Freedom and Sound - This time itís personal

an essay by
John Butcher

This essay was commissioned for the recently published Aspekte der Freien Improvisation in der Musik (Dieter Nanz, editor; Wolke Verlags GmbH; Hofhiem, Germany), where it appears in German translation.


The last time my soprano saxophone was overhauled, the new pads had been given a special coating intended to keep moisture out of the leather. The instrument has been awkward to play ever since. Half way through a sweaty concert the pads start sticking to the tone holes, and I’m forever having to clean them. It will soon be taken back to the workshop. But last February I played a concert in a quartet that included no-input mixing desk expert Toshimaru Nakamura. The music was extremely quiet, and after a while I stopped blowing into the instrument and worked instead with the sound of the pads as they audibly unstuck and then leapt open under the spring action. This sonic material seemed to interact satisfyingly with the other musicians’ input, and had a surprising vitality. The previous week I’d played in the same venue, Cafe Oto in Dalston, with Matthew Shipp, the American jazz (in the broadest sense) pianist. Sticky pad sounds would have been a ridiculous contribution. Equally, most of what I found myself playing in this duo would have sounded nonsensical in the Nakamura quartet. So, what can the free in free-improvisation possibly mean?

The choice of how to play in each concert was up to me, and I decided upon what, at first glance, might seem to be quite different approaches. I wasn’t, I hope, just being a chameleon. Given a blindfold test, I think anyone who follows this scene would have recognized that I was the saxophonist in both concerts. The freedom that comes with improvisation is actually the freedom to recognize and respect the uniqueness of each individual playing situation. Doing this entails making specific and restricting choices, intimately connected to thoughts about whom you are playing with (and what you do and don’t know about them), the acoustics of the environment and your own personal history.  Most decisions relate to concerns that have evolved over many years but some are truly formed in the moment. Part of this means continually addressing the question of how to keep your own musical personality without bringing too fixed an agenda to each performance – how to get the right balance between playing what you know and what you don’t yet know.

At its core, improvisation, as I practice it, means applying musical methods and thinking that have their origins in actual performance. Some ideas may only be hinted at in a concert yet they plant a mental seed that is then developed back at home, in the routine of private experimentation. The results can be fed back later, forming an ever-evolving loop of experience-experiment-consolidation-experience. I’ve found that many practical ideas have first appeared comparatively spontaneously, through trying to forget that I’m playing a saxophone and instead thinking “what sound and contribution do I want to make at this point in the music.” All of this leads to the store of ideas and memories one draws upon, and anything that might prove workable in the longer term has usually accrued in small increments. Slowly, the pieces come together. Big ideas are of little value in improvisation.

A characteristic of much improvisation of the last four or five decades has been the utilization of “new” sound. Musicians and composers in all realms usually have a passion for sound in the abstract, but improvisers have a special, and practical, recognition of how less common sounds lead to new concepts of performance (and visa versa). With conventional instruments the term extended technique is often used and it is one I particularly dislike. It seem to derive from the reducibility of the pen-on-paper composer’s world where an instrument plays fixed notes and, after referral to the published lists of possibilities, certain extra colors and articulations are then bolted on. Because they are rarely derived from the player’s own needs and personality they invariably end up sounding like the awkward appendages they are. One wouldn’t describe Jimi Hendrix’s use of feedback, Son House’s percussive attacks and bottleneck, or Albert Ayler’s over-blowing as extended techniques. They are all an intrinsic, inseparable part of the music and a completely necessary part of the artist’s sound. Then there’s also the extraordinary use of sound in traditions less concerned with personal expression, such as the overtone manipulation of the Aboriginal didjeridu or Inuit mouth singing games.

It’s clear that for many improvisers, the personalization of sound has been an important driving force. Terms like language and voice are often used, but this has more to do with the listener becoming familiar with a particular player’s inclinations and sonic material, rather than with any consensus on what might actually be being “said”. Nevertheless, voice is a useful shorthand term for an individual’s sound and ways of playing. Inevitably it is created by particular circumstances and times. Formative experiences for me had a lot to do with whom I chose to play with in younger days. I was fortunate to be living in London when there were a number of musicians around my own age interested in exploring ways into free improvisation. It wasn’t necessary to try to play with more established figures and this helped the urge to experiment, since falling flat on your face didn’t seem so much like the end of the world.

With John Russell and Phil Durrant one thing I struggled with was to find out how to work more transparently with the subtleties of acoustic violin and guitar, how to allow their details to penetrate through my own sound. Working with Chris Burn suggested ways of interacting with the overtones and attacks of inside-piano, how to think in terms of color as much as direct pitch. This kind of learning process is ongoing and additive, with many technical and conceptual modifications being fed by new collaborations. Playing with electronic musicians usually involved tackling how to deal with the absence of overtly physical cause and effect. This attitude has itself fed back into more acoustic groups like Polwechsel and the Contest of Pleasures. Of course, it’s possible that this kind of approach may lead one away from one’s primary instrument, but I’ve always felt it useful to restrict myself to sonic material rooted in the saxophone’s acoustics – to be aware of its traditions but to play with an ear for what lies hidden around the corner. I’m continually engaged with the mechanical and acoustic properties of a tube of metal in my hands and a piece of wood vibrating in my mouth. Even when I work with saxophone controlled feedback (nothing more than a microphone in the instrument’s bell connected to an amplifier) it still sounds like a saxophone to me because of the overtone structure embedded in its design and the use of pads and tone holes to change resonances.

I’d been playing as an improviser for 10 years before I came to work with any of the 1960s innovators. But the feeling of performing with Derek Bailey or John Stevens had much more to do with responding to their own personalized sounds than with thinking “we’re improvising.” The small drum kit that Stevens used in the Spontaneous Music Ensemble was perfectly selected to simultaneously allow great rhythmic drive and acoustic transparency. Form and function were completely sympathetic. It wasn’t John Stevens improvising on a drum kit; it was John Stevens playing his music with his sound, his voice. What I’m getting at is that the process seemed so natural and intrinsic to the music we wanted to play that the label improvisation tells so little of the story. I was also playing with Anton Webern and Phil Seamen, whom John Stevens revered, adapted, modified, chewed up and made his own. I mean, one sometimes feels aware of the convoluted set of musicians who have been important to a fellow player. Composers also have a wide range of influences, but the collaborative aspect of group improvisation can make the stage feel much more crowded than it actually is. In performance one has an extraordinarily complex matrix of influences, intentions, innovations, visions, idiosyncrasies, habits, and insights filtered and fed through different intelligences into the music of the actual moment.

In some ways, perhaps connected to electronics, the search for, and use of, new sound for its own sake has risen up the agenda. I can’t help but contrast this with an attitude I had in the 1980s. If I discovered something that was, to me, sonically new I would worry that it was too distracting to use. I felt reluctant to introduce it, as I thought drawing attention to the sound might get in the way of hearing what the music was doing. I recognize now that this is a false distinction, but I think it says something about the question of how much we present sound, that is, just let it exist, and how much we put sound to work. This is a continuum, with even the former allowing for both exhibitionism and Cageian absence of intention, but how much we “use” sound and how much we improvise are deeply connected. At the time when Morton Feldman told Stockhausen “I don't push the sounds around,” he could have been describing the exact opposite of improvisation. But the situation now is a lot less clear; with much music being “improvised” that has a strong sense of allowing sounds to be themselves. Such music needs a strong consensus amongst the players about what they want the music to sound like. This is nothing new. It could equally apply to many highly interactive, gestural improvising groups. But moves to deliberately step back from the sounding material; to de-emphasize the personal voice also tends to de-emphasize the improvisational input, certainly from the listener’s perspective. This isn’t a value judgment about the resulting music, more a comment on an interesting blurring of aims.

We all know that intense scrutiny can turn the smallest element into an entire vocabulary. Sachiko M is a Japanese performer who, for periods, has worked almost exclusively with sine-waves – mostly high pitched, of long duration and with only slight manipulation. She has applied this concept to important effect in many situations. I would say that she has made this sound area her own, even though, for long stretches, she just sets up the existence of the sound. I’ve heard a solo performance where, for minutes at a time, the principle variation is achieved by the listener becoming the improviser, adopting different head positions to hear the complex ways a single pitch is being reflected within the room. This microscopic area of focus, space and silence is fascinating, generating fresh approaches to listening and concentration. But it is very fragile, and highlights the variable degrees to which different methods might actually serve an improvisational ethos, or not.

In 2006 at the “All Ears Festival for Improvised Music” in Oslo I heard a first time duo of Sachiko M and Lisa Dillan. I didn’t know Lisa Dillan’s work before, but this occasion made it clear that she is an impressive and experienced singer with a wide ranging technique and an interest in expressive, interactive performance. In the duo the two were like chalk and cheese. Most of what Lisa Dillan was doing caused no obvious aural response from Sachiko M, who played as if she was surrounded by silence. Maybe I imagined feeling the singer’s frustration grow, but when, near the end, she began scraping her chair noisily around the stage it was a sure sign that all else had failed. I wondered about the cultural differences in how they’d arrived at their musical voices. On the face of it Lisa Dillan was improvising more than Sachiko M. Perhaps her approach, her actual vocabulary made improvisation more possible, but it could also be argued that they were both equally trapped within their pre-conceptions. Their different personalization’s of sound had developed to serve very different purposes, and floundered outside of the contexts that had produced them. This wasn’t just a mismatch of minimalism and expression, but a disagreement about what it means to improvise together. As an aside, I’ve an amused admiration for the solution to conceptual chasms presented at the famous 1986 Coney Island concert billed as “John Cage meets Sun Ra”. The two simply alternated pieces and never performed together. It proves to be a very enjoyable and illuminating listen.

Although most useful improvisational methods are formed in the hot house of actually playing, it seems that they can’t always be successfully transplanted too far away from their origins. Another example was a 1997 concert I heard in London’s Purcell Room. Derek Bailey joined the Japanese drums and bass duo The Ruins, and, although overall more successful, I felt that The Ruins made the core of Derek Bailey’s guitar playing rather meaningless. Bailey always brought a great sense of pitch organization to his encounters. It was intrinsic to his view that the guitar itself was the material of his music. But his sophisticated use of harmonics and different attacks and the consequent register leaps and timbral changes often draws attention away from the pitch sequences and brings us closer to hearing his lines as color - almost Klangfarbenmelodie. The Ruins played with incredible rhythmic attention, but seemed to only respond to the color of Bailey’s sound, smothering so much of the detail in his work, and flattening out the changes in tension that close attention to pitch brings. However, when Bailey worked with more out-and-out noise the music certainly took off. These extreme noise parts were quite radical, so I was surprised to overhear two teenagers outside say “That was pretty good, although the old guy was a bit of a jazzer.”

I don’t want to give the impression that different cultural backgrounds necessarily impede musicians working together, more that free improvisation has been around for a long time now, and many distinctive and sometimes incompatible aesthetics are at work. Which again begs the question, what is this freedom actually about? I recall with fondness a one-off trio in the 1992 Company week in London. I played with Reggie Workman, the American bass player who worked with John Coltrane in the early 1960s, and Jin Hi Kim, the Korean komungo player. Despite our different histories, the fact that we could meet on stage for the first time and create something that was more than the sum of its parts (as I recall) says something about the potential strengths of free improvisation. Perhaps it hinges on the question of flexibility. Too much destroys the music, but too little destroys the improvisation.

The special value of being willing to change your mind during an actual performance is intrinsic to improvisation. Almost unconsciously you find yourself engaging with things you hadn’t expected, hadn’t planned. It’s always exciting when the music arrives in a place that no single player could have imagined, or instructed to happen, beforehand, even if this produces the awkward feeling of “if I’d known that was what I was going to do I’d have done it better.” One tries to be prepared physically and psychologically for everything except the details of what it is that one will actually play. Whilst ideas gestate long before an actual performance, they have a nebulous quality with no real existence until their execution. Alongside the more considered moment by moment adjustments of intention that occur, the creative use of the accidental is important. My own playing often includes material that exists right on the edge of instrumental stability and control. If it flips to the unexpected side, the need to make sense of the new direction is a good antidote to complacency. So is thinking about one’s failures.

A couple of situations (amongst many) where I have been disappointed with my own contribution brought home how much my own way of playing relies on assumptions about improvisation that have little to do with style or technique. One was a performance with the Viennese trio Radian, who had composed a piece that I then improvised with. The other was an improvisation to Paul Bavister’s sound installation, which played back repeating sine tones at frequencies chosen to match the fundamental and harmonic wavelengths of the room we were in. In the former I had problems with the pre-arranged discourse of the composition and in the latter the static and recurrent nature of the almost self-sufficient sound work. What they both had in common was that they weren’t responding to me, all the flexibility was one way. If I returned to these situations I’m sure the results would be better, but then we’re moving away from improvisation and towards composition.

The interaction between players in group improvisation is complex and subtle. A duo is often the clearest, but notably more involved than one improviser plus a fixed entity. With more people the situation has some analogy with the many-body problem in Newton’s theory of gravity. The law is precisely known, but for more than two bodies it cannot be solved to give complete solutions. Even specific three-body solutions result in chaotic motion with no obvious sign of a repetitious path. There is also a spectrum of philosophies and sensibilities about group interplay, ranging from allowing responses to be overt and demonstrative to actively disregarding another player’s input. The various resulting musics are often aesthetically antagonistic, but, away from the extremes, some features remain surprisingly similar.

The trio of Alex von Schlippenbach, Evan Parker and Paul Lovens comprises three powerful and distinctive voices. The sound of each musician is easily recognized, and has been for the 30-plus years of the trio’s existence. To some it’s a paradigm of free improvisation, but in many ways it works as a compositional unit where the details and life-energy come from improvisation, usually involving very fast reactions. The instrumentation (saxophone, bass, drums) makes it possible for each member to adopt a clear role, which they all choose to do, and their group history generates the structure. I’m sure the players would say that they have exactly the right amount of freedom needed to make the music they want to make.

The Sealed Knot (Burkhard Beins, Rhodri Davies and Mark Wastell) create vastly different music, but would probably say the same regarding their freedom. Each also has a personalized sound, and it is clear who is doing what, but the presentation of three individual voices is minimal, their sound worlds overlap and there is little in the way of speedy back and forth responsiveness. Time feels compressed with the older group and stretched with the younger one. Subjectively, and slightly fancifully, when I listen it sounds as though The Sealed Knot are obeying some precise instructions given from outside the group, whilst the Schlippenbach trio are following some fuzzier plan derived from inside. I like both groups very much, and what they clearly have in common is a sense of mutual intention, of agreement. They don’t exercise any spurious notions of freedom to go off the rails they have laid down for themselves. Their improvisations specifically create a very particular kind of music. Moment by moment, both groups don’t have too many “right” choices of what to do. I’m pleased about this. When A could have worked just as well with C to Z as it did with B the music is usually vapid.

Responding and collaborating with other musical intelligences creates a wealth of improvisational possibilities. But what about solo? The degree to which one actually improvises when playing solo is open to question. These days I try to begin each solo with an empty mind, but I have certainly planned things in the past, and I remember them. Room acoustics have a big effect. All musicians modify their playing according to the acoustic they’re in, but improvisers have the advantage of actually being able to create the music specifically for their sonic environment. We’ve all heard orchestral groups struggling to play compositions in rooms with the wrong acoustics for the piece chosen. Playing solo in extreme acoustics, such as on my 2006 “Resonant Spaces” tour of Scotland, highlighted these issues. Each space, including an underground reservoir, a sea-cave, and a giant oil tank, required a different approach. Something that worked in one could rarely be transplanted to another. In a way, this was an amplification of factors involved in more conventional settings. One often finds that something that worked one night fails the next because the room’s acoustic is too different, and you have to move the music along a different direction. A psychological corollary to this is that I’ve noticed on some solo tours a tendency to back-off from any material that was too much like the night before, even if it’s going well. Only I know this, but it feels necessary to the improvisational process. No matter that it’s all a matter of degree; one shouldn’t underestimate the importance of not knowing what the music you’re playing will sound like a few minutes hence. The brain must be operating in a very different way than when you’ve mapped things out, let alone when one reads music. This is one of the problems of combining improvisation with imposed structure; it continually pulls you back and forth between different cognitive systems. Often one hears improvisation inside formally structured pieces that seems to be just filling in the space, waiting for the next instruction.

An interesting piece of research recently suggested that our brains seem to be wired up in a way that makes visual reactions faster than conscious thought. When two pseudo-gunslingers fought a dual the one who drew second pulled his gun out the fastest. That is, the one who consciously decided to draw was slower than the one who just responded to seeing the other draw. Equally, people with Parkinson’s disease often find reactive movements easier than intentional movements. I don’t know how far an analogy can be made with aural systems, but one of the freedoms of improvisation lies in the possibility of bypassing conscious thought. Very often it’s intuition and experience that seem to be making all the decisions. Most players have been in the situation of making a recording, stopping and thinking “that was good, but let’s do it again.” Nearly always, any attempt to get too close to the original thing fails. Not technically, but in spirit, because a different cognitive system is in operation compared to the one that first created the music. Scientist’s at John Hopkin’s University have begun to use MRI scans to observe differences in brain activity when jazz musicians play memorized scales compared to their own improvisations. Unsurprisingly, when improvising, part of the prefrontal cortex linked to planned actions and self-censoring (as in choosing your words carefully) is seen to slow down in activity, but we’re a long way from a neurological picture of the possible states of mind involving sound production and reception. I do know that it’s often only when I’m improvising music that I feel like I’m really existing in the present.

In the notes to Thirteen Friendly Numbers, my first solo CD in 1992, I wrote - “Despite their special and distinctive properties, improvisation and composition are not neatly separated activities. For the “improviser” this becomes clearest with solo-playing, where personal concerns are unmodulated by other musicians’ input.” I now think that the ambiguity in these categories stretches even wider. If I consider the improvisers who have meant the most to me, following their improvising is a bit like noticing that you have to blow air through a trumpet to get a sound (usually). It’s necessary, but it’s not the main thing you pay attention to, as a player or listener. For instance, Derek Bailey had a highly personal method of guitar playing whose internal ingredients were fascinatingly distinctive and malleable. In fact he said that he was involved with “a search for whatever is endlessly variable.” Obviously he wouldn’t have taken this approach if his musical thinking didn’t go hand in glove with a desire to improvise, but it’s his music and his personalization of the guitar that I hear first, not his improvising. The transience of performance based creation often leads to devalued cultural estimates of it. The improviser’s art occurs in real time but the musician’s oeuvre often only falls into place over many years. Eventually we recognize that their contribution adds up to something as personal and formed as that of a conventional composer, albeit one who has chosen to go out night after night to recreate, hone, challenge and expand their own music.

Associated listening:
Toshimaru Nakamura: Dance Music. (Bottrop-Boy)
Matthew Shipp: 4D (Thirsty Ear)
Butcher/Durrant/Russell: The Scenic Route (Emanem)
The Spontaneous Music Ensemble: A New Distance (Emanem)
Sachiko M: Bar Sachiko (IMJ)
Derek Bailey: Lot 74 (Incus)
Schlippenbach Trio: Gold is where you find it (Intakt)
The Sealed Knot: and we disappear (Another Timbre)
John Butcher: Resonant Spaces (Confront)

John Butcher©2011

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