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

5 6 7 8 9 10

02 01

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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

And. E. firstly. Defined in anyone of a series of catchphrases ranging from 'making it up as he goes along' to 'instant composition'. its uses in the classroom and some of the recent developments involving improvisation in contemporary Western composition. would be a vast and probably endless undertaking. My feeling was that there was an important part of improvisation not easily indicated or conveyed by its results. 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. It concludes with an examination of some aspects of the recent rise of free improvisation and the correspondences found between all types of improvisation.T. Charles Fox. His perception of the social and spiritual powers of improvisation lead me to a greater understanding of its universal significance.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. combined with a scarcity of documentation concerning it. there is an almost total absence of information about it. 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. Peter Riley. Among those who helped in a variety of other ways. any attempt to describe improvisation must be. in some respects.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. indeed a distorted picture. its place in music and their speculations on its nature. Acknowledgements The number of people who have helped me with the book from its inception through its various stages and revisions is countless. Mandy Davidson. Primarily. Even about its presence in Occidental music. or even a vulgar habit. without taking into account the improvisational element in living musical practice. more than that. Laurent Goddet. Paul Lytton. the most inhospitable area for improvisation. its relationship to recording. improvisation is generally viewed as a musical conjuring trick. But I would also like to thank all those musicians whose ideas and words appear without acknowledgement. George Clinton. Obviously this is not intended as a history of improvisation. a misrepresentation. a task which. 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. They are the book. So in this book the intention is to present the views on improvisation of those who use it and know it. For there is scarcely a single field in music that has remained unaffected by improvisation. VIla Lytton. The widespread presence of improvisation in music. I am indebted to the director. instigating a series of radio programmes in which practising musicians from different idioms discussed their use of improvisation. Beryl Towns and Paul Wilson. its relationship to its audience. a part which perhaps only those involved in doing it seemed to be able to appreciate or comprehend. 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. even appropriate. Peter Butler. I am indebted to all the musicians whose words I quote in the book. 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. My purpose in undertaking such an unlikely project as. Flamenco and Baroque music) through its uses in church organ playing. never fixed. The book is divided into sections ranging from the traditional uses of improvisation (in Indian music. was to show the significance of improvisation through the experience of those who use it. Particularly. I have particular reasons to thank Alistair Bamford. must of necessity present an incomplete. 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. Michael Oliver. Improvisation is always changing and adjusting. a doubtful expedient. means that any single volume will inevitably be selective. in Jazz and in Rock. While it is today present in almost every area of music. Chris Clark. Janice Christianson. Frank Long. John Fordham. Perhaps this is inevitable. if it were ever attempted. Mick Beck. and then assembling a book combining these programmes and further discussions with these and other players. too elusive for analysis and precise description. Marion Rout. Jeremy Marre. Rudy Koopmans. Karen Brookman. Henry Kaiser. passages in the book which derive from conversations held with many players over many years. essentially non-academic. ix .

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. but intuitively. Idiomatic improvisation. objective. the essential factors in a performance are the feeling of a player and those of his audience. One must rea lise from the beginning that in Persian music there is no 'always'. It would include many parts of Islamic music (notably Persian guslf":h ). The e are no so-called 'musical examples' quoted. Intuitive descriptions erect their st ru ctures very much in the same way that scientific descriptions do: slowly. (Michael Oliver.that did nor originate in improvisatory practice or was not essentiall) influenced by it. however." a leiter to the author) the theory of practice and the practice of practice.and takes its identity and motivation from that idiom. I have tried. In general. to say nothing 01 one's sense of what is harmonically proper'. I couldn't imag111t: a meaningful consideration of improvi satio n from anything other than a practical and a personal point of view. methodically with frequent erasures and backtrackmg. it seems to me a from being an aid to understanding improvisation.' I hope it will be adequate if I refer to the 'p ractice of practice' as practice. biased or idiosyncratic. Ella Zonis in her book Classical Persian Music. 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. uninformative. being present without Interruption !rom the earliest known muSICS 10 the present day Early vocal and IIlStrumental mprovisatlOfl. simply because almost all the musicians I spoke to chose to discuss improvisation mainly in 'abstract' terms. an astonIshing sound. 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. Rather he plays from a level of conscious ness somewhat removed from the purely rational. the musician does not calculate the procedures that will guide his playing.. 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. for this subject. intuitive descriptions were preferred and. and so on .. much the most widely used . What could be said about improvisation in one area could be said about it in another. I hope I have managed to avoid doing that.pr8S$lOl'l open to the pertormef The composition stood or Ie. deflects attention towar s peripheral considerations. Turkish music. but almost impossible to learn. is the whole truth. those musics which have to be excluded In order to avoid the book assuming encyclopedic proportions. No one is saying that any particular intuitive description. Under these conditions the player performs not according to the "theory of practice". the chapters on church organ playing present something of the schol astic attitude to improvisation. Not infrequently.such as jazz. fter ldting that 'Persian music theorists. the section on Indian mu sic exam ines the usual method of learning to improvise. 'A further obstacle in this area is the readily apparent discrepancy between t The procedure 01 vanabOrll$ one of the oldest and most petSlSlent ot peI1OfTT1109 pnncIpies. 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. according to the "practice of practice". would make an extensive list. Both kinds of description are concerned with inrersubjecrive confirmation. One has to unlearn the tempered scale to begin WIth. we must admit that the performer is not bound by them. 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. taken as true. for no rule or custom is inviolable. ignores the warning and plunges in. At the actual time of performance. Transcription.. in fact. was not uS«! mefeiy to aher what already e. Flamenco deals with improvisation and authenticity. 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. is mainly concerned with the expression of an idiom . the blues.do not consider it in their writings'. while it might take the Ionn 01 embeI~shmenl.' So the omissio ns. Thomas Ctifton in Joomal 01 Music Thet:xy x xi . For. wherein the dictates of traditional procedures are integrated with his immediate mood and emotional needs. flamenco or baroque . In fact there is very little technical description of any kind .. 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. as Thomas Clifton says: 'The question is not whether the description is subjective. many African musics. in Persian music. that is what this book is mainly about. For instance. In any event.. considering improvisation to be ntuJ tl . However. 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. In fact there was a commonly held suspicion that a close technical approach was. '3 I have used the terms 'idiomatic' and 'non-idiomatic' to describe the twO main forms of improvisation. 3 From 'Some comparisons between Ifltuillve and SClenlilic descriptions 0' mulJic '. And even they can run into serious difficulties. Those and man y other forms of mu sic involving the use of improvisation are not here. The whole history of the development of musIC IS accompanied by manifestations of the drive to improvise. 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.stect but as a means 01 celebratIng the Ict 01 musIC' making.

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

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 . But hisrorically and theoretically. and earlier saint/composers. 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. with an interest in development . natu rally enough reflects the syntheses it has undergone and is less restricted by inherited convention.is much more readily found in the music o f the North than that of the South. The principles of the music are spiritual principles. purely musical theory . be great. The implications and effects of this on the spiritual life of the musician must. Aesthetics and devotional thinking are inextricably connected. A hisrory of In dian music is largely a catalogue of Hindu and Muslim sainrs. 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. although a marked respect for tradition is a prominent part of all Indian music. comi ng from an area which has seen 4000 years of almost contin uou s invasion and migration beginning with the Aryans and finishing. Hindustani music. with the English. 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. 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. their teachings and their deeds. tolerant of change. style and musical grammar. conse rvati ve in outlook. the laws of the music a rc spiritual laws and their authority is of a re ligious nature. proud of its rigorous confo rmity to Sanscrit texts. of course. hopefully. But in practice. all Indian music is embedded in the spi ritu a l life of the counrry. more advenrurous attitude in Hindustani music. A shifting of attention from the traditional texts ro the more purely musical side leads to a less rigid. And the ' type of attitude customaril y associated with improvisation experimental.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.

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

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

on an understanding. This can be done with a drone or just by playing a phrase up the keynote . while the time cycle is still being maintained. Quite a simple description. perhaps. . younger brother of Vilyat Khan. the recognition of which can be intuitive.. And the first thing we do is to establish the keynote . And the instruction offered usually concerns the manipulation of scalar and harmonic ingredients in those particular styles. But that's Indian music. developed from complete familiarity. in most cases. to playa good performance. When we start a performance of the raga we start very slowly. to its slower atmosphere..can say practically nothing about that which is essentially to do with improvisation. And while I repeat this tune over and over I am maintaining this time cycle. and this is where one tends to play much faster phrases. and concentrate on that one note . and there is an emphasised point in that tune which corresponds to the emphasised point in the time cycle. As he talked he played the sitar.one can either make up a composition or you can playa traditional tune from your style of music.. which leaves the tabla player.. 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. Born In Jaipur in North India where he studied with Imrat Khan. The points at which these took place ace indicated in the text by ellipses. it is a succinct account of the essentials involved. The whole thing is then repeated on the basis of a rhythm created. and this is where improvisation perhaps begins to get a little less. But a discourse which concerns itself exclusively with pitch relationships . Now all this is done without any rhythm whatever. And you take out one note . And this tune may have a certain length in time. As this understanding develops so the ability to improvise can develop. Then the improvisations take place in the lower register . The learning process in improvisation is invariably difficult to detect. In idiomatic improvisation this objective is usually represented by an admired player whose performance one wishes to emulate. Full of contradiction. And we both meet on that point . An ability to improvise can't be forced and it depends. the drummer. Where the drums come in. In the face of the possibility that no improvisor anywhere has ever learned to improvise from a book or other documentary source.me lodic or harmonic . in this case on the sitar. writing of the traditional method of learning in South-East Asia..• •• Representing Indian music in the programmes was Viram Jasani. and we alternate.' Later the path to musical self-development comes through increasing confidence and the inevitable increase in critical awareness. naturally. What they have to say is. on the drone . Viram Jasani now lives in England . of the musical context in which one improvises. He gave me the following account of the raga.. or conventional jazz. But not all of these possibilities may be allowed in the raga. And here you do in fact apply a simple mathematical process. I am afraid. which has nothing to do with rhythm or style. firstly.and building up my phrases to end on that point . And the purpose of alapa is to explore the melodic possibilities within that raga. an understanding of the idiom is essential in order to improvise in it..in pretty much the same way by everybody who is lucky enough to stumble on the right method. In the early stages this admiration is most useful if it takes the form of unquestioning idolatry. is where one has a fixed composition . more ordinary players have to find more ordinary means. which may seem a contradiction. helpful for an appreciation of those idioms and. With him was the tabla player Esmail Sheikh. 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.. demonstrating the different points he was making..... And in this way you work your way up the scale.perhaps acquired would be a better word . If we just have an example of him playing and he will come back and end his improvisations at the same point of emphasis . The important thing is to have an objective. so strongly desired as to be almost a mania. And concentrating on this note ... perhaps. The truth is probably that improvisation is learned . and this is why it takes such a long time. Alain Danielou. 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. Then he maintains the cycle and I am free to improvise. 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. 6 7 .. or wishes to improvise.... free to improvise. You've got to decide which ones are allowed and which ones to play and INDIAN MUSIC (2) how to play them. even without the musical examples. says: 'In [his sort of personal instruction artistic training precedes the technical.. We play what is called alapa. one which your teacher is famous for. the earliest of which appeared over 200 years ago. The great majority of these studies concern themselves either with organ improvisation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arnold. Musicians of the past. he writes: 'The old musicians side more with reason.E. realising the seditiousness of such an idea. on occasion. as far as possible. Melody improvisation. the present cannot reconcile itself with the past. in accompaniment as opposed to solo playing. accompany a trio in such a way that by adding a new melodic part he converted it into a quartet'. unfortunately. It is . 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. one no longer had cause to ask if the music sounded well or pleased the listener.lsly through everything and dissect it ative \0 see if he can deled anything.' 24 25 . the suppressed Ear was tyrannized so long until finally it hid behind tables and chairs to await from the distance the condescending. J.Bach.Matheson 3 . the true Objectum musices. all of whom while bemoaning its prevalence. Or again.demonstration of a teacher or to the individual industry and experience of the student'. As Mr Westrup says: 'The enjoyment of performers can hardly be accepted as an aesthetic criterion. was always somewhat controversial. and since both parties do not agree on the first fundamental. because of the use of these two concomitants. Certainly.. J.. Heinichen. In addition. of course. the sovereign of music. the composers of the past poorly explained the word ratio. even though it does not please the eat.S.. we know. quite commonly.Daube. First. melody improvisation. the Visual imperceptibly gained the most in music and used the authority of the imprudent Reason only to cover its own lust for power.. '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'. a simple arpeggio in the left hand combining with an unbroken chord in the right hand. or the improvisation of a completely separate part. but the new with the Ear.. writing abouI4·part vocal improvisation in 1556. 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. merciful glance of its unsurpatores regni (ratio & visus} . is rarely found now and if attempted is likely to be heavily disapproved of. Discussing the prevalence of controversy and argument.Bach 'would. adds. 10 which he feels he mUSI 00jecI. whidl ott~ comprehensrve instruction in the art of accompanying from the IIrst rudimenlS 10 lhe ITlO5I complex figures. 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. 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. Thus.Matheson wroIe IWO books on the ar1 of e)(!emporislog solo pieces'rom giv1:tn basses..' 4 Hermann Finck. J. Post-baroque period authorities (including F. He tells how J.Westrup's Musical Interpretation published in 1971. it wrongly classed the two judges and placed the Ear. A nice example of the change in attitude towards this practice is found in Mr. below the rank of Reason or would divide its commanding authority with the latter..T... for which music is surely made . warns his readers that ·No doubt a sharp-eyed one can be 'ound who will search anxlol. The other ornaments in Heinichen's second list seem hardly to have survived at all. chose two judges in music: Reason and the Ear. In this way. C.P. 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. it follows that we must adapt all our musical rules to the Ear. In those innocent times (in which one knew nothing of present-day good taste and brilliance in music.Gasparini. F. yet. Heinichen's second group of embellishments include melody. offer instruction in it and certainly don't suggest that it should be abo lished. but rather if it looked good on paper.D. As we must now admit unanimously that our Finis musices is to stir the affects and to delight the ear.E. Whereupon the blameless Ear must immediately cede half of its monarchical domain.Heinichen. and. passaggi (scalar patterns). 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'. limit the damage he can do. particularly between young and old in his time.' And so we arrive at the 20th century view of things. The choice would be correct since both are indispensable to music.j. Consequently. or the improvisation of a separate part. 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.. arpeggios and imitation. and in this the past is guilty of two errors. 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.ssss SchuIe (1735). absurd if one should say along with pedants: this is outstanding music because it looks so fine (I mean pedantic) on paper.. then.

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

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

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

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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you know. I try and set a standard. In fact. 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 virtually always improvised. that's when the truth is really known about people.blues players. So. I do exactly that. I'm after grasping something. But I don't think everybody fits into these categories. I'd be interested now to hear what l played. if you like. Other times I've got involved in it and reached for something a bit more completely free of cliches in phrasing. before I left school. I've done things at home. just improvised once and said 'That's fine'. Then they climbed again and it climbed again. It's got the notes well pushed out -each note having a value for itself I think that's a thing people. I think the sensation 1 was trying to get was that the guitar was behind the group. Improvising does come reasonably easy. Somebody said that if you try to look at inspiration too closely it disappears. 40 41 . building up to a lavish kind of finish. or whether. Some positiveness about it. It changes from the idea of being an improvisation to playing a melody. even my earliest kind of work when I used to play in pubs. But then again it turns into a piece of music.yes! he got it. Normally I do a few takes and have a listen to them and then. and i(T can get it then I'm happy. By the 1990s.I keep using the words accurate and exact . if I am working on any kind of music I might play that and then wander off into something . that there is a standard in improvisation which until you've reached that you can't possibly play well. which is only ended by the group stating seven beats . What makes one improvisation better than another? Basically a certain feeling of clearness of thinking about what I am doing. One of the things about improvising: it's very hard to . so you try and run it off again? I had to do it with an album. his skills are likely to have been superseded by the latest piece of technology. Improvisation really moves when it's a top rate somebody who sets some kind of standard and has a style. What I usually try and do is mix the idea of writing music and improvising together. judging it by the improvisation quite often .that's what I will accept .something else off the top of my head. I can meander endlessly and if I'm making a recording I think I know what I'm after. I tend to look back on things that I've played as things that used to do something to me and think 'Well. I used every fret on the guitar on this one. but does it still get me off?' In the same way I try to watch my progress. Untangible. I wanted a slightly melancholy beginning. Very often I can accept virtually any improvisation I do. a tune. What little improvising there is oursideof this influence is usually of an experimental nature deriving ma inly from electronic music. This thing really excites me.well. it's like that. • •• Nothing reflects change more speedily than popular music. Once you've really played well together on an improvised section I think that raises the whole standard of the tour. I think. when l was 14 or 15. and that particular side starts with seven beats. 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. you had that a few years ago. you know. you know. The group kept moving to another chord and the guitarist is just reaching . When we'd finished I rushed home and learnt two or three of the guitar breaks. There's a little bit more than I think I am capable 0(. hopefully. in fact. The fact that improvisation. he had recorded a series of improvisatio ns and selected his preferred one for the record. I know the direction . I think this applies to groups. I think over a few days I had quite a few goes at it. and the cultural climate in which the improvising rock instrumentalist flourished in the 1960s and '70s is pretty much extin ct. It was trying to catch up with the group .udge it until after you've gone through a period of a few years.clarity of phrasing. Have you ever tried actually reproducing an improvisation of your own from a cassette made earlier? Something you like. doing the fundamental rock thing as well as forming some more modern cliches. 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. 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. I think that is why there is a certain amount of caution in talking about it.. I've always wanted to be a total middle guitarist in rock. Once you come down to it there are many missing links between the actual and the labelling in any kind of music.not really united. most people. And if I really like it I usually try mId use it because I feel that if something came like that . Not necessarily notes. And I think people search for this in their improvisation. l like things that come easy. Well.. but more in phrasing . When you start to playoff the top of your head. People have thought of the guitar for years in a blues vein and Hendrix did coordinate the blues and modern rock. It's now a melody.it's our seventh album and lots of things happen in sevens. strive for. I used to improvise ill one way or another.

I was aware of both sides but it was a matter of bringing them together seamlessly. in a way it's creating us. which it seems to me you're interested in. 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. 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. 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. is The Gratefu l Dead. however. that whole biological language. It's not something that we're creating exactly. Having the concept over here and the facility over there and bringing the two of them together. where music comes from .irrepressible as ever. the simplest tunes. What's interesting to me is the accidental. that's what it was like. they are the only rock band whose performances are based on the idea of improvisation and. For us. for examp le. So I could play say a B flat major seventh without knowing that that was what it was. There's another side to that isn't there. So all of a sudden the Blues was great you know and the simplest structures. for many people. It's like hearing everything with a fresh ear. So that the sense of individual control disappears and you are working at another another level entirely. You know. Sometimes this feels to me as though you don't have to really think about what's happening. I asked him what he thought about discussing these things. For over a quarter of a century they have continued playing and while this is not unique. You've talked about chaos obscuring other kinds of organisation. the chaotic. even if I didn't. A magic of one sort or another. 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. became fresh to me again and it enthuses your playing. You forget what the punch line was. The thing of relearning the neuro pathways. unusual in any area. It's something that breaks out every now and again. The following is drawn from conversations I had with Jerry Garcia in 1990. even in this area. This is part of the tradition of music. it made it so that everything was fresh again. whose reputation is based on the expectation of change. That thing of having to shift in point of view. Things just flow. He is. It doesn't really say much about emotional content. It's kind of hard to report on but it's a real thing. It's a matter of how many levels you can apprehend. or character or any number of other things. In a way. and 'that' means another finger moves. Musically speaking we're not really making decisions about it and we certainly don't discuss it. for The Grateful Dead. We can't make it happen either. the unsuitability of the language normally used in discussing music. I don't think there's really much limit to layers of visual information but with sound there are diminishing returns. So I think now I'm probably playing better than I used to play. In The Grateful Dead when when we're playing very open with no structure. is very valuable.oke and it's funny every time you hear it. I think. that has been part of what's kept us going all this time. It defies analysis but it's certainly something to wonder about. 42 43 . I mean the nice thing about having Alzheimers Disease is that you only need to know one . the stuff that you can't control or you can't predict. regrouping the neuro pathways. Music. Something like that. so that 'this' means a finger moves. everything. was in there somewhere and a certain amount of it my muscles remembered. 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. 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. it just made it all really great. So there are fragments all over the place. the improvising rock guitar player.. has seeped into many of the uses of that technology is probably not much compensation to the redundant instrumentalist. 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. Magic . It's not an appropriate language because most people don't speak it and it only talks about proportions and so forth..

without an audience? Ronnie Scott: There must be someone there. then? Oh no. You can't divorce playing this kind of music from the fact that there is an audience. when there is no call. but he feels restricted. the effect of the audience's approval or disapproval is immediate and.once you start leading a piece of music you do start walking out towards the audience. Steve Howe: I think the audience do contribute an awful lot. 'When the musicians note a positive reaction from the public. had something to say about audiences. Therefore. the audience for improvisation.you'd think 'My God. you could sit in your front room and think you are playing fantastically and if there's no audience it doesn't mean anything. 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. because 1 can't think that it means very much if you're playing to nobody. Alain Danielou.. $0 a lot of questions can be asked about improvising before an audience and apparently answering them is not easy. You start kind of directing yourself at the audience. 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.' And yet. if I can put it that way.AUDIENCE wandering around . almost. I find. has a power that no other audience has. my technique is good today and I couldn't play that last night' .they're not worried about an audience sitting there and this is a time when they really let themselves go . Ronnie Scott. active or passive. 'free' music. It can affect the creation of that which is being witnessed. it's so laid back that I think you can come up with some of your best music. because there's no demand. I mean. I mean even if it's other musicians in the group you're playing with. but I don't what I play at home as being quite unique against what I do on stage. Well. 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.not really conscious of that at the time.a musician obViously will try to put on his best performance before an audience. you get this kind of call. causing it to be confined to the more predictable aspects of idiom or vocabulary. It's nothing to do with the size of an audience. Improvisation's responsiveness to its environment puts the performance in a position to be directly influenced by the audience. 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 . And yet you could think you were playing fantastically? Ronnie Scott: Well. Undeniably. because its effect is on the creator at the time of making the music. to improvise and not to be responsive to one's surroundings is a contradiction if not an impossibility..it's a different thing.usually has a deleterious effect on improvisation. increasingly. because they are really free . its influence is not only on the performance but also on the forming and choice of the stuff used. I don 't think so but it's some kind of communication on that level which is peculiar to music .moving my face . sympathetic or hostile. you can't play it in a vacuum.I consider The relationship between any music which is improvised and its audience is of a very special nature. 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.but then go out in front of an audience and play .. And I start to see a connection between . and when you're at home. jazz and.the ability to provide at least a standard performance whatever the circumstances . The musician becomes little by little an actor who repeats his tricks when he notices that the public reacts favourably.. 44 45 . good or bad. Invoking professionalism . The views of Ronnie Scott and Steve Howe on this subject contrasted quite sharply with those expressed by Viram Jasani and Paco Pena. He's very careful. the dangers to an improvisor of audience 'appreciation' have been regularly demonstrated. His concerts change gradually into a music-hall number from which inspiration is excluded or is transformed into a commercial method. 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. who gives his views on improvisation in jazz in the next chapter.something like that . 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. I think when the audience is there there's a demand for it to be good. 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. It's got to be something that communicates otherwise it doesn't mean very much.

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

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

Whether similar reasons can also account for some of the enfeeblement which has taken place in jazz. by any means. ritual performances of old favourites with which Louis Armstrong in his later years never failed to transport his admirers. He has also. resulting in perhaps the first standardised. But I'm also convinced that there are as many attitudes and conceptions of.and that conjunction of sounds which is pleasing to one's ear. Britain has managed to produce a handful of very fine players. he could go on one night and maybe it's disappointing. as theownerof one of the world's best known jazz clubs. music schools. There is a strange parallel between the course of jazz history and the career of Louis Armstrong. for instance. I feel that my own ability to improvise. As he went on. performer who . seems to have changed from an aggressive. the usual erosions of time. arises from a c011)bination of experience . I think it grows from there and I think it's never ending. from a playing point of view jazz has been unshakeably American..Panassie in Hot Jazz). being a supreme creative artist with being one of the century's outstanding entertainers. such as it is. taking twenty choruses in a row . for the American variety. I used to think that the thing was to play the saxophone in a dance band. perhaps uniquely. because I don't have a great hannonic knowledge. British jazz. As these 'greats' seem to be recruited exclusively from that tiny proportion of the world's black population which is also American. I find there is a difficulty for me . jazz. independent. even at the best of times. 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. the local audiences' preference has always been. the adventurousness. In any event. naturally enough. even for a non· American. I've never really done it. in spite of this crippling musical environment.I mean you can practice for hours.. perhaps its greatest exponent. Oscar Peterson for instance. his style became more and more simpleuntil at the end there was nothing but the endless repetition of one fragment of melody . although virtually colonised by it. he has shown how it is possible.or even a single note insistently sounded and executed with cataclysmic intonations' (H. ••• Although its influence has been worldwide. improvisation. Miraculously. been in a unique position to hear at the closest possible range all the greatest jazzmen of the past thirty years. non·personal approach to teaching improvisation. When I started to play I didn't know really that there was such a thing as improvising. for each new chorus he had new ideas more beautiful than those he had reproduced for the preceding chorus. methods and 'how to' books. 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. And it is possible to recognise a corresponding change in jazz as a whole. of the opportunity to compete artistically on equal terms and reduced by limited employment opportunities to the status of a side-line. well. Europe. We got into the question of judging the quality of an improvisation. at least. prisons. but I've done what for me is a great deal of practice over a so 51 . as there are people. is a very. to play within the central tradition of jazz and keep some independence of attitude and style. night classes. I hope it is. (Of course. very polished. Whereas Sonny Rollins. With Louis Armstrong. the wear and tear of a lifetime spent as a travelling musician and the exigencies of show business on a man who combined.trots out these fantastic things that he has perfected and it really is a remarkable perfonnance. of course.) In Britain. So.one learns what one can play and what one can't play .I hope he wouldn't mind me saying so . vital. and manners of. deprived. through a constant flow of tutors. his improvisations grew hotter. that reinforces the point. that description is obviously about a quite different sort of musical experience from the totally formalised. is at least a possibility. of the restlessness. are reasons enough for the change. whatever the reasons. Whatever else might be said about it. and another night he'll iust take your breath away by his kind of imagination and so forth. Ronnie Scott is one of these. the thirst for change which was a central characteristic of the jazz of that period there seems to be no sign at all. But it was his own improvisation about which I asked him to talk. The mechanics of the style are everywhere. has still produced only Django Reinhardt as a possible exception to the rule that all great jazz musicians are American. jazz has been played since the 1920s but. has never shown any aspirations to be anything other than a deferential second best. by definition. And it would be different every night with Rollins. 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. there is also the proposition that all the really significant figures in jazz are black. technically immaculate. and ways of working towards improvisation.colleges. searching music to being a comfortable reminder of the good old days. His imagination seemed inexhaustible. over many years. apart from a scattering of individuals. This is a con tempo· rary account of his early playing: 'Louis Armstrong would improvise on the same theme for a full half·hour.

It will feel that '1 should be what 1 am' kind of thing. The performing style of the rest.period of two or three weeks. even if it doesn't come off it doesn't seem to matter very much. you know. possibly. you know. very rare in 1iIU. But there was a time when. is an accomplishment which can supply a musician with considerable satisfactions.and when this happens . developing an individual style and attitude from that foundation -have a tendency. R. 1 think you are conditioned by the instrument you play. made the pilgrimage 10 ~~~ to his icIoI. Increasingly. whereas. 1 would like ideally to be able to express my -1 don't know . successfully achieved. the last one. if it doesn't sound like one of the great players then it's not valid. almost limitless. development became the preserve of a minute body of'innovators. very often. 1 think that's all anybody can aim for.' is enough to establish all that needs to be known about a new musician. replicas of well-known stylists. Young.duende whatever you like to call it .personality or whatever . to say that someone 'so unds just like' a well-known somebody is usually meant as a compliment. of course. 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. it's still a certain kind of feeling that you're aiming for . Nobody is fooled. It is clear that the three stages . Something undeniably went wrong with the balance in jazz. to the limits of my ability. stems.a regard for the authenticity of the music and the intrinsically explorative nature of improvisation. a situation where increasingly the music became identified with the playing style of a handful of musicians. so. which 1 think is a good thing. I'm )'0\1' . So the pressure to conform. enraged. attitudes towards improvisation dependent on one's talent and one's capabilities. and everything you try seems to come off. as 1 get older.inspiration . This situation.' For the rest the only game was follow the leader.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. but what I'm happy to do is to try and play in such a way that it would be recognisable as me. There can be a danger when you're playing that. 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. The diSCiple. the vast majority of players. shouted at hom 'You ain 't you.' 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. Strangely enough. 52 53 . also by the influences that other players before you or your contemporaries have had. One becomes much happier to sound like oneself rather than sounding like one of the recognised great tenor saxophone players. and my technique feels worse than ever before. satisfactory.is disturbed.. it is very difficult because what seems to happen is that one becomes unconscious of playing. the learning method in any idiomatic improvisation does have obvious dangers. from practices which are an intrinsic part of it. it becomes as if something else has taken over and you're just an intermediary between whatever else and the instrument. One of his admire<s. not the least of which is the admiration of those musicians less successfully attempting the same thing. In jazz. if I didn't sound like whoever was the main man. a musician 01 beaulifulunpredlCtabi~ry. as far as the original question is concerned. For a performer. to be reduced to two stages with the hardest step. identical in every detail. which can be one of the main drawbacks in any improvised music. to take it in purely innovative directions or to lead it into unconscious self-parody.choosing a master. then 1 didn't feel happy about it. omitted. As I say. but the main ••• Jazz provides a good example of the dangers of sequacity in a largely improvised music. a concern for authenticity most easily avoids deterioratin~ into formalism when its expression is unselfconscious. 1 TheJe illII'I unlikely·sounding but probably true Story about LestIII' Young.or unconsciously aiming fOT . and it would express something to people about the way 1 feel about things.a happy conjunction of conditions and events and middle attitudes -it will feel good. Firstly. a tenor player whose style 04 plaY'"!! ~as based e_elusively on Lesler"s..) In fact it is common in jazz to find exact. Imitating the style and instrumental habits of a famous player who is in all probability a virtuoso is not necessarily an easy matter and. produced a QUite uncnaractlll'istlC performance. or at least. When the balance between these two forces . This is something that 1 find myself. by these imitations except. the effect is to drag the music one way or the other. . how do I judge whether what I've played is . and then played in public. of course. The second danger is in the search for authenticity. There is a certain kind of feeling one gets when one finds oneself influenced by great players. absorbing his skills through practical imitation. the number of acceptable models appears to get smaller as time goes on. growing farther and farther away from. is invariably identified by association with or reference to one of the 'great' players on his instrument (' he plays like . there are so many..musically. to be no more than a very good imitator is considerable. 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.

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

to play the tunes. to cover the whole of jazz with this label. say. re-trenchment. who works. the commitment to jazz through improvisation remains unchanged. pointing instead to the perceived advantages in the present situation. Anthony Braxton. showing the courage which has been evident throughout his career. Just get up and play. But I think that jazz. Cecil Taylor. there's little sign. And it all stems from improvisation. as did many of his great predecessors. really excites me. being an intellectual {as was Charlie Parker}. as ritualised and as un-free. Stemming from attitudes held in free jazz the intention is. and then all the time. But it all had a lot to do with the musical environment. he very much represents one of the older jazz traditions. Always being on the brink of the unknown and being prepared for the leap. a half hour there. as any of the music against which it rebelled. which can only be obtained by improvisation. to quote Duke Ellington.all the usual euphemisms for a period of stagnation and reaction . almost forty years after his first explorations and discoveries. And you just played. It's a matter of life and death. And then it stayed that way for a couple of years. In recent yea rs there has been a movement towards a new conception of jazz as 'black classical music'. after first greeting the free development with scorn and vituperation. It happened in gradual stages. he stands accused of just about all those things which have previously served to enrich and strengthen jazz. There would bea moment here. No tunes. typifies the present attitude in jazz to such a question. ••• In 1990. That is a freshness. consolidation . and diluting the musical putity of his ttadition (as was John Coltrane) . You have to get some kindred spirits. still looks to expand his playing horizons and. and a greater divisiveness in a music already prone to factionalism. something you cannot possibly get {rom writing. It was happening everywhere. And for Steve Lacy. Especially when I know that I can go all the way back with. A couple of by-products of jazz's retreat into academicism are an increase in the sort of critical rhetoric which. He ignored it. New Orleans music and on up to Cecil Taylor and en. This music. These are strange ambitions in a music which once so clearly demonstrated the empty fatuity of all these things. It is something to do with the 'edge'. And then the music is finished. attacking him for: betraying his race (as was Louis Armstrong). 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. I put it to him that the apparently inexhaustible succession of innovators which characterised jazz in its earlier days appears to have dried up. Braxton. I had an opportunity talk with Max Roach about some of these things. more and more it becomes a clearly defined rigid music. 'stinks the place up'. continues to seek out new situations and musical challenges. I think. I'm attracted to improvisation because of something I value. players unconstrained by either prevailing fashion or any single imposed aesthetic. was always concerned with degrees of freedom. self-consciously insisting on a set of values and judgements by which it can assess not only itself but everything around it. Roy Eldridge was <more free' than his predecessors. recognised by the musicians who work with him as an outstanding musical figure. And you have to keep it going otherwise you lose that freedom. In short. an evening.has turned much of free jazz into a music as forma l. There's a desire to present to the world a respectable 'official' face authenticated by a phalanx of academics and propagandists. As one of the founding fathers of modern jazz drumming and no stranger to any of the succeeding frontiers of jazz development. jazz has always had its share of unruly spirits. has ever since contrived to ignore it. the wealth of the legacy which is now available to jazz musicians. nothing. from the time it first began. 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. But of young players seeking adventure. a certain quality. And at the time that was in the air. He responded in a way which. a fifteen minutes there. 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. has been at various times a favourite target of the propagandists. an afternoon.anything for you. I think. Fortunately. that of innovation. a musician who has always valued independence and freedom. 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 . 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. 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. rationalisation. The way Louis Armstrong played was <more (ree' than earlier players. which has been developing throughout the twentieth century.oy it all and get so much out of it. So you just drop the tunes. an authority to counter-balance the institutional and academic authority of white classical music. to extend his tradition and not merely to celebrate it. Dizzy Gillespie was another stage and Cherry was another. In many respects it seems an appropriate move as increasingly jazz assumes the postures and attitudes of white classical music.

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. What I write is to take you to the edge safely so that you can go on out there and find this other stuff. 58 Sonny Rollins (Caroline Forbes) . especially in the way that it can take you to the edge.unknown. But really it is this other stuff that interests me and I think it forms the basic stuff of jazz.

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

Max Roach (Val Wilmer) .

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps none of this would matter if it were nor that musicians with this sort of background are sometimes asked to improvise. Stephen Hicks. the music doesn't belong to him. start off and say: Tm not going to pay a tremendous amount of attention to the notational aspects of it. There are. of its nature. and the performer's primary responsibility is to preserve it from damage. performing music is a matter of being a highly skilled executant in a well-rehearsed ensemble. mentioned earlier by Earle Brown. You might be asked to play complicated rhythms.an utterly alien activity. Performance in classical music seems designed to disprove that idea. this composition. Music is precious and performance constitutes a threat to its existence. the gestures . to start off by trying to 66 67 . if you are improvising.certainly I don't think any of them ever try it twice. In the straight world the performer approaches music on tiptoe.' The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1954). You might be asked to play things the execution of which demands complete concentration. the organist. didn't believe in him.. you know. of course. seems by implication rather unkind to the non-improvisor. 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 . I tend. Earle Brown: 'As a matter of fact. Also. At its highest. He's allowed to handle it but then only under the strictest supervision. there are very few composers na"ive enough to instruct the normal symphony orchestra to improvise . with practice. You see. From this stems the view of improvisation as a frivolous or even a sacrilegious activity. You can. He is expressing a recognition that music is. 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. because they can't see into it. 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. ' Steve Howe pointed to a disadvantage shared by most non-improvisors: <If they've had classical training they usually can't improvise . 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. 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. an attitude which unquestioningly accepts the physical and hierarchical separation of playing and creating. musicians who not only cannot improvise but to whom the whole activity is incomprehensible.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. Fortunately. A high measure of skill in other aspects of instrumental playing is no guarantee of the ability to improvise. somewhere. who at the time of our conversation was with the London Sinfonietta. So. An attitude which could not appreciate something like: 'You hear people trying out things. As might be expected.' Any sort of strict classical training does seem to be the biggest single handicap to improvising. you have to deal with. Somebody. has gone through a lot of trouble to create this thing. or even interest in.. which defines improvisation as 'The art of thinking and performing music simultaneously'. he has to be careful. And the biggest handicap inflicted by that training is the instilling of a deeply reverential attitude towards the creation of music. changeable. ' 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. It is undeniable that for many musicians. when you play modern music you often come upon very difficult technica l situations.the sort of thing that.' Now. music is a divine ideal conceived by a super-mortal. the non-improvisor is usually to be found in classical music. improvisa tion. how simple it really is. however. But it does seem that to be trained solely for that role is probably the worst possible preparation for improvisation. He described for me some of the problems he had experienced in this situation. not fixed and is always malleable. In which case performance becomes a form of genuflection. but initially I'm going to decide what the music is about. and it is also true that this role has its satisfactions. 'If they have absolute control and a real knowledge of harmony then. These specialist ensembles. anyone can improvise. but he can even he found in areas of music where improvisation plays an integral part. when I'm approaching a modern score. with some modern music. some of the most brilliant performers on instruments go completely dead if you ask them to imagine something. Anthony Pay. had never improvised and probably never considered improvising until confron ted with the necessity to do so in his work with the Sinfonietta. They do not necessarily have any knowledge of. the distinguished clarinettist.and language .

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

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

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

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

the realisation of a pre·ordained result through improvisation. even. as in everything else. and those who are excited by what is actually going on. He thought that to some extent this might be so.then improvise . I suggested that this rejection of modern music often accompanied. has changed radically. They think it's terrible. His aim is not. For a composer to give an improvisor a piece of music which said. over a number of years. dressed as it is in armour which it assumes to be more appropriate to the times. or more accurately. overriding all: accessibility. listening to all kinds of music and creating a personal approach towards our instrument . committed and involved with something which is purely notated. 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.a kind of live musique concrete. now has quite a different look. who are free of their instrument to that extent. As he describes. improvisors. And it is only the really great instrumentalists who can do that.then improvise then play this figure . but the stimulation. 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. a recognition that improvisation is a creative force of incalculable power. between those who regard contemporary music as being largely arbitrary and basically unmusical.IN PRACTICE (2) Since the foregoing discussions. There is evide nce. revival. ·The following is taken from a number of conversations held in 1990 and '91. not simply a way of achieving a more or less interesting set of instrumental devices. an almost religious allegiance to tonality. as is usually the case. and was possibly caused by.which is improvising.then improvise'. But it seems to me that musicians obviously have to be interested in what's going on. or the releasing. to me. repetition. retrospective. the situation in contemporary composition. 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. John Zorn composes in a variety of contexts and genres and is perhaps best known for what have been described as 'vernacular' pieces . There are people who seem inherently incapable of understanding what it means to play modern music. flinching from the no·nonsense philistinism which characterised the 1980s. that was defeating the purpose of what these people had developed. which was a very particular way of relating 74 75 . of a more sophisticated approach. He has also written. of being able to step outside the inhibition that notation produces. We grew through playing with each other. it still seems to find a way into this music. they think it has nothing to do with music. other key words are usually preceded by 'neo' or 'post'. then I still think that combination is probably the highest form of instrumental talent that there is. While these developments can hardly be expected to provide much of a stimulus for improvisation. THE COMPOSER . and do something which is your own and relevant. and also be capable of being free. a series of compositions which deal with improvisation. Key words now are retrenchment. including popular styles .have a feeling for what modern music is trying to convey. 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 . carried out in the early 1970s.abrupt juxtapositions of different musics.then play with this guy .. and continued: I think there is a great split between musicians nowadays. An improvisor wants to have the freedom to do anything at any time. 'New Music'. of the network of relationships possible between a group of players. 'play these melodies .

composers create an arc on a time line. But what you play is totally up to you and who you decide to play with is up to you. Someone could give another downbeat. And [ was interested in those relationships. you know.. There. I point to the people who are chosen at the downbeat and those people play. then there are other calls that create games within the group. . if they want to do something like play solo or play duo. without getting too specific') of just how Cobra worked. Tradmg systems. eliminating the idea that the composer has to create in an are.just briefly. I found. waS in a piece like Cobra where the sequence of events can be ordered at any time by anyone. It doesn't matter what they change it to. which was done in '79. Everybody is vilal. Where I really started eliminating the time line. so thick.one card is music change. which is a very specific call: <[ want to play with this person '. 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(. like Lacrosse. There's nothing specific. You need people who are aggressive. Or the opposite of that would be something you saw a bunch of times loday: the group changes but the music stays the same. 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. so that. 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. You lake one person out and the chemistry is going to be different. Then at the downbeat we actualise that. l~'s true [ pick the bands and in that sense the Ellington tradition. Some of these cues are meant to create specific permutations of players ltke a duo or a trio. you need people who are going to be docile. just as long as it changes. [ just created relationships. Hockey. or have the whole band play. But rehearsal. have a kind of oral tradition. like the <runner' downbeat. Fencing. that's in practice. Then there are memory systems. 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. Its like that with choosing bands for these game pieces. I was very influenced by these complex war games and I like the idea of the guerrilla systems in Cobra. they can actualise that. and I got bored with those and started using war games. The group stays the same but the style of the musIc changes. and if you write the rules out for the game Cobra they are impossible to decipher. The series of compositions that Zorn has written dealing with improvisation are based on games or 'game plans'. it's very simple. 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 . My early game pieces were sports.ways of when you hear something you like. 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. But when someone explains the practice of it. These games. a structure that begins in one place. it's logged into a memory and then recalled later . 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. Everything I learned in myoId pieces got incorporated in the next piece and so on. is a long list of a hundred and thirty-odd combinations for a twelve-piece group.. but there's a training in how to incorporate the instructions into their playing and an investigation of the possibilities opened up by them. if three people w~o ~ren't playing raise their hands and people who are playing choose them to Imitate their sounds. Cobra is like the sum total of working with these game pieces. A piece like Archery. 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. Well. goes to a middle and then ends. like Cobra. is crucial for Zorn's piece and. kind of bookshelf games. Each one cued by the downbeat of a card. Its more the ar people themselves that are important. you need a wide variety to really get th. Here's what his instructions look like written down : I've created a series of about twenty different systems. at any moment in the piece. you need people with a sense of humour y~u nee~ people who are ass holes. 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 ". Say. So you have a very clear idea who's not gonna play. I began com posing my game pieces by using a time line but abstracting everything away from sound and talking about people. is very important. There's a substitute change.to their instruments and to each other. Pool. nobody is told what they should play. The rule books were intense.' Traditionally. 76 77 . the selectIon of the people. Anyone of these basic systems can be called at any time by anyone of the players at their whim. echoing something noted by Cornelius Cardew. rehearsal is a kind of training. abstract concepts that the players can order in any way they want.

While others are.IN QUESTION The debate about how composition can best utilise improvisation.'we all have blank pages'. for whom he worked for many years. instrument-maker and composer. People are given power and it's very interesting to see which people like to run away (rom it. THE COMPOSER . Looking at the elements of this text that relate to musical structures and procedures. Hugh Davies. 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. Here are two different views expressed by experienced improvisors about working both under the direction of a score. Some players are really kind o( conceptual. It really becames like a psycho drama. They are both discussing working with the type of composition in which the performer is called upon to provide all aspects of the music. others try very hard to get more control and more power. is of only peripheral interest. to some players. So it's very much like the political arena in a certain kind o( sense. improvisor. creating problems. These players consider improvisation to be an activity which has no necessary connection with composition at all. 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. using these signals and trying to create some kind o( compositional flow in their heads spontaneously. is discussing the performance of a piece by Stockhausen. who are very docile and iust do what they are told. For each sound a player may choose to playa texture more complex than a single pitch. As Earle Brown says. It is 'Intensitat' from Aus den Sieben Tagen and it is a so-called text~ piece. and also without a score . and there are some of us who prefer filling our blank pages with our own signs rather than with those of other people. while of interest to the composers concerned. 78 79 .I basically create a small society and everybody finds their own position in that society. Most improvisors do both. at the beginning it has 'play single sounds'. 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.in the free situation. 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. thinking about structuring a piece o( music. Those are all valid positions to be in in the society that exists on stage when these pieces happen. Both musicians have a central interest in improvisation. But we are a minority. I think I am that kind of player. not to say irrelevant. you know.

glissandi.by 'tone/note'}. taking into account as it does much more than the composer and his muse. 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. especially in an ensemble that works together regularly and specialises in such areas of music. 'with such dedication/until you feel the warmth/that radiates from you'. and since it concerns itself with the description 80 81 . I'm suggesting that if anyone in the production of a music event is dispensable. Finally 'play on and sustain it/as long as you can' gives an indication of the way in which the performance ends. one 'becomes the music'. Things are added. Everyone can recognise differences between the score and the performance. altered or taken away. It's a very beautiful score to read . 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. 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. and then everything happens intuitively . it is the score-maker. Nonetheless the most careful consideration of all the unknowns before the event cannot guarantee that the music will fit the occasion.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 . 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. conducted or un conducted as his preference dictates? Ifit is objected that this attitude is too unemotional. even though the nature of it is such that one need only think the text over quietly to oneself before starting to play. where some of the durations are measured in hundreds of years . alone or with others. gave his views on this subject in an address to the Society for the Promotion of New Music. to compare with others of its type.one need not be fully conscious of what one is playing. implies a development of this basic element. I suppose the implication in all this is obvious. It has never existed for me except as something to look at and think about.' Leaving aside the score as the embodiment of an ideal performance. where it will be played. In many ways this is very close to a group improvisation. While this has presumably always been the case. the saxophonist. 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. In fact I think that this possibility has already been noted and acted on by some score-makers. That's an idea I can have much more sympathy with. psychological and other less tangible atmospheric conditions in effect at the time the music is played. No direct co-ordination between the players is mentioned. 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. Other ingredients that a composer with this attitude might include are: performability. including the probability that the performers will individually introduce new elements from time to time. crescendi. which musicians will be playing the piece. That symphony of Nam-June Paik's for example. Performing such a piece. 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. ••• Evan Parker. how much rehearsal time. acoustic. 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.one remains aware of the composer influencing the performance from a distance through his score. The following is an excerpt: I am a performing musician. then I would reply that the score is itself too unemotional.. The continuation. There will still be some slack to be taken up between what the score says and what it means . but 1 don't use scores and it's not that the score has refined itself out of existence. with the difference that . even possibly how the audience might react. Now that I am forced to rationalise this attitude. a score can also be considered a recipe for possible music-making. as Werner Goldschmidt seemed to think was the case for the New Phonic Arts Group. the gap between score and performance is perhaps wider in much contemporary music than ever before.. one is very conscious of playing a definite composition. but always with the tendency towards increasing the intensity of their play and their involvement in the production of each sound.

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

improvisation on the piano was a neoessily 01 his I~e. including most forms of improvisation to be found in the West. In a rather similar way Cardew's objections to his situation were later to take a purely political form. . others by its possibilities for individual expression. 1 Alexander Moslkowski reported that in 1919 Einst9ln told him ·. Firstly from the effect this had in jazz. no musical ab ility and no musical knowledge or experience of any kind. There is.. and secondly from the results of the much earlier developments in musical language in European straight music.. 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'. philosophical.the simplest and most direct expression: a lifetime's study and work or a casual dilettante activity. . They are however totally different from each other.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. So I propose to base my account of free improvisation largely on my own playing experiences within the music. But these documents also indicate that for musicians of integrity.locaf"lCfl In this account but it does "'OVid ""_ . is of far greater significance than the purely musical matters dealt with here. no general view to be given. wishing for a direct.. • ••• Opinions about free music are plentiful and differ widely. be quite beyond me. ex~ pemaps to menhon that my . Perhaps I can confine myself to the obvious assumption that much of the impetus toward free improvisation came from the questioning of musical language. in either field. 84 8S .wroting 01 the hIstory 01 the begInnings of Iree Ifl"IprovISShon.e. but whenever possible I shall quote other views and opinions.s it. It is necessary to point out that for Leo Smith the predicament of the black man in America.to the increaSingly frequent .wtuch lett me totatty confused and alienated _ was in t 95 7 1r h was a conlrontatlOfl which has no musical SlOn. . 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. 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. 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. religious and political explanations. There are those for whom it is an activity requiring no instrumental skill. e some eVh••"nce that froo ImprOVisatIOn wasn't 'started' by anybody. nor to give a definitive account of the groups mentioned. the questioning of the 'rules' governing musical language. whose conventions had. Every journey that takes hIm away lrom the insltument lor some tIme excites a ho!ne-sidlness lor his piano. to the view that it is complicated beyond discussion. each reflecting perfectly one of the twin approaches to free improvisation which took place in the sixties. unadulterated involvement in music. Some are attracted to it by its possibilities for musical togetherness. as far as I know. 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. giving them u"erartee In improvisations. and others who believe it can only be reached by employing a highly sophisticated. 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. I should emphasise that it is not my intention to try and present an overall picture of the free music scene. which was the most widely practised improvised music at the time of the rise of free improvisation. until this time. the way to free improvisation was the obvious escape from the rigidity and formalism of their respective musical backgrounds. I am sure. . stlnVOlvement W1th It .. i. particularly as this applies to the black musician. personal technique of virtuosic dimensions. Objectivity will. Or more correctly. exerted a quite remarkable influence over many types of music. which is from his Treatise Handbook (published by Peters Edition).' Conversations wilh Einstein. And both accounts are valid. but I shall have to leave those to authors with the appropriate appetite and ability. published 1921 . 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. 2 ~ Nor.

Initially. that it wasn't free. A soloist would now stay on each cho rd for as long as he wished to improvise on it. and studios meant that I was always in touch with some of the practical usages of improvisation .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 . and even more so in retrospect. they consisted in accepting the implications of the most logical and appropriate developments in our playing. We spent much time playing modally.esl in earty 20th century English music. He and Bryars practised working with this until the feeling of a regular pulse was totally removed. The main distortion of this retrospective description is to greatly simplify the whole process and. creating not a poly-rhythmic effect but a non-rhythmi c effect. enthusiasms. 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. was to escape from the lack of tension endemic in to nal or modal pitch constructions. It is important to stress that the following are recollections of what happened. As far as one can tell. The improvisation was on set chord sequences. It was modal. phrases and designs are based seemed to us 86 87 . not wholesale. It was a release from the dogma of the beat.' The move away from a set harmonic sequence was to modal playing. most particularly. Except. The musicians in the group were Gavin Bryars.from Bill Evans through John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy to Albert Ayler-while Bryars' interest was in contemporary composers: Messiaen. the chord about to played. This was probably the easiest way to starr. In fact. Boulez. which of course overlapped in all directions. and played in time. obsessions. usually jazz standards. Joseph (sometmes Josef) Ho/brOOke. In order to escape the constant threat of the eternally suspended resolution we turned our attention to intervallic manipulation of pitch. 1\ seemed a good cover lor OUI actiVities. it provided a base from which we could explore rhythmic and sca lar relationships fairly freely. But it seems that almost from the very beginning there was a movement to expand these boundaries. We were also following at that time certain aspects of the recorded work of Scott La Faro and John Coltrane. we were playing fairly conventionally in a jazz manner. search to find something that was logical and right. The 'tension and release' myth upon which most scalar and arpeggio patterns. in which the soloist improvised not on the chord being played but on the follow ing chord. Still. Our influences here were partly a belated interest in Webern and partly some aspects of John Coltrane's improvisations. or at least appropriate. Simplified. Tony Oxley: 'This was rhythmically very useful to me. Cage and their followers. to replace the inherited things which we found stilted. Additionally. harmonic experiments were taking place. in all cases it was more an emotional. however.it was the other two members of the group who provided the twin bases for the development into free improvisation. although (tealng something of a slir in hiS own lifetime has been atmosI1OtaIIy ignored Since.. 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. and following where they led. more calculated. 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.. intellectual character than it actually had. 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. once descrbId as the 'cockney Wagner'. and myself.. 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. The stages of our collective development from playing a standard idiomatic improvisation through to playing freely improvised music seemed at the time. moves. Stockhausen. The regular metre was always under attack. or instinctive. of course. making the change to the next cho rd how and when he wished. the music a more deliberate. was a composer 01 prodigious output who. systematically so when Tony Oxley evolved a method of super-imposing a different time feel over the original. tnvestigalions about ~ produced diIIer-ent dates lot hiS birth (1875 Of t878) and diIIerent dates lor hi. and our earliest 'free' improvisations had a definite modal orientation.JOSEPH HOLBROOKE' This group. While my background as a professional 'commercial' musician employed in dance halls. an example of which is a composition of Bryars'. Tony Oxley the percussionist. night clubs. From then on it continued to play both totally improvised and part-improvised pieces. a more or less conventional tune in 3/4 time. which existed from 1963 to 1966. One of the first of these was to break the metre down. the position was that Oxley provided the connection and interest in what were then contemporary jazz developments . 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. initially played conventional jazz and by 1965 was playing totally improvised pieces. almost imperceptible. This combination of interests. The main stimulus. who was then a bass player. taking his accompanists with him. moribund and formal.

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

But it was not a uniform texture. During this period we worked every evening in a nightclub. on single sounds. and after that there was a complete ignoring of possible jazz aspects in the playing. I was barely interested in jazz at all.carries its own judgements and intentions and is not something simply tagged on to the end of jazz. that was based on jazz. There was a social aspect to the activity and there was some sort of respect . It wasn't for dramatic effect but it did produce that. In fact the last time I can recall any outside jazz reference was when Tony taped a Czechoslovakian group from the radio. Most audiences appear to prefer knowing exactly what they are going to get. I think one reason that the audience stuck with us was that the music did have a powerful dramatic quality. when we were prepared to let people be on their own for long periods. following jazz events in America. It wasn't austere though. but now we moved from the shallow to the deep end. I was not listening to other bass players then. I remember the long bass solos where the room was absolutely silent and actua lly. 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. these developments came about mainly through private. an environment where the response to this kind of thing. adding whoever might be interested to play with us. In those earlier things there was a certain energy. more sparse. Things came and went. things did change and resolve. melodically and rhythmically in areas that were very remote from the original material. something I hadn't really expected. we were always vaguely suspicious that they didn't understand what was going on. So. the bulk of them coming to the 'club' throughout its existence. The fact that we did all that meant that the music retained some coherence. Gavin Bryars: I think it worked for a lot of reasons. 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. But it was the case that the only outlet for this thing we were doing was through a situation. Gavin Bryars: We never fully accepted other musicians into the group.a recognition of our seriousness. 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. Making sure that we didn't do anything superf/uous. But there were times. Arco things were. I think. absolutely voluptuous. Messiaen at that time became a particular study of mine and I bought a lot of his scores and also the recording ofChronocromie. We spent a lot of attention. there wasn't much coming out of the bass either. Our audience couldn't have been sure of that. And a number of musicians were interested but as time went on the group obviously presented increasing difficulties to 'sitters in'. There was a sense of expectancy. Except LaFaro and that was for nostalgic reasons. We were already working harmonically. During that time we collected a small audience which attended these performances with astonishing regularity and faithfulness. 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. daytime.in the music. At that time I got the '61 Cage catalogue and I ordered things every week through the local music shop. Although it did retain a rhythmic energy and certain jazz details. That was an enormous liberating force. although one welcomed their contribution.In fact there was an organ piece L'Ascension which I arranged for piano and bass which we played at the club. ••• In discussing Joseph Holbrooke with Gavin Bryars I mentioned being amazed that when we first played freely it appeared to work. their tolerance. And aurally our first excursions into free playing were probably very little different from our so-called 'conventional' playing. 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. although not uniformly hostile. So I was actually listening to and thinking about and studying classical music far more than anything else. and a music really. We had been in that 'swimming' situation before. 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. a certain questioning going on that was exciting. We stopped. sometimes. They hadn't been through that period of working together and. perhaps. I would play very quiet harmonics with the bow and get the volume very low indeed. In fact it could sound. The earlier stuff served as a sort of training. I think. individually and collectively. I asked Gavin Bryars what he thought the reasons were for their faithfulness or. And I didn't want to hear it. It was certainly quite different from most other jazz clubs in the area. particularly later. 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. and so it had a kind of drama. It was very subjective. There was a very tight concentration . after a while. For instan ce we would have the 90 91 .almost a Zen quality . By about '65 though. could carry drastic sanctions. There was nothing that could be called decoration. It was at the club that we occasionally augmented the basic trio.

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

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

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

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

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

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

the efforts of an improvisor to make sense of the solo situation have been described as noble. The intermittent fuss over the validity of recording improvisation overlooks certain realities. referring to the last twelve months of the group's existence. Evan Parker. but no general view emerged that I could detect so again I'll attempt. unlike other recorded music. This. Alternating periods 104 105 . Recording is an adjunct to all musical activities except those which exist as an adjunct to recording. SOLO ••• Compared to some groups. The ideal way of doing this. Features which. to be a sign of good breeding. as a rule. has changed considerably as time has gone on. most improvisors investigate the possibility of playing solo. Curiously. preferring to work with other musicians in any combination from duo up to quite inexplicably large ensembles. a preferable one. never outdone in hyperbole. musically gregarious. without too much optimism. to which I will return. in our own time. if it could supply everything that I wanted in a musical performance. concerns solo playing. The last few occasions the M. after a considerable time thinking only in group terms. but there are also accounts describing the popularity of solo improvising on all the string and keyboard instruments. My conversations with other improvisors on the topic of solo playing produced a variety of opinions. apparently. 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. the Music Improvisation Company had a relatively short life span. I'm ready to play with anyone. apparently. and after a particularly fruitful late period. at some time or other. in fact. perhaps the only way. says: Being part of the group through this period opened me to the point where. the instrument I play. 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. Historically. around 1970/71 after a period of some years playing in improvising groups of many different styles and sizes. Solo improvising. the earliest documentation of improvisation. although a vehicle for self expression. For me there has always been an attraction in solo playing. But when. C. In this respect solo improvisation makes no sense at all. there is no apparent economic justification for it. Much of this deals with the organ. I did so out of necessity. although completely unique and personal to that group or individual. That it should provide evidence of musical identity or of changes in identity is all that is usually claimed for a recording. Improvisors are. like a photograph of a dancer. almost the only documentation of improvisation. For most people improvisation. for the majority of people.l. when the wind's in the right direction. I turned almost exclusively to solo improvising. a gramophone record gives us only a frozen or fixed moment. was through a period of solo playing. Many of the reservations expressed about recorded improvisation apply equally well to other recorded music. Perhaps the debate over recording improvised music keeps rearing its head because. The need. attained a quite exceptional preeminence in Europe during the 17th century when great facility in this art was considered.' All that a recording can offer are certain identifiable features. However. to describe what I think is my own approach to solo playing. Records simply supply a different listening experience to listening 'live'.plays an essential part. played remain sharply etched in my memory and are amongst my most highly valued playing experiences. it seemed to me. perhaps partly explained by the nature and tradition of the guitar. are useful only for purposes of identification. is about playing with other people and some of the greatest opportunities provided by free improvisation are in the exploration of relationships between players. After less than three years. The implications of this for the permanence of my present assumptions will be obvious. I wanted to know if the language I was using was complete. it came apart. I find.

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

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

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

Whitmer: 'In expansion the form is generated. but on this occasion I think I had lost touch with the instrument a bit. 1 had been reading Cage and had been involving myself more in questions of aesthetics and composition. improvisation has meant the freeing of form that it may more readily accommodate my imagination. I decided to stop working as a practicing musician. those who can. This was the general background. What follows is a transcription of a conversation between Gavin Bryars and myself in which he describes his disenchantment with improvisation. of whatever persuasion. One of them was the last time Joseph Holbrooke played 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. who have considerable experience of improvisation. Carl T. Just achieving the 'general effect' type of playing didn't interest me.' Frank Perry. events remembered and events anticipated can act on the present moment. are adequately answered by solo playing. I had always been insistent that technically I had to know exactly what 1 was doing on the instrument. who by his performance convinced me that he had no idea of what he was doing. Whatever the advantages to solo playing there is a whole side to improvisation. and so guarantee his own continuing involvement. essential. telepathic foundation. The essence of improvisa· tion. and who have found it. 1 thought he was playing a part. the more magical side. And the possible musical dimensions of group playing far outstrip those of solo playing. since we had worked together and because of the demands of teaching I had not spent very much time practising the bass. I think. as far as I could see he had no idea what he was doing . There was a bass player. 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. Then I witnessed some of the things that were going on in the London scene at that time. There are. those who cannot. as often as one wishes without having to enter into a permanent commitment to any stylistic or aesthetic position. 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. at times. Perhaps this is a good point at which to acknowledge that the world is not divided into improvisors. And he was doing his fantastic runs and so on and although it sounded in the genre. but relies only on the player's ability to develop his music. musicians who can improvise. For some time before that I had been getting more and more interested in theoretical aspects of music. perhaps. for various reasons. its intuitive. but it provides many rewards and is. maybe months. Paradoxically.he was a clown. This might be. and non-improvisors. As Evan Parker says: 'Improvisation makes its own form'. He had no conceptual awareness of what he ought to be doing.' OBJECTIONS ••• The need to isolate and examine the problems of language. which can only be discovered by people playing together. I have found that the best base from which to approach group playing is that of being a solo improvisor. the ideal situation for an improvisor. 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 . for instance. the percussionist: 'For me. There had been quite a long gap. Simultaneously. And that seemed morally wrong. Having no group loyalties to offend and having solo playing as an ultimate resource. is best explored in a group situation.PART6 events as well as guiding the over-all pacing of the piece. the more exciting. to connect and to extend it. not least because the easier it becomes to play solo the harder it becomes to improvise solo. the appropriate thing in the context. of course. When we played together regularly I was always playing. it is possible to play with other musicians. to give up the playing job I was doing and go into teaching. to maintain its evolution. But 1 can point to certain specific occasions which 1 can now recognise as being significant in my turning from improvisation. I think it also indicates one of the main differences between a composer's and an improvisor's attitude towards making music. and similarly. Maintaining solo playing which remains meaningful from an improvising point of view is an elusive business. But ultimately the greatest rewards in free improvisation are to be gained in playing with other people. unacceptable to them.

You can do something you didn't realise you were capable of. but later I found more and more with improvisation . Things that can happen but perhaps rarely do. Possibly I'm criticising particular improvisors or particular improvisations. very closely identified with the player or group of players. because of the possibilities. The whole point of a jazz player's improvisation is that he works within a clearly accepted and circumscribed idiom. for a time. Something happens which so disorientates you that. which at that time needed repairing. Now that becomes impossible in improvisation. I found the situation usually produced less than the sum of its parts. It position. The epitome of that is the skilful jazz player. I couldn't reach an equal conceptual excellence in improvising as in composing. Because I can conceive of things that don't have any tangible could. on live electronics. 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. Now I wou ld have though that one of the main things free improvisation provides is the opportunity to avoid just that situation. usually.and the results of this type of thing are literally incalculable.own bass again after that. jazz or comedy or into very obvious forms such as you described. My armoury of devices and things you could do and then do them. which might only last for a second or two. And because of that the music. But later I met musicians who gave the lie to that. I could reach conceptions that I could never reach in a limited. defined. because they define his music. might be Joseph Holbrooke where three people produced over a period of years something they could not have achieved individually or. That's right. your reactions and responses are not what they normally would be. but. It's corporeal. And then you suddenly find yourself in the business of peddling 'my music'. be very sophisticated. Another aspect of the same problem is that the longer you play in the same situation or group . I had always thought that too. The inadequacy may have been in myself. and my own bass. Aren't these things which it is impossible to identify with? Wouldn't this be an doing it with Joseph Holbrooke. then that's real. In improvisation you could develop a whole free improvisation is very often confused in its identity or in its attempt to find an identity. could not have expected to achieve collectively. very personalised. firstly to get hold of it. if so. after going to America and studying with Cage. and that's why I admired it and enjoyed reality. I could only get out of improvisation what I brought into it. some of the playing that was going on around 1967 and '68 I was becoming more and more ideologically opposed to improvisation. 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 . but you were always going to finish up manipulating those things you had developed.my own improvisation maybe . But if I'm playing them. But I believe that that ossifying effect can be counteracted by playing with as many different sorts of improvisor as possible. in improvisation. The tendency is often for the music to slide off into some more readily identifiable area. doesn't stand alone.the less appropriate it becomes to describe the music as 'free' anything. Now on the other hand. In the time you are referring to. Later. In fact 114 115 . and returning here and joining in. That sort of arc happened every time. But it does seem difficult. to keep hold of it. and then finished quietly. One of those things is that you are 'taken out of yourseW. and secondly. in fact. Distancing yourself from what you are doing. I knew they were practising effects during the day and playing them in the 'improvisation' at night. It's not a conception. I found that by composing I could. If there are no more formal devices than that it's pretty empty. is to stand apart from one's creation. And he accepts these boundaries. there was a lot of confus ion between free improvisation and free jazz. something big in the middle. if you worked very hard. And pieces always started tentatively. You might permutate the order but you were limited to those things you could do. Another example.that I got no more out of it than I brought to it. Unlike the situation in Sheffield. 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. To a lesser extent it still exists. A lot of improvisors find improvisation worthwhile. the late '60s. through the study of Zen and Cage. If I write a piece I don't even have to be there when it is played. But now I come to think of it that wasn 't the case when we played in Sheffield. etcetera. I have played other basses in a number of fairly undemanding situations but from then on I did no further work on the bass. It was not possible to transcend the situation I was playing in. I'm more interested in conception than reality. I began to find improvisation a dead end. Composing. if I'm there at the same time. still needs repairing. Or you don't appear to be fully responsible for what you are doing. performing time. The creator is there making the music and is identified with the music and the music with the person. I was limited entirely by my own personality and by that of the people I played with. in fact revels in them. on a totally different time scale. I think. It becomes. They are conceptions. The two things are seen to be synonymous. Yet I think there is a type of playing which it is appropriate to describe as free improvisation. I transferred it to improvising.and this certainly applies to playing solo . And the call and response type of playing adopted by so many improvising musicians was unattractive to me.

Eventually I found myself playing this music again. 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. to put forward the view that their music is as important as any other music of the twentieth century. My main objections to improvisation have not been eradicated. I could describe it. on occasions. I talked about people like Bill Evans. they have been assimilated into a broader musical practice. I found myself talking about jazz in a historical context too. I have found myself being drawn back into improvisation. of serial composition. chiefly because of the demands of teaching. help inform the atmosphere of the department. or embryo musicians if you like. say. Lennie Tristano. I think. This 'distant' approach corresponds a little to the way that I was composing during the early 1970s. initially not on my own bass but on a poor college bass (made. at least not at undergraduate level or when they are encountering the music for the first time.although I did even find improvisational painters less interesting to me than those who took a more considered. for example.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. Some years later Gavin resumed improvising. and of the unity of performer and music. In a way my ongoing caveats about improvisation no longer come from a possible hostility between the improvisor and the composer. the kind of difficulties or hangups that I'd had as a player or as a composer. my own tastes. If I have to experience improvisation I would rather it be as a player than from the outside. 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 . Scott LaFaro and others. Serious improvisors like Evan Parker and Paul Rutherford began to work as instrumental teachers and. of Czechoslovakian plywood). In 1991 he described how that came about and gave his current views on 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. 116 117 . This gave me little sensation of what playing such music was like. but at least it gave the students some experience of being accompanied. 1 also put improvising musicians into part-time teaching positions. with my own compositional work. *** The above conversation took place in 1975. Only if 1 were pressed would I express my own feelings about the music. I have also found that more and more. cerebral approach! But once I started teaching music again. The music doesn't exist elsewhere as some general concept. Perhaps the following sequence of events might make this clear. in the past. and a number of visiting musicians contributed to these projects. 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. on approaches to <free' improvisation. and I find recordings of improvisations seldom rewarding. Little by little I found myself moving more and more towards accepting the music and even tak:ng pleasure in hearing it. an aspect which 1 see as academically essential. of some aspects of European modernism) then my distaste for some of that music should not be transmitted to the students. So. for me. little by little. improvisation came alive again as an important aspect of a music curriculum. John Coltrane. the musicians I respect as colleagues or with whom 1 collaborate are those who have some experience of improvisation. and as it was hoped to be received. my own prejudices which arise from accumulated experience. My ambivalent feelings about improvisation are still there and some of my conceptual objections to it still remain. the middle period of Schoenberg. at the same time. that is dealing with musicians rather than visual artists. 1 could discuss it within a relatively objective framework and say what its merits are within its own terms. I did help by playing. Ornette Coleman. But of course some of the student musicians were aware that. If I was to give a history lecture about a composer for whose work I had little sympathy (I am thinking. I also developed improvisation projects for students. 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. but rather stem from my perception of difficulties within the activity of improvisation itself. That is. I had been a serious bass player and improvisor and asked me. The principal conceptual difficulties still remain for me: that of the personalising of music. in deciding what to teach one of the first things that concerned me was the need to avoid passing on to musicians. I find it above all uncomfortable to watch improvisors work. of. especially where they are being taught by a sceptic. should not be transmitted to them in such a way that they become their own unquestioned premises. if I would help them with their own work by playing with them. I felt that I should discuss the music as it is in itself.

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

it seems to me. They are going to examine that experience and try to decide how it happened and what they did to help it happen. in the continuum exercise. They are iust tpings that I can use. accenting the fa'. so. others deal with group involvement. you have already provided at led st a rhythmic element. say. Some of them deal with rhythm. that is what it is about.11oment by moment involvement. And they. . And that might seem better. and spontaneity. Now. But it also pas to be demanding enough of concentration to satisfy those who are mar. 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. you have to be prepared to let go of the development you have and go wherever the addition of those new people takes it. is that you will have some people for. The aim of teaching usually is to show people how to do something. And now it provides me with a great lift. 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. In which case you've improvised. I made a rule: I said to them 'You're coming here because you're supposed to want to play.) You get them to apply themselves to this ioint experience and some point arrives where we are all 'doing it'. if YOl.So if you say 'a phrase'.hing I would use is something else which is basic to people. Most teaching concerns itself with transmitting a type of proficiency. and there would be about 15 people in there all playing their arses off-great! The impact was iust beautiful. with some guidance. And the teaching comes in when you provide them with the group experience. I don't know how many there are.' say fa phrase is'. I alwars have the same sort of feeling. or to be able to do anything really. My object is to incorporate all the people in the room in an experience. What Stevens aims at. the feeling of wanting other people to have that same freedom .start playing. for instance. And sometimes I wonder 'What am I doing? I'm still doing this and worrying about it. 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. that's when the other bit comes in. none of what I'm doing here makes any sense whatsoever.nt by moment involvement and you are trapped into that. shall we say. and there is something developing. (Relatively free because my presence there as a 'teacher' is always a bit weird. We'll use the phrase 'a phrase' as an example. one of the things that I see as important. got me there during that timp· Then it was easy. technical ability or know-how. 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.' Well. When they walk away from there. as soon as you get in this room you are going to prove you want to play by getting on and playing. And as I traveued towards the place I would think: 'I'll have to give this up. So the pieces come out of a need til want to get across a certain experience I might have had. I carry them in my head. In a sense. like numbers. with imparting a skill. You're not actually singing. I found the best . Encouraging them to work empirically. the long note thing. a couple of new people will come in. developed musicians. It's becoming almost like a group. more complete. The energy came from them. By that I mean . I can never take it for granted.' And there was one period recently which. When I go out to do a workshop. A free playing experience. 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. walk into the room. If you don't want to do that.that group activity experience should 120 121 . whe!'l somebody repeats it they realise how close they are to taking part in music . was particularly hard. or improvisation classes. They are not written down. that took a long time to initiate but now there are always people playing together. The piece will be designed to require a mom. This is a room in which you can play. but in a musical context that can be very close. from the attempted playing experience. but it's a lot. This thing is so wide and over the years I've developed what you might call pieces and exercises. So. three weeks on the trot. Just counting numbers or using words.vay to transmit information that I had was to actually do it. And because it's simple. What's interesting. If you are going to say 'a phrase' and repeat it. 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. Another t. And walking inTo the room I'm always apprehensive.it. you are saying the words. I just don't have lhat sort of energy any more. because of other problems. and coupled with that. for instance. Whether they can play or not. the 'pUPils'. What I have to keep in touch with at the workshop is a feeling of freedom about playing music. the use of words. 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. the breathing is one part that any musician can concentrate on and find useful. you are going to say it in your own way and it's not so jar removed from singing. Then. and trusting that they will then learn. And they are going to try and work out how to make it happen again. though I've been doing it for a long time. If there are four or two or even if you are the first to arrive.any kind of music . if you are going to continue in music . Which they provide themselves anyway. Say. as soon as you get here . which do actually work. as I approach tEe place there is no real confidence in me about what is going to happen. It's got to go back to a common point. The thing about workshops. A phraie.' Then I would get there. They are my tools.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes 1 feel that I've made a terrible fool of myself But then 1 think. The people I invite are more often than not highly individual players.who I invite . But the structure and the intention of the Weeks have remained the same. when it came to doing it. to talk about these things. I was quite worried about it. Any kind 01 obj8CIiYe anaJysis is very remole from. the development. after all. Assumptions have to be dumped. unfamiliar situations. to make improvisation a necessity. Maybe you could hear that in the last piece we played tonight. And although I kept saying to myself' Look. the degree of unfamiliarity and the potential for compatibility. 1 shall never forget it. The time avai lab le. everything. who took part in some of the earliest events. no. the singer Vanessa Mackness does. Except. that absence is missing. Whatever the initial difficulties and in spite of the obvious risks. 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 ability to respond instinctively and constructively to new and 1 . the way of choosing the groups. 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. to sort out the various musical signposts. practices usually taken for granted can no longer be relied upon.'ve found writing about Company the fI'I05t diffICUlt part 01 putting this booII IOgeIher.There is. so to speak. in 1988 we had 29 people. There is an intimacy about this process . About playing on that Week. the musicians invited. the indications of intent that are common sensory practice. It also requires patience both from the musicians and the audience. included two non-improvisors . Sometimes a wild card can be very effective. 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. Occasionally . it 136 137 . at times. distinctive in instrumental styles and artistic attitudes. which has widened. known or unknown. seem right. ••• The assembling of a Company Week .building music through group improvisation . My impression is that an improvisor having to deal with a non-improvisor finds it totally different to having to deal with another improvisor. The WeeI\s partic:ularty are emotiOnal.which. you have to be prepared for that. It calls for musical generosity. Leo Smith. That really does take maturity. Not too many people have the courage.Anthony Pay. looks at it like this: Whenever 1 play with Company 1 play the music of Company. Chris Blackford and Kenneth Ansell tor their suggestlOllS and the use 01 inlerview material in this chaplar. [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. 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. once the process is underway people seem to become immersed in it.. and also Philip Easrop. 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. Everybody waited and built the piece gradually. in improvising circles. this is what you've always wanted to do'. it implies a void which has to be filled. 1 think the more mature musicians really have a sense of that. some very basic idea behind 'improvisation': it means getting from A to C when there is no B. Company conventions. which. the musicians invited: all are designed to remove as far as possible any preconceptions as to what the music might be. For me the whole thing was a very profound experience. I also get the impression that it rarely presents much difficulty for a nonimprovising musician. Then once it came to playing. featured musicians' . and keep it at the forefront of the activity. the horn player. everyone's humanity. It has fortified me and helped me grow . in 1990 34. muSically intoXicating experiences: pretty much my ideal way 01 working. One way of retaining it was to introduce non-improvisors. where I invite a much larger number to take part.in '88 and '90. Company Week 1984. it's not quite as straightforward as that. demands a kind of surrender. the creative struggle. Of taking part in Company she said: You have to be prepared to take risks. from different parts of the musical universe who in some cases are completely unfamiliar with each other's work'. 1 think you gradually develop a way of saying less. Sometimes. the programme note says. who appears earlier in this book discussing being a nonimprovisor. but it's those few days that I'm interested in.there have been much larger events. It's not my music as you would otherwise hear it. at that time working with the London Sinfonietta. as it develops. It might take a few days. curiosity and sensitivity. my relationship w~h these events so 1am partieularty obliged toJohn Fordham. working with improvisors..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. the problems. Company is about mutual music-making and. almost taken over by it. or the humility perhaps. demands the sacrifice of individual preferences.

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

even economics . simply in response to music-making imperatives. improvisors particularly have conducted a sustained assault on the outskirts of rock. 1 This took place at the BIM House In Amst6fdam. As sources of creativity they are hardly comparable. took part in a public discussion staged as an adjunct to a series of concerts. happens in either unpublicised or. composition. as Evan Parker admits. if there is. Its survival. some of whom will go to considerable lengths to avoid being tarred with what they have found to be an unhelpful brush. But. This. there didn't seem to he anything else to discuss and the group dispersed. In other words. a bfochure publiShed by Willner Musik Galerie in 1990 10 accompany a series of concerts. 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. The uanscribed resu"s eventually appeared in Jaarboek 7published by Van Gennep. The bulk of freely improvised music. is where we came in. Having established that. Frederic tells the story: In 1968 I ran into Steve Lacy on the street in Rome. the first subject up for consideration concerned the relationship between improvisation and composition. I think. John 10m.combine fixed and improvised naturally enough. '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'. Other areas of improvisation .S. particularly by improvisors. external matters aesthetics. in fact. there was a view struggling to be expressed which is. I think. for instance. in a sense. seven musicians. Improvisation is a basic instinct. Geotge Lewis. it doesn't matter what you call it. the less compatible it is likely to be with the kind of presentation typical of the music business. an essential force in sustaining life. gratefully returning to playing music: improvising. essentially. are necessary to reveal the manifest and multiple differences between composition and improvisation. it doesn't matter how you do it. within the world of freely improvised music and arise from the contradiction inherent in attempts to organise or to combine composition and 'free' improvisation. for its novelty value. This kind of spongy generalisation often obscures. There are now. After forty minutes of collective incoherence and mutual misunderstandings. should there be such a thing. at best. are unimportant. There seems to be no apparent correlation between the viability and the visibility of improvisation. 1 Inevitably.are to a unique degree irrelevant to the practice of this kind of music making. seems to be unaffected by the shifting security of its precarious toehold on the treacherous slopes of the music industry. composition looks to be a very rare strain. it is indistinguishable from composition. additionally. heretical in both practice and theory. both working organically from a common base. to be sure. In any but the most blinkered view of the world's music. 2 ••• These discussions are conducted only. In fact. ad hoc meetings and private performances. to4isha MengelOOrg. it still can't hide the fundamental difference that separates composition and improvisation. of course. pushed to its limits. its general health. 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. while in improvisation you have (zfteen seconds. 2 From 'usten 10 Lacy'. more than it reveals but. Without it nothing survives. under-publicised circumstances: musician-organised concerts. the composition/improvisation dichotomy doesn't exist. discovered at street level by composer/improvisor Frederic Rzewski and improvisor/composer Steve Lacy.' His answer lasted exactly fifteen seconds and is still the best formulation of the question I know. musical fashion. I took out my pocket tape recorder and asked him to describe in fifteen seconds the difference In between composition and improvisation. however. accepted. even. Amsterdam. The musicians involved were: Cecil Taylor. a number of improvising virtuosi operating on the fringes of one or other of the established music markets. Here's one. And it's easy to see that the more conducive the setting is to freely improvised music. all closely associated with improvisation. certainly its essential part. The creation of music transcends method and. None of these lofty projections. 140 141 . the predominant view to emerge was that there is no such thing as improvisation. is no different to improvisation. The debates. Gerry Hemingway and me. Furthermore. if at all.LIMITS AND FREEDOM In 1987. Improvisation is not a word which is highly thought of. or. Perhaps the nearest thing to a successful combination of fixed and freely improvised music is in the long serving improvising groups where. and U. Butch Morris.'idiomatic' . perhaps by design. a fundamental belief for some people: musical creativity (all creativity?) is indivisable.

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

T. Oxford University Press 1985 Pressing. Musical Form.63.142. 79. 49-50. 126.46-47 Gare. C. open form 6 1. cha nce music 64. Society for Ethnomusicology.J. Morton 60 Ferand. Kleine General-Bass Schule. 119. 'Towards an ethic of improvisation' 84 Charpentier. 109 Day.O. K.33 Boulez. compared with improvisarion 140-141. B. Improvisation a l'orgue 31 Eastley. Peter 125-127 Danielou. Donald 54 Cage. Joseph 3 1 Boulanger.. Herman. Norman 44 The Grateful Dead 42-43. 23 n figured bass 19. Recordings of improvising musicians discussing their work. 24 Davies. Bill 78 Gafori 20n Gangoly.66-67.T.64. Jacques 59 Cherry. Francois 22 Cusack. In Britain. Alexander 60. London 1971 Schouten. Musical Interpretation. svara 3. Jim 108 D'indy. Don 55 Church music 29 Classical music (European) 19-38 Clifton. London 1944 Sachs.130. Stt!vt! 39·41. D. Alben 49. teaching 7·9. Lenny 49 Bryars. 5 Garcia. Improvisation: Methods and Models. 11 7·123. East and West. G.itic I. Alain 7. 6 Glen Iris Park.46 Gregorian chant 19. Bombay 1970 Stevens. Elias 20 Cardew. ErnstT. Jazz Masters of the Thirties. 24. 75 Adyonthaya. Jimi 40 Hicks. Werner 80 Gordon. Thomas xi Coleman. Anthony 57 Britten. tala 3-4 instrumentalists 98 interpretation 68·69. Rex. J.P. Classical Persian Music.76 improvised music 83-142. practising 109·111.. 107. 'Ear and Reason' 25 Hendrix. Hugh 79-80.Jerry 42-43. 1-19. 1952 70. Hermann 24n Fischer. Louis 50. USA Zonis.66 Holbrooke. J. R. 1735 Microphone (percussion issue). recording 103·104. Jean-Paul. Johann David 22-23. 105-108. 3 Alterations 125.117. alapa 5·6. Hindustani I. Dizzy 56 Globokar.15. 66 Hummel. Dexter 48 Granz. Philip 137 educa tion see music education Einstein. 'Thoughts on Improvisation'. 109-111. 113-117. duende 52.77 ethnic musicial instruments 101-102 Evans. musicianship 66. 131-132 Beresford. Community Music. 127-139. nomenclaturt! 83. tension and release 87·88 conductors 20 continuo 21·26 Couperin. Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions. The Improvisor (magazine).8 1. Alexander 3 1 Hancock. Terry 125 Debussy. bulerias 14. aleatoric 60. New York 1943 Sartre.4-6. laya 4. H. Harvard UP 1973 These are some of the books and articles I looked at. La Trobe University 1984 Sachs. Marcd 31.. Roy 56 electronic music 64.e. John 57. Alabama..26 Finck. the National Sound Archive has an extensive reference library. raga 2. unpublished thesis 1979 Lucas.. tht!ory 84. Notes: 8 pieces. Gavin 86-92. Search & Reflect. Ella. rehearsing 76. time notation 60 Bruce. John 60-61. ix. 18.. and a wide range of recorded interviews which are available for public listening. George Frideric 21 Heinichen. Derek 85n.128. 126 Ayler. techniques 99. Tristan 134 Howe. Improvisation on the Organ. vocabu lary 106·107 Indian music 1·11. rehearsing 110 Guilmant. Joseph 86n Honsinger. Duke 56. There has been a substantial increase in recent times in writings dealing with improvisation. London 1921 Netd.9.86-92. Clarence.64. Stephen 33-36.29 group improvisation 86-104. First constructions in metal 88 Calder. Phenomenology. Han 122-123. Johann Nepomuk 33n improvisation: compared to composition 140-141.91. 110. practising 17. learning 7. The Changeability of Musical Experience. F. The Art of Improvisation. ].66-67. 1982 Westrup. London Stewart. 114-116.38. Ernst 47 flamenco 12-18.86 Bach. 103. Earle 60·65. Facets of Indian Culture. form 1 II.127 AMM 128-131 Andalucia 12 Armstrong.Ornettt! 55 Coltrant!. Max 109 Eastop. a number of which are mentioned in the text.. Albert 84n Eldridge. ]. teaching 11 6·117 Buckethead 138 Byrd.44. 88.C.53. Curt.72. Vinko 109 Goldschmidt.M. The Rise of Music in the Ancient World.44-45.. 24 Bailey.86. Bill 86 exploration (of a musical instrument) 98 extemporisation 19 Falla.. Hamden 1973 (see p. New York 1934 Williams. Vincent 38 Dolphy. Pierre 60. tuition (instruction) 7. authentic performance 27 Bennink.. perhaps a more promising sou rce of information. Herbie 54 Handel. indeterminate composition 84. String quartet (1965) 6 1. London 1971 Whitmer. Nadia 31. Shri N. Lou 128·129 Gasparini. Leo. Paxton. objections 113·116. Cesar 36 free improvisation see improvised music freely improviSt!d music see improvised music FriscH.26 Bach.E.. London June 1972 Moszkowski. non-idiomatic xi-xii. history 127·132. Benjamin 37 Brown.94-95. Birmingham.62 Caneni.J.Cognitive Processes in Improvisation. London 1905 Matheson. 107.86 Braxton. 1974 Pressing. leadership 96-97. 24 atonality 88 audience 44-47.. Claude 12 Denley.36·7. 24 Gillespie.E. Curt.56-57 Arnold.1 13-11 5.98 144 145 .103 Daube.84) Srinivasan.86·87 Community Music (London) 122 Company 133-139 composition 59·81. London 1902 Smith. historical development 12-13. BBC. Musical Quarterly 60. Stevt! t 25 Bonnet. sruti 2.Lewis. are also increasingly available. compas 14. live electronics 94 Ellington.133-134 Balanescu. The World's Earliest Music. Carn:.S. Manuel de 12n Feldman. Alexander. Eric 86 Dupre.J. London 1955 Smith. gat 5. INDEX acct!ssibility xii. Conversations with Einstein. Alexander 138 Baroque music 20·28. transcribing xi. f. London 1972 Wachsmann. idiomatic xi. soleares 14. tientos 14 Franck. The Wellsprings of Music. experimental 73. Inc. Cornelius 76. future 142. 19n..

11 8.70-74. Cha rlie 135 Moszkowski. 140 LaFa ro.86. 113 musicianship 98-102. Luigi 100 Rutherford. Gilbert 36 Pollock.109 serial ism 88. j ohn 128 tonality 87-88 T oop. Alex 128 Schoenberg. Ronnie 45. 126. Yves 139 rock 39-43.80 Oliver. score 59. Leo 99. Paul 108 Kondo. 32. Cobra 76-77 146 .103. 57 Teagarden. 108-109. Curt 10. 63. 128 Machado Alvarez. Williamj. Ursula 135 o rgan improvisation 29-38. O livier 31. Paul lOOn. Viram 6. Max 57 Robert. Vanessa 137 magic 42 Marchal.28. Lester 53 n Zen Buddhism 115 Zonis. H.79-80. Hans 109 Reinhardt. 24. Yehudi 11 Messiaen. authemiciry 53. blues influence 39-40. Lionel 20. Anthony 67-69.123. practising 38.5 2 Stockhausen. Frederic 140 Sachs. 108 joseph Holbrooke (group) 86-93. 11 7.112.96. 133 music education 98-99.97 Salter. embell ishments 23-24 Ti lbury. technology 41-42 Rollins. Francesco 29 Langlais. jack 49 tension and release 87-88 Thompson.112 Persian music x-xi Peterson. Louis 31 virtuosity 100 vocal techniques 102 Wachsmann. M ichael xn Oppens. Frank 100.lmrat 6 Klee. 101.104. lOOn. Charles-Marie 36 Yamashta 96 Yes 39. 133 Roach. Anton 87. Phil 108 Waldron. 36-38. 36-37.49.131-132 Menuhin. 29n Whitmer. 33n Piernc. 113.15. 107. 11 7 Rzewski . 99n.26. Improvisation on the organ 32 SCOtt. hard bop 54.10. 109 Paganini. Django 50 Riley.112. Nam-june 8 1 Parker. concert improvisation 29.122 Stewart.66.102. Eddie J 28-129 psychedelic rock 39 Reichal. Ylem 70-73 Stevens. Charl ie 47. T.98 notation systems 10. extended 100.5 1-52. Andre 33 Matheson.86. Steve 54-56. 2411 Mengdherg.11 5 juliana. 67.j. Rex 48 Tanaka. 126 Spontaneous Music Ensemble 119. Ca rl Maria von 33 n Webern.106.59. be-bop 49. Arnol d 107. The art of improvisation 32-3 Widor.116 Sheffi eld 92 Sheikh. Nicolo 19 Paik. French school 31. 17.18. John 98. Paul 109. Pa co 12.8.109.128 spiritualiry I Srinivasan.S. Bud 54 Prevost. R 3. (ree jazz 56.129 The Music Improvisation Company 94. 15. 11 6.j. Virgil 135 Thorne. 137. 34. George 91 Little Theatre Cl ub 11 9 London Sinfonietta 67 Lytton. George (trombonist) 109 Linstead.107 Westrup. 141 Pa y. mechanics of improvisation 48-49. S.15 Viernc.45-46.Jasani. Charles 36-37 transcription xi. British jazz 51.S. Lee 48 Komarsky.33.99.101 performance: differences between notated & improvised 68-69 Perry.99. blues (as structure) 48. box technique 70. j ean 3 J. 26 modern classical music: performing 73-74 Morrow. tuition 38 ornamentation 19 Oxley. Min 135 Taylor.jamie 94. Toshinori 135 Kon itz. Aloys 8 1 Lacy.138. Oscar 51 Petri. Ella x Zorn. jackson 62 Powell. Mal 54 Weber. Notes: 8 pieces 84 solo improvisation 105-112 sound recordings 103-104. reading 10. Topography of the oceans 41 Young. Tio Luis el de la 13 keyboard harmony 27 Khan. tuition 49-50 jeffrey. Michael 103 thorough-bass 22-23. Peter 103. Archery 76. Rohan de 128 Schlippenbach. Tony 86-92. (as) black classical music 56. Karlheinz 68-73. 24-25 Wesley. 11 6 Schouten.45 JATP Uazz At The Phi lharmonic) 44 jazz 48-58.37. Eva n 80-81. 101 .94. 11 0 Lewis. Alexander 84n Mu ir.117.john 75-78.134. Cecil 54-55. Antonio ' Demofilo' 13 Mackness. revivals 49. 133 musical instruments 98. Christine 94. Aus den sieben Tagen 79-80.57 Parker. 20th-century developmems 60-64.109 percussionists 100. Sonny 5 1 Russolo.Ca rl 32. David 125 Tournem ire. Misha 122-123. 91 MEV 128 Mitchell. J.104. Esmail 6 silence 89 Smith. imita[ion 53. 103 Sa ram. technique 98.96.9 1 Landini . SCOtt 87.128. 137 Pena.

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

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