on improvisation, mostly
Interview by Alex Varty
The first thing I'd like to know is how you came to be performing with Masa John Anzai, and what the parameters of this concert are going to be. How did you hook up? Have you performed before? What is it about Masa's music that made you interested in working with him If you haven't played with him before, how will you approach the situation and, for that matter, what skills as an improviser do you bring to a situation in which the musicians are making the music up out of thin air?
I was booked in the first instance to perform solo with the electrified kit; adding someone for a second set was the Western Front's suggestion and the choice of co-improviser was theirs. I don't do this all that often there are different approaches to improvisation and they don't all fit comfortably together. But equally, if you never move beyond what or who you know, you never discover anything new. So I was happy to accept their proposal.
How will I approach the situation? With a mind as blank as possible. I never plan anything or have strategies or safety nets. The work is to set up the performing conditions, make sure the instrument is in tune and then forget about the concert. At showtime I try to start playing before I can think about what the initial sound or gesture is going to be - and go from there.
As an improviser the main skill one brings to such an encounter, I think, is creative stupidity, and a measure of amnesia I mean the ability not to think about what you are playing, and not to listen to what the other person is playing - but rather to be conscious of the whole sound and interfere only when necessary. A concert where one has continually to think about a subsequent action is usually in my experience one that is not going too well. Amnesia prevents play-it-safe repetition of things that have worked on previous occasions and also allows repetition that embarrassment would otherwise have blocked.
Can you describe the quality of attentiveness you seem to bring to improvised music?
A generous observation, but in a way I think engaged abstraction might have been more apposite - if less flattering; half the mind is certainly preternaturally attentive, but it's the half that isn't properly conscious.
Has there been any particular situation that has taught you about how to be an effective improviser?
Maybe, but not that I can remember; there seems to be more of a cumulative effect: I make mistakes and learn from them. The more concerts I do, statistically, the more mistakes I make and the more I learn. So I can say that I learned not to be afraid of playing badly; that it's always better to take risks and fail than be safe but boring; that I always learn fast when having to negotiate unfamiliar territory or deal with disaster on the fly. One of the great aspects of improvisation is that there is an expectant public, a start time and no chance to stop to reconsider: for 50 minutes it's sink or swim. That concentrates the mind. And of course I learn by watching. I saw Fred [Frith] once completely restrain his own playing in order to help someone else to find their way into a concert.It was an education. Concerts are real human events; not opportunities for self aggrandisement.
Any theoreticians e.g. Derek Bailey whose writings have informed your approach?
No. I learned to improvise by improvising, and I learned it always in the company of other people. So I learned as a team player rather than as a soloist. Theories of self expression continue to baffle me.
Derek's book is a rarity a sustained meditation, backed with good research, on the many varieties and applications of improvising, but I read it long after I had found my own way as an improviser. As I said, for me it's the whole sound I am playing or which is playing me - and my thinking comes from there, not from within myself. So I don't subscribe to the "be free, do what you want so long as you don't impede someone else's freedom to do what they want' philosophy often advanced by early 70's British Free Improvisers; a creed that always seemed more political than musical to me - and rather dubiously free-market. By contrast, Henry Cow had learned very much as an interacting ensemble where it was less a matter of not impeding other people's freedom than of finding freedom with and through the individuals with whom you were playing. So when I play with other people, I often find myself having to negotiate with approaches to improvising that are very different from my own.It's one of the marvels of improvising that this actually often works.
Are you involved in real-time sampling and looping (a common concern with the Vancouver musicians Masa is often allied with)? If so, do you use looping as a means of removing the "grunt work" from playing the drums, so that you can concentrate on a more sculptural approach? Do you generally start by building upon a basic rhythm, or are you more likely to view your percussive improvisations as layered constructions of parallel streams? (In other words, are there any particular architectural models you tend to work from, or do you approach each concert individually, depending on your state of mind and the feeling in the room?)
These are big questions, and good questions. I am not involved in any way with sampling, I started electrifying my kit in the early 70's - pre-sampling - and when pads and samples came onto the market, I did experiment with them briefly (Cassiber was a group very deep in exploration of that territory: in fact Heiner bought the first Mirage delivered to the Frankfurt trade fair). But I found samples inert and dead and unresponsive compared to the infinite subtlety of sounds made in real time using acoustic and electric devices - where every tiny gesture or change striking or struck material makes a difference to the sound.
I do have a primitive 8 second delay unit, but I only use it occasionally and it's set up not to reproduce the finished sound, but an unprocessed version of it. I never use loops as a foundation and add detail over the top. In fact I am supremely uninterested in loops as riffs or sound carpets; to me they all sound like prison bars, the very bars I want to escape. I know that since the sixties there has been an increasing trend toward drones and riffs as musical ground as opposed to harmonic or rhythmic structure, thematic development, conflict, argument because as a procedure relying on repetition or carpet drones does solve a pressing structural problem. But it doesn't solve my problem because I want to open up the structure, not nail it down. I want to leave the tracks and nose around capricious trails. Working with loops for me is rather like going for a walk with one foot nailed to the floor.
Architectural models? Maybe Frank Gehry. Very much non modular. I see a concert as partly analogous to a narrative or conversation, and partly as the construction of a complex set of lines, points and planes that mutate, unfold and dissolve - forming temporary, virtual structures - but nothing solid or straightforwardly linear.
I hate to ask the "influences' question too often, but I suspect that both 20th-century through-composed percussion music à la Edgar Varèse and Eddie Prévost's work with AMM have been significant for you. True, false, or irrelevant?
Varèse absolutely a primary influence for me. The concept of organised sound; a theory of composition that uses blocks of sound, timbre shifts, dynamic curves and spatial movement rather than the old triad melody, rhythm and harmony as its core; the liberation of percussion into full instrument-hood·all his. Eddie is a great drummer and AMM a seminal group, but I was more influenced by Sun Ra's rhythm sections, Motown, Mitch Mitchell, Robert Wyatt and Elvin Jones than Eddie or any of the extended-kit, extended technique free improvising percussionists. Stockhausen's Mikrophonie 1 was the indicator for me in that field.
I'm particularly fascinated by what seems to be an emerging union between songwriters and improvisers (and in fact I'm in a band of that kind right now: Resin, with a songwriter named Julie Vik and two of Masa's frequent collaborators, bassist Travis Baker and drummer Joel Lower). You've obviously been involved in this kind of work since the Cow/Slapp days: what of your experiences as a solo improviser do you bring back to working with artists such as David Thomas or Peter Blegvad? (And vice versa: does working in the relatively contained sphere of the singer-songwriter help bring structure to your improvised music?)
That's right in a way the two disciplines: negotiating arrangements and written material and open improvisation do inform and modify one another, but in fairly subtle ways. Playing is rather like acting: the question is not 'what can I do here?' but 'what does the music need here?' One is looking for the character. So playing with David Thomas or Peter Blegvad does demand the application of different aspects of a total musical thinking. It's why I still work in different fields - to keep my various musical muscles in tone; because at the unlikeliest times they could come in useful somewhere where they were not prefigured. Songs and compositions sink structural ideas deep into your head and demand technical precision - skills that come in handy for improvising. On the other hand, improvising forces you to think fast and react instinctively - useful for opening up interpretations of written music. And Cassiber, of course, was a band predicated on the apparently paradoxical idea of improvising fully arranged songs from scratch.
Finally, for now, what's the current state of your thinking as regards music as a political force? This, of course, is an area that can be open to considerable misinterpretation. My basic and perhaps not-terribly-well-considered position is that the act of making music is inherently political, insofar as it is a way of seizing the means of production AND of liberating oneself from the consumerist agenda, but that music is of limited utility in terms of organizing any kind of political change. In other words, I see music as a transformative force (with improvisation being particularly useful in that sense) but one that is really only effective when it involves direct engagement. Your thoughts?
I pretty much agree. It's political but not Political. If the relations of music are a model of the ideal relations of communities (an interesting notion advanced by Christopher Small) then music is political especially when it's makers claim it isn't. The claim not to be political is itself political, and if meant seriously is usually a symptom of unconscious support for the status quo: to escape co-option requires consciousness of the realities - but this is too complex an issue for a short answer. I do think that there is more to life than politics.
A couple of last-minute thoughts: what projects will you be undertaking once you return from this tour?
A week after I get back to London I go to Corsica for 10 days for a project with 7 other musicians from various European countries to prepare a contemporary interpretation of Cornelius Cardew's historic graphic score "Treatise'. Then a couple of solo concerts and some work with the Peter Blegvad Trio with guest Karen Mantler. I'm also trying to finish a new song cycle and complete a solo CD.
And in your position of ReR head, can you identify any emerging directions in the RIO area?
Not really. And I have to confess that RIO for me is something that happened nearly 25 years ago.
text and images chris cutler; site squidco 3900