SIMON H. FELL  Report On The Composition Of Improvised Music No. 2

First published in Rubberneck 17 (December 1994)

In Rubberneck 15 I wrote of an encouragingly successful attempt to synthesise improvisation and composition within a 'classical' concert environment, and during that essay I made mention of further work to follow which would seek to effect the integration of advanced modern composition into the traditional free improvisation performance arena. Whilst I am acutely aware that this process of synthesising composition, improvisation and jazz is not a revolutionary new concept, it is one which has yet to see a full and satisfying flowering with all parts fully exploiting their stylistic fecundity. Thus I can only hope that further notes from a deluded seeker for this (possibly imaginary) Holy Grail may prove of some interest to practitioners and enthusiasts of all three (overlapping) art forms.

In my last essay I spoke of the 'fear of freedom' which paralyses many classically trained musicians in a freely improvising situation; my next project in this vein was to give me ample chance to explore the hysterical reaction to the predetermined which can so effectively emasculate the work of even the finest improvisers when their performance is combined with a notated structure. I use the term 'hysterical' in its technical sense, since the restrictions that the musicians feel they are put under are often far more dramatic and overwhelming than the actual demands of the score. It is the presence of the score itself, with all that that implies (the dead hand of Western musical imperialism etc) that generates the antipathetic reaction from the improviser, rather than the musical text itself. Improvisers must realise that it's unthinking traditionalism which is the enemy, not necessarily the simple act of notation of ideas. Possibly some of improvisation's elder statesmen and women, in fighting hard for improvisation to be identified as a performance ideology in its own right (without the necessity of support/interference from structures), have fetishised the presence/absence of a composition to the point where for many improvisers the appearance of notation can almost paralyse their creative faculties. There is room (and a need) for a looser conception of a score/notation which can accommodate (and flow fluidly around) the freedom of improvisation. Both composers and improvisers must try and work towards being less dogmatic in this respect (blow up the music schools as well as the opera houses Pierre!) In my own music, for example, I try and stress that the composition has neither more nor less importance than improvisation, but should be treated with the same flexibility, playfulness, recklessness and respect. Composed sections should not be adhered to at the expense of improvisation, but if you're not improvising then do pay attention to the notes/instructions, as they're worthy of just as much care. You don't have to play the right notes/rhythms etc all the time, but you should always have an idea of what you're supposed to be doing, even if you decide to do something else!

The problem of hysterical aphasia resulting from scoreophobia seems to be particularly acute for those musicians who perform in the style loosely categorised as 'free jazz', since often this form of performance can revolve around a high level of ecstatic commitment to physically very demanding playing, which by its very nature tends to make the musicians less able to be aware of cues, numbers of bars, timings or other structuring devices. However because, unlike some of my improvising colleagues, I wish to see my deep love of jazz and swing rhythms reflected as a core part of my work, it is these free jazz musicians whom I often find most interesting and useful in bridging the gap between (obviously) jazz and improvisation. In November 1993 I was to have the opportunity to spend some considerable time coming face-to-face with the problems involved in making the link to the third constituent, composition, in a way which could prove fruitful.

Music For 10(0) was a commission from Leeds' Termite Club for an evening-long piece to celebrate their 10th anniversary, to be performed at the 1993 Termite Festival. In itself this was a rather strange proposition; a club which for 10 years had been associated in most people's minds with a pretty uncompromising strain of highly-committed improv, commissioning a composer for a piece? Of course, the Termite had also been the birthplace of a sort of mini-resuscitation of British Free Jazz in the persons of Alan Wilkinson and Paul Hession - with whom I have had the pleasure of performing extensively in a trio - and the club's other Founding Fathers (Paul Buckton and John McMillan) had been among the first people I had ever attempted to improvise with, in the late '70s; in view of all this, there was a known empathy between myself and the Termite 'school' as improvisers. It was still something of a shock to be asked to write a composition, but a very pleasurable challenge seemed to be guaranteed. Some of the 10 musicians who were to take part in the premiere I knew to be particularly prone to this 'clamming-up' process when presented with even a few bars of notation, and much thought would have to be given to devising a way to enable them to improvise to the best of their ability within the context of a composition. Other 'problems' included the fact that 4 of the 10 musicians didn't read music, one or two of whom had no real experience of producing or intention to produce 'notes', pitches or anything remotely resembling them!

Music For 10(0) was composed more or less immediately after the Concertino referred to in the Rubberneck 15 article, and as a consequence I was keen to further explore some of techniques which I had developed during that work and which were described in the previous article. In particular, the idea of having a multi-level multi-focus approach (where pitches, rhythms, textures, playing techniques, phrases, melodies and compositional sections could all be utilised, ordered and varied to create patterns and symmetries independent of each other) seemed to be a valuable one. It gave the opportunity of creating a three-dimensional structure which had the possibility of melodies, harmonies, rhythms and orderings in any and/or every parameter at any given time, on anything from the microstructural level to the macromovement to the Global Unity.

I felt that this approach might also prove helpful for the improvising musicians involved, since the evening out of the balance between pitch and texture, between harmony and dynamic etc, would serve to make the process of composition less pitch-centred and therefore more assimilable by musicians unused to playing complex atonal (pitch-orientated) music.

For Music For 10(0) a macrostructure of different instrumental effects, tempi, stylistic influences and quotations was built on a matrix derived from (of course) the figure 10. It's not really within the scope of this article (and possibly may prove not too interesting) to discuss at length the way this basic structure was generated and then compacted down in a sort of musical origami to form not only phrase and bar lengths and structures, but also to give the very note order and rhythmic flow of the five main themes of the work itself.

In order to try and overcome some of the problems I had previously encountered in giving first performances of complex works, half the commissioning fee was given over to pay for rehearsals for the performance (no other source of rehearsal funding being available; the other half of the fee went on recording the performance. 'Twas ever thus!) After some scrupulous and in depth initial rehearsal it transpired that all the musicians - even those with very little experience of scored music - could find their way around the notes and cues I had written with varying degrees of prior preparation. Simple hand cues and counts seemed to provide reliable structural indicators and the stage was set for an interesting and exciting performance.

However, it was during the final rehearsals that I started to notice that there seemed to be an inversely proportional relationship between the extent to which the improvisation which lay at the heart of the work was reintroduced and the amount of accuracy which the musicians displayed in picking up on their cues or keeping their place. Although this was understandable perhaps as far as those musicians who were actually improvising at any given time was concerned, what was more remarkable was that the other musicians, becoming intrigued/enraptured/mesmerised by their colleagues' work, also missed their cues, playing increasingly inaccurately in such notated passages as they had. It was as if the increasing presence of improvisation had spread an intangible air of otherworldliness among the musicians, causing them to drift from the intensely studied application to their parts which was necessary when they were not improvising. Theorists of Transcendental Meditation believe that if a sufficient proportion of the population were meditators, then the beneficial effects of meditation (love, peace, social harmony etc) would spread by a mysterious osmosis through the non-meditating population. I felt I was witnessing a similar mysterious process taking place through the magical powers of Transcendental Improvisation; musicians were becoming so moved by their colleagues' performance that they had, for a brief period, become listeners only instead of performers. (Perhaps this is what is so special about improvisation, the ability to pass from being a listener to being a performer and back again completely at will). It would seem that one of the greatest problems in combining composition with the tradition of Free Music is that while performing predetermined material musicians may have to partly switch off or desensitise their valuable listening faculties, which are crucial to their whole improvising existence, only to switch them back on again at the drop of a hat. This is no mean request (indeed some would say it's an undesirable aim at best) and perhaps some of my more sceptical readers will feel that if I and others like me insist on trying to create this Frankenstein's monster, then it would serve us right if the whole house of cards (or Gothic castle) were to fall about our ears!

At the same time, those musicians to whom I was looking for the most committed improvisation were beginning to pull in their horns under the imaginary pressure of 'the score'; the situation was rapidly developing into the worst of both worlds, and something needed to be done. Well, as Charles Ives said, "if a composer once starts to compromise, his work will begin to drag on him. Before the end is reached, his inspiration has all gone up in sounds (or ideas) pleasing to his audience, ugly to him." (I'm sure Ives meant to write him/her of course). In other words, I'd better perfect this art of skating on thin ice or be prepared to fall through and disappear from sight as a warning to others, but no turning back for the comfy pipe and slippers of the LMC Diner's Club!

So newer, more acutely unignorable methods of cuing the musicians were devised. (Large cards with cue letters on made their first appearance during the performance, frightening some of the musicians half to death, I'm sure. [I couldn't help remembering Zorn directing Cobra, but I wanted a music less varied but more varied.]) Increased leeway was introduced with regard to the length and positioning of improvised pieces/passages, and in jazz passages simpler bass lines and rhythmic impetus introduced easier bar counting. Some musicians still found it bewildering and difficult (and perhaps pointless although they were too polite to say so to me) to switch within the space of 10 seconds from Webernian pointillism to raucous improvisation to hard-driving small-band swing, but on the whole we managed. Like most first performances, that night at the Termite Festival exposed weaknesses and prolixities in the score which needed revising, but the second and subsequent performances (when will they be?) will just get better and better. Alan Wilkinson's memory of that first performance was that it was 'chaotic'; certainly the music was among the most unpredictable, raucous, gentle (yes - Movt. VI!), humorous and nerve-wracking I have played or even heard. Whilst I wouldn't claim that this is yet the Perfect Synthesis of the Three Forms, it is perhaps (along with Compilation II) my nearest realisation so far. (At least until Compilation III is ready - but more about that later!)

Above all, the experience seemed to confirm for me as a composer that although the challenges involved in composing for improvisers can be almost overwhelming, it is only by incorporating and exploiting the input of fully committed improvisers that composition can hope to be revitalised and genuinely new music be created. The future certainly does not lie in fashionable harmonic platitudes spun out by cliquey Academicians, but composition does have a role as a supporter and shaper of (and alternative to) improvisation which can guarantee it a lifespan beyond a mere 400-year Western European hiccup, improvisation being (of course) universal and timeless. As an improviser, I'd just about agree to that!


© SIMON H. FELL December 1994

This is the second in a series of essays exploring the implications of attempting to 'organise' improvisation; interested parties will find other instalments in Rubberneck issues 15, 24 & 28.

Reprinted courtesy of Rubberneck

back to Bruce's Fingers texts index

back to main Bruce's Fingers index page