FMP/FREE MUSIC PRODUCTION - An Edition of Improvised Music 1989-2004

FMP CD 103

Peter Niklas Wilson


Against forced ideas

Two fetishes of western music: construction and ideas. And, at the same time, (seen through the eyes of its admirers), compelling arguments for the putative inferiority of improvised music. After all, which improvisor would succeed in creating, off the cuff, a melodic idea of the quality of, let’s say, Thelonious Monk's "Round Midnight"? And which improvising collective would be capable of the constructive density of the numerical proportions of a Dufay-Motette, the semantic chiffres of Alban Berg's "Lyrische Suite" or of Conlon Nancarrow's ingenious tempo canons? Rhetorical questions – no doubt. But maybe the inevitable banality of the answers could, for once, not serve to confirm the world view of the opinion leaders of composed music aesthetics but, on the contrary, put in doubt the sense of formulating the question. While listening to this good one and a quarter hours of free improvised duo music I realised, once again, how plausible it would be to turn the tables round, meaning: put into question the fetishes "idea" and "construction", to de-mystify them – and to think about the strengths of a music which does not obey their dictates.

Thus I think it would not be appropriate to stylise the perhaps casual figures Alexander von Schlippenbach uses as openers in the dialogue with Tony Oxley, time after time, as ideas of a singular originality. Rather, they have something of the incidental: play(ing) things, patterns, deriving perhaps from the encounter between human physiognomy and the ergonomics of the 88 black and white keys with a certain inevitability, just figures of speech, one uses to start off a dialogue. Such "banality" (in the ears of the apologist of the "brilliant flash of inspiration"), in improvised music, is no imperfection but something like a necessity (for survival). On the one hand because no improviser can afford to wait for the cosmic intuition of the transcendental idea, for the "golden moment", as Anthony Braxton has put it. Improvisation takes place here and now and a good part of the mastership of the well-schooled improviser lies in accepting what this instant is offering, what is available, which sounds, which musical particles there are, placed into the world by the fellow musicians or by the self-evolving patterns of speech.

On the other hand, because within the world of improvisation, the adherence to the value of the unique idea can even be destructive: The Improviser who is so in love with his own idea that he wants to make it the focus of the whole happening and everything and everybody has to follow, not infrequently is closed to the offerings of his colleagues, to the other musical possibilities in the air.
Misha Mengelberg, one of the great improvisers of our time, recently spoke to me about this: "For me it is not so important to develop really big and fantastic musical thoughts in order to make nice or interesting improvised music. [...] Great ideas – yes, they may come once in twenty years, and when you're lucky, one of them may be there in that one hour, when you're struggling not to make too many mistakes. You can't hope for more than that." Such acquiescence may seem frighteningly profane to the unshaken propagandists of occidental genius-metaphysics – almost a confession and proof of poverty of the improviser – but it is a tried and tested antidote against all the incense burning mystifications of musical creativity which are still wide-spread even among the followers of new music (composed as well as improvised). "Playing", Derek Bailey, one of the most vitriolic and radical critics of such crypto-religious stylisations called his wonderful duo-recording with percussionist John Stevens, and it is exactly this sober down-to earthiness expressing itself in a name of this kind that we have to understand: improvisation not as a super-human output of a never-ending flow of ideas and titanic efforts of construction, but as "dimension of perfectly ordinary reality" (Cornelius Cardew), as craftsmanship with the musical flourish. As ability to start with what is there, to continue with it, to monitor it for its self-generating and dialogue potential, to consider it with patience and endurance from consistently updated points of view and not to put it hastily on the side. As a game whose quality is not only to be measured by its "results" but also and especially in the strange, unpredictable, irritating, destructive twists it can take on. (Again, Misha Mengelberg: " ... yes, to get stuck and then, somehow and in some unlikely manner get out of it, this does happen. This is a quality composition does not have because when you're composing you may suddenly have the idea that there should be something particular but then you wait and then you find something. But, in improvisation you don't have any time at all to think about this. You have to act.")
It's not that such an ability to (re-)act should be looked down upon. But it is, to be sure, less suitable for mystification than the well-known anecdotes about cosmic inspirations of composers, a topos of occidental aesthetics right up to Stockhausen and Scelsi. "Long distance improvisers" (Derek Bailey), musicians, that is, who have been living the practice of improvisation for decades, in the way that Alexander von Schlippenbach and Tony Oxley have done, know that it is a musical form of living, having to do with thoroughly unromantic qualities such as work, patience and perseverance and that you have to dig deep until you can harvest (to use the metaphoric of the title piece). And a lot of day-to-day things are involved: grains and roots. But then, in this simple, so infinitely complex game of language called Improvisation grow wonderful, dangerous creatures such as the fly agaric or the deadly nightshade, thorn apple and henbane.
Translation: Isabel Seeberg & Paul Lytton

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