Wednesday, January 31, 2007

solo: niche in the ecology

After confidently kick-starting this thread, by the very second entry I had to admit difficulty in writing about the solo context, and I still can’t quite figure out how to crack this. Well, gotta start somewhere (I’m prepared for this ending up as the most confused and lamest of entries…).

Our idom is an open field. If I were to play bebop guitar, well, it’s pretty crowded in there….
John Scofield quoted in Mandel (1988), p. 33.
At It Is Not Mean If It Is True there was an interesting discussion that touched on the crowdedness of instruments. sjz asked if “all the instruments [are] crowded now,” and I think the answer is yes, but they’ve always been crowded—they’ve always come with personal and collective histories.
I prefer the kind of object which… have some kind of inner life. …The ‘conservation’ of certain contents in objects which people touch under conditions of extreme sensitiveness. The ‘emotionally’ charged objects are… capable of revealing these contents and touching them provides associations and analogies for our own flashes of the unconscious. Thus, in several of my films I used an object or a whole group of objects which I ‘heard.’
Jan Svankmajer quoted in Hames (1995), pp. 110-111.
This intersects with cyborg identities (Haraway, 1991) in which, perhaps, “the guitar forms the interface (both the surface boundary and communication channel) between the guitarist and techno-cultural narratives. Narratives that enroll trans-corporeal characters such as tastes, sensibilities and tradition, and corporeal characters such as luthiers, audience members and other guitarists.” Whatever the case, however, let me, for the moment, talk about this crowd.
…I thought about the space, the niche that I could look for was somewhere between Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders, with… the way John Tchicai played. …not exactly a synthesis, but I could work my way through the gaps that were left between what those people were doing. …It sounds very mechanical but I was actually emotionally moved to want to be in that space. It wasn’t just a calculation, I felt an impulse.
Evan Parker quoted in Lock (1991), p. 33.
Who’s in this crowd? In my case, there’s a trinity of improvising guitarists who I look towards in navigating this space—this particular socio-cultural intersections of guitar and improvisative performance. In no small way I get my bearings (technically and culturally) from this constellation. Additionally (non-guitarist) improvisers inform my socio-musical approach and position within the performed ecology (there is, for example, a trombonist who I think of every time I play in a group situation). There’s also an assortment of pianist whose techniques and strategies I’ve begun to transpose into the context of the guitar(ist). And somewhere in that crowd—a group that is very much partial and not innocent of issues of identity (class, gender, race, nationality, etc)—is me. In retrospect, this might be a good reading of the title I gave the first entry on the ‘solo’ context: “alone together.”
And that, people, constitutes my niche (or at least the self-conscious, visible aspect of it). It is pretty crowded in there (I would be lying to say that I have an easy time negotiating within it), but I feel like there’s enough space to breathe and maneuver, and, on a good day, a ‘sound’ that I can (tentatively) call mine (and ours).


Hames, Peter (1995), ‘Interview with Jan Svankmajer’ in Peter Hames (ed.), Dark Alchemy: The Films of Jan Svankmajer (Trowbridge: Flicks Books).
Haraway, Donna J. (1991), ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’ in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge).
Lock, Graham (1991), ‘speaking of the essence’, Wire (issue 85).
Mandel, Howard (1988), ‘Hard Pickings: John Scofield’, Wire (issue 53).

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

context (redux)

The context is (only as good as) what you can make of it: what resources, techniques and technologies you can deploy.

Monday, January 29, 2007


You’re only ever as good as your context—who (or what) you’re playing with, the audience, the space.

Friday, January 26, 2007

contrasts and juxtapositions

You like potato and I like potahto,
You like tomato and I like tomahto…
Scene: an improvised music ‘master class’ given by a trio of musicians of varied backgrounds. Among the trio is OLEI—one less-experienced improviser. OLEI is a West European Concert Music performer specializing in the interpretation of high-Avant-Garde repertoire. Also among the cast of characters is CASI—a capable and sophisticated improviser.
A student asks, “how do you know what to play? Are there any… do you plan… Do you have ideas where to go—what to do?”
OLEI answers, “well, sometime you can obviously contribute to what’s… what the others are doing, or obviously sometimes you can destroy—undermine what is happening.” OLEI continues by attempting to demonstrate this concept at the piano.
CASI, who has thus far been relatively quiet (despite being the most theatrical and flamboyant in performance) now stands up. “On the other hand, you can also take two ideas that are,” considering the available wordings, pauses, “that seem incompatible, and if you play those two ideas together,” hands raised, CASI starts to move them closer to each other, “play them side-by-side long enough, it will generate its own logic.” Hands brought together, sketching a fusion—a melding.
I do A, you do A'; you do B, I’ll do a B'….
One of the hardest things for an aspiring, novice improviser to grasp is the idea of juxtapositions, contrasts and contradictions.
Green follows blue follows purple follows red follows orange follows yellow follows green follows blue….
Specifically, it’s not easy to grasp the idea that things may not be incompatible.
They just might not be.
The compatibility or otherwise of ‘material’ (oh, words don’t get much more composerly than that) is not a concern for some improvisers. Or, better, things can be made compatible. Or, better yet, compatibility is not something you (on stage) have any more control over than they (off stage) do.
I offer my hand, you spit; you give me flowers, I take a base ball bat to your head….
George E. Lewis: “Inexperienced people think that structure in improvisation consists of call and response. In other words, you follow what the other person is doing. The thing is, you need to be able to establish a link without following totally. So you investigate a potential point—a point of commonality. And then you investigate points of difference….” (quoted in Deborah Wong’s liner notes to George Lewis and Miya Masaoka (1998) The Usual Turmoil and other Duets, CD (Berkeley: Music and Arts Programs of America).)
Green follows basil follows red follows carpet follows red follows red follows ‘Louie-Louie’ follows snails….
There’s a naive idea (many of us have believed this at some point) that interaction consists of (a) imitation, emulation, mimicry, enhancement, supplementation, and completion, or (b) impediment, inhibition, frustration, hinderance, interference, destruction, obstruction, and sabotage.
Well, no, that doesn’t quite work, not in the field, and not in the laboratory. What we are collectively creating, rather than being about ‘material’ (that may, like ice cream and gravy, not go together), is a relationship.
Try it; try CASI’s experiment: You play tweedledee—characterful and distrinctive—and while you’re doing that, I am going to play tweedledum—something equally distinctive, but which is ‘incompatible’ with tweedledee. Keep it going and see if it doesn’t “create its own [aggregate] logic”.


01-27-07: Add sentence that starts “What we are collectively creating…”.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

training (the) quartet pt. 0: why four?

I say ‘training,’ but what follows will hover somewhere between exercises, tutorials and a kind of improv meet and greet. These are not autonomous ‘compositions’ or ‘works’: they were never designed for public performance. They are teaching tools and also a way to train/rehearse an improvisative ensemble together in a relatively short space of time. Relatively novice improvisers can spend upwards of ten weeks on these; experienced improvisers can run through these in a couple of afternoons. Either way, after a group has run through the exercises, the strategies and tactics presented will affect an ensemble's collective behavior in improvised performances—some of it good, much of it problematic (but more of that later).
Although I am, and will be, more-or-less responsible for the (bloggified) written account, I can’t claim any kind of exclusive authorship of these exercises. What I will be presenting was developed with PH, AMC, DW, KN, SCL, EK, WW, SR and others, and I’ve borrowed some additional tactics from work with POD and PR. (Apologies for the code names, but, with some luck, the individuals involved will recognize themselves.)representation of a quartetWhy quartets? Why not duos? Trios? Quintets? Sextets? Dectets? Why not improvising orchestras? The short answer is a variant of the Goldilock’s response: It ain’t too big, and it ain’t too small.(re)grouping a quartetAdditionally, the quartet is the smallest unit in which you start getting interesting sub groupings. Trios too easily break down into solo-plus-accompaniment (1+2); duos are duos (2) or two solos (1+1); and solos are, well, solos (1). Quartets, on the other hand, can be reconfigured as six double-solos-plus-duos (1+1+2), four solo-plus-trios (1+3), three double-duets (2+2), one quadruple-solo (1+1+1+1), and one quartet (4).

some (unanswered) questions

Is there really something special about the quartet?
Do the qualities that I’ve attributed to the quartet ring true to you? Is that Goldilock’s response just lazy dogma on my part?

The straight man: how do quartets break down socially?
Has anyone else observed the phenomenon of the ‘straight man’ in a quartet? A individual who doesn’t hang-out in the same places, doesn’t share the same sense of humour, has distictive dietary requirements, tends to play ’bop licks more (or less) than the rest of the quartet?

Sunday, January 21, 2007

structure|ings: engineering serendipity

Some discussions with students in class, and Peter’s comment on ‘endings: or engineering serendipity,’ got me thinking again about this tight-rope act that we do as improvisative performers (to borrow a term from George E. Lewis).
I’ve been trying to get my students to throw in everything and the kitchen sink—all their resources and techniques—into their playing: I want, as Anthony Braxton is quoted as saying, clouds of garbage cans. Yet there’s a strong impulse to create ‘coherence’; to subdue ‘noise’ (in the behavioral sense, if not the acoustic one). The consequences of this is that we end up afraid to jump in and do. The play often ends up as uniform and slowly-evolving gestures; consistent if predictable. We’re, to paraphrase a student, waiting for the ‘mood’ to settle.
There’s complex forces and desires that conspire (cohere?) to do this, and one of the issues has to do with form. In a way, I think, the students are caught between twin ideologies of form; form as a property that is emergent, and form as a framework that is (pre-)composed. The former has, for example, its well-known and vocal proponents in the neo-Cagian camp, the latter is very much, well, a composerly dictum. (I’ve talked about some of the ideologies of form/structure before, so I won’t get into much more detail here.)
I don’t want to get into an debate about, to caricature it for a moment, the denial of agency versus authorial prescription, but it strikes me that, in the context of improvisation, the interesting and practical stuff lies between these dual ideals of form. (So, I find myself back to fuzzy boundaries again.) For whichever of these two formulations we adhere to, form and structure are given to you—handed down rather than forged in real-time.
Sure “what happens, is what happens,” but it is about accepting (the outcome of) your own (and your partners’) actions. You are the one who makes it happen, and it may be unproductive to wait for external dictation.

If you go

bloop bloop bloop bloop…
bloop bloop bloop bloop…
Well, yes, that’s audibly ‘coherent,’ and, yes, you can wait until the ‘mood’ settles. On the other hand, there’s nothing stopping you from throwing yourself into it and going
crash-k’BANG… b-b-bloop-pah-pah shwoop…
bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz… bzzz-CRASH!
In the end, you’ve just fashioned the mood. Coherence be damned, accept it, and it’ll all make sense later (but that’s another story).

Friday, January 19, 2007

playing in position pt. 8a: one string melodies (yet again)

Despite what I’ve said, we’re going to visit the one string melodies one last time before entering into a very brief discussions on physiology and posture.

Let’s deploy the extended hand shape into the one string line/melody (still Morricone’s music from Cinema Paradiso). If you’ve been following this thread and these tasks, you should have no difficulty with the following:melody played with fourth fingerThis is largely the same as the first example in ‘playing in position pt. 5: one string melodies (again)’, merely shifted into a diatonic context. Note that we’re variously alternating between ‘finger-per-fret’ and the ‘extended’ shapes depending on the underlying scale structure. As before, you can also play the line alternately with the first and the fourth finger:melody played alternately with fourth and first fingersThere’s actually a lot of information to assimilate here, so take your time with these, and we’ll continue in part 8b.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

harmony is politics by other means

3 quarks daily has this little provocative jem. Anyway, the article quoted (‘Mapping Music’) is unfortunately tantilizingly vague due to the fact that it’s for a fluffy, light-weight, magazine.
So, it looks like I’ll have to wait until I can get my hands on the printed journal article which, I suspect and hope, will be a little meatier and less prone to ill considered and/or simplistic generalizations and comments (“sheet music… tells musicians very precisely which notes to play and when”). As it is, it’s impossible to tell whether Dmitri Tymoczko is an idiot who’s strayed way past his league, or he’s produced interesting work that’s much more reasonable, intelligent, and modest in its claims, than the fluffy, light-weight article makes out.
Either way, it would be fascinating to do a Latourian close reading of the work….

…By the way, the pictures do remind me, vaguely, of some psychoacoustics article/paper/book I encountered years ago. Any suggestions…?

Monday, January 15, 2007

‘society-in-miniature’? but where does the stage end?

Before a note of music has been played, the building and its mode of organization have created among those present a set of relationships, which are a microcosm of those of the larger… society outside its walls.
Small, 1998, p. 36.
Thanks to sjz and Peter, I got myself into a complete twist a while ago. The problem revolved around words like ‘diplomacy,’ and in retrospect that entry was prescriptive and consequently, ironically enough, totalitarian. Even in retracting my implicit prescriptions, however, there are still problems.
Many of these problems, I think, come from my gung-ho attitude to language. Some of the confusion stems from using ‘sociological’ terms such as ‘compromise’ and ‘diplomacy’ in discussing life on the stage, but the serious issues come, I think, from my use of the expression ‘society-in-miniature’ to describe the acts and relationships that take place on, and constitute, the stage.
Let me take that latter point first. I think, in retrospect, ‘society-in-miniature’ is, at best, a kludge, and, at worst, a discursive liability. It implies that the social (the world off-stage) is clearly separate from the stage. Consequently, what happens on the stage can only mirror the off-stage world.
So that’s what I’ve been saying all this time….

Oh, crap.

I’ve been implying that there’s some hard-edged border between the constitutive and the discursive; between the ‘real’ and the ‘fictional’; between the off-stage and the stage.

Pure, 100%, distilled, idiotic garbage.

And, as a result of using this short hand—‘society-in-miniature’—I’d been implying a causal relationship between the macro-social and the micro-social (something that I had already disputed).
Okay, if I were smarter, what could I have said?
Stage as the place where the artist can be and function in any way the artist wants…. Being real…. A place to act 'as if' at the very least.
Stage as place where audience can be as concerned with the world as little or as much as they want.
sjz, Dec-6-2006
The stage is not separate from the social. The stage is not (necessarily) a fictionalized version of the off-stage world (there’s no ‘as if’). On the other hand, the off-stage world is no more real (non-fictional) than the stage. If I use ‘sociological’ terms to describe the stage it is not to make the stage mirror society, but because the stage, and what happens on it, is sociological: it is the (dis)orderings and (de)structurings of agents and relationships.
What happens in a ‘theatre’ or other ‘performance space’ is important in the context of the world ‘outside’. They exist in some sort of dialectical relationship with each other, rather than in separate compartments.
Frost and Yarrow, 1998, p. 3.
However, to put on my prescriptive hat back on for the moment, I don’t think that we do ourselves any favors by claiming any kind of political innocence on stage.


Frost, Anthony, and Ralph Yarrow (1990), Improvisation in Drama (London: MacMillan).
Small, Christopher (1998), Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press).

Saturday, January 13, 2007

2007: improvising guitar new year’s resolution

Well, it’s nice to finally be back here. I would have returned sooner except for having to finish off that ‘real’ writing task, and then having to fish for funding (I don't expect anyone became a musician because of their love of bureaucracy and red tape). Anyway, I’m much better now, so let me gently break into 2007 with not, I think you’ll be glad to hear, another list, but a proposed outline of what I’ll be writing about….

Okay, as far as pedagogical topics go, I’ll continue with the studies in playing in position (with, despite my reservations, an excursion into talking about posture), with the eventual goal of returning to natural harmonics (which was really the exciting stuff), and then clusters.
In addition, I want to open a thread on group improvisation. Specifically, I’ll start with a set of schemes for quartet. These schemes hover somewhere between exercises, training and tactics. Nothing particularly original or earth shattering, but I have found these schemes useful, and they bring up, for me, problems of conceiving interactions and issues of pedagogy.
On the flip side, I will continue to discuss (or at least try and find out how to discuss) solo improvisation. (I say “on the flip side”, but of course that’s a false dichotomy.)
Back on sociological ground, I want to tackle in more detail the idea that improvisation is ‘society-in-miniature’. Topics that I hope to address are utopias and the distinctions between the micro-social and the macro-social. I got into a bit of a twist in regards to ‘diplomacy’, and I hope Peter, sjz and others will continue to keep me on my toes, and prevent me from making broad generalizations.
I also want to flesh out the subject of the body. Recently, MLM, PE and myself, among others, have got ourselves into rhetorical funk trying to talk about bodies in the context of music and performance. It’s tricky to avoid that neo-Cartesian impulse (our language conspires to reinstate that distinction and that hierarchy), but bodies, as Butler might say, surely do matter.

I’m sure more stuff will present itself as the year ambles on (I hesitate to say ‘progresses’), but as a starting point, these suit me fine… for the moment (and that’s the important thing).