British composer and bassist Gavin Bryars was part of the improvising trio Joseph Holbrooke, comprising Derek Bailey, Tony Oxley and himself in the 1960s. Later, he gave up improvising, and explains why to Derek Bailey (1980):
One of the main reasons I am against improvisation now is that in any improvising position the person creating the music is identified with the music. The two things are seen to be synonymous. The creator is there making the music and is identified with the music and the music with the person. It’s like standing a painter next to his picture so that every time you see the painting you see the painter as well and you can’t see it without him. And because of that the music, in improvisation, doesn’t stand alone. It’s corporeal. My position, through the study of Zen and Cage, is to stand apart from one’s creation. Distancing yourself from what you are doing. Now that becomes impossible in improvisation.1
Distancing yourself from what you are creating is not entirely impossible in improvisation. I believe this is exactly what we are doing through our focus on the collectivity in our ensembles. Or, at least, this is what I believe we are aiming at. Our focus is on what emerges out of our collective contributions. It is corporeal. The audience can both see and hear us. Corporeal, but also distanced.
How does this apply to my solo work in this project?
I am more clearly standing next to my solo work.
After all, Video Ensemble even has a lot of images of myself.
It does not appear to be self-distanced.
Also, my listening can be self-centred.
This is the opposite of self-distanced…
is of little importance when I play in the ensembles, and to me this seems to be shared by the other band members. It is all about the collectivity. The selfishness required to achieve an interesting collectivity, is not the same as self-realisation. That kind of selfishness is not to acquire self-realization. I do hear a great deal of unappealing "self-realisation" in improvised music. One type is connected to the explosiveness of much free jazz, where it is almost as if the practitioners are practicing sport. It is corporeal, but it is not a distanced corporeality. The musician(s) is standing in front of the music. Or, to follow the above analogy, the painter stands in front of the painting. The other type is connected to part of the scene were the act of improvisation itself, appears to be of greater importance than the sound of the music. There is simply no painting to be seen, because the involved painters seem too occupied by their own awareness and of being present in the moment.
Am I standing in front of my painting?
Can I not be doing that when I am working solo?
Are my solo works just other types of unappealing self-realisation?
Evaluating solo work is a major challenge to me, and a different challenge to that of evaluating ensemble work. I think it is connected to the simplicity and the constraints on the material. The vulnerability in sparse solo material brings to the surface a very judgmental listener in me. Clearly, I am more judgmental towards myself in my solo work than the ensemble work. I start questioning my own opinions, even my own judgment. In the ensembles we are sharing responsibility, both in creating the music and in judging and evaluating it.
Note to self: don’t stand too close to your work.
1 Derek Bailey, Improvisation: its nature and practice in music. Ashbourne, England 1992 (1980). Moorland Pub. in association with Incus Records, p115.