SIMON H. FELL  Report On The Composition Of Improvised Music No. 3

First published in Rubberneck 24 (June 1997)

Regular Rubberneck readers (of whom I trust there are many) will perhaps recall my essays in issues 15 & 17, in which I discussed specific projects which attempted to initiate syntheses of structured and improvised music additional to those hitherto realised. I had originally hoped that the third of these articles would relate to the realisation of a further project which would shed more light on the processes involved in this work.

Unfortunately, in the 2½ years since the piece in Rubberneck 17, the project in question has remained stubbornly unrealised, and its corresponding essay unwritten. It seems I had grossly underestimated the time-scale for the bringing into being of Compilation III, an extremely audacious large-scale structure for (deep breath) concert pianist, free jazz trio, rock guitarist, big band, chamber ensemble, electronics and tape. More cynical readers will already have smiled knowingly, realising that a complex work (136-page score) of such radical inclusiveness was destined to have precious little success in the pigeon-hole obsessed world of British arts funding, and I'm afraid their scepticism has indeed proved well-founded. You'll doubtless be glad to know that, in a true spirit of bloody-minded awkwardness, my response to this impasse has been to expand the work, and a new version of Compilation III is currently in preparation which is longer (c. 75 mins.) and uses a larger chamber ensemble, the work now requiring a total of 40 musicians. The fate of Compilation III now hangs precariously in the balance, subject (like so many other projects) to the decision of the Arts Council's Lottery-funded A4E scheme. More news on this in due course, naturally. (Readers may be interested to know that recordings of Compilation I - a suite for 9 improvisers, electronics, animals and silence (1985) - and Compilation II - theme and variations for 10 improvisers and electronics (1990) - are still available.) note 1

However, the failure of this project to come to fruition still provides us with much to consider. Is it possible in the late 1990s to suggest that a synthesising trans-stylistic endeavour can still create passionate innovative music rather than media pap? Has not genre-crossing become a byword for slickly anodyne trendmongery, creating a new arts category in the process? Will large-scale experimental projects always fall 'between the cracks' in the genre-based world of Arts funding? And are 'originality' and 'creativity' still objectives that can be supported for their own sake, or are we truly in an age where 'accessibility' and 'viability' are the aims of artistic endeavour?

The desire to classify (and thus ultimately restrict) artistic activity which often hampers the more free-thinking kinds of endeavour provides a rich source of deliberation for the experimental musician. What begins as administrative convenience often mysteriously mutates into 'mission statement'. Experience has led me to wonder whether this isn't perhaps an especially British consideration, fostered by an army of post-Thatcherite upwardly-mobile professional Arts Administrators, whose necessarily slight understanding of their current field of operations causes them to rely excessively on questionnaire type snapshot assessments and historical precedent. (Make no mistake, even musicians who pride themselves on working outside the public funding arena are fundamentally affected by the decisions these people make.)

The effect of these working practices has been indulged by the current lack of impetus in modern classical music, and a general atrophying of the specialist audience's thrust toward the 'avant-garde'. Even Improvised Music is now of an age where it is possible to observe a hardening of attitudes (let alone arteries), engendering a 'classic' type of improvisation which has specific aims and objectives, is conducted within certain stringently controlled parameters of technique, skill or ideology, and which is judged as 'successful' or otherwise depending upon its ability to create certain marvellous but increasingly familiar textural and emotional soundworlds. Some of the musicians involved in this type of activity do not have a particularly 'experimental' or 'avant-garde' aesthetic philosophy at all (although thankfully most of them still seem to share the egalitarianism and liberalism which is such an integral part of non-hierarchical performance). For an established improviser there also many difficulties inherent in trying to retain an open and mobile conception of the object of musical creativity within the increasingly repressive tendencies of a developing 'reputation', with its knee-jerk expectation and classification. Certainly, many readers would be surprised to learn of the increasing slimness of what would seem to be the inherent link between improvised music and experimentalism in general.

The burgeoning conservatism of aspiration of much improvised and contemporary music has helped to let funding bodies off the hook, giving them an opportunity to fund 'safe' work, even in a supposedly 'modern' area of art. Thus risk-taking and experimentation can be quietly allowed to slip off the funding agenda, in favour of fashion-led trans-genre collaborations, often more the product of a marketing person's bizarre whimsy than any deeply-felt musical commitment. All of this is inevitably something of a shock to those of us who were originally attracted to improvised and contemporary music exactly because it was part of the avant-garde, and seemed to provide a point of contact with an audience who were interested in any radical arts activity; an audience who would be prepared to examine and experience experimental music (whether 'successful' or otherwise) with an open and non-prescriptive expectation.

This overall drift of focus makes it increasingly difficult to encourage listeners and funders to follow into a world of aesthetic uncertainty. Experimentalism requires a mobile and responsive set of assessment criteria, not necessarily limited to 'finished product' or 'successful performance'. "What would happen if..." must surely be more interesting than "I can do that too..." For example, my piece Mutual And Reciprocal Ceremonies (Discus 1996) was a genuine experiment to find out what would happen if a certain process was carried out on certain raw-material with a certain pre-determined architecture. Unfortunately, many reviewers chose to react to the piece as if it were an improvisation, or composition for chamber orchestra, or some other 'musical' experience, and in so doing missed much of the point; the fact that the ideas involved in the process of this realisation may have been more interesting than the actual sounds that resulted (although I might dispute that suggestion) is not an observation which I consider particularly negative. One of the joys of experimental music is that the ideas often form as much of the substance of the work as the sounds themselves, and as a true Cageian this criticism of idea/result 'imbalance' is not one I would particularly wish to shirk. Moreover, I would assert the experimental artist's right to failure, and observe that failure is perhaps the only true sign of success in experimentalism; experimental music which 'works' as pure music is surely simply an indicator that new experiments require to be undertaken.

Although the difficulties involved in encouraging an audience to adopt a more flexible aesthetic should not be underestimated, sometimes these difficulties are exacerbated by some performing musicians' own tendency to self-censorship in what they consider to be an aesthetically 'hostile' environment, giving the audience little chance to establish a relationship with new work, and ultimately creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Mick Beck's trio, Something Else, has over the past five years made a most interesting journey from 'standard' modern jazz practice of playing (albeit freely) a series of compositions with included improvisation (see Rear Quarters, 1992), through extremely open free jazz and improvised music explorations (see Start Moving Earbuds, 1994) to a still all-too-rare synthesis of improvisation with an implicit common understanding of dozens of original compositions; compositions which may or may not appear, may or may not be developed if they do appear, and which will never be realised in the same way twice (see Playing With Tunes, 1997). However, one of the most effective obstacles to realising this work has been the fear that an improvised music audience will be inherently unsympathetic to any performance which involves 'tunes'. The fear of disapproval by what can often seem to be a conservatively 'free' audience can be enough to reduce this music to a shadow of its former self (and occasionally has), thus depriving us of the opportunity to air our work, and the audience of the opportunity of proving our prejudices unfounded.

Needless to say, all this talk of melody and non-purist neo-third-stream collaboration does not mean that I side myself with the post-modernist philistines who would assert that the only point of writing/performing music is for everyone to enjoy nice tunes and 'have a good time' (viz Barrington Pheloung in a recent issue of Double Bassist: "We have had enough squeaky gates and intellectual masturbation in modern music... I primarily write concert music for the players' enjoyment." These are the people giving masterclasses at the SPNM these days!). Rather, my wish is to reassert the modern listener's need to dismantle the accretive preconceptions of what constitutes a 'successful' example of a particular form, and return to the search for creativity and passionate innovation which probably led them to improvised and modern musics in the first place. Purism should be redirected to focus on openness to new experience, an insistence on conviction, and a tolerance of experiment (and hopefully occasional failure). Reject the unthinking and often unnecessary classification of endeavour, and the fruitless drivel created by these who seek to fulfil occasional surges of fashionable interest. Stick out for genuine experiment and music motivated by passionate belief, rather than tired habit.

In the meantime I shall return to the never-ending process of trying to shoehorn Compilation III into numerous wrongly-shaped pigeon-holes, embarrassedly pestering people who are interested in doing something not-quite-the-same as I'm interested in doing, and sitting at home wondering whether being experimental is really all it's cracked up to be. Wouldn't it be better to do something familiar and start building a proper musical career? Hopefully readers will by now be overwhelmed by a seething desire to hear something creative and unpredictable; whilst I know I haven't always succeeded in achieving this aim, I'm sure you'll agree that it's a noble objective. Keep your ears open and let the explorers in!

© SIMON H. FELL June 1997

note 1: since this essay was first published, the recording of Compilation I mentioned has been deleted.

This is the third in a series of essays exploring the implications of attempting to 'organise' improvisation; interested parties will find other instalments in Rubberneck issues 15, 17 & 28.

Reprinted courtesy of Rubberneck

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