Central to improvisation is the notion of the ‘referent’. The referent is an underlying formal scheme or guiding image specific to a given piece… Pressing (1984)1
I am intrigued by all the recurring elements in the music of Huntsville and Dans les arbres, how similar (yet radically different) two concerts with the same ensemble may be. We have not talked much about the music and our methods within the ensembles. There is no carefully laid out master plan. But still both ensembles seem to have developed their own sets of frameworks and guidelines; something that operates as variations of what Pressing calls referents; something that generates a certain similarity between performances of the same ensemble. These frameworks are tacit and they are inconclusive. They are clear as dishwater. But still, judging from the recordings made during both of the ensembles’ existence, there seems to be inter-subjective understandings of what these frames are. All the recurring elements, the ensembles’ body of works, become our own referents. Our improvisations reflect the previous ones, and they feed the next improvisations. They are self-reflexive.
Contrary to what one might expect from its spontaneous nature, musical improvisation depends very heavily on an implicit musical tradition, on tacit rules (Berliner, 1994) … It is only with reference to a thoroughly internalized body of works performed in a coherent style the improvisation can be performed by the musician…2
It is as if we are performing new variations of previous improvisations, previous pieces.
Pre-meditated, yet fluctuating.
It is Calder’s Hanging Mobiles translated into music, where the elements may be known,
but their mutual relationships are in constant flux.
Just like each observation of a mobile is reminiscent of another,
each piece of music by either of the two groups is a reminiscent of another.
It is referring to another.
It is balancing between the known and the unknown,
between playing what I know and what I do not know.
It is looking at the same objects over and over again, from new angles,
in new constellations.
The rules and constraints of a musical style still allow for infinite possibilities, just as languages with a finite number of words (the lexicon) and a finite set of grammatical rules (syntax) can still allow for an infinite number of possible sentences. In language, this phenomenon is referred to as “discrete infinity”.3
What if I replace a musical style in the above quotation with a Calder Mobile? The rules and constraints of a Calder Mobile still allow for infinite possibilities. What if I re-write like this: The intrinsic rules and constraints in the music of my ensembles still allow for infinite possibilities.
Our set of rules, our “lexicon”, our set of “grammatical rules”, are precisely not defined. They are not finite. Our referents develop.4 They are elusive. But still, there is a significant referentiality in each ensemble that is holding it all together in an (elusive) body of works. It is as if different improvisations of the same ensemble exist in an optional intertextual relationship. Optional intertextuality “…is a possible, but not essential, intertextual relationship that if recognized, the connection will slightly shift the understanding of the text”.5 For the audience this intertextuality is optional. It is not necessary for our audience to have heard our previous improvisations. For us in the ensembles, this intertextuality is a kind of technique. It does not primarily shift the understanding of the music (text), but it gives our elusive body of works a certain focus and direction.
It is looking at the same objects over and over again, from new angles,
in new constellations,
an infinite number of possible constellations.
Both the content of the referents and the acceptance and awareness of their existence, constitute the ensembles identities, sonically. The very awareness and the acceptance of our referents, and how they operate, also open up a space of possibilities when we play–it marks an (elusive) space for us to improvise in. This approach seems to part radically from the popular belief that, in improvised music “anything can happen” (which potentially leads to a lot of misunderstandings and almost conceited mystifications), and therefore “everything should happen”. Or put differently, an approach were each performance ideally should be as different as possible from the previous. Is that what Jim O’Rourke meant when Christoph Cox interviewed him for The Wire in 1997?
… for the most part, [O’Rourke] suggests, improvisors seem content merely to do “their schtick”: “I make a distinction, and a lot of people in the improvised music world don’t, between people who play improvised music and people who improvise. I mean, I have no problem with either form of music. The problem I have is when people who play improvised music say they’re improvising. I have no problem with the Evan Parker Trio. But they’re not improvising. They’re playing Evan Parker Trio music.”6
The members of Evan Parker Trio are all highly idiosyncratic musicians with distinctive artistic expressions. Is O’Rourke saying that Evan Parker Trio is not improvising because their music is too fixed? That the boundaries they are operating within are too established? Too bound (see Free)? Too well known? If so, for who? For them? For the audience? Is he saying that they are not digging deep enough into the unknown? And that digging into the unknown is what improvisation is and should be all about?
Personally I don’t see the problem here. Or rather, the problem I see is a different one. Without any further elaboration on Evan Parker Trio’s methodologies, music, frameworks or constrains, I strongly believe they are improvising, within their own style, with their own personalities and preferences, even if they are playing music that would be recognizable to an informed audience. The problem I see, is that such distinctions suggests the act of improvisation itself to be more important than the sound of the music. For me, this is not the situation. Improvisation is simply a tool for making music.7
… the longer you play in the same situation or group (…) the less appropriate it becomes to describe the music as ‘free’ anything. It becomes, usually, very personalised, very closely identified with the player or group of players. Derek Bailey (1980).8
1 Jeff Pressing, ”Cognitive processes in improvisation” in Cognitive Processes in the Perception of Art, ed. W.R. Crozier, A.J. Chapman, North Holland, 1984, p346.
2 Mihály Csikszentmihályi and Grant Jewell Rich, “Musical Improvisation: A Systems Approach” in Creativity in Performance, ed. Keith Sawyer, Greenwich, UK: Ablex Publishing, 1997, p51.
3 Aaron L. Berkowitz. The Improvising Mind, Cognition and Creativity in the Musical Moment New York 2010, Oxford University Press, p3.
4 Just like I would expect language to develop, too. I would imagine that both lexicon and grammar develop.
6 The Wire, issue 165. London, November 1997. Interviewed by Christoph Cox, p39.
7 This discussion touches in on the much debated relationship between improvisation and composition. People study, write PhD’s, go to week-long seminars, fight and argue. I am not intending to participate thoroughly in this debate, here. Nor am I going to give an account of the dichotomy of improvisation–composition, a dichotomy that by some even is argued to be a false one. I am peacemaker. Make love, not war. I am John Lennon of improvised music. At least I would like to be. But I would still like to add that I think a definition of improvisation, or at least the kind of musical improvisation that interest me, should contain the kind of work we do in our ensembles, and the work I do solo. But that also goes for a definition of composition. It should contain what we and I and a lot of other improvisers do. We, and many with us, are somewhere in between improvising and composing. And personally I don’t really care so much when I do what. It is all part of the same activity, the same practise. It is about making music, preparing for that making, performing, preparing to perform, and trying to set up, organize, arrange, compose attractive spaces to play and improvise within. Peace and Love.
8 Derek Bailey, Improvisation: its nature and practice in music. Ashbourne, England 1992 (1980). Moorland Pub. in association with Incus Records, p115.