preparation before the performance - something to be found in all types of improvising, I think. Whitmer's advice on concert improvisation is: 'After all preparations are complete, go to it without any hesitancy, knowing that not more than one in the audience can do it any better: I asked Stephen Hicks if he thought in terms of success or failure in his improvisation. Occasionally you play and you think - yes, that was quite good - but most of the time .. .! think an improvisation should be played and then forgotten. It's appropriate or not and that's it? It's either good or bad but if you listen to an improvisation over and over again it just gets worse. You hear more fifths, more octaves, more things you would never want to do again. But it's of the nature of improvisation, I would have thought, that you don't listen to it over and over again. Without recording you couldn't, could you? No, you couldn't, and I don't think you should. It's something that should be heard, en;oyed or otherwise, and then completely forgotten. It may be that opponents and supporters of improvisation are defined by their attitude towards the fact that improvisation embraces, even celebrates, music's essentially ephemeral nature. For many of the people involved in it, one of the enduring attractions of improvisation is its momentary existence: the absence of a residual document_

3 Testing the skill 01 church organists in this way na5 II long hostory. The 'regolameolO' in Iorce even before 1540 al St.Mark 's In Venice required the lIpplic::anllirst to playa fantasy on a gIVen theme from a Kyrie Of a motet in strict 4-part senlng . Alter whid'l he was expected to lead a canlus firroos 'rom the choir·book fugatty through alt four parts and finally to imitate and answer in II modulation a VllfSll from an unfamitiar tompasilion sung by the chorus.

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ORGAN
(2)

It's common to find improvisation described as a type of instant composition, bur are they not completely different types of activity producing completely different results?

In any discussion of presenr·day organ improvisation it quickly becomes apparent that the centre of that particular world is Paris. Stephen Hicks repeatedly referred to his studies there and to the many outstanding improvisors he had heard in Paris. Consequently I went there, listened to some of the music, and spoke to Jean Langlais, who was part of the Paris school of improvising organists for almost 50 years. A pupil of Marcel Dupre, he was the organist at St. Clothilde, the most recent of a long line of brilliant musicians to occupy that position, a succession which includes Charles Tournemire, Gi lbert Pi erne, and Cesar Franck, all of them known as outstanding improvisors. I asked him about some of the earlier improvisors he had known, those who had established Paris as the centre for organ improvisation.

Yes, an example of that is the difference between Tournemire's improvisation and his composition. And the same for Dupre. When Dupre composed he wrote music that was, I should say, modem. And when he improvised he was not so modern. He was a little bit classical. They were quite different. And you know, for me, right now, the greatest musician for the organ is Olivier Messiaen. He is a very good friend of mine for many years. We were together in Marcel Dupre's class and he did many things for me when I studied orchestration with Paul Dukas. Because I did not have the scores in Braille, Messiaen read the scores for me for many many years. If you are familiar with Messiaen's work and then go to the Trinite and listen to his improvisations you will not recognise him as the same musician. Very different. And sometimes, but this does not apply to Messiaen, sometimes the improvisor is more interesting than the composer.
Why has improvisation remained with organ playing even when in other parts of European classical music it more or less disappeared?

Widor was not a very fine improvisor. A great composer, a great organist, but I must confess his improvisation was very boring. There was Guilmant and there was Vierne. Vierne was a fantastic improvisor. And Tourntimire. Tournemire was a really great improvisor. I heard him one day in St.Germain des Pres. He improvised for 45 minutes without any interruption and it was magnificent all the time. I also heard him once at Vespers where for the Magnificat he improvised alternate verses with the choir - the choir sang one verse - he improvised the second - the choir sang the third and Tournemire the fourth. The regular Magnificat is not too long, you know. If you sing everything it will last perhaps two minutes maximum but with Tournemire's improvisations it lasted twenty-four to twenty-five minutes.
In a long improvisation wou ld it take place on a series of set forms or would it be free improvisation?

Because in churches we are obliged to improvise all the time. If a priest is very slow, we are obliged to adapt to that. If the priest is very fast we also have to adapt. We cannot playa Bach prelude, say. So we improvise everything. I don't think it is possible to bean organist if you are not also an improvisor. But people are also very interested in concert improvisation. Particularly the people who submit themes. I think composers are very interested to submit a theme and see what happens to it.
Because M .Langlais is blind I wondered exactly how he rece ived a theme from a member of the audience.
I have two possibilities. The theme might be played by whoever submits it. Or someone dictates the theme and 1 write it down in Braille. And sometimes my son is with me and he plays the theme before I improvise. For example, I have played several times in the Royal Festival Hall in London and on one occasion a theme was submitted by Benjamin Britten. They gave the envelope containing the theme to my son, he opened the envelope and he played the theme, and then I started. That is really an improvisation. The theme was very good. It was in C minor, I remember.

I don't think there is such a thing as free improvisation because for improvising it is necessary to know hannony, counterpoint and fugue plus improvisation. But Tournemire improvised everything; the fonn and the music, and that is very difficult. Dupre, for instance, improvised a lot of symphonies all over the world. And I too have played two hundred and seventy four recitals in the United States and in that time I did many symphonies, sonatas in five movements. But that is like an exercise one has practised for years. It is improvisation but using many things that one has practised for many years. The most important thing for an improvisor is to be able to think quickly. Fast.

I referred to a popular misconception about improvisation: that it is a totally instantaneous event completely lacking in forethought or preparation.

Earlier I mentioned that Messiaen studied in Marcel Dupre's class at the same time as I did. Well, the day he won the first prize in the competition he improvised a splendid fugue. But he practised two years for that. And he was

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PART THREE

Messiaen. And we have only one Messiaen. We have a technique for practising improvisation like we have a technique for practising scales and arpeggios. The first thing you have to practise is to be able to reproduce on the organ what you are thinking. And any exercise for improvisation should allow less and less time for its performance so that the improvisor is obliged to think faster and faster. One exercise that is useful is to playa series of chords and improvise with each voice separately. But to improvise takes a very long time. Two weeks ago 1 was in Sweden and in between the concerts [ gave classes. And 1 met a very gifted man, both for the organ and for improvisation. He was the winner of a competition in Haarlem. He said to me '[ would like to improvise something for you'. I gave him three themes. And he did something really free . I then realised that he was very gifted but that his background was not developed sufficiently. Then I said 'this is a very brief theme, do a trio with that'. And he was unable to do a trio. Well, now he has decided to come to Paris to study improvisation with me. He realised he was not informed about everything. And he was a prize winner. Improvisation can be very complicated. Those people who say 'I can improvise easily' - they are amateurs. Do you think there are many different approaches to improvisation? Of course, but I repeat, the most important thing for improvisation is to be able to think very quickly. And theoretically, a great improvisor must be able to improvise everything. Dupre said to us 'If you can improvise a trio, a classical trio, you are able to improvise a symphony'. And he was right. Why do some musicians not improvise? I don't know. Probably they are not interested or they do not have the background or they have no necessity for it. But modern composers say now '[ cannot say how long my work is. It depends on how long the orchestra improvises'. That is ridiculous. Are you interested in any of the recent developments in composition which have to do with improvisation? No. I accept everything if it is valuable or if it is a comparable progression within a system. But if you sit on the manuals - I don't agree. Do you think there is any musical language that is more appropriate for improvisation than any other? No, I don't think so. It depends on the improvisor. You know, that reminds me of a story. Vincent D'Indy was asked if he had any idea what the musical future was to be. D'Indy answered: 'The future will be what a genius decides it will be.' Improvisation is like that.

ROCK

Many rock instrumentalists and singers who have very little concern for the skills of instrumental improvisation nevertheless employ what could be called an improvising principle. Their material, although it might change very little, has to be at least flexible and capable of immediate adjustment. A performance is never entirely fixed and must be sensitive to unique performing factors. There is no abstract ideal, no scripted external yardstick, which stands above the performance and against which any performance has to be measured. Where anything is written down it serves not as a perfect expression of the music to be played but as a starting point, a guide. 'It doesn't matter who wrote it as long the right person is playing it.' However, as a clearly defined instrumental force which might affect the course of the music or in which a player might find his expression, improvisation wasn't much in evidence in rock until around 1967/68. I asked Steve Howe, the guitarist with the group Yes, who provided the above quote, about this.

Yeah, the '67 period of psychedelic music brought it all in. All the young guitarists and other musicians as well felt that they could play on these planesplay long improvised solos. I was doittg it myself and so were a lot of other guitarists and keyboard players. For some reason that particular period, and the feeling that was going on between the people everyone was working with, was very much that one could have a song - and improvisation was really to expand the whole idea of what a song had been up to then in a single way. It all ties up with the expansion of the selling commodity - the change from the single to the album. As soon as there was some more space there was time to be more loose and to play. I think there were more people just trying to get out of the rut of playing a song that repeated its first strain and then its middle eight and then the first eight again, you know. I think a lot of things were understood better after that time. I felt like that, I let loose for about a year. You have to be very, very good to make it work. The music did widen out a lot at that time. Because there was the country influence coming back; jazz affected it, which is one o( the most important aspects (or me; and there was the Indian music thing. All of a sudden it seemed to be all there at once. It was becoming a much warmer thing where people could improvise much more freely. The derivation of almost all improvisation in rock is the blues. The main model for a rock musician is usually to be found amongst the black American

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so you try and run it off again? I had to do it with an album. The fact that improvisation. you know. but does it still get me off?' In the same way I try to watch my progress. What I usually try and do is mix the idea of writing music and improvising together. I've always wanted to be a total middle guitarist in rock. Somebody said that if you try to look at inspiration too closely it disappears. Once you come down to it there are many missing links between the actual and the labelling in any kind of music. or whether. By the 1990s. I virtually always improvised. People have thought of the guitar for years in a blues vein and Hendrix did coordinate the blues and modern rock. I wanted a slightly melancholy beginning.well. that's when the truth is really known about people. most people. and the cultural climate in which the improvising rock instrumentalist flourished in the 1960s and '70s is pretty much extin ct. doing the fundamental rock thing as well as forming some more modern cliches. We discussed a section of the Yes album Topography of the Ocemrs which featured a guitar improvisation and I asked Steve Howe if he had recorded it in one take. it's like that. I think over a few days I had quite a few goes at it. This thing really excites me.something else off the top of my head. Then they climbed again and it climbed again. Some positiveness about it. What makes one improvisation better than another? Basically a certain feeling of clearness of thinking about what I am doing. but in addition to that sort of thing and the experimental things there is a third role which I've wanted to fill most of all. 40 41 .yes! he got it. But then again it turns into a piece of music. he had recorded a series of improvisatio ns and selected his preferred one for the record. Normally I do a few takes and have a listen to them and then. There's a little bit more than I think I am capable 0(. a tune. In fact.I keep using the words accurate and exact . I tend to look back on things that I've played as things that used to do something to me and think 'Well. When we'd finished I rushed home and learnt two or three of the guitar breaks. which is only ended by the group stating seven beats . Improvising does come reasonably easy.blues players. Well. that there is a standard in improvisation which until you've reached that you can't possibly play well. if you like. It changes from the idea of being an improvisation to playing a melody. I do exactly that. One of the things about improvising: it's very hard to . Once you've really played well together on an improvised section I think that raises the whole standard of the tour. you know. It's got the notes well pushed out -each note having a value for itself I think that's a thing people. Have you ever tried actually reproducing an improvisation of your own from a cassette made earlier? Something you like. You mentioned ea rlier how you im prov ise into a cassette recorder and listen back {O it and how that was part of your composing method.clarity of phrasing. l like things that come easy.that's what I will accept . I'd be interested now to hear what l played. I used every fret on the guitar on this one. But I don't think everybody fits into these categories. Untangible. before I left school. his skills are likely to have been superseded by the latest piece of technology. building up to a lavish kind of finish. and that particular side starts with seven beats.. hopefully. you know. strive for. I think this applies to groups. It was trying to catch up with the group .udge it until after you've gone through a period of a few years. you had that a few years ago. So. I can meander endlessly and if I'm making a recording I think I know what I'm after. but more in phrasing . • •• Nothing reflects change more speedily than popular music. I've done things at home. I know the direction . And I think people search for this in their improvisation.it's our seventh album and lots of things happen in sevens. I'm after grasping something. I think that is why there is a certain amount of caution in talking about it.. When you are playing them later what's the difference between the first time you played them and reproducing them? It's never quite as magical. I think.not really united. The group kept moving to another chord and the guitarist is just reaching . And if I really like it I usually try mId use it because I feel that if something came like that . Improvisation really moves when it's a top rate somebody who sets some kind of standard and has a style. Very often I can accept virtually any improvisation I do. I try and set a standard. just improvised once and said 'That's fine'. Other times I've got involved in it and reached for something a bit more completely free of cliches in phrasing. in fact. even my earliest kind of work when I used to play in pubs. judging it by the improvisation quite often . What little improvising there is oursideof this influence is usually of an experimental nature deriving ma inly from electronic music. It's now a melody. and i(T can get it then I'm happy. when l was 14 or 15. if I am working on any kind of music I might play that and then wander off into something . Not necessarily notes. I used to improvise ill one way or another. I think the sensation 1 was trying to get was that the guitar was behind the group. When you start to playoff the top of your head.

which it seems to me you're interested in. it just made it all really great. But it's reported back to us by people in the audience too so this is one of those things where we're sort of collecting data without really knowing quite where it's leading or what it's about but we feel a certain custodian relationship to it. It's like hearing everything with a fresh ear. whose reputation is based on the expectation of change. they are the only rock band whose performances are based on the idea of improvisation and. It's not something that we're creating exactly. everything. So I could play say a B flat major seventh without knowing that that was what it was. sometimes the sound level can speed a sensory overload of a kind which starts to become a physical experience rather than a musical one and that also has a certain kind of value. It's sort of stumbling into this area where there's a lot of energy and a lot of something happening and not a lot of control. Things just flow. so that 'this' means a finger moves. Musically speaking we're not really making decisions about it and we certainly don't discuss it. was in there somewhere and a certain amount of it my muscles remembered. It's kind of hard to report on but it's a real thing. You've had this almost unique experience in that because of your neurological illness and your subsequent recovery you've had to learn to play the guita r twice and I wondered just what that meant from an improvisation point of view. for examp le. however. He is. In a way. in a way it's creating us. even if I didn't. that whole biological language. the improvising rock guitar player. the unsuitability of the language normally used in discussing music. There's another side to that isn't there. It was as though my whole experience as a player were Some fragile crystal chandelier or something and somebody took a hammer and smashed it. regrouping the neuro pathways.. I mean we've checked it out with each other and after twenty-five years of exploring some of these outer limits of musical weirdness this is stuff that we preUy much understand intuitively but we don 't have language to talk about it. You forget what the punch line was. It doesn't really say much about emotional content. where music comes from . It's a matter of how many levels you can apprehend.oke and it's funny every time you hear it. I think. even in this area. Magic . We can't make it happen either. for The Grateful Dead. unusual in any area. the stuff that you can't control or you can't predict. That thing of having to shift in point of view. the simplest tunes. So all of a sudden the Blues was great you know and the simplest structures. Sometimes this feels to me as though you don't have to really think about what's happening. So there are fragments all over the place. For us. I don't think there's really much limit to layers of visual information but with sound there are diminishing returns. I was aware of both sides but it was a matter of bringing them together seamlessly.. for many people. It defies analysis but it's certainly something to wonder about. Music. the chaotic. So I think now I'm probably playing better than I used to play. A magic of one sort or another. So that the sense of individual control disappears and you are working at another another level entirely. Having the concept over here and the facility over there and bringing the two of them together. has seeped into many of the uses of that technology is probably not much compensation to the redundant instrumentalist.irrepressible as ever. I mean the nice thing about having Alzheimers Disease is that you only need to know one . In The Grateful Dead when when we're playing very open with no structure. that's what it was like. or character or any number of other things. that has been part of what's kept us going all this time. 42 43 . For over a quarter of a century they have continued playing and while this is not unique. This is part of the tradition of music. and 'that' means another finger moves. The thing of relearning the neuro pathways. became fresh to me again and it enthuses your playing. You've talked about chaos obscuring other kinds of organisation. You know. What's interesting to me is the accidental. Seemingly untouched by the vagaries of fashion and taste. It has to get up to where it's almost totally blanket noise before you can hear a lot. I asked him what he thought about discussing these things. It's something that breaks out every now and again. is The Gratefu l Dead. Something like that. it made it so that everything was fresh again. is very valuable. It's not an appropriate language because most people don't speak it and it only talks about proportions and so forth. The following is drawn from conversations I had with Jerry Garcia in 1990.

And yet you could think you were playing fantastically? Ronnie Scott: Well.' And yet.they're not worried about an audience sitting there and this is a time when they really let themselves go . you could sit in your front room and think you are playing fantastically and if there's no audience it doesn't mean anything. His concerts change gradually into a music-hall number from which inspiration is excluded or is transformed into a commercial method. It's got to be something that communicates otherwise it doesn't mean very much.something like that . The musician becomes little by little an actor who repeats his tricks when he notices that the public reacts favourably. has a power that no other audience has.. You start kind of directing yourself at the audience. And I start to see a connection between . and when you're at home. you can't play it in a vacuum. Therefore. jazz and. Viram Jasani: I personally feel that with a lot of Indian musicians it's quite know how to talk about it because it can make me so excited. but I don't what I play at home as being quite unique against what I do on stage. It's nothing to do with the size of an audience. sympathetic or hostile. The views of Ronnie Scott and Steve Howe on this subject contrasted quite sharply with those expressed by Viram Jasani and Paco Pena. the effect of the audience's approval or disapproval is immediate and. 44 45 .usually has a deleterious effect on improvisation. writing about the difficulties for Asian musicians working within the Occidental entertainment system describes exactly the problem which has also affected Western performance musics such as flamenco. Improvisation's responsiveness to its environment puts the performance in a position to be directly influenced by the audience. Later in the conversation: I'd just like to go back to one thing: you wouldn't feel that it would be possible to get a peak performance. its influence is not only on the performance but also on the forming and choice of the stuff used. And perhaps because of that possibility the audience for improvisation has a degree of intimacy with the music that is not achieved in any other situation.I consider The relationship between any music which is improvised and its audience is of a very special nature. who gives his views on improvisation in jazz in the next chapter. because 1 can't think that it means very much if you're playing to nobody. then? Oh no. Ronnie Scott. Steve Howe: I think the audience do contribute an awful lot. my technique is good today and I couldn't play that last night' . because its effect is on the creator at the time of making the music. without an audience? Ronnie Scott: There must be someone there..a musician obViously will try to put on his best performance before an audience. the dangers to an improvisor of audience 'appreciation' have been regularly demonstrated.the ability to provide at least a standard performance whatever the circumstances . if I can put it that way. you get this kind of call. $0 a lot of questions can be asked about improvising before an audience and apparently answering them is not easy. because they are really free . He's very careful. I mean even if it's other musicians in the group you're playing with.. to improvise and not to be responsive to one's surroundings is a contradiction if not an impossibility. Alain Danielou. You can't divorce playing this kind of music from the fact that there is an audience. when there is no call. I find. almost.AUDIENCE wandering around . From the excesses of the improvised cadenza in the 19th century to the more bizarre parts of Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic in the 1950s. because there's no demand.not really conscious of that at the time. causing it to be confined to the more predictable aspects of idiom or vocabulary. it's so laid back that I think you can come up with some of your best music. the audience for improvisation..once you start leading a piece of music you do start walking out towards the audience.moving my face . I mean. Undeniably. they are tempted to reproduce the effect which provoked this reaction and consequently one can understand how the rapid deterioration of the music performed could occur. It can affect the creation of that which is being witnessed.it's a different thing. increasingly. active or passive. I think when the audience is there there's a demand for it to be good.but then go out in front of an audience and play . 'When the musicians note a positive reaction from the public. Well. had something to say about audiences. 'free' music. I don 't think so but it's some kind of communication on that level which is peculiar to music . The improvisation you make at home must be very different to the improvisation you do in public? Steve Howe: That's possibly a thing I've thought about most .you'd think 'My God. but he feels restricted. good or bad. I've seen myself on film improvising and been surprised at what I happened to do - actually at the time that they practice that their best creative powers come out. Invoking professionalism .

elitist.Paco Perla had this to say: The audience for flamenco has never been as wide as it is now and really. What's the difference when you are playing on your own. self-absorbed and probably many other disgusting things too. I think. I put it to Jerry Garcia: You have a very special audience in that many of them come to see you over and over again and they don't come to hear what they've heard before. combine to turn the audience into a body of mystical omnipotence. We don't do our best playing privately. you know. sensations.. efforts of the art world to compete with it. So again the reporting is difficult. These are people who will come back to every performance. The audience has a great night listening to us struggle. Playing before an audience is always a compromise.in a magazine published largely for this purpose . that's our place. in itself. reports which highlight and discuss the changes and differences between one performance and another. but m~sically speaking. perhaps. Another interesting thing: my perception of what's a good night for us may be totally different from everybody else's perception.reports of the band's performances. They're very involved and they feel in fact as responsible in some ways as we do. but this is now a pretty unfashionable view. a position favoured by the church organist. the solution offered by the jazz musician Charlie Parker to the problem of improvising in front of an audience was to turn his back on it. or experiences. I think that you have to train the audience. The audience expects us to do it. I think if you say . Sometimes we struggle the whole night without ever feeling like we've agreed on anything and sometimes the audience loves that. far from welding people into a homogeneous mass with identical reactions. They share the responsibility for the music. A bit extreme. is taken as an indication that the music is pretentious. Incidentally. I think. which is backwards from a lot of musicians. we're comfortable doing it. allows free play to individual subjective associations. Among improvisors. You know for them sometimes that's the best stuff. What doesn't seem natural? Paco Perla: If you have a large audience.what we're doing here is we're inventing this as we go along and you too are involved in this experience and it's never going to be this way again. and so we 46 47 . it doesn't seem natural. The conventional wisdom now allows only one audience and it knows no limits. our audience. it's somehow somehow it doesn't seem to give it a chance to be what it really is. 1 think we're more adventurous publicly. Absolutely not. attend successive concerts and compare. is the proof of that. Jerry Garcia has a unique relationship with his audience. to prefer to play before a small audience. this is it for this particular version . ideas. you know. it's doubtful if Parker would have done any better prostrating himself before it. sometimes over a period of years. when the group plays without an audience? . as their fans call themselves. I think we go for it more before an audience because that's been our structure. I mean they're there and they're culpable you know. feeling that we never quite get together. that's all. If not guilty then certainly culpable. which I think is appropriate.then there's value to that and I think an audience. attend their concerts regularly in order to enjoy the changes in the music. So what can an improvisor say about audiences? The propaganda of the entertainment industry and the strenuous. If we do ten days somewhere a lot of them will be back every night and they know that it's gonna be different every night. ••• So you can take your pick out of these opinions. it is omniscient and it is to be courted by everyone. Not only is it huge but for The Grateful Dead there are thousands of people who. Ernst Fischer wrote: 'It is essential to distinguish between music the sale purpose of which is to produce a uniform and deliberate effect. and music whose meaning is. Deadheads. To play in a manner which excludes the larger audience or. The audience has gotten to be a homebase for us which allows the freedom to explore. tend to be more experimental. expressing feelings. and which.' Which might explain everything. thus stimulating a collective action of an intended kind.. 'uncommunicative'. if futile. And what it seems to demand above all else is lip-service. worse. So perhaps you've got a kind of ideal improvisor's audience? Well.

lead nowhere and left no alternative but to go back to the last period which manifested 'vitality and beauty' and to stick with that. there will be about fifteen minutes of pure ad-lib. scales and arpeggios associated with a harmonic sequence of a set length played in regular time. While enthusiasts chant their support from the sidelines. The few surviving originators. It doesn't only supply fresh stuff to work on. art form will be found only in other countries in an adulterated form. sometimes rejected. Perhaps a recognition that the various developments of the '60s and '70s were 'adulterated forms' which. During the jazz revival of the late-1980s. This vehicle is invariably one of the usual popular song forms or the blues (of the strict 12 bar kind). be-bop has obviously been the pedagogue's delight.' The results of these changes. On the other hand. its susceptiblity to formulated method . the world-wide influence. But for the Western musician its greatest service was to revive something almost extinct in Occidental music: it reminded him that performing music and creating music are not necessarily separate activities and that. contains probably a fairly small number of different 'songs'. The simple mechanics are that the improvisation is derived from the melody. but from a comedian. this kind of playingessentially formed in the 1940s and '50s . if I'm extremely fertile. Although the main concern is almost always for the maintenance of the identity and quality of the idiom it is the introduction of some. it seems. Jack Teagarden or by Albert Ayler and extracting from it a 'method' is difficult to imagine. The easiest way to distinguish between conventional jazz and its offshoots is to describe the improvisation in conventional jazz as being based on tunes in time. with matching fashions . And taught it is. A unique music with. perhaps for a lifetime.JAZZ (1 ) There is no doubt that the single most important contribution to the revitalisation of improvisation in Western music in the 20th century is jazz. in jazz terms. in its earlier years.came to be accepted as the standard way of playing jazz. new material which ensures the health and guarantees the survival of the whole.S. such as free jazz and a sequence of hyphenated hybrids the most pervasive of which is jazz-rock. instrumental improvisation can achieve the highest levels of musical expression. Meanwhile. Taking the music made by. musicians once justly renowned for their adventurousness and musical vision. the enormous musical and sociological importance. boundless vitality. 'If I do an hour show. (Paco Pena describes this phenomenon on page 16) It ejects what is no longer useful and revitalises the remaining material.sounds convincing enough but at ~east a contributory cause might be that the mechanics of this particular styleIts somewhat stylistic rigidity. Each successive revival sees a further mining of its history and a music once rightly described as 'the sound of surprise' is now chiefly enjoyed as a reminder of yesteryear. is that one tune worked in this way might serve an improvisor as a productive vehicle for years. if it can be so described. archaisms sometimes reinforced by period dress and manner. say. taken on the curatorship of 'rheir' tradition. and new material introduced. This chapter is concerned with improvisation in 'conventional' jazz. of jazz is now largely recognised. It was probably during the 1950s that jazz first gave signs of running out of steam. ••• For years the health of jazz has been a source of seemingly endless debate. This takes the form of uncannily accurate reproductions of the playing styles of an earlier period. the music itself now seems capable only of looking backwards. in 48 49 . for instance.created a field day for the educators. Some indication of the resourcefulness of this device. But they will provide an adequate working context. it imbues the whole with a spirit of freedom. much of the music is represented by a host of younger players who have also. The repertoire of a jazzman such as Dexter Gordon or Lee Konitz. however little. Lenny Bruce often compared his working methods to those of the jazzman and here he emphasizes the importance of the introduction of new material. By the 1960s it had moved into a series of changes which led Rex Stewart in 1965 to prophesy: '\n the foreseeable future most of the vitality and beauty of this U. The reason usually offered as to why during the 1980s so many young players should have wanted to play so much old music . are not considered here. gives absolutely no idea of how infinitely sophisticated this process can be. As the essentials of improvisation have very little to do with mechanics this type of description. at its best. But on an average it's about four or five minutes.part of a politically reactionary time.' This quote doesn't come from a musician. Within these boundaries there is a continuous process of renewal in which old material is re-shaped and adjusted. as usual. It has proved to be one style of improvising which can be easily taught. are now celebrated in an endless round of festivals and ann~versaries as the guardians of a tradition. But the fact that I've created it in ad-lib seems to give it a complete feeling of free form.

of the restlessness. His imagination seemed inexhaustible. I used to think that the thing was to play the saxophone in a dance band. vital. in spite of this crippling musical environment. independent. music schools. performer who . I've never really done it. With Louis Armstrong. jazz has been played since the 1920s but. for each new chorus he had new ideas more beautiful than those he had reproduced for the preceding chorus. very polished. that reinforces the point. And it would be different every night with Rollins. to play within the central tradition of jazz and keep some independence of attitude and style. There is a strange parallel between the course of jazz history and the career of Louis Armstrong. So. from a playing point of view jazz has been unshakeably American. I feel that my own ability to improvise. prisons. his style became more and more simpleuntil at the end there was nothing but the endless repetition of one fragment of melody . Whatever else might be said about it. is at least a possibility.Panassie in Hot Jazz). As these 'greats' seem to be recruited exclusively from that tiny proportion of the world's black population which is also American. the usual erosions of time. perhaps uniquely. In any event. his improvisations grew hotter.colleges. has never shown any aspirations to be anything other than a deferential second best. (Of course.) In Britain. And it is possible to recognise a corresponding change in jazz as a whole. British jazz. searching music to being a comfortable reminder of the good old days. and ways of working towards improvisation. the thirst for change which was a central characteristic of the jazz of that period there seems to be no sign at all. Whereas Sonny Rollins. there is also the proposition that all the really significant figures in jazz are black.I mean you can practice for hours. of the opportunity to compete artistically on equal terms and reduced by limited employment opportunities to the status of a side-line. night classes. has still produced only Django Reinhardt as a possible exception to the rule that all great jazz musicians are American. even at the best of times. I find there is a difficulty for me . whatever the reasons. for instance.. He has also. methods and 'how to' books. The mechanics of the style are everywhere. apart from a scattering of individuals. even for a non· American. Players who in addition to being good jazz players have succeeded in the difficult task of maintaining a permanently wholehearted commitment to jazz while working as musicians in Britain.one learns what one can play and what one can't play . seems to have changed from an aggressive. because I don't have a great hannonic knowledge. taking twenty choruses in a row .and that conjunction of sounds which is pleasing to one's ear. Europe. he could go on one night and maybe it's disappointing. arises from a c011)bination of experience . As far as I know he might agree with very little or none at all of the above but I chose to speak to him about improvisation in conventional jazz because. by definition. well. deprived.or even a single note insistently sounded and executed with cataclysmic intonations' (H. such as it is. As he went on. as theownerof one of the world's best known jazz clubs. the wear and tear of a lifetime spent as a travelling musician and the exigencies of show business on a man who combined. This is a con tempo· rary account of his early playing: 'Louis Armstrong would improvise on the same theme for a full half·hour. The realisation of improvisation grew with learning to play the instrument and then listening to records of jazz soloists and associating with other musicians of my own age who were trying to improvise. and manners of. jazz. but I've done what for me is a great deal of practice over a so 51 . and another night he'll iust take your breath away by his kind of imagination and so forth. he has shown how it is possible. of course. being a supreme creative artist with being one of the century's outstanding entertainers. the local audiences' preference has always been.trots out these fantastic things that he has perfected and it really is a remarkable perfonnance. resulting in perhaps the first standardised. perhaps its greatest exponent. over many years. although virtually colonised by it. for the American variety. ritual performances of old favourites with which Louis Armstrong in his later years never failed to transport his admirers. the adventurousness. at least. I think it grows from there and I think it's never ending. But I'm also convinced that there are as many attitudes and conceptions of. is a very. Ronnie Scott is one of these. Britain has managed to produce a handful of very fine players. through a constant flow of tutors. But it was his own improvisation about which I asked him to talk. Whether similar reasons can also account for some of the enfeeblement which has taken place in jazz. improvisation. naturally enough. ••• Although its influence has been worldwide. as there are people.. been in a unique position to hear at the closest possible range all the greatest jazzmen of the past thirty years. When I started to play I didn't know really that there was such a thing as improvising. technically immaculate. non·personal approach to teaching improvisation. Miraculously. that description is obviously about a quite different sort of musical experience from the totally formalised. I hope it is. Oscar Peterson for instance. are reasons enough for the change. by any means. We got into the question of judging the quality of an improvisation.I hope he wouldn't mind me saying so .

' is enough to establish all that needs to be known about a new musician. to the limits of my ability.duende whatever you like to call it . of course. omitted. It will feel that '1 should be what 1 am' kind of thing.) In fact it is common in jazz to find exact.a happy conjunction of conditions and events and middle attitudes -it will feel good. When the balance between these two forces . Young. or at least.. is an accomplishment which can supply a musician with considerable satisfactions. but what I'm happy to do is to try and play in such a way that it would be recognisable as me. so. there are so many. The diSCiple. 1 TheJe illII'I unlikely·sounding but probably true Story about LestIII' Young.or unconsciously aiming fOT . This is something that 1 find myself. then 1 didn't feel happy about it. but the main ••• Jazz provides a good example of the dangers of sequacity in a largely improvised music. Increasingly. There can be a danger when you're playing that. identical in every detail. the effect is to drag the music one way or the other. satisfactory. I'm )'0\1' . As I say.inspiration .. attitudes towards improvisation dependent on one's talent and one's capabilities. So the pressure to conform.period of two or three weeks. There is a certain kind of feeling one gets when one finds oneself influenced by great players. stems. how do I judge whether what I've played is . the last one. Imitating the style and instrumental habits of a famous player who is in all probability a virtuoso is not necessarily an easy matter and. as far as the original question is concerned. very often.a regard for the authenticity of the music and the intrinsically explorative nature of improvisation. shouted at hom 'You ain 't you. from practices which are an intrinsic part of it. It is clear that the three stages . Strangely enough. very rare in 1iIU. Something undeniably went wrong with the balance in jazz. The performing style of the rest. 1 think that's all anybody can aim for. by these imitations except. produced a QUite uncnaractlll'istlC performance. which can be one of the main drawbacks in any improvised music. and everything you try seems to come off. the learning method in any idiomatic improvisation does have obvious dangers. it is very difficult because what seems to happen is that one becomes unconscious of playing. 1 would like ideally to be able to express my -1 don't know . you know. it's still a certain kind of feeling that you're aiming for . to say that someone 'so unds just like' a well-known somebody is usually meant as a compliment. a musician 01 beaulifulunpredlCtabi~ry. if it doesn't sound like one of the great players then it's not valid. development became the preserve of a minute body of'innovators. and it would express something to people about the way 1 feel about things.' For the rest the only game was follow the leader. . enraged. Nobody is fooled. which 1 think is a good thing. possibly. successfully achieved. and my technique feels worse than ever before. absorbing his skills through practical imitation. 1 think you are conditioned by the instrument you play. as 1 get older.' The tendency to derivativeness and the prevalence of imitative playing in all idiomatic improvisation seems to have produced in jazz corrective is provided by the naturally innovative or developmental side of improvisation. not the least of which is the admiration of those musicians less successfully attempting the same thing. it becomes as if something else has taken over and you're just an intermediary between whatever else and the instrument. of course. if I didn't sound like whoever was the main man. One becomes much happier to sound like oneself rather than sounding like one of the recognised great tenor saxophone players. the mimic 1 but it is a situation which is generally accepted and considered as normal: a huge proportion of the music played is almost totally derivative. replicas of well-known stylists.Strinavasan speaks of the same problem in Indian music: 'The enemy is mere imitation without imbibing the inspiration which makes the art a living thing. This situation.and when this happens .choosing a master. a tenor player whose style 04 plaY'"!! ~as based e_elusively on Lesler"s. and 1 don't feel that 1 personally am the kind of musician that is going to come out with some fantastic innovation of any kind. whereas. a concern for authenticity most easily avoids deterioratin~ into formalism when its expression is unselfconscious.. almost limitless. also by the influences that other players before you or your contemporaries have had. to take it in purely innovative directions or to lead it into unconscious self-parody.is disturbed. growing farther and farther away from. developing an individual style and attitude from that foundation -have a tendency. But there was a time when. R. a situation where increasingly the music became identified with the playing style of a handful of musicians.personality or whatever . One of his admire<s. The second danger is in the search for authenticity. is invariably identified by association with or reference to one of the 'great' players on his instrument (' he plays like . even if it doesn't come off it doesn't seem to matter very much. to be no more than a very good imitator is considerable. Firstly.musically. by the same token one can not touch the instrument for a few wee~s and go out and be free and loose with the instrument. In jazz. the vast majority of players. the number of acceptable models appears to get smaller as time goes on. you know. 52 53 . and then played in public. For a performer. to be reduced to two stages with the hardest step. made the pilgrimage 10 ~~~ to his icIoI.

So [said 'OK. Of course.JAZZ (2) The American soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy. And there it was. but for me that wasn't enough. He destroyed the theories. I didn't know what to do. that was the end of the theories. What shall we play'. that was the blow. Why should 1 want to learn all those trite patterns? You know. the thing comes more to the surface. Some people search for the perfect arrangement of the old patterns and that is progress for them. 1 saw through it . and you lose your innocence. For me that's where the music always has to be . People become obsessed with not just maintaining a tradition but with perfecting it. He didn't worry about all the stuff that Ornette was worrying about and his playing was really free. Some people are interested in carrying on an old tradition and they can find their kicks in shifting round patterns and they are not in any rush to find new stuff They can rummage around the old stuff all their lives. Other people want to beat down the walls and find some new territory. When 1 was coming up in New York in the '50s 1 was always into the radical players but at the same time I was contemporary with some of the younger accepted players. The dilemma. sure enough. and he used to tell me. It was like . Then when Ornette hit town. And you lose your youth and the music loses its youth. collectively and individually. But when somebody analysed them and put them into a system it became a school and many players joined it. But there was complete opposition to what he was doing in the' 50s. I was really mainly concerned to work with the radical people but at the same time I couldn't ignore the non-radical elements.in between the known and the unknown and you have to keep pushing it towards the unknown otherwise it and you die.its 'roots'. But I think the key figure just then was Don Cherry. let's play'. in a way. During the 1950s and early '60s he lived in New York and at that time took part in many of the developments and changes then taking place . That's inevitable. And sometimes 1 would go up and play with them. when Bud Powell made them. It got so that everybody knew what was going to happen and.the thrill was gone. and they were doing stuff which had slight progressive tendencies in it. But 54 55 .mechanical. 'Well. the 'Blue-Note' people.everybody got tired of the systematic playing. A lot of the music that was going on was really not improvised. 'Well. the 'Prestige' people. But for me playing with the accepted people never worked out. But 1 think the question of appetite is very important. Mal Waldron and other people who were the radicals. an increase in artistic self-awareness. first living in Italy and by the time 1 came to it. We discussed how jazz in earlier times didn't seem too concerned with its past. It reached a point where 1. It seemed more of a totally contemporary activity. Jazz got so that it wasn't improvised any more. The longer you do something the more aware you become of it. I suggested to Steve Lacy that the extreme changes that came about in the late '50s and early '60s were possibly due to an increase in self-consciousness on the parr of jazz musicians. Some people are of a progressive bent and some are not. you just have a certain amount of space and you put what you want in it'. The patterns are well-known and everybody is playing them. very systematically but with a new ear and new values. It was a terrible mOment. very carefully. Maybe the order of the phrases and tunes would be a little different every night. fifteen years earlier. It was a process that was partly playing tunes and playing tunes and finally getting to the point where it didn't seem to be important and it didn't do subsequently Paris. When you reach what was called 'hard bop' there was no mystery any more. and many other people. The changes which began in the late '50s and were probably completed by the middle '60s came about because in the '50s jazz was no longer on the edge. And the results were as free as anything you could hear. Cherry was freer. People like Donald Byrd and Herbie Hancock. And 1 knew what it took to learn them but 1 just didn't have the stomach for it. And that was a revelation.events which led to what was later called 'free jazz'. got sick and tired of the 'beat' and the '4 bars' . the hard-boppers. Simply because they knew all the patterns and 1 didn't. But it was not done in a free way. It was built up very. that's what happened. The problem. [t took a few years to get to the point where 1 could just play. and we just said < Fuck it'. He used to come over to my house in '59 and '60. they weren't patterns.on the edge . has chosen Europe as the base for his activities. 1 remember at that time he said. 1 didn't have the appetite. What Cecil Taylor was doing started in the early '50s. To break through that wall.some kind of gymnastics. And you can't ask either of them to change. like many jazzmen in recent years. But when Ornette hit the scene. They were the newer accepted people. 1 was also working with Cecil Taylor. To me in New York he was the most important figure in the earlier '50s. around that time. And we used to listen to him and Don Cherry every night and that really spread a thirst for more freedom. On the one hand there were all the academic players. And it took me about five years to work myself out of that.

has turned much of free jazz into a music as forma l. after first greeting the free development with scorn and vituperation. from the time it first began. players unconstrained by either prevailing fashion or any single imposed aesthetic. to extend his tradition and not merely to celebrate it. and then all the time. Fortunately. rationalisation. That is a freshness. something you cannot possibly get {rom writing. Increasingly it displays an obsession with its own antecedents and a concern that its practice and its past should be institutionalised in conservatory and museum. as any of the music against which it rebelled. a half hour there. The way Louis Armstrong played was <more (ree' than earlier players.all the usual euphemisms for a period of stagnation and reaction . Roy Eldridge was <more free' than his predecessors. to cover the whole of jazz with this label. nothing. typifies the present attitude in jazz to such a question. As one of the founding fathers of modern jazz drumming and no stranger to any of the succeeding frontiers of jazz development. This music. Always being on the brink of the unknown and being prepared for the leap. as did many of his great predecessors. a certain quality. But in these situations free jazz seems to fulfil a somewhat peripheral role and has never managed to integrate in any way with the main body of jazz which. It is something to do with the 'edge'. I think. New Orleans music and on up to Cecil Taylor and en. But I think that jazz. recognised by the musicians who work with him as an outstanding musical figure. In recent yea rs there has been a movement towards a new conception of jazz as 'black classical music'. and diluting the musical putity of his ttadition (as was John Coltrane) . Cecil Taylor. which has been developing throughout the twentieth century. No tunes. he very much represents one of the older jazz traditions. has ever since contrived to ignore it. And it all stems from improvisation. And then the music is finished. he stands accused of just about all those things which have previously served to enrich and strengthen jazz. These are strange ambitions in a music which once so clearly demonstrated the empty fatuity of all these things. Anthony Braxton. who works. There's a desire to present to the world a respectable 'official' face authenticated by a phalanx of academics and propagandists. an authority to counter-balance the institutional and academic authority of white classical music. Stemming from attitudes held in free jazz the intention is. And for Steve Lacy. and a greater divisiveness in a music already prone to factionalism. I had an opportunity talk with Max Roach about some of these things. has been at various times a favourite target of the propagandists. And at the time that was in the air. to quote Duke Ellington. It was happening everywhere. Braxton. There would bea moment here. which can only be obtained by improvisation. I think. the wealth of the legacy which is now available to jazz musicians. that of innovation. the commitment to jazz through improvisation remains unchanged. a musician who has always valued independence and freedom. I'm attracted to improvisation because of something I value. continues to seek out new situations and musical challenges. He responded in a way which. an afternoon. still looks to expand his playing horizons and. In many respects it seems an appropriate move as increasingly jazz assumes the postures and attitudes of white classical music. a fifteen minutes there. You have to get some kindred spirits. an evening. attacking him for: betraying his race (as was Louis Armstrong). And when you go on out there you have all your years of preparation and all your sensibilities and your prepared means but it is a leap into the 56 57 .anything for you. really excites me. In short. as ritualised and as un-free.oy it all and get so much out of it. It's a matter of life and death. Especially when I know that I can go all the way back with. And then it stayed that way for a couple of years. 'stinks the place up'. pointing instead to the perceived advantages in the present situation. He ignored it. is unlikely to be deflected by this sort of stuff but if jazz no longer values the sort of qualities he represents then it has a pretty arid future. more and more it becomes a clearly defined rigid music. ••• In 1990. And you have to keep it going otherwise you lose that freedom. self-consciously insisting on a set of values and judgements by which it can assess not only itself but everything around it. But it all had a lot to do with the musical environment. there's little sign. was always concerned with degrees of freedom. The only criterion is: 'Is this stuff alive or is it dead?' The revolution that was free jazz is long over and a process variously described as maturing. to play the tunes. consolidation . So you just drop the tunes. Like the rest of jazz it now seems to have very little existence outside the perennial festivals at which it presents its stars demonstrating whatever it was that made them stars. It happened in gradual stages. I put it to him that the apparently inexhaustible succession of innovators which characterised jazz in its earlier days appears to have dried up. say. Dizzy Gillespie was another stage and Cherry was another. But of young players seeking adventure. showing the courage which has been evident throughout his career. almost forty years after his first explorations and discoveries. A couple of by-products of jazz's retreat into academicism are an increase in the sort of critical rhetoric which. being an intellectual {as was Charlie Parker}. And you just played. jazz has always had its share of unruly spirits. re-trenchment. Just get up and play.

But I am also hooked into what you can prepare. If through that leap you find something then it has a value which I don't think can be found in any other way.unknown. I place a higher value on that than on what you can prepare . But really it is this other stuff that interests me and I think it forms the basic stuff of jazz. especially in the way that it can take you to the edge. 58 Sonny Rollins (Caroline Forbes) . What I write is to take you to the edge safely so that you can go on out there and find this other stuff.

Ronnie Scott (Val Wilmer) Steve Lacy and Evan Parker (Caroline Forbes) .

Max Roach (Val Wilmer) .

Anthony Pay (Caroline Forbes) John Zorn (Caroline Forbes) .

Hugh Metcalf.Tony Oxley. and Wolfgang Fuchs (Caroline Forbes) Derek Bailey (Courtesy The British Library) . Phil Wachsmann.

Gavin Bryars (Caroline Forbes) John Stevens (Caroline Forbes) .

at the end of the Middle Ages. Mainly this has been through a broadening of the concept and role of notation. it was actually only a son of shorthand to guide an accomplished performer. the subject of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight was chosen because.. in the form of an object to which a name was given: the score. it was not a question of precise notation but rather a mnemonic device in written symbols. the main means by which improvisation was restricted and removed was through the development of notation. it existed outside itself..that is a wilful. For in actual fact. little by little. a musical work was no longer strictly musical. starting in the early 19505. But. as we see. Consequently. At this point in history it does not seem as if the contemporaries of that time fully realised the consequences of their discovery. from that moment on. as its antithesis. he had a slip of memory. the appearance of the musical staff on the one hand. it is likely that it will always remain closed. to become the instrument of elaboration of the musical work itself.' 59 .PART FOUR The Composer •. and symbols of time duration on the other. These graphic signs were sufficiently imprecise to be read only by an expert performer and sufficiently precise to help him find his place if. so to speak. there have been continuing attempts to re-integrate improvisation and composition. made it possible to move on . the Occident attempted to notate musical disco urse. ' • • Han Bennink (Caroline Forbes) The larger part of classical composition is closed to improvisation and. who was otherwise a musician of oral and traditional training. he now felt ready to deal musically with Gawain's confrontation with his real self. Consequently the analytical qualities of musical discourse took precedence in the course of centuries over its qualities of synthesis and the musical work ceased to be. formal and explicative construction which finds in itself alone its substance and its justification. and instead became what is more and more prevalent today in the Occident. The score very soon ceased to be the mere perpetuator of a tradition. a process here described by Jacques Charpentier: 'When.on the spot and at the moment it is experienced. the expression of an experienced psycho-physiological continuum . In the past. Later on. after thinking about it for thirty years or so. by mishap.to real notation which reflects with exactitude the whole of the musical material presented in this manner.

It took me a couple of years to figure out how to go about it musically. is geared to counteract just this discrepancy between the written page and the realities of performance. Indeterminate composition. in fact.. ' Play events between dotted lines in any order independently. and it was also not to allow the musician to have any choice either. Each musician may play any of his events at any time. Earle Brown. I thought that it would be fantastic to have a piece of music which would have a basic character always. as with rhythm.which I could very well arrange m yself. providing him with the possibility of affecting the creation of the music during its performance. where these elem ents are given they must be observed. in any order and at any speed. It is articulated for the performer but not interpreted. was possibly the first to move in this direction. and the instrumental techniques are given . the actual pitches sounded are a function of accurately performing what has been given.The efforts in recent times to loosen the stranglehold that notation came to have on the music came partly through a re-introduction of a certain amount of flexibility in the role of the performer. the 'open form'. In the Universal Edition score (no. section of the work are: There are 8 or 10 events for each musician. for him.15306 ) of his String Quartet (1965). the piece could take on subtly different kinds of character. In some cases the technique. in 1952 when I was experimenting with open form and aspects of improvisation. The section includes very articulate materials. yet it's the same piece. but through sensitive ensemble listening I believe that spontaneous 'rational' continuities of techniques wilJ arise. in effect. the same work by Calder. At the same time that he was organising strictly and fixedly by chance process. seems to be concerned with utilising two quite different concepts. The result is a heightened spontaneity which only performance itself can convey. It's really chance. the loudness and/or the rhythm may be 'free' for the individual musician to determine.. how much did Earle Brown want to retain? I quoted an instruction from the score of the Quartet. for instance. aleatoric and improvisation. Time is not indicated mechanistically. The effect is twofold.. aleatory is a word that Boulez used in an article a long time ago which means throwing of dice and so forth. I was working with improvisational forms. But there are composers who have deliberately turned towards improvisation. but not necessarily in the part in which they appear in this section. A complete preperformance ordering of these materials . and sustained sounds. a statistical area of inarticulate sounds moving into a 'below-bridge' area. which might be described as any kind of composition in which the composer deliberately relinquishes control of any element of the composition. separated from one another by vertical dotted lines. Having passed over so me control to the musicians. So that. into an area of primarily articulate materiai. my influences to do that were primarily from the American sculptor Alexander Calder and the mobiles. I asked Earle Brown what. His notation is here described by Morton Feldman: 'The sound is placed in its approximate visual relationship to that which surrounds it. This section is.. And among the directions for performance is: The relative pitch duration and rhythm are indicated by the graphics. a free coda. which are transforming works of art. All of the materials in these events have appeared previously in the work.) All four parts are included in each part so that an eye-ear ensemble is possible. More radically his instructions for the last.or any other sequence of statistical similarities of texture and style is created. conscious of 60 61 . have not necessarily introduced the possibility of improvisation. to be assembled spontaneously by the quartet. while removing some degree of control from the composer.' His 'time notation'.would eliminate the possibility of the intense. but by virtue of aspects of improvisation or notational flexibility. Earle Brown writes: I have fixed the overall form but have left areas of flexibility within the in ner structures.. Brown's notation. the American composer. and I was not interested in that at all. 'below-bridge' sounds. I prefer that such 'ordering' should come about in this intuitiveconscious manner spontaneously during each performance. and this seemed to me to be just beautiful. Cage was literally {lipping coins to decide which sound event was to follow which sound event and that was to remove his choice. You walk in the same building the next day and its a different configuration. however. was the difference between them.. he also becomes more intensely aware of the action or sound he is about to play. his sense of choice. I mean they have indigenous transformational factors in their construction. was only one reflection of Earle Brown's interest in improvisation.only the precise 'pitches' are left to the discretion of the performers. (This has been aptly described as an 'action notation '. and I am vehemently against considering improvisation as chance music . 'When the performer is made more intensely aware of time. As you walk into a museum and you look at a mobile you see a configuration that's moving very subtly. These can be sPQntaneously assembled in any sequence and position. He described to me how . Well. Some of these developments. immediate communication of ensemble collaboration which is an extremely important aspect of 'music-making' as I see it.

And I (elt that it would come back which is why I based a lot o( my work on certain aspects o( it..o( aliveness . breathing.you know? . which actually does give a composer the chance to realise his compositions away with the writing o( music but it's going to bring an added dimension . One minute.. you know? I would have thought that to give the performer more space and flexibility was a particularly apt thing to do since the introduction of electronic music.but (or me I believe that we all (elt the kind o( coldness in this thing.. you know? And that's what I try and create in my scoring. What sort of problems did he expect? Well. and I really felt that was a very cold thing. And (or my part I (ound it very boring just to sit down in the studio and cut and splice tape and combine these things. which is performer intensity. my own and other people's. in which fully notated pieces and December '52. If you want complete discipline absolute accuracy .to a composition and bring the musician into a greater intensity of working on that piece. Before the end of our conversation I asked Earle Brown about a forthcoming concert of his music to be performed in Rotterdam. perhaps.. I must teach the nature o( the piece and create a mental and sonic condition for the piece. absolutely accurately. a(ter chance had made the arrangement. I sat through a lot o( concerts of chance music. you know? Very anti-duende. were to be performed by the same musicians. most every composer who was into electronic music early the others would have to tell you what they think . But they were the antithesis of what I was interested in.. I remember John Cage when he was doing his . (orty-(our seconds later an instrument goes 'blup'. the way of performing it was with a stopwatch. I wanted to give the musician a little breathing space. It's one of the reasons I started using graphic notations and some degree o( improvisation.. And because they were organised by chance the continuity was very strange so they were in one sense very good. The availability of that technology seems to set the performer apart in a way .I mean he's still doing it . I mean I really like the society o( making music with people. It's here and I think it's going to stay. And it's not going to do 64 65 . But you see. I have to teach improvisation every time I do that piece with di((erent people .. thirty-three seconds somebody goes 'chic-boom'. in a certain sense. an almost totally improvised piece. the relationship of one person to another . Nevertheless.release him.. I should think. {lexing. I believe affirmatively that improvisation is a musical art which passed out o(Western usage (or a time but is certainly back now.chance music where he {lipped coins and got sequences o( things and then they were per(ormed by a stopwatch .your best field would be electronics. I guess I like that (eeling o( space.

didn't believe in him. anyone can improvise. the non-improvisor is usually to be found in classical music. You see. some of the most brilliant performers on instruments go completely dead if you ask them to imagine something. you know. He described for me some of the problems he had experienced in this situation. So. of course. the music doesn't belong to him. he has to be careful. I tend. because they can't see into it. when I'm approaching a modern score. to start off by trying to 66 67 . are usually made up of musicians with a conventional orchestral background and training but who have a particular interest in new music and the instrumental techniques and developments associated with it.the sort of thing that. In the straight world the performer approaches music on tiptoe.. of its nature. From this stems the view of improvisation as a frivolous or even a sacrilegious activity. But even members of specialist new music ensembles very often bring to improvising no preparation or training other than what they have received for orchestral playing . start off and say: Tm not going to pay a tremendous amount of attention to the notational aspects of it. Earle Brown: 'As a matter of fact. but he can even he found in areas of music where improvisation plays an integral part. You might be asked to play complicated rhythms. this composition. the organist. had never improvised and probably never considered improvising until confron ted with the necessity to do so in his work with the Sinfonietta.. with some modern music. not fixed and is always malleable. You can. But it does seem that to be trained solely for that role is probably the worst possible preparation for improvisation. Perhaps none of this would matter if it were nor that musicians with this sort of background are sometimes asked to improvise. music is a divine ideal conceived by a super-mortal. The standard instrumental technique itself probably contains certain disadvantages but the main block is the instilled attitude towards music-making which seems to automatically accompany this type of education. Also. At its highest. the distinguished clarinettist. He's allowed to handle it but then only under the strictest supervision.and language . It is undeniable that for many musicians. Performance in classical music seems designed to disprove that idea. you have to deal with. 'If they have absolute control and a real knowledge of harmony then. You might be asked to play things the execution of which demands complete concentration. and I am the sort of player who is more disposed to start off from the accuracy point of view rather than starting off from the musical point of view. And the biggest handicap inflicted by that training is the instilling of a deeply reverential attitude towards the creation of music. They do not necessarily have any knowledge of. or even interest in. somewhere. there are very few composers na"ive enough to instruct the normal symphony orchestra to improvise . who at the time of our conversation was with the London Sinfonietta. Anthony Pay. An attitude which could not appreciate something like: 'You hear people trying out things. Stephen Hicks. There are. As might be expected. improvisa tion.' Any sort of strict classical training does seem to be the biggest single handicap to improvising. they make a mistake and they perhaps even develop that mistake and work out something nice from that which happened without them meaning it to. seems by implication rather unkind to the non-improvisor. musicians who not only cannot improvise but to whom the whole activity is incomprehensible. when you play modern music you often come upon very difficult technica l situations. which defines improvisation as 'The art of thinking and performing music simultaneously'.' The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1954). the gestures . if you are improvising. He is expressing a recognition that music is. mentioned earlier by Earle Brown.an utterly alien activity. Somebody.' Now. and the performer's primary responsibility is to preserve it from damage. and it is also true that this role has its satisfactions.THE COMPOSER AND THE NON-IMPROVISOR As improvisation is present to some degree in almost all musical activities it would seem that the ability to improvise might be a basic part of every player's musicianship. In which case performance becomes a form of genuflection. ' Paco Perla here does not indicate any lack of responsibility towards the music he plays or any reduced concern for the quality of the performance. how simple it really is. performing music is a matter of being a highly skilled executant in a well-rehearsed ensemble.certainly I don't think any of them ever try it twice. however. A high measure of skill in other aspects of instrumental playing is no guarantee of the ability to improvise. with practice. These specialist ensembles. changeable. has gone through a lot of trouble to create this thing. ' Steve Howe pointed to a disadvantage shared by most non-improvisors: <If they've had classical training they usually can't improvise . Music is precious and performance constitutes a threat to its existence. Fortunately. but initially I'm going to decide what the music is about. an attitude which unquestioningly accepts the physical and hierarchical separation of playing and creating.

or you can try to destroy what's going on. The difference is. Those are two goals that you can consider. It might be thought that in interpretation the non-improvisor might be dealing with musical matters close to the heart of improvisation. You can't just throw a group of people together and get it right. People who do improvisation are generally outstanding performers who are interested in improvisation and who do it in an exclusive sort of way. There is a crucial difference in terms of the way in which performers approach music. Because then you can listen to what happens and you can try and contribute to what is going on. that one is unknown poetry in which 1 can progress. in your position might draw on his usual improvising vocabulary (which might or might not suit the composer). For example. very constricting. Where would you look for your material? Well it's not precisely clear where I do look for it. You can play practically inaudibly and you don't feel that you are doing a disservice to something. I don't think I'd ever appreciated the sort of thing that could come out of improvisation before I was involved with Stockhausen. as accurately as 1 can. If you are playing in a symphony orchestra or if you are playing a piece of chamber music. And it is true that people who are good at improvisation need not necessarily be very good at realising what a composer actually intends in a precisely notated work. Perhaps I just let it happen. As you have no improvising background. What is the main difference that you find between playing strictly notated music and improvising? Do you deliberately loosen certain standards of accuracy. often against fairly heavy odds. precisely notated music I'm not actually progressing. when you turn to improvisation? Technically there are a tremendous number of things from which you are immediately liberated. for example. I think he's a much happier individual in many ways. what he's actually put down on paper. say. And I think that is something I ought to concentrate on for my own development as a musician. where. precise pitch. and the difficulty comes when you have to mix these two things. In playing written. does your material come from? The jazz musician. you can get microtonal effects. that is why group improvisation is much easier to do. Perhaps you just wait and you listen as closely as possible to whatever is going on and you just react. It's always noticeable that there is someone who doesn't quite do the sort of things that you want him to dowhether it's playing Mozart or Brahms or whatever-and I just think that that is also true of improvisation. And that can be. I'm just learning to do better what I already do. But one of the main differences between interpretation and improvisation was pointed out by Anthony Pay. you can bend notes around all over the place. in the absence of specific instructions from the composer. you are trying. 68 69 . I don't think that there are many contemporary scores which require total improvisation. as 1 say. And I think that a jazz player. But I think for me truly to assess what improvisation will be for me I would have to spend quite a long time doing it with a few people who I felt had the same sort of ideas and did the same sort of things. He puts very much more of his total personality into what he does. or something like that. is saying what is in him. as far as I am concerned.get. If you are trying to play seven against nine or something like that then you can be involved in thoughts which aren't specially musical ones. to find out what somebody has meant when they said something. Of course.

And that. And then we listened to it. you must only play for a fifth of the interval of attack (a pproximately 18 seconds) so that there is more silence than playing. If it's supposed to be representative of the universe then anything goes. It started off with very. Usually. sa--y. By that time.THE COMPOSER . worked with Stockhausen on a number of his pieces. as it were. One of the most active composers in this area during the 1960s and '70s was Karlheinz Stockhausen. would your awareness of the co mposer's preferences influence yo ur cho ice of what to play? For instance if.a sort of note centre. yo u thought it wou ld be singularly appropriate to play so mething tonal would the fact that Stockhausen might not like that inhibit you? This piece had a clearly defined structure . seven or eight times and then we recorded it. of course.I think its a device which composers have used to try and get away from the complications which arise when you try to notate things which don't actually coincide. My experiences with Stockhausen lead me to suppose that quite often he can be impressed by something that people do which . and you're asked to improvise upon those particular notes. I think. I asked if there was any attempt to get an idioma tic consistency. Anthony Pay. for reasons w hi ch arose in the playing situatio n at the time. In other words. very fast repeated notes. If you start writing fives and sevens and nines so that people don't play things together then it creates complications.which meant that the durations of the improvisations and so on were precisely controlled. yes. H ere he describes rehearsing Stockhausen's Ylem with the composer. he did mind that sort of thing. he has specific musical expectations of the improvisors.s contrary to what he has suggested. as a member o f the London Sinfonietta. and composers have used this quite frequently. Stockhausen always tried to mix free pieces with composed pieces in a concert. It's a useful technique to provide a sort of sound ambience . Wou ld the composees likes and dislikes be impo rtant to yo u in your improv isatio ns? Although not specifi ca ll y indi cated in the score. makes for a relationship between the idiom of the extemporisa tion and the idiom of his pieces as they are when they are precisely notated.IN PRACTICE (\ ) The unique experience for a composer in the use of improvisation mu st be the relinquishing of control over at least some of the music and. It was late at night in an Abbey Road studio and the version we recorded lasted 22 minutes. Earle Brown in 1952 gave. When we did rehearsa ls of this particular piece Stockhausen had a number of us playa section of the piece and then we each. One sort of improvisation that we can be called upon to do is when composers want a certain sort of texture at some point and then they will give you a thing called the box technique.or . Then We recorded a third version and listened to that. However. And then we aJivoted as to which version we thought was the best representation of this particular piece. Somebody would say . in most of its uses by composers impro vi sation is employed for more precise compos itional aims. criticised each other's interpretation of the instructions.'You played for too long' . and it very rarely has a very clear relationship to the idiom of the work involved. We played it. And then we recorded another version and listened to that. individually.'You always play phrases that go 'ba-bum' . you see. 'almost a blank page to the musicians'. Now in the middle of the second performance the trumpet player seemed to 70 71 . to con fine the music to a particular sty le. And as the range got wider the time between each attack of these notes got longer and longer and. You had to be playing something which was centred on a single pitch so that your imp rovisation had . you couldn't be iust playing a single note. and their inventions are required to serve his predetermined ends. As a matter of fact he obiected to something of that sort which was played. There was a striking example of this in the piece Ylem which we have been discussing. all of which got slower and slower and the ranges within which these notes were confined go wider and I don't think it would inhibit me.it was concerned with mirroring the contraction and the expansion of the universe . Anthony Pay: wider so that you found yourself not only playing notes which were central in the range of your instrument but which become higher and lower. What happens is that you're given a box in which there are a number of notes. even more critically for the composer.and so on.a quotation from Puccini inadmissibl e? Well. passing over that control not to 'chance' but to other musicians. of course. The unfortunate thing about that is that it does tend to always sound pretty much the same. So Stockh ausen wou ldn't ha ve found. in this particular piece he was after variety. In that particular case presumably whatever the musicians played would be acceptable as data for those investigations.not a tonal centre . what the improvisors play is of great impo rtance indeed to the composer. But. People have developed a kind of technique for dealing with that sort of thing. Stockhausen said. at the centre point of the piece the time between each attack was a minute and a half. in fact. and his object in doing that was (0 investigate performance procedures. as he says.

It's very difficult to say. I mean how much are you entitled to be free with music? Why do you think the trumpet player did that? Did he offer an explanation? Oh. Stockhausen's actual way of dealing with people can. Partly. when it came to the vote we all agreed that the third performance was the best. for instance. I think it's a great advantage if we can. and we were all flabbergasted. Sometimes the strength of the way in which a player plays something lies in his depth of approach in one particular area. very high note at an appropriate point . Anthony Pay also talked about some of the more general aspects of playing modern music. with a smile.that could be extremely effective. to play in the rhythm of the molecules which constitute your body. He invites you.] suppose.the right feel or pulse for a performance (discussed on page 4) . But Stockhausen. I asked Anthony Pay if the composer. Improvisation is hardly ever deliberately experimental. Or in the rhythm of the universe. tremendously meaningful. It was the most controlled. after first agreeing with us. for us. I thought 'what on earth is he doing? He's completely ruined this'. he played for thirty to thirty-five seconds then after a short pause went off again. Well. but it was very interesting. wasn't necessarily the right reaction. So the Indian musician could have complied exactly with Stockhausen's instructions. perhaps. And.' And so after writing this piece and rehearsing it for a long time to get the pattern as he wanted it. we've all been rehearsing it the way you say it ought to be done.' And Stockhausen said 'Yes. for at the most eighteen seconds out of each minute and a half. We were playing long notes and all the wind players happened to start at one particular time and drift into a common chord and then out again. 'But that's ridiculous. because it was a total accident. connected with the Hindu belief in the all-embracing. The instinctive choice as well as the calculated choice is usually for tried material. That doesn't mean. although it was very inspired in many ways it was completely outside the bounds of that particular piece. for example. what makes people who can play modern music is not people who have the capacity necessarily to do the complicated things that are required of the performer but people who 72 73 . you are reduced to being a machine in a certain sort of style. comprehensive rhythm of the universe as personified in Shiva. That after each performance we could prepare ourselves in a mental way for the next performance by thinking of something new and. One of the things which quickly becomes apparent in any improvising is that one spends very little time looking for 'new' things to play. It's not precisely what you did. in the middle of the piece.] mean. then changed his mind and said he now preferred the second version. it appears to come of its own accord.have a brainstorm. Things have become so complicated that it's difficult to get outside of the actual complications that you are trying to represent. It might be worth noting that an Indian musician asked to play in the rhythm of the universe would immediately know what to do. When the 'new' arrives. It was a remarkable demonstration. When you are playing a lot of modern music perhaps your capacity for invention becomes stultified because. <I will tell you'. ' Would it be possible to indicate how the trumpet player had been so effective? He made it sound not like a trumpet at all. And when we listened to the playback it was a moment which was. It was most curious. You can. And that was a reaction which. and you pick the second version which you must agree doesn't fit into that pattern at all. well. prepared to accept the. There's a story of a second violin player who said. that what he played would have been acceptable to Stockhausen. But] think improvising styles change very slowly in those people who have a very developed improvising style. encouraged the players to aim for deliberately different versions? He said to us that perhaps we should try and prepare ourselves for each performance by thinking of something that we hadn't ever done before. It's often a very great strength and people can explore in depth one particular way of going about improvisation. I remember in one of the recordings something amazing happened. He took some of the tubing out of the instrument. oh yes. during the seven or eight performances of Ylem. be very mystical.is 1 The recording discvssed is on Deulsche·Grammophon 2530442. it had the right amount of individuality and the right amount of group spirit and everything else. the individual thing that was brought about by this trumpet player. There are certain simple things that you can do which are always effective. The origin of the word laya . the one in which the trumpet player had taken off So I said. I was very annoyed at the time. and he played on the mouthpiece only for part of the time. I just think he was off in his own world. he was. to some extent. that would find its way into the context of what everyone else was doing and contribute to the piece. nevertheless. it was also when you did it that made it terribly appropriate. on occasions. with this controlled pattern you asked for. 'Herr Stockhausen. Although according to Stockhausen's instructions he was only allowed to play. Perhaps Stockhausen would say that he was in communion with the universe. playa very loud. if it arrives. how willi know when I am playing in the rhythm of the universe?' Stockhausen said. of course. although appropriate to the way in which I was approaching the piece. ] think that to say that so and so always improvises in the same sort of way is not necessarily a criticism.

playa very loud.is 1 The . of course. he was. oh yes. and we were all flabbergasted. I mean how much are you entitled to be free with music? Why do you think the trumpet player did that? Did he offer an explanation? Oh. wasn't necessarily the right reaction. in the middle of the piece. Partly.' And Stockhausen said 'Yes. the one in which the trumpet player had taken off. He took some of the tubing out of the instrument. but it was very interesting.have a brainstorm. 'Herr Stockhausen. So the Indian musician could have complied exactly with Stockhausen's instructions. Stockhausen's actual way of dealing with people can. That after each performance we could prepare ourselves in a mental way (or the next performance by thinking of something new and. on occasions. There are certain simple things that you can do which are always effective. But I think improvising styles change very slowly in those people who have a very developed improvising style. what makes people who can play modern music is not people who have the capacity necessarily to do the complicated things that are required of the performer but people who 72 73 . Well. When you are playing a lot of modern music perhaps your capacity for invention becomes stultified because.' And so after writing this piece and rehearsing it for a long time to get the pattern as he wanted it. perhaps. And. I just think he was off in his own world. I suppose. One of the things which quickly becomes apparent in any improvising is that one spends very little time looking for 'new' things to play. you are reduced to being a machine in a certain sort of style. We were playing long notes and all the wind players happened to start at one particular time and drift into a common chord and then out again. to play in the rhythm of the molecules which constitute your body. The instinctive choice as well as the calculated choice is usually for tried material. The origin of the word laya . for example. And when we listened to the playback it was a moment which was. it appears to come of its own accord. and you pick the second version which you must agree doesn't fit into that pattern at all. 'But that's ridiculous.ecording diSC!Jssed is on Deulsche. I thought 'what on earth is he doing? He's completely ruined this'. comprehensive rhythm of the universe as personified in Shiva. 'I will tell you'. Anthony Pay also talked about some of the more general aspects of playing modern music. Improvisation is hardly ever deliberately experimental. that would find its way into the context of what everyone else was doing and contribute to the piece. And that was a reaction which. with a smile. When the 'new' arrives) if it arrives. the individual thing that was brought about by this trumpet player. There's a story of a second violin player who said. for instance. we've all been rehearsing it the way you say it ought to be done. prepared to accept the. well. Sometimes the strength of the way in which a player plays something lies in his depth of approach in one particular area. That doesn't mean. to some extent. It's not precisely what you did. be very mystical. and he played on the mouthpiece only for part of the time. He invites you. encouraged the players to aim for deliberately different versions? He said to us that perhaps we should try and prepare ourselves for each annoyed at the time. Perhaps Stockhausen would say that he was in communion with the universe. nevertheless. tremendously meaningful. It might be worth noting that an Indian musician asked to play in the rhythm of the universe would immediately know what to do. It was most curious. he played for thirty to thirty-five seconds then after a short pause went off again. I think that to say that so and so always improvises in the same sort of way is not necessarily a criticism. It was the most controlled. It was a remarkable demonstration. during the seven or eight performances of Ylem. I think it's a great advantage if we can. I asked Anthony Pay if the composer. I mean. that what he played would have been acceptable to Stockhausen. because it was a total accident. I remember in one of the recordings something amazing happened. for us. for at the most eighteen seconds out of each minute and a half. after {irst agreeing with us. Things have become so complicated that it's difficult to get outside of the actual compHcations that you are trying to represent. It's often a very great strength and people can explore in depth one particular way of going about improvisation.the right feel or pulse for a performance (discussed on page 4) . very high note at an appropriate point . But Stockhausen. Or in the rhythm of the universe.' Would it be possible to indicate how the trumpet player had been so effective? He made it sound not like a trumpet at all.that could be extremely effective. So I said. with this controlled pattern you asked for. when it came to the vote we all agreed that the third performance was the best. it had the right amount of individuality and the right amount of group spirit and everything else. although it was very inspired in many ways it was completely outside the bounds of that particular piece. although appropriate to the way in which 1 was approaching the piece. then changed his mind and said he now preferred the second version. Although according to Stockhausen's instructions he was only allowed to play. it was also when you did it that made it terribly appropriate. 1 was very connected with the Hindu belief in the all-embracing. It's very difficult to say.(i'ammop/lon 2530442 performance by thinking of something that we hadn't ever done before. You can. how will I know when I am playing in the rhythm of the universe?' Stockhausen said.

THE COMPOSER . of the network of relationships possible between a group of players. He thought that to some extent this might be so. and also be capable of being free. as in everything else. and was possibly caused by. They think it's terrible. that was defeating the purpose of what these people had developed. 'play these melodies . now has quite a different look. other key words are usually preceded by 'neo' or 'post'.a kind of live musique concrete. An improvisor wants to have the freedom to do anything at any time. a recognition that improvisation is a creative force of incalculable power.then play with this guy . then I still think that combination is probably the highest form of instrumental talent that there is.abrupt juxtapositions of different musics.then improvise'.then improvise . retrospective. Key words now are retrenchment. his background is largely in improvisation: I grew up in a scene of improvisors who over the course of the years developed personal languages on our instruments.IN PRACTICE (2) Since the foregoing discussions. revival. the realisation of a pre·ordained result through improvisation. the situation in contemporary composition. I suggested that this rejection of modern music often accompanied. and do something which is your own and relevant. or more accurately.then improvise then play this figure .. listening to all kinds of music and creating a personal approach towards our instrument . they think it has nothing to do with music. He has also written. and those who are excited by what is actually going on. who are free of their instrument to that extent. flinching from the no·nonsense philistinism which characterised the 1980s. has changed radically. carried out in the early 1970s. ·The following is taken from a number of conversations held in 1990 and '91. There is evide nce. We grew through playing with each other. not simply a way of achieving a more or less interesting set of instrumental devices. While these developments can hardly be expected to provide much of a stimulus for improvisation. of being able to step outside the inhibition that notation produces.which is improvising. 'New Music'. But it seems to me that musicians obviously have to be interested in what's going on. His aim is not. There are people who seem inherently incapable of understanding what it means to play modern music. dressed as it is in armour which it assumes to be more appropriate to the times. which was a very particular way of relating 74 75 . it still seems to find a way into this music. What I was really fascinated with was finding a way to harness these improvisors' talents in a compositional framework without actually hindering what they did best . a series of compositions which deal with improvisation. of a more sophisticated approach. repetition. an almost religious allegiance to tonality. between those who regard contemporary music as being largely arbitrary and basically unmusical.have a feeling for what modern music is trying to convey. over a number of years. And it is only the really great instrumentalists who can do that. What reason has one for existing other than to be involved with what is actually being created in your particular time? Anthony Pay summed up his attitude to the improvisor/non·improvisor question by saying: If you can understand what it means to be disciplined and to be accurate. As he describes. For a composer to give an improvisor a piece of music which said. overriding all: accessibility. and continued: I think there is a great split between musicians nowadays. as is usually the case. but the stimulation. to me. or the releasing. committed and involved with something which is purely notated. that you can't be agood musician and want to make the sort of sounds that modern music can be involved with. that it's unmusical. even. including popular styles . improvisors. John Zorn composes in a variety of contexts and genres and is perhaps best known for what have been described as 'vernacular' pieces .

So you have a very clear idea who's not gonna play. waS in a piece like Cobra where the sequence of events can be ordered at any time by anyone. or have the whole band play. But what you play is totally up to you and who you decide to play with is up to you. Cobra is like the sum total of working with these game pieces. nobody is told what they should play. where people toss ideas back and forth: I'll play and then the next person will play and then the next will play and then the next person and so on . is very important. So with the downbeat there's gonna be a change but you have no idea who's gonna come in and who's not and you have no idea of what to expect and that could last for 5 seconds. I was very influenced by these complex war games and I like the idea of the guerrilla systems in Cobra. Then there are memory systems. Say. Fencing. There. if they want to do something like play solo or play duo.just briefly. it's very simple. Its like that with choosing bands for these game pieces.one card is music change. It doesn't matter what they change it to. you know. But rehearsal. so that. Tradmg systems. then there are other calls that create games within the group. So what you get is a section lasting as long as the least patient person in the band who then says lets go somewhere e!se. Or the opposite of that would be something you saw a bunch of times loday: the group changes but the music stays the same. I mean they could be created by complete spontaneity in the sense that when the downbeat happens people who are playing can either stop or change their music or people who are not playing can decide to come in if they wish to. The rule books were intense. I don't talk about any sounds that anybody might make. like the <runner' downbeat. A piece like Archery. like Cobra. I found. Some of these cues are meant to create specific permutations of players ltke a duo or a trio. without getting too specific') of just how Cobra worked.' Traditionally. Someone could give another downbeat. p~ec~ gomg and picking musicians for the most part is not so much < need a I vlolrn and [ need a cello and I need a keyboard alld I need a gUI' t ". The series of compositions that Zorn has written dealing with improvisation are based on games or 'game plans'. which was done in '79. kind of bookshelf games. so thick. they can actualise that. . that's in practice. Hockey. Pool. it's logged into a memory and then recalled later . is crucial for Zorn's piece and. These games. but there's a training in how to incorporate the instructions into their playing and an investigation of the possibilities opened up by them. which is a very specific call: <[ want to play with this person '. I talk about the improvisors themselves: <you can play with this person if you chose to or in alternation with that person. Each one cued by the downbeat of a card. I point to the people who are chosen at the downbeat and those people play. composers create an arc on a time line. have a kind of oral tradition. like Lacrosse. abstract concepts that the players can order in any way they want. you need people who are going to be docile. is a long list of a hundred and thirty-odd combinations for a twelve-piece group. Duo games: when the card comes down anybody in the group can look at anybody else and do a duo with them but everybody is doing this simutaneously so it could be one duo at a time or it could be all12 people playing 6 drfferent duos srmu~aneously each ending at different times and then starting up new duos. l~'s true [ pick the bands and in that sense the Ellington tradition. Then at the downbeat we actualise that.ways of when you hear something you like. There's nothing specific. But when someone explains the practice of it. Anyone of these basic systems can be called at any time by anyone of the players at their whim. Everybody is vilal. which means when the downbeat happens the people who are playing must stop and people who aren't playing may come in if they wish to. a structure that begins in one place. Everything I learned in myoId pieces got incorporated in the next piece and so on. You lake one person out and the chemistry is going to be different. at any moment in the piece. and if you write the rules out for the game Cobra they are impossible to decipher. and I got bored with those and started using war games.. Where I really started eliminating the time line. And [ was interested in those relationships.. goes to a middle and then ends. just as long as it changes. You need people who are aggressive.to their instruments and to each other. you need a wide variety to really get th. eliminating the idea that the composer has to create in an are. echoing something noted by Cornelius Cardew. 76 77 . rehearsal is a kind of training. What John Zorn has to say about the incomprehensibility of the instructions when written down was certainly borne out when I came to transcribe his description(. The group stays the same but the style of the musIc changes. There's a substitute change. [ just created relationships. you need people with a sense of humour y~u nee~ people who are ass holes. Its more the ar people themselves that are important. Here's what his instructions look like written down : I've created a series of about twenty different systems. Well. the selectIon of the people. I began com posing my game pieces by using a time line but abstracting everything away from sound and talking about people. My early game pieces were sports. if three people w~o ~ren't playing raise their hands and people who are playing choose them to Imitate their sounds.

at the beginning it has 'play single sounds'. improvisor. 78 79 . to some players. and also without a score . As Earle Brown says. Most improvisors do both. is discussing the performance of a piece by Stockhausen. Bill Frisell is the kind of player who sits back and lets everybody else make decisions and iust plays his butt off Ultimately he was the one that was making the sound of the music while other people were dealing with the structure of it. Hugh Davies. Here are two different views expressed by experienced improvisors about working both under the direction of a score. It is 'Intensitat' from Aus den Sieben Tagen and it is a so-called text~ piece. It really becames like a psycho drama. others try very hard to get more control and more power. Both musicians have a central interest in improvisation. which in some cases may become almost a phrase (the same German word is deliberately translated in some texts by 'sound' and in others I Prinled by kind permi$llon or Univenal Edition. I think I am that kind of player. For each sound a player may choose to playa texture more complex than a single pitch. Looking at the elements of this text that relate to musical structures and procedures. not to say irrelevant. using these signals and trying to create some kind o( compositional flow in their heads spontaneously. while of interest to the composers concerned.IN QUESTION The debate about how composition can best utilise improvisation. thinking about structuring a piece o( music.in the free situation. People are given power and it's very interesting to see which people like to run away (rom it. Some players are really kind o( conceptual. is of only peripheral interest.'we all have blank pages'. While others are. But we are a minority.I basically create a small society and everybody finds their own position in that society. These players consider improvisation to be an activity which has no necessary connection with composition at all. Those are all valid positions to be in in the society that exists on stage when these pieces happen. THE COMPOSER . The first sees advantages and validity in a collaboration between composer and improvisor and the second considers it mainly disadvantageous and limiting for the improvisor. creating problems. The total information available to the players is: for ensemble INTENSITY play single sounds with such dedication until you feel the warmth that radiates from you play on and sustain it as long as you can 1 Hugh Davies: Nothing more is given. you know. So it's very much like the political arena in a certain kind o( sense. and there are some of us who prefer filling our blank pages with our own signs rather than with those of other people. They are both discussing working with the type of composition in which the performer is called upon to provide all aspects of the music. instrument-maker and composer. who are very docile and iust do what they are told. for whom he worked for many years.

Everyone can recognise differences between the score and the performance. There will still be some slack to be taken up between what the score says and what it means .in spite of frequent comments from various quarters about the performers and not the composers being the ones who should collect the performing right fees for such music . where some of the durations are measured in hundreds of years . rather than the emotions themselves it would be more appropriate to consider score-making as an esoteric branch of the literary arts with its own criteria rather than as anything to do with music.by 'tone/note'}.. My 'ideal music' is played by groups of musicians who choose one another's company and who improvise freely in relation to the precise emotional. even though the nature of it is such that one need only think the text over quietly to oneself before starting to play.one remains aware of the composer influencing the performance from a distance through his score. alone or with others. And the structural indications in the score discussed above ensure that those elements at least will make the result completely different from a free improvisatimt.one need not be fully conscious of what one is playing. it is along these lines: if the score represents some kind of ideal performance why does it ever have to be performed? Surely it would be better for the music-lover to read the score. but 1 don't use scores and it's not that the score has refined itself out of existence. The following is an excerpt: I am a performing musician. glissandi. it is the score-maker. sforzati and even all kinds of solo licks which could not have been derived with even the best of intentions from the scanty design on the page. the gap between score and performance is perhaps wider in much contemporary music than ever before. In fact I think that this possibility has already been noted and acted on by some score-makers. which musicians will be playing the piece. but always with the tendency towards increasing the intensity of their play and their involvement in the production of each sound. Performing such a piece. altered or taken away. or the 'composer' as he is often called. which is likely to be either an abrupt halt by the whole ensemble while at full strength or a fairly rapid dying away as the musicians end one after another. with the difference that . one 'becomes the music'. I suppose the implication in all this is obvious. conducted or un conducted as his preference dictates? Ifit is objected that this attitude is too unemotional. In many ways this is very close to a group improvisation. a score can also be considered a recipe for possible music-making. where it will be played. who must be one of the most wide ly experienced musicians in the performing of 'composed' open form improvisation and also in 'free' open form improvisation. Other ingredients that a composer with this attitude might include are: performability. ••• Evan Parker. as Werner Goldschmidt seemed to think was the case for the New Phonic Arts Group. It has never existed for me except as something to look at and think about. and since it concerns itself with the description 80 81 . That's an idea I can have much more sympathy with. especially in an ensemble that works together regularly and specialises in such areas of music. psychological and other less tangible atmospheric conditions in effect at the time the music is played. taking into account as it does much more than the composer and his muse. Nonetheless the most careful consideration of all the unknowns before the event cannot guarantee that the music will fit the occasion. Aloys Kontarsky's comments on the contrast between the austerity of an Earle Brown score which contained only black horizontal and vertical blocks and lines and its performance in Darmstadt are very interesting: 'So the performance contained trills. Now that I am forced to rationalise this attitude. then I would reply that the score is itself too unemotional. one is very conscious of playing a definite composition. and then everything happens intuitively .' Leaving aside the score as the embodiment of an ideal performance. even possibly how the audience might react. to compare with others of its type. The continuation. including the probability that the performers will individually introduce new elements from time to time. the saxophonist. 'with such dedication/until you feel the warmth/that radiates from you'. That symphony of Nam-June Paik's for example. Finally 'play on and sustain it/as long as you can' gives an indication of the way in which the performance ends. While this has presumably always been the case. how much rehearsal time. No direct co-ordination between the players is mentioned. It's a very beautiful score to read . Things are added.. I'm suggesting that if anyone in the production of a music event is dispensable. gave his views on this subject in an address to the Society for the Promotion of New Music. crescendi. implies a development of this basic element. acoustic.

the confused identity which its resistance to labelling indicates. too many different concepts of what improvisation is. Diversity is its most consistent characteristic. variously called 'total improvisation'.PART AVE FREE Freely improvised music. Improvisors might conduct occasional experiments but very few. And as regards method. I think. as one would expect. something which appears to offend both its supporters and detractors. increased when we come to the thing itself. is open to use by almost anyone . The skill and intellect required is whatever is available. But although they might share the same corner of the market place they are fundamentally quite different to each other.and enjoys . 'free music'. suffers from . It is a logical situation: freely improvised music is an activity which encompasses too many different kinds of players. too many different attitudes to music. It is true that they are very often lumped together but this is proba bly done for the benefit of promoters who need to know that the one thing they do have in common is a shared inability to hold the attention of large gro ups of casual listeners. even. consider their work to be experimental. It has no stylistic or idiomatic commitment. Free improvisation. It has no prescribed idiomatic sound. or perhaps most often simply. for it all to be subsumed under one name. if anything. the attitudes and precepts associated with the avant-garde have very little in common with those held by most improvisors. or 83 . Historically. There are innovations made. Similarly. but the desire to stay ahead of the field is not common among improvisors. through improvisation. the improvisor employs the oldest in music-making.beginners. 'open improvisation'.mankind's first musical performance couldn't have been anything other than a free improvisation and I think that it is a reasonable speculation that at most times since then there will have been some music-making most aptly described as free improvisation. It can be an activity of enormous complexity and sophistication. Two regular confusions which blur its identification are to associate it with experimental music or with ava nt-garde music. The characteristics of freely improvised music are established only by the sonicmusical identity of the person or persons playing it. 'improvised music'. The lack of precision over its naming is. it pre-dates any other music . children and non-musicians. Its accessibility to the performer is. in fact. in addition to being a highly skilled musical craft.

Some are attracted to it by its possibilities for musical togetherness. It can appeal to and serve the musical purposes of all kinds of people and perhaps the type of person offended by the thought that 'anyone can do it' will find some reassurance in learning that Albert Einstein looked upon improvisation as an emotional and intellectual necessity.. philosophical. Objectivity will. nor to give a definitive account of the groups mentioned. wishing for a direct. 1 Alexander Moslkowski reported that in 1919 Einst9ln told him ·. It is necessary to point out that for Leo Smith the predicament of the black man in America. giving them u"erartee In improvisations. . Or more correctly.. And both accounts are valid. is of far greater significance than the purely musical matters dealt with here. others by its possibilities for individual expression. and others who believe it can only be reached by employing a highly sophisticated.s it.locaf"lCfl In this account but it does "'OVid ""_ . including most forms of improvisation to be found in the West. no general view to be given. as far as I know. . which is from his Treatise Handbook (published by Peters Edition). whose conventions had. religious and political explanations. Smith speaks of free improvisation almost exclusively as an extension of jazz and Cardew considers it mainly in terms of European philosophy and indeterminate composition. to the view that it is complicated beyond discussion. but I shall have to leave those to authors with the appropriate appetite and ability. There is. Firstly from the effect this had in jazz. the way to free improvisation was the obvious escape from the rigidity and formalism of their respective musical backgrounds. exerted a quite remarkable influence over many types of music. until this time. . But these documents also indicate that for musicians of integrity. personal technique of virtuosic dimensions. and secondly from the results of the much earlier developments in musical language in European straight music.to the increaSingly frequent . 2 ~ Nor. I intend only to point to certain aspects of certain groups and situations which seem to me to illustrate some of the central tenets of free improvisation.. Each of these documents is written by a musician with a great deal of experience of free improvisation and they write of it with insight and pertinence. i. I am sure. unadulterated involvement in music. 84 8S . improvisation on the piano was a neoessily 01 his I~e. In a rather similar way Cardew's objections to his situation were later to take a purely political form.wtuch lett me totatty confused and alienated _ was in t 95 7 1r h was a conlrontatlOfl which has no musical SlOn.1 The emergence of free improvisation as a cohesive movement in the early sixties and its subsequent continuous practice has excited a profusion of sociological. They are however totally different from each other. and when he returns he longingly caresses the keys to ease himsell 01 the burden 01 the tone experiences that have mounted up in him. Two important pieces of reading concerning free improvisation are Leo Smith's book Notes: 8 Pieces and Cornelius Cardew's 'Towards an Ethic of Improvisarion'. my intention to make II c:o"tribution . They range from the view that free playing is the si mplest thing in the world requiring no explanation. no musical ab ility and no musical knowledge or experience of any kind. but whenever possible I shall quote other views and opinions. So I propose to base my account of free improvisation largely on my own playing experiences within the music. I should emphasise that it is not my intention to try and present an overall picture of the free music scene.. . the questioning of the 'rules' governing musical language. • ••• Opinions about free music are plentiful and differ widely. e some eVh••"nce that froo ImprOVisatIOn wasn't 'started' by anybody. Perhaps I can confine myself to the obvious assumption that much of the impetus toward free improvisation came from the questioning of musical language. published 1921 . particularly as this applies to the black musician. stlnVOlvement W1th It . in either field.the simplest and most direct expression: a lifetime's study and work or a casual dilettante activity.e.wroting 01 the hIstory 01 the begInnings of Iree Ifl"IprovISShon.' Conversations wilh Einstein. Every journey that takes hIm away lrom the insltument lor some tIme excites a ho!ne-sidlness lor his piano. There are those for whom it is an activity requiring no instrumental skill. each reflecting perfectly one of the twin approaches to free improvisation which took place in the sixties. ex~ pemaps to menhon that my . be quite beyond me. which was the most widely practised improvised music at the time of the rise of free improvisation.

not wholesale. We spent much time playing modally. most particularly.. The regular metre was always under attack. intellectual character than it actually had. But it seems that almost from the very beginning there was a movement to expand these boundaries. Tony Oxley the percussionist. creating not a poly-rhythmic effect but a non-rhythmi c effect. and our earliest 'free' improvisations had a definite modal orientation. It was modal. and even more so in retrospect. While my background as a professional 'commercial' musician employed in dance halls.. It is important to stress that the following are recollections of what happened. He and Bryars practised working with this until the feeling of a regular pulse was totally removed. they consisted in accepting the implications of the most logical and appropriate developments in our playing. Stockhausen. Tony Oxley: 'This was rhythmically very useful to me. was a composer 01 prodigious output who. and studios meant that I was always in touch with some of the practical usages of improvisation . in all cases it was more an emotional. As far as one can tell. This was probably the easiest way to starr. to give the development of 1 The group's name came from Tony Oxley although it could ~ite easily have come from Gavin Bfyars who althal time was beginning 10 show what was 10 beoome a lasting in. It was a release from the dogma of the beat. The stages of our collective development from playing a standard idiomatic improvisation through to playing freely improvised music seemed at the time. 1\ seemed a good cover lor OUI actiVities. of course. Boulez. or at least appropriate. however.in fact without the ability to improvise it is very difficult to survive as a musician in the musical demi-monde where most working musicians make their living .. Except. moves.from Bill Evans through John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy to Albert Ayler-while Bryars' interest was in contemporary composers: Messiaen. phrases and designs are based seemed to us 86 87 . to replace the inherited things which we found stilted. The improvisation was on set chord sequences. an example of which is a composition of Bryars'. in which the soloist improvised not on the chord being played but on the follow ing chord. II speculation ntinfon:ed by the staggering amount 01 music published under that name. and myself. almost imperceptible. All these moves co nstituted an attack on the harmonic and rhythmic framework within which we were working but when we did eventually break that framework it was once again only through gradual. The main stimulus. we were playing fairly conventionally in a jazz manner. The main distortion of this retrospective description is to greatly simplify the whole process and. search to find something that was logical and right. which existed from 1963 to 1966. it provided a base from which we could explore rhythmic and sca lar relationships fairly freely. the music a more deliberate. systematically so when Tony Oxley evolved a method of super-imposing a different time feel over the original.JOSEPH HOLBROOKE' This group. moribund and formal. tnvestigalions about ~ produced diIIer-ent dates lot hiS birth (1875 Of t878) and diIIerent dates lor hi. enthusiasms. and following where they led. was to escape from the lack of tension endemic in to nal or modal pitch constructions.esl in earty 20th century English music. From then on it continued to play both totally improvised and part-improvised pieces. A soloist would now stay on each cho rd for as long as he wished to improvise on it. The 'tension and release' myth upon which most scalar and arpeggio patterns. which of course overlapped in all directions. The musicians in the group were Gavin Bryars. Simplified. Additionally.' The move away from a set harmonic sequence was to modal playing. One of the first of these was to break the metre down. led logically and organically to a situation where the only way to pool our efforts and the only comprehensive expression of this confluence was through a freely improvised music. a more or less conventional tune in 3/4 time. Still. night clubs. Initially. and played in time. Having reached the point where the aural effect we were achieving was one of playing out of time it began to seem almost pe rverse not to actually play out of time. Our influences here were partly a belated interest in Webern and partly some aspects of John Coltrane's improvisations. We were also following at that time certain aspects of the recorded work of Scott La Faro and John Coltrane. This combination of interests. obsessions. although (tealng something of a slir in hiS own lifetime has been atmosI1OtaIIy ignored Since. more calculated. Cage and their followers. Joseph (sometmes Josef) Ho/brOOke.it was the other two members of the group who provided the twin bases for the development into free improvisation. the position was that Oxley provided the connection and interest in what were then contemporary jazz developments . taking his accompanists with him. harmonic experiments were taking place. In order to escape the constant threat of the eternally suspended resolution we turned our attention to intervallic manipulation of pitch. initially played conventional jazz and by 1965 was playing totally improvised pieces. death (1958 Of 1961)laising !he consideration that there might be lTIOIe !han one Joseph HoIbrooke. that it wasn't free. once descrbId as the 'cockney Wagner'. In fact. who was then a bass player. the chord about to played. usually jazz standards. making the change to the next cho rd how and when he wished. The vehicles for this were usually either John Coltrane pieces from that period or a series of modal pieces written at that time by al1 three of us. or instinctive.

You get on with it. with two instruments . It's an emotional demand that you have to meet. About his bass playing at this time. a respect for what the other person was doing. less worn material with which to work. The music started from silence. One of the things which was recalled was the spaciousness in the group. It is the details that you are involved with. ifhe could recall any particular musical landmarks in this period. But when these things became cliched I can remember consciously trying to drop them. the two or three years process. The modal setting particularly. non-causal organisation of the pitch. Sometimes there's an assumption that this sort of thing is done . The search was always for something that sounded right to replace the things that sounded predictable and wrong. I always played 3 finger pizzicato. the reasons for changing are not considered. An example of this is the occasion when. which very often turned out to be mainstays of our previous tonal language. That was the thing about the music that was most marked. in spite of the obvious energy that was about. appropriate feeling about it. . When you're wearing chains you don't become aware of them through intellectual processes.no longer valid. with alternatives. and by a much more consistent use of the more 'dissonant' intervals. A music that 88 89 . vacuous type of improvisation. its nostalgia. The actual technical details weren't for me the most rewarding part.' These were some of the means by which we reacted against the restrictions of the inherited improvising language. But the experience of playing freely soon had the effect. There were times that were significant that one remembers but my main impression is one of continuous development. But this was the sort of thing that was influencing the music we played. In other terms. I asked Tony Oxley. By this time most of the music was collectively improvised and solos were unaccompanied. Scale steps going up and large steps down. after hearing Bryars' newly acquired record of Cage's First Constructions in Metal. episodic manner. It was probably years later that we discovered that the gong gliss effect was created by immersing it in water. The effect is of slackness. One of the remarkable things about the Sheffield experience for me was that I felt that I suddenly wasn't involved with the jazz language but that I was involved in a universal language. without the restriction or discipline of an idiom. tried to find a way to emulate it. played in a discontinuous. sometimes it was good. In these closed systems there is a circular quality to the improvisation which means that the release is built into the tension. Sometimes there were disappointments. Bryars says: 'I very often played chords on the bass: triple stops. double stops. They seem irrefutable. Oxley at this time started to change his instrument from a kit designed to supply set rhythmic patterns to one with an increased potential for varied sounds. But there is something I would like to point out. At the time. of course. seemed to invite a facile. and looked for fresher. as it always does. That was a great liberating force from the point of view of developing the necessary intense concentration on what was going on around you. purely musical constituents. The philosophy is plain and accepted. and I played horizontally across the strings like a flamenco guitarist. And I feel that now. There were attempts to improvise serially. that was the important thing to me. descending in disjunct leaps. It started from what we accept as silence. Much of our language now was arrived at by the exclusion of the elements we didn't want. During the whole of that time I don't think I ever made any intellectual decision to limit myself.of producing a set of characteristics unique to that particular grouping of musicians and of producing an identity only a small proportion of which was established by the technical. Such accompaniment as happened was a so rt of occasional commentary from the other instruments. Oxley. that the answer is contained in the question. It was the involvement in something that was challenging. Ascending was usually in fast runs. And for percussion that was fantastic. Because < let's get swinging' was one of the percussionist's chains. So. There was some use of serial devices. particularly for percussion: the fact that silence was valid. Bryars introduced what he describes as 'the serial equivalent of a free jazz ballad'. years after the events.azz vocabulary was an emotional act of feeling. It was a group which seemed to offer a great deal of room or space which had a logical.ust to be different. There's no question about the reasons behind it. timbres and percussive effects. It didn't start from the rhythm section 'getting it on'. Working in 3 or 4 note cells. You can feel them. So there was a continuous changing harmony. to be able to make a sound and for it to mean something was a great release for me.amplified guitar and percussion . 1 or 2 notes being held in common between successive cells. impressed by the gong glissando effect. But the whole thing. I would at all times try and avoid playing the pulse of the music. It was to escape from this that we turned to a more atonal. Although the results. That's totally wrong. It is easy eno ugh to play silence but difficult to get it to sound right. So the whole was somewhat atonal in character. The exclusion of the . And every move meant something. were how we judged each stage. that contributed to the musical environment by representing. blandness. and each note was held as long as the player wished. We each had a series of notes.matched to the volume of a very softly played double-bass. This he eventually did by tying a piece of cloth to a cymbal in such a way as to be able to bend the cymbal after it had been struck. This is difficult to come by.

In those earlier things there was a certain energy. And aurally our first excursions into free playing were probably very little different from our so-called 'conventional' playing. I think one reason that the audience stuck with us was that the music did have a powerful dramatic quality. I think. So. But I had become very much involved in the instrument and I think a lot of things I did were to see what the instrument could do. a certain questioning going on that was exciting.carries its own judgements and intentions and is not something simply tagged on to the end of jazz. daytime. In fact it could sound. Things came and went. things did change and resolve. It wasn't for dramatic effect but it did produce that.In fact there was an organ piece L'Ascension which I arranged for piano and bass which we played at the club. absolutely voluptuous. The fact that we did all that meant that the music retained some coherence. I had also got Cage's Silence by this time and the ideas in that had quite a strong effect on me and at the same time I was studying composition with George Linstead. adding whoever might be interested to play with us. We had been in that 'swimming' situation before.a recognition of our seriousness. Our audience couldn't have been sure of that. playing and also at a weekly lunchtime concert we organised throughout that two and a half year period in a small upstairs room over a pub. after a while. something I hadn't really expected. I would play very quiet harmonics with the bow and get the volume very low indeed. and after that there was a complete ignoring of possible jazz aspects in the playing. The main one was that we had gone through a period of inventing procedures together and all that stuff was insurance against things falling flat when we did work without guidelines. In fact the last time I can recall any outside jazz reference was when Tony taped a Czechoslovakian group from the radio. Gavin Bryars: I think it worked for a lot of reasons. Arco things were. During that time we collected a small audience which attended these performances with astonishing regularity and faithfulness. There was a sense of expectancy. sometimes. I was barely interested in jazz at all. We spent a lot of attention. ••• In discussing Joseph Holbrooke with Gavin Bryars I mentioned being amazed that when we first played freely it appeared to work. By about '65 though. an environment where the response to this kind of thing.almost a Zen quality . when we were prepared to let people be on their own for long periods. individually and collectively. although one welcomed their contribution. We stopped. During this period we worked every evening in a nightclub. So I was getting all those pieces and studying them and there was something strange about trying to reconcile that information with what we were doing. It was very subjective. I asked Gavin Bryars what he thought the reasons were for their faithfulness or. It wasn't austere though. I think. We were already working harmonically. Except LaFaro and that was for nostalgic reasons. and so it had a kind of drama. There was nothing that could be called decoration. But it was the case that the only outlet for this thing we were doing was through a situation. It was at the club that we occasionally augmented the basic trio. And a number of musicians were interested but as time went on the group obviously presented increasing difficulties to 'sitters in'. That was an enormous liberating force. Gavin Bryars: We never fully accepted other musicians into the group. I was not listening to other bass players then.in the music. we were always vaguely suspicious that they didn't understand what was going on. We took each other seriously because of our mutual development but maybe we couldn't extend that trust to people who hadn't shared it. melodically and rhythmically in areas that were very remote from the original material. I remember the long bass solos where the room was absolutely silent and actua lly. Most audiences appear to prefer knowing exactly what they are going to get. And I didn't want to hear it. Making sure that we didn't do anything superf/uous. on single sounds. but now we moved from the shallow to the deep end. The earlier stuff served as a sort of training. perhaps. following jazz events in America. particularly later. their tolerance. Messiaen at that time became a particular study of mine and I bought a lot of his scores and also the recording ofChronocromie. Did you consider what we did to be jazz? The earliest stuff certainly was jazz and some of the early developments followed contemporary jazz developments but after a while it became antijazz. They hadn't been through that period of working together and. At that time I got the '61 Cage catalogue and I ordered things every week through the local music shop. For instan ce we would have the 90 91 . more sparse. although not uniformly hostile. there wasn't much coming out of the bass either. But it was not a uniform texture. It was certainly quite different from most other jazz clubs in the area. There was a very tight concentration . these developments came about mainly through private. that was based on jazz. There was a social aspect to the activity and there was some sort of respect . So I was actually listening to and thinking about and studying classical music far more than anything else. the bulk of them coming to the 'club' throughout its existence. could carry drastic sanctions. and a music really. But there were times. Although it did retain a rhythmic energy and certain jazz details.

The ideas that were contributed individually all coloured the development but we were in a position to trust each other sufficiently to share those things. The music in terms of time was pretty expansive. slight. Now. Even now I have a lot of respect for the music we played and it had qualities which I haven't heard in any other improvised music. I think. totally committed stance. probably more. Had we been playing in London. to allow the individual contributions to come in and be used collectively.drums playing alone for a long time but with occasional interjections from the other instruments. The transformation was. say. particularly the idea of composers in isolation. having returned for reasons unconnected with music. Originally we might play eight or ten pieces. all the deadliest aspects of provincialism. most of the developments would have been nipped in the bud. It was. I think. helped us. quite differently. in a couple of hours. more to do with people than place but Gavin pointed to the advantages of isolation for what we were doing. Over two and a half years there was constant contact between us and. Bryars had a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward the group then. exceptional musicians and which made being a part of Joseph Holbrooke an incomparable musical experience for me. of course. We developed a collective language. much more subtle than that. Sheffield. Not a consciously articulated language but step by step each step by a different person . Solos were usually completely solo and what accompanying there was would be more like prompting but it wasn't a question and answer thing. The total exceeded the sum of the individual parts. there was a certain irony in stumbling into such a fertile musical situation. musical friction which is. I think the fact that we were isolated. This kind of juxtaposition has the effect of producing a continuous. we only worked with each other. It was absolutely a collective thing. that it suited his musical position at that time (he subsequently became a composer). 92 93 . in its musical life. but I think for us it made a lot of difference. as far as our creative musical activities were concerned.a symbiotic thing. Amongst the many things enjoyed by that group was the productive contrast between the musical personalities of Gavin Bryars and Tony Oxley. Combined as it was with a certain natural anarchic tendency it contrasted sharply wIth Oxley'S direct. It was a very real case of that. but knowing. some area with a large musical community. But that was only one among a host of benefits which flowed from being able to work so closely with two. Normally I'm suspicious of that idea. I think. never sure if he shou ld be there at all. very productive in an improvising group. In London or some other centre there would have been other interests and influences. When we were playing freely we would play maybe three or four at the most. musically. the city in which all this was taking place. And there were cadenza-like passages in the music. So each piece was tending towards a half hour duration. is my hometown and I had left it some ten years before these events in search of a more stimulating musical environment believing at the time that Sheffield represented.

as expressed in an issue of Musics Magazine. for longer than he had 'intended' when he started out. before suddenly taking up his invitation. For the last year or so of its existence Christine Jeffrey was in the group. Here Hugh Davies is pointing to a feature of some free improvisation which might be described as mutual subversion . both musically and on the level of personal interaction (which are virtually identical. as it would have destroyed the logic of what he had just been playing (possibly. Hugh's virtuosity was expressed more in the building of an instrument than in the playing. and Davies helped to loosen what had been. resulted in Davies often producing the sort of electric guitar open string sound that I was at pains to avoid.and at that moment I was not only perhaps the most obvious choice because of the suitability of my instruments. The most specific memory . The few tonal references found in the music were usually produced by the same source. you could play in the secure knowledge that one or more of the other players. although inadequate. is of a concert that we gave in Durham.in other words a security which enabled unrestricted exploration of the new musical possibilities to take place. a perhaps too rarefied approach. Jamie Muir. it could have been interpreted by an observer as being rather cruel. Of course it was also typical of the way in which we functioned as a group. In practice it wasn't always like that. Her role was usually described as voice which. After an initial period of adjustment the live electronics developed a more conventional instrumental presence. but also I was not playing at the time and thus was free to join him. live electronics. 1 took this decision for purely musical reasons.that I have of a particular 'incident' during one of the performances of the Music Improvisation Company. Playing most of his instruments was often a matter of letting them speak. in materials and sounds. Had my action been on a verbal level. Evan Parker points to other aspects of Davies' contribution. So instead of the anticipated result. saxophones.. Some improvisors find this 94 95 . We were looking to extend the range of timbres available and to balance the overt virtuosity that was central to our instrumental approach at the time with another type of playing approach. almost always particular players that one was 'aiming at'. fairly fast figuration within a small pitch-range. uncommitted area in which to work. His adoption of the amplified long string. The live electronics were introduced into the group as a further extension of the alienation. Altogether it was a good example of a musician creating a role from his own musical perceptions. the live electronics served to extend the music both forwards and backwards. Hugh Davies. is: . not allowing it to be dictated solel y by the ' nature' of his instrument or the expectations of his colleagues. would react to you in a particular way. which meant that he then had to continue. so to speak.. and certainly inseparable). very intense and clearly quite an effort to maintain. However. When I indicated to Hugh Davies that it surprised me that the Music Improvisation Company gave anyone a feeling of security he gave the following example of what he meant. for instance. was probably the only possible description of her extraordinary sonic abilities. until his arrival. This is only possible when improvising musicians know each other well enough for a common language to have come into being. from idiomatic improvisation. As Evan Parker says: Davies' own view of the MIC.indeed virtually the only one . extending the basic dialogue form of the music which has been called ping-pong. and a mutual trust in each other permits one to push against the limitations of that language and the relationships on which it is based. I knew that he was expecting another musician to join him up there . without verbally rationalising it for myself. At one point Evan Parker began to play extremely high notes on his soprano saxophone. and myself.musically speaking it was almost as if he was asking one of us to do so . Evan would disagree about this!). without necessarily playing the sort of thing that you might have expected them to play . percussion. but at the right time and at the right dynamic level. but it was more in the nature of teasing and at the same time intended to create a mutually stimulating musical tension. in some respects. His work with the group also hastened the development of the several 'layers' approach to improvising. a continuation of the sea rch for a style· less. There was often a greater variety of timbre to be found in the saxophone than in the live electronics. musically it would have been virtually impossible for him to desert me immediately.THE MUSIC IMPROVISATION COMPANY From shortly after its formation in 1968 to its disintegration in 1971 the Music Improvisation Company was Evan Parker. as it created a musical tension that developed out of Evan's initial gesture that seemed to me to be appropriate. I waited until he had very nearly given up for lack of response. guitar. We wanted some sounds which weren't associated with instrumental improvisation. than the other 'normal' instruments. even if he actually remembered this situation.

The sound of the group.of 'staking out a claim'.. almost 'tight' group feeling.it's all been found already. is as a rule a florid. 'The original concepts of vocal and of instrumental music are utterly different. has already been found . It is the attitude of the player to this tactile element. Perhaps a clearer idea of the different forces at work in the group can be gained from the views of Jamie Muir.. would depend on who was 'leader' at the time. instrumental music. The way to discover the undiscovered in performing terms is to immediately re.the undiscovered/unidentifiedl unclaimed . his preferences and performing style until.. It depended on whichever member's influence. Instead of transmuting rubbish into music with a heavily predetermined qualitative bias. extended through psychological alliances and conspiracies. In an issue of the now defunct magazine Microphone he gave the following account of his musical philosophy.unk shop it's only been collected. and will be catalogued. the instrument. I believe. is best described.feature unhelpful. peculiarly her own at that time. Now some.. During this time the group would reflect. not always without a struggle. others thrive on it. Or that is how it seemed to me. One of the basic characteristics of his improvising. the leader would be overthrown and returned to the rebellious ranks. the 'found' attitudes you inherit. The bulk of the music played. was predominant at the time. But the MIC contained it to an unusually large degree. like Yamashta. taking from the earth but never putting back (who throws away antiques?) .ect all situations as you identify them (the cloud of unknowing) . There's nothing to fmd in an antique shop .. but it smacks of the gold rush and a kind of greed .[ much prefer .' That would serve as a description of one of the underlying forces in free improvisation. the most important of his musical resources. as instrumental improvisation. Quick motion is not mere ly a means to a musical end but almost an end in itself which always connects with the fingers. and approach the rubbish with a total respect for its nature as rubbish .and that is the undiscovered/unidentifiedlunclaimed/unexplored territory . Well let me put it another way . the wrists and the whole of the body. you can bet your life. with the exception of rudimentary rhythmic percussion. Or how he reacts against it.he civilises vast hunks of unexplored territory and builds safari clubs all over it so you can view the beauties of the wilderness in luxurious comfort and from a safe distance . whereas in a . will be how he harnesses the instrumental impulse. its whole character in fact. detectable in everything he plays.unk shops to antique shops. would take a rubbish dump and turn it into an antique shop . One member's leadership or dominance could have any lifespan but usually seemed to last about three or four months.leave behind the biases and structures of selectivity (which is an enormous task). Instrumental as defined by Curt Sachs. And this makes the stimulus and the recipient of this impulse.transmuting that nature into the performing dimension.which is to give music a future. But strangely.in fact it's been completely re.thal's real alchemy. Altogether. Who was leader wasn't a matter for discussion or democratic decision. writing in The Wellsprings of Music. exhausted by his responsibilities. But a rubbish dump-a rubbish dump has been neither found nor collected .. to the physical experience of playing an instrument.ected . fast and brilliant display of virtuosity . regardless of its changes in identity. which Evan Parker describes thus: Christine's effect was through a combination of trance and whimsy. as with the great majority of free improvisation. It was to this compound of attitudes and philosophies that Christine Jeffrey added her contribution. 96 97 . but an agile movement of the hands which seems to be under the control of a brain centre totally different from that which inspires vocal melody. to the 'instrumental impulse' which establishes much of the way he plays. To incorporate her range of expression required that we broaden the emotional continuum of the music considerably. the overall result of the apparently contradictory forces and attitudes at work in the group was the achievement of a consistent. However there is an alternative. The instrumental impulse is not melody in a 'melodious' sense.a remarkable feat but you're back safe and sound in the antique shop again where everything.the future if only you can see it.

and so one technical device might be developed to cover a wide range of possibilities. Now it" s dIHElfet1I. judging from most reported remarks on the subject. The standard European instrumental education thinks of itself as being an exception to this rule. wan110dabble with thai ne. a position to which its historic functions might be quite irrelevant. pianists. Steve Lacy: 'The instrument. About learning to play an instrument John Stevens says: 'Improvisation is the basis of learning to playa musical instrument. But most practical musical situations imply other hypothetical situations. it teaches that the creation of music is a separate activity from playing that instrument. aod. They. is the most widely held and is found in all areas of improvisation. Application Is even mOI"B Important than tech ' I' T Y because applicalion is the key to laking part.the stuff . It is not only a means to an end. but to do only that is a very distorted way of approaching a musical instrument. ing.' ••• There seem to be two main attitudes to the instrument among improvisors. It is of course a very good example of it. The improvisor's view of the instrument is totally different. the jazz player jazz.' There is no generalised technique for playing any musical instrument. The unorthodox technique is commonplace. and so on. Although some improvisors employ a high level of technical skill in their playing. The instrumentalist is not required to make music. the symbols. particularly the straight player. 98 99 . the composer. that seem particularly fruitful. The other attitude is that the instrument is unnecessary. and perhaps more than any other discipline it limits its adherents' abiliry to perform in other musical areas. It has to be realised that a person's own investigation of an instrument . 'lhere 's my arms. its function being to serve only one man's purpose: 'technique for the improvisor is not an arbitrary consumption of an abstract standardised method but rather a direct attunement with the mental. He can assist with his 'interpretation' perhaps. Music for the instrumentalist is a set of written symbols which he interprets as best he can. The instrument is not just a tool but an ally. All! had to lind was a way 01 applying myselt. Probably a large partof most improvising techniques is developed to meet particular situations encountered in performance. etcetera: it produces specifically non-improvisors. at worst a liability. are the music. but the first. there is no sign of the instrumental impulse. after successful study with his master. and who knows. spiritual and mechanical energy necessary to express a full creative impulse' (Leo Smith)'.your subject. BUI tor lhat b~ II wor\(ed . However one learns to play an instrument it is always for a specific task. it is a source of material. both a tool and a helper. And I didn '. sometimes developed and extended. can assume an absolutely central position. 'ArOUnd the ~me we made Karyobin. One reason why the standard Western instrumental training produces non-improvisors (and it doesn't just produce violinists. is fitted to p lay Indian music. cellists. intruding between the player and his music. is the music-maker. as accurately as possible. a collaborator.is totally valid. And in some respects the better he is at his chosen idiom the more specialised his abilities become. attitudes and practices found in 'conventional' forms of improvisation can be found. So I_nllh'ough thaI period and at that lime il wor\(ed .that's the matter. but the instrument. in free improvisation. The flamenco player learns flamenco. 1hefe's my legs. "I'll go and find a teacher. and the man who wrote them. to speak of 'mastering' the instrument in improvisation is misleading. An extension of technique might have certain musical implications which might in turn 1 John SI~ S speaks 01. And in that way you miss a mass of important musical experience.! like 10 pia h the drums alilhe lIme. You buy the instrument and then think to yourself. but.'billty. The Indian player. the pro-instrument view.ibi!lty ~herB'Of ~hll"lg .~lhlng similar. Studying formally with a teacher might be the right way to achieve certain specific aims. It equips a musician with the ability to perform the standard European repertoire and its derivatives. And t still believe In it. The instrument is the medium through which the composer finally transmits his ideas. and technique for the improvisor is often an exploitation of the natural resources of the instrument. in seven or eight years' time I might be able to play this thing". He might develop certain aspects of the instrument that appeal to him. I didn 'l wan110 practise or anyt. One is that the instrument is man's best friend. 10 beIng involved ' nlca aCllty. as with other things. '~e IS enough ne.1O ~i5. The division between these views is not as distinct as it might seem. With the instrument. keeping it in tune and being able to use it to carry out. But what usually happens? You decide you want a certain instrument. !though' .THE MIe . Learning how to create music is a separate study totally divorced from playing an instrument. any instructions which might be given to him.his exploration of it . musicians rendered incapable of attempting improvisation) is that not only does it teach how to play an instrument. composers prefer the instrumentalist to limit his contribution to providing the instrument. in free playing.THE INSTRUMENT In the non-improvisor.

skin. Ronnie Scott expressed this view when he said: 'I practise to become as close to the instrument. metal. cowbells . wood blocks. from complete . saucepans . though. cymbals. hubcaps. The instrument's responsiveness to its acoustic environment. The usual basic stuff.' Technically. More usually. chopsticks and other strikers obviously extend these characteristics. various kitchen equipment. motor generators. These comprise small bells. wires. gunshells.is supplemented by gongs. wood blocks and oriental skulls. The various things hanging include: knives and forks. side of playing. "'e: 100 101 . thicknesses. wood blocks. there has been a definite tendency towards more modest constructions.that sort of extrapolation or rationalisation is one of the many ways in which the instrument can supply the music. and the contrast between the pro· and anti. liQuid. describing his kit. cymbals . how it reacts to other instruments and how it reacts to the physical aspects of performing. from 6 inches to 16 inches. naturally enough. gurglers and rustlers'. was given over to the views and comments of ImprovlSl~ pen. Paul Lytton said 'the 5OUroes have remained Ihe same: wood. the second attitude leads to a limiting of technique and a reduction of the instrument to its 'essentials'. who used to describe his noise-makers as 'howlers.producing exactly what the player dictates to none at all-letting the instrument have its say. Almost any aspect of playing an instrument can reveal music. wood surfaces . More radically.are quite consciously utilised by some performers. There also seem to be direct technical benefits from a concentration on the creative.five. cowbells . can vary enormously. These meet the requirement that the instrument should have a fixed. which might reveal further musical implications .fourteen. Wire knitting needles. And there is a type of creative impetus which can come from playing well technically which can't be achieved in any other way.drums. roarers. those which are ethnic in origin or. 1 octave splitter.' And in conventional or traditional improvising it does usually mean the musician would li ke co be in such complete control that the instrument ceases to be a consideration. In free improvisation where one's intentions do not necessarily have a prescribed aural definition. 1 amplifier and 2 speakers. exploders. The amplified section of the kit is: amplified frame containing cymbals. various sizes. Some of these changes can be quite minimal. although including many acoustic items.chimes. amongst percussion players at least. unlortunatety delunct . sea shells. The ideal thing would be to be able co play the instrument as one would playa kazoo. Although this is mainly confined to string players. is not now so vivid. another play~ only a military snare drum.technical habits and musical habits (cliches) . very limited capability and that very little instrumental skill is needed to play it. stones. The idea is.eight. I think.produce further technical implications. buzzers. their instruments. extension is made by amplification and electronic treatment. Since the heyday of the mammoth percussion kit. rubbers. writes: 'superimposed about these [drums and cymbals] are a variety of sound sources. a loose string added to a guitar.instrument view. as possible. various sizes and textures. Again percussion players provide the best examples: one plays a three piece toy drum set.' 'It doesn't matter what sort of instrument you play. plashC. a Stradivarius or a tin drum. weights. leans more to electronic extension .ussionists. when they were measured in the number of hours needed to erect and dismantle them. Tony Oxley's percussion equipment. and literally to extend. this attitude can lead to a rejection of the instrument entirely and the utilisation of other sonic resources. rubber. used with 3 contact mikes (home-made). The accidental can be exploited through the amount of control exercised over the instrument. not on the executive. as familiar with it. however irresistible that phrase might be for the critic. sounds. springs. whistlers. worn which I have already taken some lemarks 01 Jamie Muir's. The acoustic part is : drums . Most of the musicians in this grouping share an' almost pathological hatred of anything which might be called electronic.gas' Quite differently. hand bells and all the other early-Cage paraphernalia. many improvisors are attracted to the use of electronics and it is one of the many kinds of instrument extension to be found amongst percussion players. 1 compressor. Habits. In lhe same lasue. altered mutes and mouthpieces for a trombone. brass fittings and bamboo. it's the person behind it that counts. This !$Sue 01 ~~. in appearance. ••• The anti-instrument attitude might be presented as: 'The instrument comes between the player and his music. the instrument has to be defeated. etcetera . There are also devices used which wou ld probably find their antecedents in the armoury of futurist composer Luigi Russoio. saucepans.two.five. Instruments very much in favour with this school are. Any object at all can be included in an improvising percussion ist's equipment.'2 2 This quotation Is taken 110m the June t972 iS$ue 01 the magazine Microphone. The aim is to do on the instrument what you could do if you could play without an instrument. xylophones. The percussionist Frank Perry. wire. In addition to developing a personal instrumental technique it is common amongst pro-instrument improvisors to develop. usually accompanied by an increase in theatrical activity. cracklers. 2 volume pedals. at least. 1 ring modulator and oscillator. plastic spoons. Virtuosity doesn't have to be empty. the usual sort of 'preparations' for a piano.

recording it and issuing it for people to listen to in their front rooms lays a philosophical and aesthetic minefield. since what you hear on tape or disc is indeed the same playing but divorced from its natural context. usually serve only to fillet out or disturb quite importanr clements.and the anti-instrument approaches. compression limiting. Scottish soft bagpipe. in performance. says: 'What recording produces is a separate phenomenon. something really much stranger than the playing itself. From a review by Michael Thorne of Free Improvisation (Deutsche Grammophon.' Cornelius Cardew. But much more important than the limitations of the technology is the loss during the recording process of the atmosphere of musical activity . 'presence'. as Peter Riley describes it.' Alain Danielou: 'Of the living music in which improvisation 102 103 . Chinese temple blocks. At one time or another. THE MIC . an in-person momentary thing. which is one of the main strengths of improvisation. The Music Improvisation Company made fWO records: the one on the Incus label provides the best example of the group's recording style and establishes the identity of the group at that period (1969-70). Eskimo refusing to record for ethnomusicologist. Australian bull-roarer. What is the importance of the natural context? The natural context provides a score which the players are unconsciously interpreting . screams. But in common with other recordings of free improvisation .the musical environmenr created by the performance .'the matching of music with place and occasion'. Describing a musical event as a "free improvisation". because to me the way I play is really a kind of momentary thing. Trinidadian steel drum. Ghanian soft trumpet.' Lionel Salter on recording baroque music: 'I'm not at all sure that recording is useful for anything more than reference.what it does not do is present a piece of the group's music. some oscillate continuously between them and some contrive to hold both views at once. The technical illusions practised in recording ('live' or studio) are inimical to the constantly changing balances and roles which operate within most free improvisation. One of the reasons is quite simple. So. howls. discussing the recording of free improvisation. Tunisian chanting.a score that co-exists inseparably with the music.possibly any improvisation . why.RECORDING My songs are part of my soul and if the demon in the white man's box steals my soul. Ronnie Scott says: 'J hate making records. I really detest making records. Maori chirping and Mozambique stuttering are combined with the African thumb piano.that because of the limited opportunities for technical virtuosity. But the attitudes are quite distinct. Too little of improvised music survives recording. it seems to me. Recording devices such as reduction. Some of these players have shown a great interest in the practices and rituals of ethnic music and particularly in what is taken to be primitive uses of the voice. I must die. Ukrainian stone Aute and the Canton one-legged monster to provide an aural event abollt as far removed from the directness and dignity of ethnic music as a thermo-nuclear explosion is from a fart. filtering and stereo picture. 3-box set). simply because it is a record. so there is no clear division into two groups of musicians. standing side by side with it and sustaining it. a more direct expressiveness is possible. Tibetan humming. that one can't hope to capture on a record. groans. most players investigate both the pro. and both can be heard in almost any piece of improvised music. grunts.

Solo improvising. I wanted to know if the language I was using was complete. played remain sharply etched in my memory and are amongst my most highly valued playing experiences. concerns solo playing. Many of the reservations expressed about recorded improvisation apply equally well to other recorded music. as a rule. it seemed to me. to describe what I think is my own approach to solo playing. Records simply supply a different listening experience to listening 'live'. is about playing with other people and some of the greatest opportunities provided by free improvisation are in the exploration of relationships between players. unlike other recorded music. Much of what I assumed about my own solo playing when I first tried to write about it fifteen years ago no longer seems particularly relevant to what I think I do now. But when. like a photograph of a dancer. when the wind's in the right direction. a preferable one. to be a sign of good breeding. most improvisors investigate the possibility of playing solo. a gramophone record gives us only a frozen or fixed moment. in fact. My conversations with other improvisors on the topic of solo playing produced a variety of opinions. never outdone in hyperbole. was through a period of solo playing. after a considerable time thinking only in group terms. Much of this deals with the organ. the earliest documentation of improvisation. apparently.' All that a recording can offer are certain identifiable features. The need. That it should provide evidence of musical identity or of changes in identity is all that is usually claimed for a recording. Improvisors are. Evan Parker. I did so out of necessity. almost the only documentation of improvisation. Curiously. Features which. This. there is no apparent economic justification for it. and after a particularly fruitful late period. However. are useful only for purposes of identification. at some time or other. musically gregarious. but there are also accounts describing the popularity of solo improvising on all the string and keyboard instruments. says: Being part of the group through this period opened me to the point where. Historically. it came apart. Alternating periods 104 105 . without too much optimism. perhaps partly explained by the nature and tradition of the guitar. Recording is an adjunct to all musical activities except those which exist as an adjunct to recording. although completely unique and personal to that group or individual. although a vehicle for self expression. the efforts of an improvisor to make sense of the solo situation have been described as noble. was to have a look at my own playing and to find out what was wrong with it and what was not wrong with it. but no general view emerged that I could detect so again I'll attempt. if it could supply everything that I wanted in a musical performance. I turned almost exclusively to solo improvising. the instrument I play. The intermittent fuss over the validity of recording improvisation overlooks certain realities. attained a quite exceptional preeminence in Europe during the 17th century when great facility in this art was considered. I find. For me there has always been an attraction in solo playing. The last few occasions the M. to which I will return.l. has changed considerably as time has gone on. After less than three years. In this respect solo improvisation makes no sense at all. The ideal way of doing this. C. preferring to work with other musicians in any combination from duo up to quite inexplicably large ensembles. SOLO ••• Compared to some groups. for the majority of people. Perhaps the debate over recording improvised music keeps rearing its head because. I'm ready to play with anyone. apparently.plays an essential part. around 1970/71 after a period of some years playing in improvising groups of many different styles and sizes. For most people improvisation. in our own time. referring to the last twelve months of the group's existence. perhaps the only way. the Music Improvisation Company had a relatively short life span. The implications of this for the permanence of my present assumptions will be obvious.

The temptation. those found earning a living in night clubs. In a wider sense. in work and research away from the group. In this situation the language becomes much more important and there will be times in solo improvisation when the player relies entirely on the vocabulary used. Working musicians.of group playing with solo playing is something I have tried to maintain ever since. in improvisation. to flog those parts of the performance which are most palatable to an audience . in performance. inevitably. when nothing else seems to be offering itself.' In the choice and development of material the solo improvisor works in similar ways to the group improvisor. and which will facilitate. whose constituents would be unconnected in any causal or grammatical way and so would be more open to manipulation.then you have to go back and rethink everything. Again. Building a personal vocabulary and working to extend it in both performance and preparation. the construction of a language. a written description any description . material. The most obvious differences to group improvisation . It forms part of the search for whatever is endlessly variable. a deep antipathy to anything remotely connected with improvisation. ) Apart from the fact that [liked the stuff. LANGUAGE The analogy with language. Each player who comes along affects the common pool of language. Once solo playing descends to being the recycling of previously successful formulae its relevance to improvisation becomes pretty remote.is.and you make it your business to hear anyone who comes along who has something new. is not without its terrors. all parts of which are always and equally available. provides the main purpose and the continuing interest in solo playing. At such times. But this 'improvising language' was.greater cohesiveness and easier control for the soloist . not pre-fabricated. necessarily advantages and an even greater loss. The material is never fixed and its historical and systematic associations can be ignored. when other more aesthetically acceptable resources such as invention and imagination have gone missing. Beyond the immediate influence of the musicians I was playing with.which takes place when a group of musicians improvise together regularly. With a successful improvising group the bulk of their material will be initially provided by the styles. Generally I was looking. discussing 'improvising language'. as with a great deal of performed music. often used by improvising musicians in discussing their work. techniques and habits ofthe musicians involved. to utilise those elements which stern from the concepts of unpredictability and discontinuity. over many years as a working musician. a successful audience response can be the cause of rituals and formulae being repeatedly trotted out long after they have lost any musical motivation. dance halls and any other place where music has a functional role. a distortion. it is fairly safe to say. (Musicians who shared. Steve Lacy speaks of a 'brotherhood of language. At this point the credibility of the activity is in the balance and maintaining it simply depends on the courage of the player. as I remember it. the vocabulary becomes the sole means of support. This last consideration. Improvising alone. I think. This vocabulary will then be developed by the musicians individually. When you hear a new player.is not easily resisted and it is clear that in solo improvising. also empirically. ossifying and delineating a process which was fluid and amorphous . ••• The developments in my playing following on from those described in the chapter on Joseph Holbrooke continued along the same lines and for the same reasons: to find a way of dealing with a freely improvised situation in which a conventional vocabulary proved inadequate. of course.'free' atonal period. but anyone lacking the ability to invent something. the bases of my improvising language came from an interest in the music of Schoenberg's pre-serial. The improvisor can also look for material which will be appropriate for. and that the very clearly differentiated changes of timbre which characterised some early electronic music was the sort of thing which could assist in assembling a language that would be literally disjointed.and almost always empirical. to add something. A language based on malleable. is where the main danger in solo improvisation arises.and no musician who has spent time playing in public is in any doubt about what they are. [ thought (and I still think) that intervallic manipulation of pitch is less restricting and more productive than other ways of pitch management. the later music of Web ern and also certain early electronic music composers. This.are not. superimposed upon another musicallanguagej one learned. It has to provide everything needed to sustain continuity and impetus in the musical performance. for me. to resort to tried and proven procedures. of course. spend very little time. to improve something would quickly prove to be in the wrong 106 107 . is the unpredictable element usually provided by other players. recording studios. it seems to me. has a certain usefulness in illustrating the development of a common stock of material-a vocabulary . and collectively. before an audience. improvisation. of perpetual variation and renewal first introduced into European composition at the beginning of the 20th century.

. Christine Jeffrey and Phil Wachsmann have all quoted it at different times in talking about what they do. A feeling of freshness is essential and the best way to get that is for some of the material to be fresh. the limitations of the vocabularyllanguage analogy. Once a vocabulary of some homogeneity is assembled and is working and has proved to be usable in a playing situation.. voice box and their working together with the potentials of sound are dialoguing with other levels which I might call mind and perception. usually of a dense. The flute player Jim Denley points out the automatic simplification that occurs whatever kind of explanation is attempted: For the improvisor the physicality of producing sound (the hardware) is not a separate activity to the thoughts and ideas in music (software). It's obviously more secure than the wide open thing: It is clear that in solo playing the instrument achieves a special potency and its importance to this kind of music-making is at its most obvious here. has built a series of guitars of unique design. even spectacular. just a part of the vocabulary. Solo playing.. In a sense it is change for the sake of change. who played that? . For others. as with instrument builders such as Hugh Davies and Max Eastley. The thoughts and decisions are sustained and modified by my physical potentials and vice versa but as soon as I try and define these separately I run into problems. the music is literally constructed from the instrument. improvisation is a fact of musical life. virtuosic distortions of natural bodily functions unequalled since the days of La Petomaine. perhaps. 108 109 . And it seems to me that this bedrock of experience. furiously active nature: a panic of loneliness. both seem to make improvisation the basis of their solo playing and also take advantage of the 'singleness' of the solo situation. Evan Parker. particularly playing solo. The unexpected. culled in a variety of situations. playing alone. and go out and be free and loose. it seems to me. in fact. Ronnie Scott: I've dmre what (or me is a great deal of practising and then played in public and my technique (eels worse than it's ever been before. In some cases. And that's a necessity. or at least explanation. from any source. to reach anything I want to reach on the guitar and for that. a manic dialogue with the phantom other. )' And then the opposite approach is suggested by Tony Oxley: 'In solo playingatthe moment I'm limiting myself to certain aspects of the kit. of course. Recently. Evan Parker: It seems to me the only practising of improvisation you could do is either to improvise or to think about improvising. But not specifically for improvising. lips. on the other hand. either as listener or player. The German guitar player Hans Reichal. Change fot the sake of the benefits that change can bring. who seems to have spent the greater part of his career playing solo. was the use of Paul Klee's 'Taking a line for a walk'.. '). performances. whereas. the attempt to analyse one's playing in this way reveals. PRACTISING ••• Talking with other improvisors about solo playing revealed that most people see it as a vehicle for self-expression. I do my exercises and so on. fingers. I find that an interesting thing. Eventually. It is a meaningless enterprise for it is the very entanglement of levels of perception.judging what will work. in group playing. Paul Rutherford and George Lewis. because the need for material is end less. can also occasionally appear. My lungs. special instrumental techniques form the basis of their approach. percussion instruments and flute. 11 paper by Jim Denleypublisl1ed in the impfovisalion Issue (Summer 1991) 01 Sounds Australisn Paco Peiia: I prepare to be able. some reflection of the earliest guitar music I ever heard occasionally surfaces in my solo playing. at least for a period. not to say the unnerving. In the act of creation there is a constant loop between the hierarchy of factors involved in the process. happy for the music to sound like one person. awareness and physicality that makes improvisation. occasionally bubbles up in one way or another. the trombone player who initiated much of the vocabulary widely used by improvising trombonists (contentious area this). each modification reflected in the music he plays on them. 1 From 'Improvisation: the entanglement of awareness and physicality'. material can be included.. Missing. one improvisor creates a complete improvisation with more than one instrument and of mixed character (eg trumpet. The most interesting soloists to my ears often turn out to be trombonists. In that world. Vinko Globokar. dismisses solo improvising as meaningless. Not affecting specifics like pitch or timbre or rhythmic formulations (I've yet to find any advantage in quoting ditectly any of the kinds of music I used to play) but influencing decisions that affect overall balance and pace . one can not touch the instrument for weeks. music I have had no connection with. since childhood. One curious uniformity of attitude. technically. ' Leo Smith says: •. is the kind of playing which produces music independent of the characteristics of instruments or even individual styles (' . unidentifiable passages which are the kind of magic only possible.business. A way of presenting a personal music. in their different ways. flugelhorn. has produced some remarkable. among other things.

Firstly. improvisors don't avail themselves of the many 'frameworks' on offer.pretty nearly the only kind available . Nowhere is the concept of form as an ideal set of proportions which transcend style and language clung to with such terrified tenacity as by the advocates of musical composition.to save music from its endemic formlessness. where all is so fleeting and impalpable . In practice. the musical equivalent of running on the spot. FORM Perhaps I have given the impression that there is no forward planning. would have no general significance. Rather in the way that memory works. as Jean Langlais indicates. paintings. the normal basic technical practise. as the subconscious aim is probably to invent a form unique to every performance. A self-contained unique experience undiluted by anything in the nature of preparatory musical press-ups or carefully stored ammunition. (Do jazz players not do this now or do they call it something else?) It is the bridge between technical practise and improvisation. a piece can be criss-crossed with connections and correspondences which govern the selection and re-selection of 110 111 . not to say simple-minded. and a certain moral discipline is an essential part of this training. but it does assist in keeping instrumentally fit. Aurally this difference might manifest itself in a greater deliberateness. no overall structure. this works in many ways and. Myths.There is almost unanimity here. These have a bearing on the material being used and if that changes they also have to change.almost always aims itself at the same two or three targets and the clear favourite of these is 'formlessness'. political statements. that is still probably a fairly accurate indication of the importance attached to form by those people concerned with composed music. a great deal of ingenuity is exercised in finding something upon which the music can be <based'. Training is substituted for rehearsal. Adverse criticism of free improvisation . Perhaps I do it because I actually like practising. The practise I do divides into three areas. This is the way in which I work. the sort of thing which might be useful to the player of any music. Bur generally speaking. any piece of music. The benefit that this sort of thing has for improvisation is debatable. is similar to something known in jazz circles at one time as 'woodshed ding' . The playing might be much the same as when improvising but the focus of attention will be on the details of playing rather than on the totality. and what is being exercised is choice. As the criteria for assessing a piece of music. which is a playing condition that I would have thought was fairly important to an improvisor. although a number of groups have examined the possibility of a kind of preparation for improvisation. Or the difference between the two might not be aurally apparent at all. approach. The aesthetic is faultless and perhaps leads to the ultimate ideal of improvising once and never again. hopefully. there are definite possibilities for practise. and I suspect this type of practise is done by many improvisors.' But with solo improvisation. He listens to himself in a different way. no 'form'. the practising. should not do the same thing. With group improvisation the logic of not rehearsing is obvious. But it will be there and it lies in the improvisor's relationship to what he is playing. it seems that any overall pattern must be imposed . while mainly concerned with the moment. for me. They might subscribe to an approach which prefers an abrupt confrontation with whatever is offered by each performing situation. is usually inherited from the attitudes and prejudices handed down by the mandarins of European straight music this is to be expected. giving a precise account of the complex forces that govern the shape and direction of an improvisation. occasional stops and starts. even if such a thing is possible. Cardew says: '[there is] the proposition that improvisation cannot be rehearsed. it approximates to it but is really quite different. can be expected to improve the ability to improvise. 'The necessity for design and balance is nowhere more imperative than in music. The continuity of involvement which is available in solo improvisation is. But there is a forward-looking imagination which. poems. its main reward. perhaps. He might be much more analytical and much less involved in aspects of playing created by the impetus or the tension of performance. if they practise at all. particularly the solo improvisor. and I can imagine that to some improvisors it all adds up to heresy. will prepare for later possibilities. But concerning improvising at the organ Jean Langlais says: 'We have a technique for practising improvisation' (page 38). Most musical form is simple. mathematical systems. and perhaps repetitions for obvious technical reasons. More accurately. Not a pre-fixing of material nor preparing devices but something which deals with and.mere vibrations of the tympanic membrane. Which is another reason why I favour the other. The third area. They seem to prefer formlessness.' Although written many years ago. The second area of practise is centred on exercises worked out to deal specifically with the manipulative demands made by new material. As personal as improvisation itself. Even in those parts of contemporary composition where the earlier types of overall organisation no longer serve. ancient rituals. There is no technical reason why the improvisor. they prefer the music to dictate its own form.

What follows is a transcription of a conversation between Gavin Bryars and myself in which he describes his disenchantment with improvisation.' OBJECTIONS ••• The need to isolate and examine the problems of language. As Evan Parker says: 'Improvisation makes its own form'. unacceptable to them. There was a bass player. telepathic foundation. He had no conceptual awareness of what he ought to be doing. are adequately answered by solo playing. Then I witnessed some of the things that were going on in the London scene at that time. but relies only on the player's ability to develop his music. I had always been insistent that technically I had to know exactly what 1 was doing on the instrument. For some time before that I had been getting more and more interested in theoretical aspects of music.Whitmer: 'In expansion the form is generated. but on this occasion I think I had lost touch with the instrument a bit. who by his performance convinced me that he had no idea of what he was doing.he was a clown. events remembered and events anticipated can act on the present moment. the ideal situation for an improvisor. But solo playing for the improvisor can be more than that and above all can offer a method by which one can work continuously on all aspects of a body of music. and who have found it. I think. One of them was the last time Joseph Holbrooke played together. those who cannot. is best explored in a group situation. of whatever persuasion. to connect and to extend it. Just achieving the 'general effect' type of playing didn't interest me. Simultaneously. and non-improvisors. There are. not least because the easier it becomes to play solo the harder it becomes to improvise solo. The essence of improvisa· tion. Having no group loyalties to offend and having solo playing as an ultimate resource. as often as one wishes without having to enter into a permanent commitment to any stylistic or aesthetic position. of course. those who can. since we had worked together and because of the demands of teaching I had not spent very much time practising the bass. but it provides many rewards and is. maybe months. Paradoxically. Whatever the advantages to solo playing there is a whole side to improvisation. the percussionist: 'For me. But 1 can point to certain specific occasions which 1 can now recognise as being significant in my turning from improvisation. to maintain its evolution. I decided to stop working as a practicing musician. 1 thought he was playing a part. as far as I could see he had no idea what he was doing . This might be. And he was doing his fantastic runs and so on and although it sounded in the genre. the appropriate thing in the context. who have considerable experience of improvisation. which can only be discovered by people playing together. an uninterrupted activity which relies not on time and place or structured opportunities for its occasion or on any of the different levels of acceptance and approval upon which performed music usually depends for its viability. Perhaps this is a good point at which to acknowledge that the world is not divided into improvisors. When we played together regularly I was always playing. essential. for various reasons. But ultimately the greatest rewards in free improvisation are to be gained in playing with other people. the more exciting. This was the general background. And when I realised that it was possible for someone to sham like that it depressed me immensely and I never played my 112 113 . at times. I think it also indicates one of the main differences between a composer's and an improvisor's attitude towards making music. There had been quite a long gap. And the fact that I was called upon to play just as we used to play and the fact that I was neither emotionally nor physically trained for it meant that the experience was inadequate and that 1 was trying to recapture something that had been happening in the past. musicians who can improvise. improvisation has meant the freeing of form that it may more readily accommodate my imagination. perhaps. and similarly.PART6 events as well as guiding the over-all pacing of the piece. the more magical side. for instance. And that seemed morally wrong. Maintaining solo playing which remains meaningful from an improvising point of view is an elusive business. it is possible to play with other musicians. its intuitive. I have found that the best base from which to approach group playing is that of being a solo improvisor. And the possible musical dimensions of group playing far outstrip those of solo playing. 1 had been reading Cage and had been involving myself more in questions of aesthetics and composition. and so guarantee his own continuing involvement. to give up the playing job I was doing and go into teaching. Carl T.' Frank Perry.

It was not possible to transcend the situation I was playing in. Things that can happen but perhaps rarely do. and then finished quietly. I had always thought that too. I found that by composing I could. if so. To a lesser extent it still exists. The two things are seen to be synonymous. Later. One of those things is that you are 'taken out of yourseW. But if I'm playing them. very closely identified with the player or group of players. The whole point of a jazz player's improvisation is that he works within a clearly accepted and circumscribed idiom. but later I found more and more with improvisation . That's right. Distancing yourself from what you are doing. your reactions and responses are not what they normally would be. the late '60s. The creator is there making the music and is identified with the music and the music with the person. One of the main reasons I am against improvisation now is that in any improvising position the person creating the music is identified with the music. and that's why I admired it and enjoyed reality. is to stand apart from one's creation. which might only last for a second or two. I knew they were practising effects during the day and playing them in the 'improvisation' at night. and my own bass. The tendency is often for the music to slide off into some more readily identifiable area. The epitome of that is the skilful jazz player. But I believe that that ossifying effect can be counteracted by playing with as many different sorts of improvisor as possible. still needs repairing. on live electronics.own bass again after that. In improvisation you could develop a whole free improvisation is very often confused in its identity or in its attempt to find an identity. It position. I think. Because I can conceive of things that don't have any tangible could. because of the possibilities. In fact 114 115 . If I write a piece I don't even have to be there when it is played. It's like standing a painter next to his picture so that every time you see the painting you see the painter as well and you can't see it without him. Another example. That sort of arc happened every time. And because of that the music. My armoury of devices and things you could do and then do them. might be Joseph Holbrooke where three people produced over a period of years something they could not have achieved individually or. They are conceptions. Composing. And then you suddenly find yourself in the business of peddling 'my music'.that I got no more out of it than I brought to it.my own improvisation maybe . But later I met musicians who gave the lie to that. The inadequacy may have been in myself. But now I come to think of it that wasn 't the case when we played in Sheffield. on a totally different time scale. and secondly. but. I could reach conceptions that I could never reach in a limited. It's corporeal. I'm more interested in conception than reality. I found the situation usually produced less than the sum of its parts. Now on the other hand. And he accepts these boundaries. Two examples of this might be the production by some member of the group of something so apt or so inappropriate that it momentarily overwhelms your sensibility . could not have expected to achieve collectively. Possibly I'm criticising particular improvisors or particular improvisations. there was a lot of confus ion between free improvisation and free jazz. and returning here and joining in. after going to America and studying with Cage. Now that becomes impossible in improvisation. usually. Now I wou ld have though that one of the main things free improvisation provides is the opportunity to avoid just that situation. defined. in fact revels in them. then that's real. etcetera. And the call and response type of playing adopted by so many improvising musicians was unattractive to me. Or you don't appear to be fully responsible for what you are doing. It's not a conception. but you were always going to finish up manipulating those things you had developed. Another aspect of the same problem is that the longer you play in the same situation or group . Aren't these things which it is impossible to identify with? Wouldn't this be an doing it with Joseph Holbrooke. I couldn't reach an equal conceptual excellence in improvising as in composing. performing time. Yet I think there is a type of playing which it is appropriate to describe as free improvisation. something big in the middle.the less appropriate it becomes to describe the music as 'free' anything. But it does seem difficult. In the time you are referring to. Unlike the situation in Sheffield. I began to find improvisation a dead end. I transferred it to improvising. if you worked very hard.and the results of this type of thing are literally incalculable. through the study of Zen and Cage. A lot of improvisors find improvisation worthwhile. because they define his music. Something happens which so disorientates you that. jazz or comedy or into very obvious forms such as you described. for a time. I was limited entirely by my own personality and by that of the people I played with. I could only get out of improvisation what I brought into it. be very sophisticated. in improvisation. You might permutate the order but you were limited to those things you could do. which at that time needed repairing. firstly to get hold of it.and this certainly applies to playing solo . some of the playing that was going on around 1967 and '68 I was becoming more and more ideologically opposed to improvisation. very personalised. if I'm there at the same time. doesn't stand alone. It becomes. And pieces always started tentatively. to keep hold of it. I have played other basses in a number of fairly undemanding situations but from then on I did no further work on the bass. You can do something you didn't realise you were capable of. If there are no more formal devices than that it's pretty empty. in fact.

1 also put improvising musicians into part-time teaching positions. Some years later Gavin resumed improvising. The first instances were when some students were playing transcriptions of jazz solos and wanted a bass player (there were none in the department at the time) to play bass lines. Lennie Tristano. the kind of difficulties or hangups that I'd had as a player or as a composer. Serious improvisors like Evan Parker and Paul Rutherford began to work as instrumental teachers and. chiefly because of the demands of teaching. help inform the atmosphere of the department. cerebral approach! But once I started teaching music again. That is. 116 117 . Until 1978 I had been teaching in a Fine Art department and so I did not have to confront the question of improvisation as a burning issue in terms of musical practice . Little by little I found myself moving more and more towards accepting the music and even tak:ng pleasure in hearing it. My main objections to improvisation have not been eradicated. and as it was hoped to be received. In a way my ongoing caveats about improvisation no longer come from a possible hostility between the improvisor and the composer. or embryo musicians if you like. should not be transmitted to them in such a way that they become their own unquestioned premises. John Coltrane. but at least it gave the students some experience of being accompanied. and I find recordings of improvisations seldom rewarding. of. Musicians should be given the opportunity to encounter improvisation as a serious musical activity and to develop an informed response to it both practically and intellectually. Only if 1 were pressed would I express my own feelings about the music. and I recognised that there were substantial aspects of jazz that had helped form me as a musician and my own repudiation of those should not become part of their thinking. for me. This gave me little sensation of what playing such music was like. I had been a serious bass player and improvisor and asked me. on occasions. *** The above conversation took place in 1975. initially not on my own bass but on a poor college bass (made. The principal conceptual difficulties still remain for me: that of the personalising of music. I have also found that more and more.although I did even find improvisational painters less interesting to me than those who took a more considered. I felt that I should discuss the music as it is in itself. the middle period of Schoenberg. My ambivalent feelings about improvisation are still there and some of my conceptual objections to it still remain. Perhaps the following sequence of events might make this clear. of some aspects of European modernism) then my distaste for some of that music should not be transmitted to the students. of Czechoslovakian plywood). I did help by playing.example of improvisation producing something not totally determined by the players? But in the act of the music being made there is no discrimination between the music made and the people making it. but rather stem from my perception of difficulties within the activity of improvisation itself. they have been assimilated into a broader musical practice. little by little. at the same time. in deciding what to teach one of the first things that concerned me was the need to avoid passing on to musicians. This 'distant' approach corresponds a little to the way that I was composing during the early 1970s. I have found myself being drawn back into improvisation. Scott LaFaro and others. and who are capable of adjusting their playing or of playing with the kind of freedom that I would not get from a musician who is tied exclusively to notation. of serial composition. say. The music doesn't exist elsewhere as some general concept. So. In 1991 he described how that came about and gave his current views on improvisation. on approaches to <free' improvisation. 1 could discuss it within a relatively objective framework and say what its merits are within its own terms. If I was to give a history lecture about a composer for whose work I had little sympathy (I am thinking. and a number of visiting musicians contributed to these projects. I find it above all uncomfortable to watch improvisors work. improvisation came alive again as an important aspect of a music curriculum. I found myself talking about jazz in a historical context too. I think. if I would help them with their own work by playing with them. with my own compositional work. my own prejudices which arise from accumulated experience. Ornette Coleman. to put forward the view that their music is as important as any other music of the twentieth century. I could describe it. especially where they are being taught by a sceptic. If I have to experience improvisation I would rather it be as a player than from the outside. in the past. I also developed improvisation projects for students. an aspect which 1 see as academically essential. at least not at undergraduate level or when they are encountering the music for the first time. Eventually I found myself playing this music again. and of the unity of performer and music. I talked about people like Bill Evans. But of course some of the student musicians were aware that. my own tastes. for example. that is dealing with musicians rather than visual artists. the musicians I respect as colleagues or with whom 1 collaborate are those who have some experience of improvisation.

From the time in the middle 1960s when he emerged as the leading organiser of free music in London. to my knowledge. 1 Described in Part 000. in a classroom situation with. or process. And they did it . And when I teach now it's not that different. Initially. Well. they change to something more comfortable. then they can allow the note to change in sympathy with the group. in relation to working with groups of people. Up to then it had always been people like yourself or Evan. and free improvisation. That's a priority.who feels the more things are going on the more he is excluded. having an idea. People who were excited by the fact that there was a group of people who were struggling towards some sort of group experience within a free improvisation. Another thing that I see as important. playa long note.and I'll play this and you play that'. what everyone is looking for is comfort. in order to get one together it would be necessary to have people in the ensemble who. So if they start on one note and it provides difficulties. these are essentials which. that you are teaching has to be simple enough to communicate easily to the group as a whole.inhale deeply. for Stevens. I turned more towards people who were actually getting off on the music but not necessarily playing it. And that includes people using penny whistles. because of hearing us play and because of that experience. quite often. So it started really with the audience at the Theatre Club which actually developed into a group. for the first time through him. There was no-one else in the block at that time and I said to him 'come in here and play' and he said 'what shall I play then?' and I said 'play anything you like and I'll drum with it'. and for all of them to be able to do 118 119 . exhaling and blowing a note. When somebody is a professional musician it often means that his involvement is a bit limited.more involved in the activity . And the only places where. There were always people such as the regular members of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble who were totally involved but there might be people playing with us who were less involved.and it was a nice experience and some of them. So the method. So. the traditional way as exemplified by the Indian method" to teaching in a classroom raises many problems: maintaining the necessary degree of empiricism. as evenly as possible. Indian Musk: 2 {pages 7-9). I remember getting together with a brass band comet player in the army. And quite often there were people who were more spirited . Keeping watch for the equivalent of the little kid at school who is shy . many of them meeting each other. their voices. And because it varied from people who had iust started playing to people who had been playing a little longer.CLASSROOM IMPROVISATION Adapting the only proven effective way of teaching improvisation. Many people who subsequently became regular players have at one time or another attended his classes. then what I would do is get them to do something like . is staying in touch with the whole group of people all the time. These were the listeners and what was required of them would be a real feeling for what was going on. has been only a prelude to persuading his friends and colleagues to adopt it. And the way I would set up something would always be in direct relationship with that person feeling comfortable. people who had gone through other music. purely practical character of the activity. I mean that in the bad sense. I remember once in the Little Theatre Club suggesting to the audience that if they wanted to take part there was something they could do in relation to us that was simple and which would create a collective experience within the club. So that is simple enough for anyone to do. Their approach to taking up instruments was based on their having listened to us and the way we were playing our instruments so that was the beginning. And I said 'but you can . or if they have no instruments. He described to me how he came to be teaching improvisation. avoiding the establishment of a set of generalised rules and always allowing an individual approach to develop. Once they are comfortable with this process of inhaling. perhaps. Not surprisingly. although they were open to playing the sort of music we were playing. and get into a collective continuum as a group. I don't know where it started. Something that I often found myself doing long before I started playing free music or almost any music was grabbing people to play. Tn England the first musician to run an improvising class was John Stevens. It was the beginning of people asking me questions and the beginning of me getting involved with people other than developed musicians.iust blow a note-any note . Stevens has always been a teacher. And so that was a sort of beginning. He said 'but I can 't do that'. developed musicians. You know I've always been interested in large ensembles. a large group of people.say . maintaining the non-documentary. his improvisation classes have been successful.off the stand than some of those who were on it. started taking up instruments. would also be professional musicians. improvisation is successfully taught in the classroom is in those classes conducted by practising Improvisors. are in danger of being lost.

By that I mean . A phraie. in the continuum exercise. Another t. and there is something developing. Then. is to instil in the people he works with enough confidence to try and attempt what they want to do before they know how to do it.start playing. walk into the room. They are iust tpings that I can use. So the pieces come out of a need til want to get across a certain experience I might have had. technical ability or know-how. Now. for instance. And if someone comes who's new to the class then it's the responsibility of the people who are experienced in the class to invite the newcomer to play. When I go out to do a workshop. It gives them an lxperience of how quickly they can relate to each other and forces them to lieep their ears open to the rest of the group. When they walk away from there. none of what I'm doing here makes any sense whatsoever. you are saying the words. In which case you've improvised. They are not written down. What Stevens aims at. and coupled with that.' say fa phrase is'. or to be able to do anything really. And sometimes I wonder 'What am I doing? I'm still doing this and worrying about it. as I approach tEe place there is no real confidence in me about what is going to happen. I get them to do it in the hope that they will then share my experience of that thing and so kn?W it in the way that I know it. or improvisation classes. for instance.vay to transmit information that I had was to actually do it. as soon as you get in this room you are going to prove you want to play by getting on and playing. more complete. I found the best . You're not actually singing. Just counting numbers or using words. Some of them deal with rhythm. This is a room in which you can play. a couple of new people will come in. the feeling of wanting other people to have that same freedom . got me there during that timp· Then it was easy. And because it's simple.that group activity experience should 120 121 . though I've been doing it for a long time. I made a rule: I said to them 'You're coming here because you're supposed to want to play. In a sense.nt by moment involvement and you are trapped into that. the long note thing. that took a long time to initiate but now there are always people playing together. you have already provided at led st a rhythmic element. Encouraging them to work empirically. Most teaching concerns itself with transmitting a type of proficiency. is this: I've had to try and avoid a situation where they relied on me to come in and set the whole thing up. The aim of teaching usually is to show people how to do something. It's becoming almost like a group. is that you will have some people for. and spontaneity. accenting the fa'. that's when the other bit comes in. the 'pUPils'. But it also pas to be demanding enough of concentration to satisfy those who are mar. you have to be prepared to let go of the development you have and go wherever the addition of those new people takes it. My object is to incorporate all the people in the room in an experience.any kind of music . If there are four or two or even if you are the first to arrive. I alwars have the same sort of feeling. The thing about workshops. so. The energy came from them. And as I traveued towards the place I would think: 'I'll have to give this up. whe!'l somebody repeats it they realise how close they are to taking part in music . it seems to me. and trusting that they will then learn. What I have to keep in touch with at the workshop is a feeling of freedom about playing music. What's interesting. one of the things that I see as important. And now it provides me with a great lift. with imparting a skill. And they. I don't know how many there are.) You get them to apply themselves to this ioint experience and some point arrives where we are all 'doing it'. And they are going to try and work out how to make it happen again. but in a musical context that can be very close. and there would be about 15 people in there all playing their arses off-great! The impact was iust beautiful. If you don't want to do that.11oment by moment involvement. like numbers. because of other problems. If you are going to say 'a phrase' and repeat it. I just don't have lhat sort of energy any more. They are my tools.' And there was one period recently which. I can never take it for granted.it. And even though this is to do with free playing and it is possible to enter into this without being able to play in tune.' Well. was particularly hard.' Then I would get there. the use of words. with some guidance. others deal with group involvement. say. A free playing experience. And walking inTo the room I'm always apprehensive. that is what it is about. shall we say. if you are going to continue in music . the breathing is one part that any musician can concentrate on and find useful. So. I have this complete faith that if the players can be made to feel a thing working they will then know the essential part afout how to do it. This thing is so wide and over the years I've developed what you might call pieces and exercises. which do actually work. Whether they can play or not. The piece will be designed to require a mom. They are going to examine that experience and try to decide how it happened and what they did to help it happen. And that might seem better. . but it's a lot. you are going to say it in your own way and it's not so jar removed from singing. Say. Which they provide themselves anyway. We'll use the phrase 'a phrase' as an example. from the attempted playing experience. if YOl. as soon as you get here . And the teaching comes in when you provide them with the group experience. developed musicians.So if you say 'a phrase'.hing I would use is something else which is basic to people. I carry them in my head. three weeks on the trot. (Relatively free because my presence there as a 'teacher' is always a bit weird. It's got to go back to a common point.

who also publish it. Many of them improvise anyway.it's that sort of sign.say Korean music.be useful to any musical situation you might find yourself in. you see. Nothing? We play records sometimes . I ask them to think of their own ideas. If it doesn't work out too well you can always say it wasn't your cup of tea. of course. That's the whole thing. So it has a general usefulness. In some particulars what can be said about one area of improvisation can be said about all areas. Search and Reflect. Now Misha and I go as the duo . the Muziekschool in Haarlem. Is it music and what makes music and what doesn't make music? Examining the idea from every angle. We talked about the non-improvisor and went through the business dealt with in a previous chapter of how the non-improvisor is often a musician who is blocked off from improvising by his training. I do nothing when I go there. For instance. ••• A musician whose approach to improvising is in many ways totally different to that of John Stevens is the Dutch drummer Han Bennink.we use those sort of indeterminate scoring instructions. Narrow. Let people find out what they are and where they are and where their musical influences and preferences come from.studying with an experienced improvisor in a practical way joining him in his work . jointly with Misha Mengelberg (his partner in a regular improvising duo). one part playing. Always a borrowed music. Some play the blues or something.as though we were going to playa gig. some ideas. what's happening with the water and why do you boil water. I hope. When it comes to the point that they offer nothing then. Looking for each way to come to the middle of it. trained musicians.azz . maybe Misha analyses it. a record.is what is offered to their students by John Stevens and Han Bennink. last week [ took a radio and turned to the end of the FM scale where you can hear a sort of code. Teach them to explore their own background. we take that sign and we analyse it. We try and introduce a broader scale of improvising . to start them off. You can take anything -a piece of paper.John Stevens collected his experience of teaching in this way into a book.ust the idea . We had the following discussion about his approach to teaching them free improvisation. Because I know that within a very short time they will be doing it and saying 'Oh. on which we can work to provoke them. Maybe we all talk about it. Do you play with them' Yes. Everything develops from that. Han returned to the idea: There you go. We keep busy.long lines . Holland. For a long time he took. I think. stop and discuss it. So what I try is to get the ideas coming from the pupils. meant that the people taught by Han Bennink were. that many of the characteristic features of idiomatic improvisation are to be found in free improvisation. A training which builds up an attitude towards playing music which prohibits the attempt to improvise: If somebody says to me 'I can't improvise!' -and they could be somebody with the biggest chunk of classical training imaginable in their background .how it was. This week I'll take a kettle with a whistle which. then 1 have some simple statements. unlike those in John Stevens' classes. Split them into groups . a weekly class in free improvisation. find the notes. If it is necessary. one part theory. 122 123 . which is now used as the basis of all teaching carried out by Community Music of London. and in addition to being composers and teachers all possess a fairly high level of instrumental ability.certain tones. Teaching at a conservatory.get quiet instruments to play very loud -loud instruments very quiet . It will have become obvious. Give energy to the pupils? I do nothing when I go there.I would find that very inspiring. it's the most natural thing in the world. when it boils. We are teaching them to make music out of their own background. we will use that. We get them to talk about themselves. In my eyes that's all you can do. The traditional way of learning to improvise . Any person who is busy with music can think of better ideas than I can. We used to divide the day into three parts. It repeats but after a couple of seconds it's altering.the kettle . I've got some tricks. we use those little rules we used to use years ago. After a suitable pause. It is true of teaching. Maybe we talk about . We playa little. is that it?' And then they will do it again. not someone else's background. You see. you know. one part analysis. you know. it's .as broad as daily life. produces different pitches in rather an odd. Subsequently. Well. Learning what you are. Tricks? If they are not producing anything themselves. the rhythms.play staccato passages . unpredictable way. and we start to play with it.being busy with the idea. here in Holland. We try and give a little energy to the pupils. The people Han and Misha teach are either graduates or in their last year at the conservatory.

this proved to be the start of a period during which the music underwent a considerable expansion. as they were often called. In fact. if at all. have been persistently repeated by those who obviously believe that it should never have happened in the first place. This was because the individuals in it sounded different. I vaguely felt. What was the difference? One of the main differences was that we seemed to have no problem including anything in Alterations . over the years.in the case of the percussionist. who played an enormous range of (lutes at that time which nobody else in the music was doing and Terry Day. 125 . I had no idea that it would do what it did and go on for so long but the reason I settled on that particular One was that I hoped it would sound completely different from other improvising groups then playing. and the group that became Alterations was one of a number I tried at the time. And it was around this time that the music was awarded the earliest of its regular obituaries. who was always very individual in his approach to his instruments. since the mid-60s .it could be any instrument. it had run its course and would probably continue to exist.but were identified with 'newer' approaches to playing. And it was. Terry Day. the percussionist. David Toop. Although not formed until 1977. I thought it would be different. By 1973/4 there had been a noticeable reduction in playing activity and a few defections. Steve Beresford had his tunes and his sense of humour. So. only as some kind of generalised influence. ill-disguised celebrations which. Like some early 20th century 'ism'. was Alterations. There was nothing which was taboo. a tape of bird song or quotes from any style of music.PART$EVEN THE LONG-DISTANCE IMPROVISOR One of a variety of reasons that led me in 1974 to start purring this book together was a suspicion that freely improvised music as an identifiable separate music was finished. Wh ereas up until this point the small number of people who played this music not only knew each other but quite regularly played together. One group which in some way typified the 'second generation'. The guitarist Peter Cusack formed the group and I asked him how Alterations had come about. I remember I was living in Holland in 1976. now there was an influx of newer players who brought with them a whole range of new musical attitudes and resources. all the musicians in it had been around for some time before that .

have continued to make music in this manner up to the present time. It naturally developed in that direction. Until then. At the start. Steve's were a whole range of styles. 126 127 . I was fairly conscious of wanting a group that would take those other areas and use them as improvising references. But the actual trigger was the point at which David left and stopped playing live music altogether and. not its history. the seemingly inevitable rolls exacted by the music industry from those who play music in public. And so . for instance. similar to many in popular musics. The ways of survival have sometimes taken odd turns: 'Instant Composition' is. I suppose all of us felt that towards the end it just wasn 't working as well as it used to.with all that that means . a PA and were pretty loud at times. been prepared to sit in a big band and play the kind of music that formerly aroused their contemptuous derision.S. simply the kind of manoeuvres sometimes found necessary to safely negotiate the mire thrown up in culturally inclement times. In any event.it just blossomed and everything was included. we had a strong interest in the relationship between recording techniques and live performance. • •• Perhaps it is again necessary to stress that this is an attempt to write about the music. particularly Steve and David. Alterations took thiHgs in its own direction. he often brought his poetry into the group. But yes. we started out not using electric instruments although all of us otherwise played them. Why did Alterations finish after 9 years? We all gradually diverged as people and in our musical interests. at times. I remember at the time quite deliberately wanting to play with Steve and David and Terry because of that. They were probably a pointer for me. and htdeed needed. and then take off. in fact.you can begin to hear in our music. it became clear that we just didn't want to carryon with a replacement.group amplification etc. The influence of various musical ideas that started life in the studio . Having iustgot to Holland. things along as time went on . But these are.are part of the way this music has continued. I heard them and other continental groups that I had never come across before. Virtually all these players. discoveries which happily coincided with an increase in the popularity of jazz. Those people who come to this kind of playing for a time. apparently. probably. find it briefly serves their musical interest. We could use. Everybody. revealing in middle age previously unsuspected jazz 'roots'.How is that different from what Han Bennink and Misha Mengelberg were doing at that time? There's an obvious connection between Alterations and much improvised music which has happened since . Pity we weren't from New York. new 'generations' arriving .ranging. it might be that expediency and compromise. were involved in other sorts of playing and especially those where recording technique was much more of a creative process than just a purely documentary one. That wasn't how it started. we had quite a serious attitude towards recording. the through-traffic. never just any one. Towards the end we used drum machines and other such devices. or different. have finally crept into some parts of improvised music.and there was flO conscious decision to do that. popular music. everybody just brought more. a full drum kit and electric keyboards on stage. Alterations introduced other references. a bass.Western musics. later on. Recognisable references had previously been to jazz. new music or electronic music. So. But most striking is the continuance of those musicians who first appeared with this kind of playing when it claimed an identity for itself twenty-five or so years ago. Another thing was. For example. although we didn't discuss it. David's main references were. Some groups continue for ever in some form or other.dub and reggae techniques. We then quickly realised that there was no reason why we couldn't include these in improvised music. Then again. Another constant feature is the transients.particularly in the U. One of the ways which struck a listener as a complete departure seemed to be the assumption of a performing environment completely alien to that of most of the improvisation that had gone before .you set up to playas you might in a rock venue . I didn 't know too much about what was happening outside London.there were three electric guitars. There have been quite a few of those. It sounded like rock music sometimes. Bur these patterns . after we started using electric instruments . From Paganini to Dizzy Gillespie the most exalted performers of music have at times resorted to all kinds of antics. Terry was similarly wide.fluctuations in the visibility of the music. based on his knowledge of non. such deviations are of little consequence. the first generation. However. Alterations was these four people. for instance . a broad enough concept to encompass re-arranging the music of Thelonious Monk or Wolfgang Mozarti some players have. Rock venues and rock people were more willing to listen to us than they would to another group of improvising musicians.

Maybe it's not 'music' according to the convention but it is certainly a new 'sound using' activity. still function. This is after Lou's absence of over ten years. cello have also been regular members. a stance not immediately apparent in many improvisors or groups and violently rejected by some. a different kind of reaction. it may be that individuality can only exist and develop in a collective context. articulated in lectures. in which at times it is almost impossible to tell who or what is going on. So our recordings. we are part of a movement that has. since all these groups began in the mid-60s. is the idea of concurrent commentary: separate voices speaking at the same time. the closest I would get to a laboratory situation is working with the a post as Visiting Lecturer of Improvisation at the Hull Regional College of Art. is a rare achievement. remade music. recently held It could. and Cornelius Cardew. The following is Eddie's 're-working of material derived from tape-recorded discussions' between us. It can produce a different kind of response. the music reflects the contributions of each musician and whatever configuration of players is featured. interweaving and interleaving. what is surprising is how little it has changed. Things that are established as known between yourselves probably form as useful a context for the evolution of something new as anything. It can make a useful change to be dropped into a slightly shocking situation that you've never been in before. That three of the very small number of improvising groups active in 1966 should still be playing in 1991 The personalities within the ensemble are clearly defined. They have maintained their integrity.the Association of Improvising Musicians. With few changes in personnel and with a continu ing commitment to their. After all. Since 1965 the musicians making up AMM have been Eddie Prevost. trio and quartet formulations and one as part of the Alex Schlippenbach Trio. Their shared taste for acronyms might be a throwback to their formative period. is the survival of the earliest improvising groups.••• Evan Parker. Keith Rowe. Three of them. But the people I've played with longest actually offer me the freest situation to work in. Eddie Prevost. original musical aims all three groups are active more than 25 years later. its ethos if you like. in the final analysis. for instance. MEV. something of an institution. So when the musical situation seems chaotic. Perhaps the most consistent has been AMM. At this time (1991). at the moment. Consequently. cello. The really remarkable achievemem by the early improvisors. the dialogue of the musicians. points to the musical advantages of continuity. Holding together an ensemble for a quarter century. Occasionally other musicians have played with the group but never establishing anything beyond a brief tenure. Lou Gare. The inner psychology of any long-term ensemble is bound to be complex. The music exists and develops through the interchange. guitar. with the re-introduction of Lou Gare to AMM the original three members are now playing together again. (A very un· English kind of statement that). In some way. statements and writings of various kinds. There is a lot of work to be done. contrary to the general perception of the ensemble. people I know best. They set and re-set the agendain a continuum. But the inter-personal relationships should only form the basis for working. Twenty six years after its formation it still appears to pursue its original aims with undeviating commitment. I'm inclined to think of it. delineate your contribution. tenor sax. AMM are the 'official' improvising group. piano and Rohan de Saram. they shouldn't actually define the music too clearly.the experience of AMM is perhaps the most important single phenomenon in our lives. when we are caugh t up in the maelstrom of sound. reflect a constantly shifting membership. laden with new meanings and cultural implications that differ from what went before. Until recently there had never been any duplication of personnel on our dozen or so albums. The sharing of such an 128 129 . that is the point when you have to 'distinguish' yourself. one with Paul Lytton in duo. is founder-co-ordinator of the 'Improvised Music as an Educational Resource' programme and is currently chairman of AIM . or else the enterprise is a meaningless cacophony. who has maintained at least two continuous musical relation~ ships over many years. In practice. And. arguably. It's a seriousness reflected not only in their playing but in their concern for the philosophical and educational implications of improvised music. Of course. Does that explain why it's gone on for over 25 years? might be significant. as anyone involved in any kind of music will confirm. Since Cardew's tragic death John Tilbury. it's up to each musician to ensure that this does not occur. this is partly an acknowledgement of their overt seriousness. SME and AMM. I'm aware of differences in your group playing since the '60s butthat's not surprising. In addition to their longevity. there are strong feelings between the players . percussion. Paradoxically. which they very often do. it seems to me. But each voice is not atomised or individuated. as a meta-music. One of the generative themes of this meta-music is the relationship between musicians. Part of AMM's philosophy. We called our 1987 album The Inexhaustible Document. how little the character of it has changed.

Ironically. Or maybe both at the same time. The critical response to what we did was. For example in the respect that very vulgar things are happening near to very aesthetic things. We can't blame a composer for making us play such difficult (or banal) music. Han Bennink and Misha Mengelberg. But. I can't speak for all improvised musics that have arisen in industrial societies (which are. But surely this points to the strength of the music. and a certain amount of moral discipline is an essential part of this training. One thing many of us experienced when we began playing 'free' improvised music was a sense of alienation from the avai/able models . Cardew said: ' . What more could you ask for? Of course there is no encouragement from those who are in a position to create a more positive environment in which we could work. I suspect he knew that talk could somehow disturb. is its relation with daily life in which there is no such thing as an exclusion. It is an endless source of intellectual enquiry. So many facets on many levels whether you like them or not. of encouragement. This is because the music has meanings which do not reflect or celebrate the priorities of the current philosophical/political hegemony. I don't mean daily life transformed into music but in certain respects there are parallels between the music and daily life. 'its not jazz'. In improvisation a kind of training is possible. survives and grows. albeit small. to reduce AMM's music to a simple formula. goes on. This music. It's certainly no cosy little club. or preempt. Training is substituted for rehearsal. I doubt if our strong friendships could survive very long without the creative vehicle of AMM. I can't think ofanything else I would rather be doing. That's maybe a reason for playing duo music.mainly jazz and classical music. musically and theoretically. I get more of an appetite for it as the years go on. However. What seems extraordinary to me is how many people have continued to pursue this activity over such a long time given the lack of economic. Of course. inspiration and enjoyment for the musicians-and for the.. I suspect that most of us didn't care what it was called. It is then that you can begin to calculate where you really want to go. So. we just wanted to go on playing . the avowed immoveable givens. audience that we serve. .intense creative experience is in itself instructive.. Of their duo. But irksome though they may have been. the creative act.' Did that translate into anything you specifically didin AMM? No. In fact. The search is conducted in the medium of sound and the musician himself is at the heart of the experiment. a quite different kettle of fish. Lost in the mists of time. Even if our music began as a negation it seems to have transcended and superseded those earlier formative aspirations . It gives the meaning to our association. 'We are searching for sounds and for the responses that attach to them rather than thinking them up. its origins are not clear but they are certainly the longest. these active. In some very important sense those remarks were so wrong.running of all long-running improvising groups. AMM. as well as undesirable. And maybe this psychological inter-action is an important part of the cultural differences that this music offers.and finding out about this new activity in which we were engaged. you had been travelling along in someone else's dream. I am sure.those unfocussed ideas of 'being a jazz musician'. of improvised music in an apparently hostile environment? Alienation strategies. One of the things that inspires me in making any gesture. qualitatively different from musics arising out of pre-industrial social forms even though they may share certain 'informal' characteristics) and it is impossible. we are offered upon entry into this life.' And the reasons for the survival. so far. sometimes complementary. And this is part of what AMM is about.playing models . One moment I meet you and the next 1 am washing dishes or playing chess. there are two dominant generative themes in our work: 'heurism' and 'dialogue'. Before. he kept outof that to a large extent. or any other kind. imaginary bonds helped us to recognise our wider cultural and social bearings. Improvisation starts for me at the moment it is needed and it's always in a context in which there are fixed points to refer to. in fact. but when our misunderstandings are combined we think that sometimes things are fitting. Misha says: I would not know what Bennink means with his music. these meanings. of which AMM is a part. Cornelius never really engaged in discussions with us about improvising. Precisely because it has these reasons for being. people go pissing one moment and have deep philosophical thoughts the next. practical ingredients achieve their true significance through investment of meaning and through group and self-definition.. We have gone beyond all that and its attendant imprisoning ethos. those hostile attitudes helped. they were Cornelius's ideas. for instance. hasn't been kept together by market forces. But I have always valued what he did say about the way in which he thought AMM was experimental. The activities of problem-solving within performance and dialogue are techniques which eschew the certainties. . preparing them and producing them. the 130 131 . The last word on these marathon alliances should go to the Dutch duo. but I won't go into that. Being forced to cut what were.

the greatest possibilities to be found in free improvisation. there is a growing pool of musicians. which now offers. however strong. They improvise in taking six or seven steps to the door. of course. and be more marketable-an almost irresistable combination . the most stimulating. given the diversity of musical approaches that are available. when the indefinables get defined and the mysteries solved. For some time it has seemed to me that the most interesting results in free improvisation come from semi-ad-hoc groupings of musicians . audience-free situation. The sort of improvisation I am interested in is the sort that everyone does in their lives. The universal practice in this music. who work together regularly but not continously and not on the basis of being members of a set. its expanding resources. is to spend much of their time playing in brief. The tendency is to form a grouping for one or two performances and then re-group. discovered 'our music'. Once a particular grouping of musicians has played together successfully on a number of occasions the tendency is always. An almost inevitable process. Inevitably. everything changes. This. followed by everyone including members of long-lasting groups. more personal. The first one to become a regular was Jamie Muir and gradually the situation evolved into the group described earlier. Once the music hardens its identity to the point where it becomes susceptible to self-analysis. that path is. most groups disband and their members look for fresher. description and. When there is nothing more to develop it should stop. scratching their heads with one or two fingers. to plunder. reasons for forming Company. in England and in other countries. not surprisingly. not fixed in personnel or style . to turn it into something permanent. Company's structure. obvious that most casual collaborations should quickly exhaust their areas of mutual interest and consider their common ambitions to be either satisfied or unrealisable.. I came to see it as a deflection from These endless sagas are anything but typical. improvisation. is based on the idea of the repertory theatre company. perhaps. has a natural affinity with free improvisation and. aims and subjects and is interesting as far as the material reaches. The group. Contact with other musicians and with new musical situations is one of the ways in which improvising musicians look to top up their musical reserves. COMPANY ••• Company seems to have been fomled in such a way as specifically to invoke the confrontation of difference and unity. The Music Improvisation Company.nevertheless at this point the music becomes less relevant to. it seems to me. although it might continue to develop musically. This is how I tried to express it in a programme note for the first Company concert in 1976. reproduction. having got its act together.. Group improvisation takes place according to common points of education. not its specializations which attracted me and it was in order to take advantage of. a pool of players out of which groupings might be drawn for specific occasions and performances. running constant permutations within the available musicians. permanent group. more fruitful alliances. that I formed Company. In this kind of playing I had always found the early stages of a group's development the most satisfying.. 132 133 .. reaches a stage where. It is. My preference for the early stages of a group's life was something I had been aware of for some years. At the point when this becomes unmistakable. in a music which relies so heavily on invention and for which the feeling of freshness is essential. for instance. to which I would each week invite different musicians. there is a gradual using up of these resources. grew out of a nameless. offers a rich resource. But.term 'free' is meaningless. It is this type of ensemble. Peter Riley. such as it is. It was the increasingly diverse nature of freely improvised music. There were other. I believe. less dependent upon. almost irresistable. non-permanent alliances.

me . as far as I am aware. needs a certain amount of time and an essential part of Company events has always been to have something longer than the single concert situation. trembling with exhaustion. Everybody else. (In fact.. initially the pianist Ursula Oppens. it seemed. had previously worked in quite separate areas but were both improvisors of long experience. was formed for this purpose. principally New York. *. It was in this period that the events probably most closely resembled the widely held. involved in improvisation to join us in our improvising. as Virgil Thompson claims.friends. as I remember it (it was recorded. Five or six concerts on successive evenings for 9 or 10 musicians playing on every concert is the kind of idea that makes music promoters. which are described below.organised. paradoxically. but there is no technology yet invented which would have adequately documented this particular week) involved lots of water being slung around. we were ten musicians most of whom had never previously met and some of whom had not previously improvised. the successive changes that have taken place in improvised music.. sometimes not at all. but a recognition that the shifting process itself provided the perfect foundation for making this kind of music. ' These earlier events in '77 and '78 drew their membership largely from improvisors who. take to the hills. explains: . someone finds these limits too irksome and makes a dash for total freedom. So. an important intention in forming Company was to try and establish the 'semi-ad-hoc' procedure as something in itself. In any event. In Company's earlier years the musicians I invited were always from among those who were primarily involved in improvisation although I would usually try to bring together people for whom improvisation served different ends and who were in many cases unfamiliar with each other. would be familiar with. for Company Week in 1982. Later versions of Company looked to recruit players from virtually any part of the musical spectrum. The size and personnel of the groups will be decided by the musicians each night immediately prior to the performance. Company has reflected. In 1982. Not steps toward either the foundation of a successful group or the abandoning of an unsuccessful one. a record of performances from that week. it didn't happen in '85 and '86 and it has taken place in a number of other cities too. each other's work. it is not annual. The sleeve note to Epiphany. centre stage. both in the ' 77 Company Week. share an increasingly enthusiastic commitment to total predictability or maybe it had simply become so commonplace for any improvisor to play with absolutely any other improvisor that differences no longer made any difference. A fallacy not shared by anyone with any experience of this activity. Occasionally. completely mistaken. then the second might be a sense of what is practical. For instance. But since Company's inception the primary aim has remained the pursuit of improvisation as an end in itself: to elevate the method of music-making above its various stylistic results. but by 1982 had come to feel iust a little cosy. I had begun to find it useful to invite people who were not primarily. The procedure worked well enough. For the second Company Week in 1978 the programme note read: 'As in 1977 the aim this week is to present free improvisation in a context which is encouraging to the best possibilities in this type of music-making.what I wanted to do. and persistent verbal exchanges between the players in half a dozen different languages including gibberish. a dancer. the collective name for the musicians taking part. If the first discipline of improvisation is spontaneity. whenever and whatever they chose for as long as they liked. view that free improvisation is a species of chaos: anything goes and nobody cares. or at least aware of. Company Week is an annual event which has taken place in London since 1977. So. This led to the introduction of Company Week. I started inviting non-improvisors. Company. It never seems to work but people keep trying it. * Developing 'semi-ad-hoc' relationships. helpers. the duetting trumpets ofToshinori Kondo and Charlie Morrow extending beyond the confines of the theatre and out into the arms of the London constabulary. It is a pool of musicians of changing personnel whose membership reflects a variety of improvising styles and attitudes. in fact. a notably timid breed. as are most Company Weeks. sometimes stimulated. There was a case of this in '81. Leo Smith and Tristan Honsinger. Some hours later (this was an all-day concert) the stage was deserted except for Min. Inevitably. I think. The Japanese dancer Min Tanaka initiated an experiment in which people simply walked on and off the stage playing wherever.) It is self. Company Week 1981. then as now. 134 135 . Perhaps this was something we picked up from the stagnant condition of music generally where almost all areas. not some endless search for the perfect combination of musicians. it rarely lasts as long as a week. more usually five days. was in the bar. In '80 and '81 the more theatrical tendencies apparent in improvising circles at that time turned up in Company: a clown. changes which can be seen most clearly in the Company Weeks.do it. So we . although not sharing formal music-making relationships. but throughout this bedlam all the usual self-imposed disciplines and restrictions were present. performers 'into performance' were sometimes included.

almost taken over by it. 1 But there are many exceptions to this and sometimes it takes a long time to get the right people in the right place at the right time. The reality of everyone's role. 1 shall never forget it. Sometimes 1 feel that I've made a terrible fool of myself But then 1 think. Then once it came to playing. Sometimes.which. looks at it like this: Whenever 1 play with Company 1 play the music of Company. the degree of unfamiliarity and the potential for compatibility. at times. Company Week 1984. but it's those few days that I'm interested in. Occasionally . the indications of intent that are common sensory practice.Anthony Pay. and also Philip Easrop. at that time working with the London Sinfonietta. Of taking part in Company she said: You have to be prepared to take risks. the singer Vanessa Mackness does. Sometimes a wild card can be very effective. Company is about mutual music-making and. About playing on that Week. to sort out the various musical signposts. no. muSically intoXicating experiences: pretty much my ideal way 01 working. And although I kept saying to myself' Look. I also get the impression that it rarely presents much difficulty for a nonimprovising musician. I was quite worried about it. My impression is that an improvisor having to deal with a non-improvisor finds it totally different to having to deal with another improvisor. known or unknown. practices usually taken for granted can no longer be relied upon. the musicians invited. the musicians invited: all are designed to remove as far as possible any preconceptions as to what the music might be.'ve found writing about Company the fI'I05t diffICUlt part 01 putting this booII IOgeIher. Assumptions have to be dumped. But the structure and the intention of the Weeks have remained the same. the problems. it implies a void which has to be filled. so it is a source of continuing amazement and gratitude to me that the commitment and enthusiasm with which they pursue these projects is virtually always total and unreserved. once the process is underway people seem to become immersed in it.who I invite . after all. my relationship w~h these events so 1am partieularty obliged toJohn Fordham. that absence is missing.There is. the programme note says. the creative struggle. as it develops. to talk about these things. Any kind 01 obj8CIiYe anaJysis is very remole from. One way of retaining it was to introduce non-improvisors. some very basic idea behind 'improvisation': it means getting from A to C when there is no B. For me the whole thing was a very profound experience. included two non-improvisors . unfamiliar situations. [might keep somebody in mind for a long time before actually inviting them to a particular event and that will only be when the relationship between them and the other players on that event. Whatever the initial difficulties and in spite of the obvious risks. everyone's humanity. and keep it at the forefront of the activity. ••• The assembling of a Company Week . it 136 137 . working with improvisors. demands the sacrifice of individual preferences. you have to be prepared for that. Not too many people have the courage. who took part in some of the earliest events. or the humility perhaps.is neither haphazard nor meticulously planned and to some extent the choice of musicians might simply reflect the people I have worked with over the preceding period. this is what you've always wanted to do'. The WeeI\s partic:ularty are emotiOnal. in improvising circles.building music through group improvisation . 1 think the more mature musicians really have a sense of that. seem right. when it came to doing it. where I invite a much larger number to take part. the ability to respond instinctively and constructively to new and 1 .in '88 and '90. It also requires patience both from the musicians and the audience. It has fortified me and helped me grow . which. I would not choose this medium to totally dominate my creative output but it's nice to come together and deal with other aspects of creative music. The people I invite are more often than not highly individual players. demands a kind of surrender. Leo Smith. curiosity and sensitivity.there have been much larger events. 1 think you gradually develop a way of saying less. to make improvisation a necessity. the horn player. Maybe you could hear that in the last piece we played tonight. everything. It might take a few days. it's not quite as straightforward as that. from different parts of the musical universe who in some cases are completely unfamiliar with each other's work'. featured musicians' . the way of choosing the groups. Philip said: I suppose 1 was a bit nervous at first because I'd never sat in front of an audience before without a piece of printed music in front of me. distinctive in instrumental styles and artistic attitudes. which has widened. The time avai lab le. in 1990 34. It calls for musical generosity. Chris Blackford and Kenneth Ansell tor their suggestlOllS and the use 01 inlerview material in this chaplar. Everybody waited and built the piece gradually. the development. Company conventions. Except. in 1988 we had 29 people. It's not my music as you would otherwise hear it. I don't see the idea of 'progress' as being particularly relevant to what Company does but if the original scheme has developed it is through the range of musical input. There is an intimacy about this process . That really does take maturity... so to speak. who appears earlier in this book discussing being a nonimprovisor.

how the piece is being constructed. marvelling at how beautifully it worked. By the second night. The violinist Alexander Ba lanescu was one of the musicians who took part. He then described the difficulties he encountered as he exercised that liberty: On the first night I was in two or three pieces and I used up all my general ideas. Not at how good or bad the music was . And I had to evolve. or to react to them . Two American musicians taking part in the same Week were the improvisor/composer/saxophonist John Zorn and the rock guitarist Buck- ethead. Yves Robert. I found it interesting working with John Zorn who works in this filmic way. I think it's great that all these different personalities have the opportunity to come together. And yet. Obviously you have to adapt your way of playing depending on who you are working with.. When asked about Buckethead's volume level. all kinds of memories of things one's heard surface. a new way of listening. Asked if his classical background was of any use in this improvising context he said: Yes. Company Week 91 he said: It's a great adventure. It demands great concentration to hear everything that is happening from other musicians and at the same time to be playing yourself You also have to be able to remember what has happened the second before and the minute before and so keep in mind the shape of what's happening. in the period immediately following Company Week 91. I am still under the influence of that event. After each night I feel a sense of achievement because I've gone through it and managed to express something. the alchemy which had produced it. agressive and dominating'. like double-stopping. Sometimes it might work perfectly and at other times there's too much happening. you are very much on the line. described as 'loud. adventurousness seems to be a rare commodity. In music. It's also a learning process for me. experienced in jazz.much of the playing was very fine indeed . or released. year after year these groups of very special individuals have taken my invitation and have collectively transformed it into unique music which. This is quite a difficult thing for a classically trained musician to be doing. also took part in the '91 Company ••• At the present time of writing. but I find that it's quite lyrical as well as being aggressive. never less than worthwhile. If I try to observe my own mental process when I'm improvising. strangely. Every night I find things out about myself as well as the other musicians. It all depends on the people you are improvising with. When he was interviewed by Chris Blackford about his experiences in Week. I was never sure whether to play with people. Balanescu said: Yes. lip trills and certain kinds of sounds. I don't try to exclude any influence. On the other hand. it was an incredibly liberating experience . I had to start repeating them and by the third night I wished I'd been a bit more sparing with them. very quickly. I think I tried everything. He's always playing melodies and it's interesting to contrast him with Derek who's 138 139 . there was a lot of variety and humour. Then I thought 'Am I being spontaneous in working in that way?' The difficulty is knowing how to approach improvising. it is the one characteristic shared by all of the many different kinds of players who have taken part in Company. much more of a textural player. it is. by improvisation.at last I could play what I wanted. About working with them Balanescu said: Tonight's concert was very entertaining.was just like being given a pair of wings. somebody like Buckethead stays on one thing for quite a long period of time. He said: Playing improvised music is like writing without a pen.but simply at how it had taken place. has been at times truly remarkable. the virtuoso French trombonist.. against them. In any event. film and freely improvised music. Perhaps it is a quality which is generated. Sometimes they have a very different way of working to yourself. You don't have the music to hide behind. It gives me a lot of strength. with things changing very quickly. theatre.

In fact. certainly its essential part. This. a number of improvising virtuosi operating on the fringes of one or other of the established music markets. seems to be unaffected by the shifting security of its precarious toehold on the treacherous slopes of the music industry. is no different to improvisation. discovered at street level by composer/improvisor Frederic Rzewski and improvisor/composer Steve Lacy. Perhaps the nearest thing to a successful combination of fixed and freely improvised music is in the long serving improvising groups where. After forty minutes of collective incoherence and mutual misunderstandings. Improvisation is a basic instinct. are necessary to reveal the manifest and multiple differences between composition and improvisation. The debates. gratefully returning to playing music: improvising.S. Butch Morris. The uanscribed resu"s eventually appeared in Jaarboek 7published by Van Gennep. took part in a public discussion staged as an adjunct to a series of concerts. happens in either unpublicised or. should there be such a thing. of course. all closely associated with improvisation. it still can't hide the fundamental difference that separates composition and improvisation. to be sure. even. musical fashion. is where we came in. even economics . if there is. a bfochure publiShed by Willner Musik Galerie in 1990 10 accompany a series of concerts. it doesn't matter what you call it. particularly by improvisors. I think. both working organically from a common base. or. in a sense. 1 This took place at the BIM House In Amst6fdam. John 10m. Frederic tells the story: In 1968 I ran into Steve Lacy on the street in Rome. at best. there didn't seem to he anything else to discuss and the group dispersed. additionally. heretical in both practice and theory. in fact. Geotge Lewis.are to a unique degree irrelevant to the practice of this kind of music making. In other words. But. Improvisation is not a word which is highly thought of. The creation of music transcends method and. None of these lofty projections. it doesn't matter how you do it. external matters aesthetics.'idiomatic' . improvisors particularly have conducted a sustained assault on the outskirts of rock. but in virtually all cases where some kind of uneasy alliance with the wider music world has been achieved the improvisor's function amounts to little more than peripheral decoration. some of whom will go to considerable lengths to avoid being tarred with what they have found to be an unhelpful brush.LIMITS AND FREEDOM In 1987. In any but the most blinkered view of the world's music. The musicians involved were: Cecil Taylor. perhaps by design. Without it nothing survives. the first subject up for consideration concerned the relationship between improvisation and composition. essentially. the composition/improvisation dichotomy doesn't exist. Amsterdam. 2 ••• These discussions are conducted only. it is indistinguishable from composition. for its novelty value. a fundamental belief for some people: musical creativity (all creativity?) is indivisable. Furthermore. Having established that. seven musicians. 2 From 'usten 10 Lacy'. This kind of spongy generalisation often obscures. for instance. As sources of creativity they are hardly comparable. the less compatible it is likely to be with the kind of presentation typical of the music business. however.' His answer lasted exactly fifteen seconds and is still the best formulation of the question I know. its general health. more than it reveals but. composition. while in improvisation you have (zfteen seconds. under-publicised circumstances: musician-organised concerts. accepted. to4isha MengelOOrg. There are now. And it's easy to see that the more conducive the setting is to freely improvised music. He answered: < fifteen seconds the difference between composition and improvisation is that in composition you have all the time you want to decide what to say in (zfteen seconds. There seems to be no apparent correlation between the viability and the visibility of improvisation. Other areas of improvisation . 140 141 . 'I think we accepted long ago those aspects of each other's playing that we are never going to be able to change and we work upon the parts that are negotiable'. I took out my pocket tape recorder and asked him to describe in fifteen seconds the difference In between composition and improvisation. Here's one. as Evan Parker admits. composition looks to be a very rare strain.combine fixed and improvised naturally enough. The bulk of freely improvised music. an essential force in sustaining life. if at all. within the world of freely improvised music and arise from the contradiction inherent in attempts to organise or to combine composition and 'free' improvisation. I think. are unimportant. simply in response to music-making imperatives. and U. the predominant view to emerge was that there is no such thing as improvisation. pushed to its limits. 1 Inevitably. Its survival. Gerry Hemingway and me. ad hoc meetings and private performances. there was a view struggling to be expressed which is.

London 1962 Cardew.. Harwood Academic Publishers 1991 Clifton. Harvey. In all its roles and appearances. It exists because it meets the creative appetite that is a natural part of being a performing musician and because it invites complete involvement. All improvisation takes place in relation to the known whether the known is traditional or newly acquired. improvisation can be considered as the celebration of the moment.M.. Edition Peters..T. in the act of music-making. Crowds and Power.T. something of a Shangri-la. Ragas and Raginis. in all improvisation. Cornelius. Oxford University Press 1931 Blackford. Zurich 1938 Ferand. The Roots of Coincidence. 'Turning the Musical Table . And it won't necessarily indicate a particular sryle. J. London 1936 142 143 . But improvisation has no need of argument and justification. Arthur. to a degree otherwise unobtainable. And this is certainly a great enough difference. Rubberneck 9. (ed). Improvisation. Rather like presuming that the course of the sun is affected by the popularity of sun-bathing. Philosophy. So it might be claimed that improvisation is best pursued through its practice in music. London 1920 Hamilton. Ernst. and in spite of the earlier arguments.Buelow. Journal of Music Theory 1976 Dean.Speculations about the future of free improvisation . unconcerned with any preparatory or residual document. Shri N. Elias. Penguin 1963 Gangoly.Improvisation in Britain in 1965-1990'. Paris 1925 (2 volumes) Ferand.c. F.T. Freedom for the free improvisor is. O. In practice the focus of both players is probably more on means than ends. Improvisation in Nine Centuries of Western Music. Lenny Bruce. Basingstoke 1991 Canetti. 'Towards an Ethic of Improvisation'. N.its possible popularity or extinction . The Complete Organist. Constant. International Music Council 1971 Dupre. 'The Aesthetics of Imperfection'. University of California] 966 Koestler. As a way of making music it can serve many ends.seem to me totally to misunderstand the function of the activity. Treatise Handbook. V. Thomas. memory . it seems to me now that in practice the difference between free improvisation and idiomatic improvisation is not a fundamental one. Chris. Komposition und Improvisation. echo... R. And in this the nature of improvisation exactly resembles the nature of music. Paradoxically. F. its reality is its moment of performance. ed G.. Marcel. July 1939 Ferand. Alain. Contemporary Music Review. recording. Music HOI. 'The Howling in Seconds of the Lombards'. or even presuppose an artistic attitude. Open University Press 1991 Danielou. London Cauldry. music is fleeting. The Necessity of Art (1959). New Structures in Jazz and Improvised Music since 1960. Essentially. 'Comparison between Intuitive and Scientific Descriptions of Music'. it seems to me. There might be documents that relate to that moment . Melody Music of India. bur in its moment to moment practice the essentials of improvisation are to be found. Mangalore 1965 Arnold. E. Der General-Bass in der Composition (1728 ).. like the ultimate idiomatic expression for the idiomatic improvisor. Wiesbaden 1977 Grace.but only to anticipate it or recall it. BIBLIOGRAPHY Adyonthaya. Monad 1974 Lambert. The Situation of Music and Musicians in the Countries of the Orient.. And that the practice of music is best pursued through improvisation. np nd Globokar.. Musical Quarterly. The Art of Accompaniment from a Thorough-bass. I believe the above to be true. A. Pan Books 1974 Kofsky.D.T. and its nature is revealed in anyone of its many forms. The only real difference lies in the opportunities in free improvisation to renew or change the known and so provoke an open-endedness which by definition is not possible in idiomatic improvisation.. Cours Complet d'Improvisation a tOrgue. is completely at one with the non-documentary nature of musical performance and their shared ephemerality gives them a unique compatibility. Die Improvisation in der Musik. E. July 1990 Heinichen.score. It is basically a method of working. E. As long as the performing musician wants to be creative there is likely to be free improvisation. Breitkopf & Hartel. Cologne 1961 Fischer.

. 'Ear and Reason' 25 Hendrix.26 Finck. non-idiomatic xi-xii. form 1 II. tuition (instruction) 7. Dizzy 56 Globokar. Ella.86 Bach. ErnstT.62 Caneni.130.86. authentic performance 27 Bennink. 3 Alterations 125. The Wellsprings of Music. East and West. London 1905 Matheson. future 142. Norman 44 The Grateful Dead 42-43. Claude 12 Denley. Phenomenology. Jimi 40 Hicks. history 127·132. J. 24. svara 3.103 Daube. Paxton. vocabu lary 106·107 Indian music 1·11. The Rise of Music in the Ancient World.. Earle 60·65. Improvisation a l'orgue 31 Eastley. 1735 Microphone (percussion issue). Society for Ethnomusicology. Max 109 Eastop. INDEX acct!ssibility xii. Terry 125 Debussy. 24 atonality 88 audience 44-47.. In Britain. London 1902 Smith.. Louis 50. Cornelius 76. H. teaching 7·9. Morton 60 Ferand. compared with improvisarion 140-141. are also increasingly available. Hugh 79-80. Thomas xi Coleman.91. tala 3-4 instrumentalists 98 interpretation 68·69.66-67. Bill 78 Gafori 20n Gangoly... Alexander 3 1 Hancock. 88.. Conversations with Einstein. 24 Davies. Cesar 36 free improvisation see improvised music freely improviSt!d music see improvised music FriscH. Facets of Indian Culture. Dexter 48 Granz. Musical Interpretation. 126 Ayler.C. Benjamin 37 Brown. Leo.9. 75 Adyonthaya.J. indeterminate composition 84. 'Towards an ethic of improvisation' 84 Charpentier.Lewis. The Improvisor (magazine). Stephen 33-36.E. London Stewart. recording 103·104. The Changeability of Musical Experience. Recordings of improvising musicians discussing their work. F.M. nomenclaturt! 83. 1974 Pressing. The Art of Improvisation.86·87 Community Music (London) 122 Company 133-139 composition 59·81.77 ethnic musicial instruments 101-102 Evans. aleatoric 60..O. Tristan 134 Howe. John 57.P. T. New York 1934 Williams. String quartet (1965) 6 1. 24 Gillespie.. practising 17. New York 1943 Sartre. f. live electronics 94 Ellington.Ornettt! 55 Coltrant!.36·7. ]. 1952 70. gat 5. Roy 56 electronic music 64. 5 Garcia. George Frideric 21 Heinichen.itic I.15. 'Thoughts on Improvisation'.T. Johann David 22-23.142. Jim 108 D'indy. idiomatic xi. leadership 96-97. alapa 5·6.56-57 Arnold.Jerry 42-43. musicianship 66. practising 109·111. transcribing xi. BBC.Cognitive Processes in Improvisation. 6 Glen Iris Park. Alexander 138 Baroque music 20·28.72.. the National Sound Archive has an extensive reference library. open form 6 1. J. Stevt! t 25 Bonnet.38.. 109 Day. perhaps a more promising sou rce of information. Pierre 60. Marcd 31. Joseph 3 1 Boulanger. a number of which are mentioned in the text. 110. 105-108.. London 1921 Netd. Joseph 86n Honsinger. Han 122-123. G. cha nce music 64. 24 Bailey. ]. 49-50.84) Srinivasan. 127-139.86 Braxton. Clarence. time notation 60 Bruce. Lenny 49 Bryars. ix. Philip 137 educa tion see music education Einstein. London 1944 Sachs. 126.76 improvised music 83-142. K. tension and release 87·88 conductors 20 continuo 21·26 Couperin. First constructions in metal 88 Calder. unpublished thesis 1979 Lucas. Alexander 60.4-6. 119. Peter 125-127 Danielou. laya 4. soleares 14. London 1971 Schouten. 1982 Westrup. Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions. Birmingham.J. Herman. C. 23 n figured bass 19. Vinko 109 Goldschmidt.94-95. Curt. 19n.86-92. USA Zonis. objections 113·116. Curt.44-45. London 1955 Smith. 131-132 Beresford. Hindustani I. bulerias 14.46 Gregorian chant 19. Hermann 24n Fischer. Musical Form. Vincent 38 Dolphy. Notes: 8 pieces. Gavin 86-92.133-134 Balanescu. Duke 56.53. and a wide range of recorded interviews which are available for public listening. The World's Earliest Music. London June 1972 Moszkowski. Eric 86 Dupre.29 group improvisation 86-104. Stt!vt! 39·41. London 1971 Whitmer. tientos 14 Franck. Classical Persian Music. Search & Reflect. Alben 49. experimental 73. Lou 128·129 Gasparini. London 1972 Wachsmann. 11 7·123. Bill 86 exploration (of a musical instrument) 98 extemporisation 19 Falla. Musical Quarterly 60.63. Werner 80 Gordon. Improvisation: Methods and Models. La Trobe University 1984 Sachs. Francois 22 Cusack. Johann Nepomuk 33n improvisation: compared to composition 140-141. Improvisation on the Organ. rehearsing 76. raga 2. Anthony 57 Britten. Hamden 1973 (see p. Elias 20 Cardew. Manuel de 12n Feldman. Albert 84n Eldridge. Carn:. Ernst 47 flamenco 12-18. Nadia 31.33 Boulez.1 13-11 5. Alabama. Bombay 1970 Stevens. Donald 54 Cage..64. Kleine General-Bass Schule.66 Holbrooke. Community Music. 109-111.117. 113-117. compas 14.S. Inc. Jazz Masters of the Thirties. 18. techniques 99. rehearsing 110 Guilmant. 79. teaching 11 6·117 Buckethead 138 Byrd.98 144 145 . 107. Harvard UP 1973 These are some of the books and articles I looked at.46-47 Gare. Herbie 54 Handel.e.127 AMM 128-131 Andalucia 12 Armstrong. 66 Hummel. learning 7. Rex.66-67. Jean-Paul. duende 52.J. Don 55 Church music 29 Classical music (European) 19-38 Clifton. historical development 12-13. 103.44. Shri N. tht!ory 84. Jacques 59 Cherry. R. B.E. 107. 1-19. Alain 7. There has been a substantial increase in recent times in writings dealing with improvisation. sruti 2. John 60-61.26 Bach. D.8 1. Derek 85n.128.64. 114-116. Oxford University Press 1985 Pressing. Alexander.

Jasani. 32.104. 11 8. Andre 33 Matheson. jack 49 tension and release 87-88 Thompson.107 Westrup. 101. Karlheinz 68-73.9 1 Landini .57 Parker. 126.106. 108 joseph Holbrooke (group) 86-93. Frank 100. Yves 139 rock 39-43.112 Persian music x-xi Peterson. 26 modern classical music: performing 73-74 Morrow. Frederic 140 Sachs. Rohan de 128 Schlippenbach. 24-25 Wesley.45-46. 133 musical instruments 98. Louis 31 virtuosity 100 vocal techniques 102 Wachsmann. Charl ie 47. 99n.18. reading 10. Curt 10.5 2 Stockhausen. Vanessa 137 magic 42 Marchal.jamie 94. Charles 36-37 transcription xi. John 98. Toshinori 135 Kon itz. technique 98.99.128 spiritualiry I Srinivasan.122 Stewart. j ohn 128 tonality 87-88 T oop. Pa co 12. Min 135 Taylor. 63.134. j ean 3 J. Williamj. Steve 54-56. mechanics of improvisation 48-49. 137 Pena.15 Viernc. 128 Machado Alvarez.45 JATP Uazz At The Phi lharmonic) 44 jazz 48-58.129 The Music Improvisation Company 94.j. Misha 122-123.28. (ree jazz 56. Ylem 70-73 Stevens. 126 Spontaneous Music Ensemble 119. 141 Pa y.109.26.128.80 Oliver. Eddie J 28-129 psychedelic rock 39 Reichal. 11 7 Rzewski .33. Virgil 135 Thorne.lmrat 6 Klee. Aus den sieben Tagen 79-80. 107. R 3. 109 Paganini. 113 musicianship 98-102. tuition 38 ornamentation 19 Oxley. technology 41-42 Rollins. Cobra 76-77 146 . J. Ella x Zorn. David 125 Tournem ire. M ichael xn Oppens.123. jackson 62 Powell. 67. Topography of the oceans 41 Young. H. Cha rlie 135 Moszkowski. Nam-june 8 1 Parker. Anton 87. blues influence 39-40.138. Bud 54 Prevost. revivals 49. Tony 86-92. Ursula 135 o rgan improvisation 29-38. 11 6. Lee 48 Komarsky. 29n Whitmer. Viram 6. 11 7. Cecil 54-55.112. 137. practising 38. Paul lOOn. Phil 108 Waldron. 24.11 5 juliana. T. Alexander 84n Mu ir.49. hard bop 54. Tio Luis el de la 13 keyboard harmony 27 Khan. George 91 Little Theatre Cl ub 11 9 London Sinfonietta 67 Lytton.Ca rl 32. 33n Piernc.101 performance: differences between notated & improvised 68-69 Perry.112. 133 music education 98-99. Charles-Marie 36 Yamashta 96 Yes 39.109 percussionists 100.117. British jazz 51.86. Sonny 5 1 Russolo. Aloys 8 1 Lacy. Mal 54 Weber. Yehudi 11 Messiaen. box technique 70. Lester 53 n Zen Buddhism 115 Zonis. Leo 99. concert improvisation 29. 20th-century developmems 60-64. SCOtt 87.96. Ca rl Maria von 33 n Webern. 103 Sa ram. Archery 76. Nicolo 19 Paik. 11 0 Lewis. extended 100. Arnol d 107.96. Michael 103 thorough-bass 22-23.109 serial ism 88.5 1-52. Notes: 8 pieces 84 solo improvisation 105-112 sound recordings 103-104.66. Paul 109.70-74. imita[ion 53. Lionel 20.john 75-78. 113. Hans 109 Reinhardt. Paul 108 Kondo. be-bop 49. 11 6 Schouten. 34. Ronnie 45. tuition 49-50 jeffrey.94. embell ishments 23-24 Ti lbury. Anthony 67-69.98 notation systems 10. lOOn. O livier 31.116 Sheffi eld 92 Sheikh. Christine 94.10.102.j. Francesco 29 Langlais. French school 31. 91 MEV 128 Mitchell. 140 LaFa ro.103. 36-38. 108-109.15. Improvisation on the organ 32 SCOtt. Alex 128 Schoenberg. 101 . Peter 103.131-132 Menuhin. Rex 48 Tanaka.S. 17. score 59. Antonio ' Demofilo' 13 Mackness. S. Max 57 Robert. Oscar 51 Petri.79-80. The art of improvisation 32-3 Widor. Luigi 100 Rutherford.86. 2411 Mengdherg.37. 36-37.59.97 Salter. 57 Teagarden. Esmail 6 silence 89 Smith. George (trombonist) 109 Linstead. Gilbert 36 Pollock.104.8. (as) black classical music 56. 133 Roach. blues (as structure) 48.99. Django 50 Riley. 15. authemiciry 53. Eva n 80-81.S.

... c ~ ~ Its Nature and Practice in Music Derek Bailey ....improvisation I In c . ~ .

. Steve Howe. His book . and recorded over ninety albums. Bailey has influenced a generation of guitarists in Europe and North America. Guitarist Derek Bailey has performed solo concerts throughout the world. and "free" music. and ad hoc musical activities. baroque." -New Grove Dictionary of Jazz "Through the voices of practitioners from a variety of fields. and here updated and extended with new interviews and photographs. and Ronnie Scotl--8ailey offers a clear-eyed view of the breathtaking spectrum of possibilities inherent in improvisational practice ... it is essential reading not only for listeners and players of improvised music. the edge. while underpinning its importance as the basis for all music-making. treats perceptively the relationships among different traditions of improvisation. Earle Brown.00 I $22. flamenco. jazz. By drawing on conversations with some of teday's seminal improvisers-lnciuding John Zorn. Improvisation." "This is the most important book on improvisation--the craft.Wire "A creative and highly original improviser.MUSIC IMPROVISATION Its Nature and Practice in Music by Derek Bailey "This second edition is a welcome expansion and reorganization of Derek Bailey's seminal 1980 book on improvisation. Jerry Garcia. an international ensemble of improvising musicians. Derek Bailey's Improvisation insightfully examines its subiect matter without really defining it. He lives in London. played with most of the musicians associated with free improvisation. Incus Records. the leap--that you're likely to meet. is the first book to deal with the nature of improvisation in all its forms-lndian music. Max Roach. Lionel Salter. Because of its breadth .. Like Bailey's music. organ music. is a valuable tool for anyone interested in music at any level.95 CAN CoYer design by James Victore DA CAPO PRESS . rock. where he divides his time between solo performances . Steve Lacy. running his own label. . Evan Parker." -Cadence Derek Bailey's Improvisation. organizing and playing in Company. . US $15. originally titled Musical Improvisation. easily comprehensible narrative. -Option but for aficionados of all types of music. with its pithy. writing.. Improvisation is suggestive and contingent rather than a statement of certainties. originally published in 1980. Paco Pena. contemporary." . .

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