FREE IMPROVISATION: THE UNFOLDING CONUNDRUM
Lessons To Be Learnt
Andy Martin is a member of the group Unit. Formed in 1994, its origins lie in a punk band called The Apostles, formed in 1981, which subsequently became Academy 23, before finally changing to the present name. (Guitarist/vocalist/ lyricist/occasional drummer Martin and bass guitarist Dave Fanning have been the only two constant presences in all three bands.) Since 2000, the group has been through numerous line-ups, each one recording an album musically different from the last, and making it impossible to restrict them to any one genre – they’ve tackled everything from post-punk, prog rock, and pop, to avant-garde, jazz and free improv. They appeared at the Freedom of the City Festival on Sunday 6th May 2007, contributing a freely improvised set as part of that day’s afternoon concert, and this performance led indirectly to the writing of the article below, as Andy Martin explains:
This essay was written by me in response to a request (virtually a demand) made by 2 members of our group, namely percussionist Ngo Achoi and keyboard player Luc Tran. After our somewhat inauspicious debut at Freedom Of The City in May 2007 (I am being outrageously polite here), saxophonist Thanh Trung Nguyen actually left the group with the complaint ‘I’m not playing any more of this nonsense.’ This was followed by the observation ‘you lot wouldn’t know a decent tune if it jumped onto your kitchen table and danced a tango.’ I was irritated, annoyed and upset that a highly competent 17 year old musician should respond to free improvisation in such a stridently hostile manner. It was this, combined with the horrible racket we made on May 6th, that prompted Luc and Achoi to commission this piece from me. It was originally designed purely as an ‘in-house’ document to be read by the other 4 remaining group members. Achoi then sent it (without my consent, as usual) to the Resonance forum and suggested I also send it to what he called ‘the David Grundy Forum’! (http://ihatemusic.noquam.com) Now it appears here, thanks entirely to the kind invitation of Mr Grundy to include it in this magazine.
On May 7th 2007 UNIT played what remains, to date, their worst, most inept and ineffably boring live performance ever. Nothing can atone for the excruciating tedium to which we subjected not only the audience but also ourselves in the Red Rose Club that Sunday afternoon. Nearly 300 people were witness to 5 intrepid individuals making utter fools of themselves on a stage as they plodded with ineffable confusion through a miasma of thoroughly grim sonic doodles for half an hour in the name of free improvisation. Almost all those people had never heard of UNIT previously; all of them must surely have prayed to whatever deity was available that they might never hear us again. I can only empathise with them.
During the 2 months that followed this most inauspicious start to our career in free improvisation, I formulated The Five Cardinal Rules which perhaps more advanced performers may care to subvert or challenge but which are absolutely essential for players new to this most demanding form of music making. These ‘rules’ were useful for me as a player and exponent of free improvisation but they were primarily formulated to assist the other group members, all of whom realised we had gone seriously wrong on that fateful day in the Red Rose Club but none of them comprehended exactly how and why we had lost the plot. Since the other 4 are far more technically proficient musicians than I, then by what right do I bestow upon myself the role of educator? A possibly dubious one: I have listened to far more examples of successful free improvisation they have they and I (at present) have a far greater love for this music than do they. That at least 3 of them wished to pursue this form and try to achieve a degree of success in it is also what prompted me to agree to their request for a short exposition on ‘how to play free improvisation’.
After I had finished, I realised that these ‘rules’ might be useful to other musicians in our situation or even to people who have begun to take an interest in such music but who are unable to comprehend what motivates and informs its often bizarre sounds and weird sonic environments. Actually, both Eddie Prevost and Derek Bailey have already performed this task adequately over a series of 3 excellent books but, perhaps generated by some perverse desire to impose my own personality and experience on the subject, I still find it necessary to add my own contribution to the literature on the subject. I hardly need to justify this but should anyone insist then I can do so by revealing the woefully tiny amount of intelligent books written on the theory, practise and appreciation of free improvisation. Most of the more recognised practitioners are, shall we say, of an older generation and it is important to me that if people of a younger generation (Luc is 18, for example) are to be encouraged to participate then they need to understand why the aficionados of free improvisation are so ardently enthusiastic and exceptionally intense in their discussions, debates and discourses on this most fascinating of all musical adventures.
Failure to explain clearly and intelligently ‘what it’s all about’, when combined with the rigid assertiveness of youthful confidence, can result in alienation of the worst kind. After our performance I was so angry with what I perceived to be the selfishness of 2 members of the group (who played so loudly that Luc could rarely be heard and I was drowned out completely throughout the entire performance until toward the end I threw my toys out of the pram and attacked my acoustic guitar with spoons and sticks) that I read the riot act in no uncertain terms. Trung left the group shortly afterwards, not so much because of what I said but because he could not understand how competent musicians (U-J, Luc and Dave) could ‘waste their time making a self indulgent tuneless racket that any 5 year old could play’. (He later added, on his departure from the group ‘you’re all arty weirdos who wouldn’t know a decent tune if it jumped up on a table and did the charlston’!) This is the kind of damning indictment I would expect from a 60 year old bigot (or maybe a 16 year old punk rocker) but Trung is a highly competent and creative jazz saxophonist who has listened intensely to Charlie Parker, that in itself highly unusual for a 17 year old Vietnamese. He does himself a disservice by displaying such conservatism. C’est la vie.
Time for a brief digression: just because we allegedly indulged in a form of music that ‘any 5 year old could play’, does that automatically mean that our participation in it was invalid? Am I meant to accept that music played by ‘any 5 year old’ is worthless and possesses no legitimate claim to our attention? Is music invented and performed by 5 year old people less valid (on any level you choose) than that invented and performed by other age groups? Discuss.
These ‘rules’ are what I believe are required to ensure that UNIT make progress in their attempts to perform free improvisation in a manner liable to make a valid contribution to the genre, if indeed it can really be called a ‘genre’. I am also convinced that most other inexperienced performers would find them beneficial but frequent exposure to different free improvisations played by other people and continued familiarity with the language in their own performances may result in the desire to modify these ‘rules’ in order to render them appropriate to their own needs. However, I doubt that even after such modifications have been made the ‘rules’ would be radically different to the form in which they appear below.
1) Play only when it is absolutely essential to do so. Do you need to play anything at the moment? Does what you are playing actually contribute in any meaningful manner to the music / silence you hear? Just because you can play does not automatically mean you have to play.
2) Play what the music requires. What can you hear around you? If you play now, will it unfairly dominate, drown out and obscure what the quietest instruments / voices are playing? What ever you do play (if you decide to play at all), it must be what the music needs, not what you need. There is no room for the empty gestures of egotism in genuine free improvisation.
3) Be responsible for what you play and be aware of what is happening around you. You hear a kind of music playing to which you wish to respond. Do you try to copy it in your own style or play something entirely different? Which of the two will make the most interesting or musically valid contribution to the music as a whole? This includes extraneous sounds that may intrude during quiet moments (police sirens, aeroplanes, bird song, audience coughs or, of course, the inevitable mobile phone playing Für Elise). Ignore these at your peril!
4) Learn to appreciate the value of silence. In free improvisation more than any other form of music making, silence is not only important but sometimes essential in order for the music to make aesthetic sense. All the best free improvisers not only appreciate the true value of silence but they also utilise it for the benefit of the music.
5) Do not ever be afraid to take risks. Do not ever be afraid to fail. In the absence of risks, free improvisation stagnates into cliché and formula. Free improvisation always includes a propensity for failure. You can make mistakes but try to ensure you make the right mistakes. If you fail, strive to ensure that you fail better than you did last time. If these 2 sentences make no sense to you, then play free improvisation with a small group of performers every day for a month. After that time, I guarantee you will understand precisely what is meant by these statements.
Free improvisation is not a ‘jam’ (which is a disgusting rockist word). It is not a space for you to show what you can do. Virtuoso displays are a symptom of bourgeois music practise and have no place in free improvisation. Technical prowess is highly desirable but not absolutely essential, provided you have assimilated and put into practise the 5 cardinal rules. What is crucial to learn and remember is that once a free improvisation becomes a lead soloist being accompanied by a band, the music loses much of its credibility unless such a moment is actually dictated by the need of the music. In this case the ‘solo’ must only be of a duration sufficient to make musical sense. This applies to ordinary rock groups. It is why Emerson, Lake & Palmer are frequently tedious and boring while Egg rarely are. Both are progressive rock trios comprised of keyboards, electric bass guitar and drums with the bass guitarist doubling as a vocalist. There the similarities end. Most of the former group’s music consists of incessant keyboard pyrotechnics (especially in a live concert context) with the other 2 musicians relegated (bullied) into subordinate roles. Egg never descended into such rockist mediocrity which is why their music is still vibrant and exciting 35 years later. As an aside, 2 of our youngest members discovered ELP in 2002 but became bored with them within a year yet they now have all 3 CDs by Egg and still listen to them.
Rule 3 contains an aspect generally ignored or at least not understood by most normal musicians. I prefer not to go to live classical concerts anymore, mainly due to the middle class snobs they attract (although this now applies to punk gigs, too – perhaps that always has been the case, at least in Britain) but partly because I find the amount of noise and kerfuffle generated by the audience intolerable. I detest cinemas for this same reason – being stuck in a large hall with dozens of odious people is not my idea of fun. In fact, that Freedom Of The City event is probably the only time ever when I have been in a large room filled to capacity with humanity and I have not ardently wished for a Bren gun with plenty of live ammo. Extraneous noise is an irritant at a conventional concert because such sounds interfere with the works being performed – although I suppose aeroplanes flying overhead during a performance of the Mechanical Ballet by George Antheil would add an appropriate ambience. In a free improvisation, however, the sound of a cough, a chair scraping across the floor, that Boeing 747, a police siren, electronic feedback or even that inevitable mobile phone can be utilised as an additional sound source during the performance. If a violinist looks through a window and catches sight of a dog savaging a cat in the street, he/she may be distracted and spoil that pretty Mozart sonata with the inadvertent insertion of wrong notes (which personally I’d enjoy, mainly because I detest Mozart – give me Messiaen any day). If he/she is engaged in a free improvisation, however, the incident may well inspire him/her to add something new and interesting to the musical proceedings.
One of the prime aspects of free improvisation – perhaps it is not accidental that some people refer to it as ‘left field music’ – in fact its most powerful and liberating property – is that authoritarianism is anathema to it. This does not mean that ‘anything goes’. This music is never a licence for pure self expression as a free for all. Just as a platoon without an N.C.O. requires a formidable measure of self discipline in order to function, so with the freedom inherent in this music comes a critical degree of responsibility. Implicit in free improvisation is an opposition to hierarchical structures imposed by composers, arrangers and leaders who believe they have a right to govern the rest of us. This is of such profound importance that it is essential that free improvisation (like its visual counterpart, abstract expressionism) is treated with respect and taken seriously by its practitioners. Beware: I do not mean that the performers must deliberately strive to adopt an aura of profundity. If its performers are really inspired and technically able then that will happen anyway. No, I mean that it is permissible (perhaps often essential) to be able to have fun, to appreciate humorous moments yet simultaneously never trivialise or under estimate the musical process.
Ngo Achoi (our manager) once suggested – in fact he still insists – that extra-musical factors form a valid contribution to individuals and groups new to free improvisation, as a method of orientation and a means by which to ease themselves into this most difficult of forms. The group can be given a basic framework (play fast and quietly, omit that instrument after this amount of time and so on) or some other prop / crutch such as a given title, an idea, an emotion or a colour on which to hang their musical exploration. I read with interest the opinions of Eddie Prevost whose insistence that these external frames, rather than help facilitate a musical event, actually inhibit it since they interfere with the process due to their imposition on what the music actually attempts to say. In other words, the minds of musicians need to be free from all such external concerns in order to create the best possible conditions in which a free improvisation can be created. On every other day of the week, I agree emphatically with this. On the other days, I acknowledge Achoi holds a perfectly valid belief. In our experience, limiting (or even inhibiting) our creative freedom by the deliberate imposition of such external rules or frameworks has resulted in music that is, to me, just as interesting, intriguing and genuinely satisfying as the most pure, strictly abstract attempts. When there is a total absence of any aids, props or external frameworks, perhaps it is the stark beauty of a total free improvisation created under such austere conditions that raises it above the level of most other music forms. Well, if you are AMM or MEV you can achieve this. Us lesser mortals often it useful (perhaps even occasionally essential) to resort to whatever aids, props or external frameworks we can devise, like games invented to help learn a language, before we are ready to launch ourselves into that complete otherness which the very best free improvisers manage to explore so magnificently.
Is free improvisation idiomatic? A vast over-simplification would be to claim that Derek Bailey says ‘yes’ and Edwin Prevost says ‘no’. Actually it is more complex than that. Listen to a few third rate, uninspired performances and you may well agree with the assertion by Mr Bailey that free improvisation can tend to become idiomatic after a while. However, 3 days spent at the Freedom Of The City event in May 2007 has persuaded me to adopt a belief system that is more sympathetic towards (yet not completely in accord with) Mr Prevost. When Trung complains that free improvisation is ‘a racket’, I can (almost) sympathise with him. U-J asked me later why a free improvisation couldn’t be in, say, Bb Major. I had to stop for a moment to consider that. In theory, I concluded that there is no justifiable reason I could conceive for a free improvisation not to include a passage in Bb Major (or any other key) provided the players entered into the key as a natural and logical progression from what they had been playing earlier. Players need to be careful, though: once you enter into a recognisable key, where do they go from there? To remain in the same key for a long period is to be shackled to the drudgery endured by audiences of so many bland, tediously onerous ‘jams’ by The Grateful Dead (or most other late 1960s psychedelic outfits whose capacity for hallucinogenic substances was usually inversely proportional to their musical creativity).
Is there a ‘free improvisation style’? Surely not! The phrase seems ludicrous – perhaps. However, it takes novices and people who don’t like the sound of it to venture opinions which are illuminating. Both Luc (who does not like much free improvisation although he does find it interesting and treats it with respect) and Trung (who despises it so completely that he is unable even to take it seriously) have made comments about free improvisation that its more ardent acolytes might prefer to remain unspoken. In answer to Achoi who maintained that free improvisation by its very nature can never be idiomatic (a provocative statement), Trung said ‘There’s never a steady beat or pulse and you never hear people playing in the same key. It’s always a tuneless racket.’ Luc was more introspective: ‘It’s a pity you can’t have a kind of free improv where there are recognisable melodies and harmonies and where people obviously play together in ensemble passages.’ I can well imagine how Mr Bailey and Mr Prevost would respond to these sentiments although perhaps there would be dissention in their responses.
I argue that free improvisation liberates music from the cage of static pulses and the tyranny of key systems. However, that is why it requires even more discipline and awareness – in traditional music the notes are all written down and you can play the piece without even having to think about it. This is how it is possible for a performance of what could be a wonderful, dramatic classical work to end up being tiresome and onerous, because the players have been paid to do a job and nothing more. This is particularly obvious in very popular, famous works where we can almost hear the musicians groan ‘Oh bugger this, not the frigging Jupiter Symphony yet again.’ In traditional music, the problems of musical direction are solved during the composition so all the performers need do is obey the instructions given by the notes on the staves in order to give a faithful rendition of the piece. In theory therefore any group of performers could give identically correct performances of it. In free improvisation, the problems of musical direction are solved during the actual performance. Here music itself is the master, not the composer.
The problem is that this is a kind of music that is still so ‘out there’ that it is extremely difficult to avoid cliché and formula. It is also why an album by (for example) AMM sounds as if it could have been recorded at any time between 1966 and 2006. It never sounds ‘dated’ except that we can say it is unlikely to have been made any earlier than 1966 because they hadn’t formed as a group prior to that. What about some other group of free improvisers then? Why did people only start playing free improvisation in the 1960s? Well actually people were playing free improvisation long before that but not in Britain. Here I recommend the book Improvisation: Its Nature And Practise In Music by Derek Bailey, published by The British Library, for details on the history of improvisation, free or otherwise. In the interest of full comprehension, if you are going to read that brief but concise tome then it is also essential to read Minute Particulars by Edwin Prevost, published by Copula in 2004. While you are there, you may as well read its companion, No Sound Is Innocent, same author and publisher in 1995. I suspect the emperor really is wearing clothes but perhaps we can too often discern a trend that informs much of his wardrobe?
In the superbly accurate and pithy (but sadly less celebrated) speech in Riverside Church, 1967, Martin Luther King referred to the unfolding conundrum of life…at the risk of trivialising the content of his words (which in this case I would be loathe to do), therein lies a most apposite depiction of the quest for magical music that all free improvisers pursue – for is not all free improvisation an unfolding conundrum that offers a sonic equivalent of human exploration?