A thought on Improvisation.

Taking part in a Free Improvisation session last night, I did begin to wonder about the validity of the whole practice.
Proponents, including the late Derek Bailey, viewed it as finding meaning – ‘the real’, if you will. And there’s an element of this I agree with. If you’re not concerned with making a mistake, or playing ‘the correct way’, surely what comes out is uninhibited, reactive expression?
Well, I like melody, harmony and rhythm too much to agree.
I have been involved in some killer free improv sessions with friends. As far as I can tell, none of us are taking it particularly seriously. Much distortion of traditional music ensues – bins thrown at pianos, lard tins lacerated, country & western tapes mangled through a dictaphone, and me trying to break my reverb pedal.
So far so good? Sounds like free improv to you? [read: a bloody racket]
However, this is where I have a problem. Firstly, why?
Allow me to iterate:


Surely there is some meaning here? Somewhere in this jumbled cacophonic fusion of lounge jazz and rebel insurrection lurks a higher meaning?

Haven’t found it yet, but my eyesight’s not very good.

Let us take issue with the man who wrote the book:

“There has to be some degree, not just of unfamiliarity, but incompatibility [with a partner]. Otherwise, what are you improvising for? “
-Derek Bailey, 2002

OK, here is where I disagree with master. My group of peers (some of whom are highly experienced in the idiom) and I get on really well. Indeed, when we started making music, there was no direction, we got frustrated, and it all tailed off rather pathetically. Fruitlessly, we perserved.

But then, over the weeks, as we met up more frequently, not over a prepared piano but over a cup of coffee and a slice of cheesecake (oh, you crazy rock stars), we created a social bond that elevated the artificial constructs of music, and allowed us to relate to each other. THAT’s when the Improv became fun [probably still torture to listen to, though]. We realised that we all have a pretty good sense of humour (I’m faking it. Hopefully they won’t notice), and that we can create ‘good’ music (whatever that it) without po-faced aggrandizing and pseudo-philosophical conjecture. I know many people who’d disagree with that approach. But surely I should be free to derive as much entertainment from this musical dissonance as I like?

And here’s my main criticism of the monolothic beast that is Free Improvisation.
In case you haven’t realised, every time someone mentions it, all assembled go: “Eurgh.” I may be missing out a few vowels, but you get the gist.

Anyway – the problem is that it is a self-contained idiom.
I can play in a Free Improv style. That in itself defies the moniker.

Exponents of Free Improv (the fundamentalist kind who decry other styles as below them, or unreal) would disagree strongly with this.
However, it’s these people that seem to propogate the Free Improv Style, and carry on the tradition of squeaks, shouts and extreme pelvic thrusts.

[Am I exaggerating? Go on, go to a Free Improv concert. I dare you.]

It’s the ideologically-based sense of superiority that comes from thinking you understand the meaning (and the means to find the meaning) of music that really grinds my gears (for any Family Guy fans reading this). I mean, how arrogant can you be?

[IMPORTANT: This is not directed at anyone in particular, including Derek Bailey, and ESPECIALLY not my fellow improvising-cohorts. They’re superb. I’ve been to some really powerful free improv gigs. But, then again, I’ve been to some free improv sessions so bad that by the end I wanted my time, patience and ears back, with 12.5% interest.]

The best advice I was given concerning improv wasn’t concerning style, temperament or ‘idiomatic authenticity’. It was:

“Just listen and react.”

If only more people would do so!

Leave a comment

Filed under essays, irreverence, music

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s