some thoughts on ‘extremity’ in free improvisation


By David Grundy

A couple of months ago I played a freely improvised gig at which our regular group was joined by a couple of guests. Three pieces were played: a duo set by our guests, a set by our group, and then a final, longer piece where everyone came together. It was that last piece which gave rise to the thoughts collected below.

I particularly enjoyed the way it differed from those that preceded it, the way the rustlings and loops and sparser textures which had been the domain of the duo became part of a denser texture, a more ‘orchestral’ approach. I don’t mean this in the sense of ‘playing together’ (tutti) or even in terms of loudness (though the volume does have a lot to do with this ‘orchestral’ perception, I expect), as much as I mean a thickness of group texture, an overall impact made of its constituent parts.

This is true of most improv – but it’s easier to pick up the interweaving of separate threads (even when complicated by the use of electronics and/or extended techniques which make the instruments less easily identifiable) in smaller groups or ‘minimally oriented’ larger groups. Here, by contrast, you could tell that there were several threads unravelling at once, generally going in the same general direction (it’s hard to play quiet breathy sounds, for example, when everyone else is blasting the place with clusters and shrieks and feedback), but it’s that general direction that’s important.

This isn’t so much like improvisations shaped by ‘conductions’ (where the conductor acts as a kind of instant composer, setting up different groupings and setting them off against each other, or with each other) but is a spontaneously-generated structure which makes its own logic as it develops, which has even less pre-thought than a ‘conduction’. A lot of this may be due to the fact that we had not rehearsed together before-hand (apart from a sporadic sound-check which can’t have lasted more than five minutes altogether). That said, the duo and the improvising group are in some sense ‘rehearsed’ groups, ongoing concerns in their separate manifestations; in other words, the performance brought together two groups of players with a history of playing together as separate groups, but not as one large ensemble. Of course, one might argue that every ‘rehearsal’ constitutes an actual performance, rather than a preparation for any grand gesture – it is all part of a continuum, or at least, an ongoing investigation, which may contradict its different manifestations on separate occasions – thus, the notion of a ‘group sound’ will be a complicated one.

In any case, this ‘un-rehearsed’ feel particularly struck me. For the aforementioned reasons, one could say that it was the ‘most improvisational’ of the three sets– bringing to mind Derek Bailey’s liking for unusual and unprepared collaborations (of course, the risk here is greater, but the rewards are perhaps greater too, the old platitude).
Anyway, I mentioned the ‘orchestral’ approach, and I think I’m just feeling out for words to classify the particular feeling and impact of that particular set, although, in the more loudly ‘intense’ performances I’ve been involved in – most recently, a recreation of Dante’s inferno – I’ve tended to get a similar ‘vibe’. Maybe ‘orchestral’ isn’t quite right, maybe I want to say ‘extreme’ – but then of course there are many different shades and manifestations of ‘extremity’ – and I fully realise that often when I’ve remembered a performance as ‘extreme’, actually I’ve just selectively remembered the ‘peaks’, which may only have lasted for short periods, and somehow forgotten more than half of what actually happened.

Aside: That’s why listening back to recordings has become so much a part of my playing – not as ‘instruction’ or just ‘reference’ but as a kind of genuine rediscovery of what happened, a reliving which I would characterise as ‘improvisational listening’ (isn’t that what all listening always is, to some extent, even when you know a composed piece well, even if you’re listening to the same recording for the twentieth time?). That’s not to say that it doesn’t trigger off memories of playing certain things (though sometimes there are things I hear on the recordings which I just do not remember happening, which I do not remember participating in). Hopefully it encourages newness; if I can hear myself repeating ideas in several recordings I’ll try and actively seek out other approaches, ways of avoiding getting stuck in the groove of the endlessly-repeating universal long-playing record.

Returning to my main topic, if we call the ‘impulse’ I was discussing before ‘extremity’, could we also call it ‘drama’? Should we be afraid of that? Of the performative? The development of such music as actually rising and falling to and from emotional peaks and extremes? I think Mr Bailey would be suspicious, certainly of the term ‘drama’, perhaps rightly so. And I do oppose the jazz (sometimes free jazz) saxophone player’s creation of artificial ‘excitement’ over tired bop vehicles or such like, ‘screams’, high notes, fast playing as shorthand for ‘extreme personal emotion’. This emotion is both that of the player, communicated through these sounds, and that which this communication is supposed to incite in the audience, make them shout ‘woooooooo’ and clap and stamp their feet once the solo has ‘excited’ them out, all the better for them to return to their toe-tappin’ swing-along to the return of the familiar ‘head’ – the contained explosion, anticipated, expected, even demanded, and thus really illusory, a repeated false thrill. So the scream or high note or fast playing becomes a vocabulary you can ‘lie’ with, or convince yourself into believing that this vocabulary does mean, is exactly equivalent to ‘emotional extremity’, ‘honesty’, ‘truth’.

I want to say that this is lying, and this is bullshit, but I’m aware of how close it approaches to what I was actually praising in a particular kind of ‘intense’, ‘extreme’ free improvisation. The ‘true’ and the ‘genuine’ that I can just ‘feel’ and know to be ‘true’ because of that. But Antonin Artaud’s emphasis on ‘vibrational’ qualities to sound does chime with things free jazz musicians tend to say (think Albert Ayler’s album title – ‘Vibrations’): the snake moves to the snake-charmer’s music not because of the mental images it produces, but because it can feel the vibrations through the ground, in its body.[1] Music as earthquake. As explosion. Artaud wants theatrical gesture to be action, not cipher or representation only, wants “a gesture in a painting or on a stage” to correspond with “a gesture made by lava in a volcanic eruption.” Actors ‘act’ – they perform ‘actions’ – they do ‘actions’, don’t just give the appearance of doing so. Is it perhaps possible to say that free improvisers too, make something happen? – that they make it really happen, don’t just pretend to do so.

[1] Antonin Artaud, ‘Theatre and Cruelty’, in ‘The Theatre and Its Double’.

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