To begin with, a statement of the obvious. Improvisation is not a musical genre, its a way of approaching things, one of several approaches to creating art across many media or issues of life in general. By its simple nature, improvisation itself cannot become stagnant because it has no content. Improvised Music however, has become a genre, though very often the term is used to describe music that is only partly improvised. In recent years attempts have been successfully made in some areas to divide improvised music into two further more easily marketed or dismissed sub-genres. Of the two ‘halves’ either side of the not very neat bisection, one named EFI has been popularly dismissed as old and stagnant, the other, named EAI has been considered vibrant and innovative. Now, the proposition has been made that EAI, along with improvised music as a whole, is becoming stagnant, losing its ability to innovate.
For me, as someone who is enjoying more and more experimental music CDs, and (vitally importantly) an even greater percentage of live experimental music concerts each year, these questions, many of them loaded with the personal interests of those on either side of the equations are tiresome and a distraction from my focus on so much great music there is to hear right now. However, as I have been asked several times over recent weeks for my opinion on these matters I have written a few thoughts down.
If the argument then, is that music that is formed through ‘pure’ improvisation- i.e with no conscious composition or post-production involved is stagnating simply because it is no longer making any dramatic, genre-changing structural or conceptual steps forward then I’d quite happily agree. The problem is, I’d have also agreed with this a decade or even longer ago. I can’t think of a purely improvised CD or concert from the last ten years that broke the mould significantly enough to be able to say that it was truly innovative when considered against the rest of the genre. The last real breakthroughs may have been the widespread consideration of electronics, silence/space and vertical, textural listening as opposed to a focus on momentum. However it wouldn’t even be accurate to say that these elements were first used a decade ago, as AMM and one or two other groups used them widely and continually for decades before. The last ten to fifteen years then have been a period of consolidation and refinement, but then I would also argue that this has always been the case since the early seventies, and to some degree I would also argue that the best music (If we take “best” here to mean “my favourite”) comes from these refinements rather than direct innovation. If you consider my two favourite albums of purely improvised music from the last decade, Duos for Doris and Buoy, then I don’t think anyone could find much in these albums that didn’t already widely exist for years before they were recorded. Doesn’t stop them being great albums however. The same could be said for my favourite improvised music concerts.
The same argument that proposes the end of purely improvised music as an innovative force then also suggests that music made through a combination of some degree of improvisation and either partly composed, or through post-production techniques is the natural way forward for experimental music. I will consider in a moment what we might mean by the “way forward”, but if for now, if we consider this progress to be a genre-wide feeling of innovation or change, as those proposing this argument seem to do, then again I would make the same observation- this has been the case for years. If we take the Cathnor label as an example, the first release five years ago was a composed work that used partly improvised material recorded by improvisers later compiled in post production. The second was partly composed in post production. The third was a pure improvisation, as were the fifth and sixth, but the fourth and seventh utilised a fair amount of loose composition. These kind of practices have also widely existed for far longer than the Cathnor label has existed and have been in wide use for years, producing some exceptional music and some really uninteresting music. We all know this.
I would certainly agree that there has been a considerable rise in the amount of music produced using composition and/or post-production techniques in recent years but this I would primarily put down to advances in geography-shrinking and expensive-studio-overcoming technology. There are just as many concerts or CDs of improvised music out there as there ever have been, but there are also many other possibilities. Yes, the big genre-changing innovations in experimental music are mostly utilising new technology in some manner right now, but then, again, this has been the case for many years.
So do I agree that improvised music is no longer able to innovate? No, I think that, as a genre it is in an extended period of consolidation and reflection and is awaiting the next big shift (maybe online interaction replacing the in-person? I hope not, but its possible). Â The problem I have with all of this though, is that I firmly do not believe that the value or worth of improvised music as a vibrant creative force is necessarily tied to its ability to innovate on a wide scale. Improvised music, or perhaps I should start using simply the term improvisation from here on as I’m not really interested in genres, is not something that should be considered on a wide scale, and certainly should not be limited to an evaluation of what appears on CDs.
Improvisation is a tool perhaps unlike any other available to a musician that not only offers a method of creating music, but allows them to interact, develop and research something with another musician. For many musicians, and in my local experience this is increasingly the case, improvisation is not used primarily as a tool for creating a finished product but as a way of investigating, seeking out a relationship with other musicians that often extends beyond the music itself. The end result matters less to many musicians than the experience.
I have been closely following improvised music in London for almost two decades now. During that time I have attended many hundreds of concerts and met and known many musicians based in the city. I can honestly say that over the last eighteen months I have seen the number of improvising musicians constantly rise at quite a rate and particularly amongst a young, energetic generation. Just about every concert bill introduces someone new. There are probably twice as many regularly active improvisers in London than there were when I first started to attend concerts. What is more, the music is as innovative and explorative now as it has ever been.
Now, while the numbers of concerts are growing, the number of CDs coming out of London is falling, and what’s more the percentage of musicians that place little to no value on creating CDs is rapidly rising. What matters isn’t even the playing in front of an audience. There are probably more improvised music meetings taking place behind closed doors than open. What matters is the interaction, the opportunity to seek out new things about yourself as a musician, and your relationship to others. A visiting musician to the city is met with a series of opportunities to collaborate with other improvisers, but the work is often entirely in this collaboration. CDs do happen occasionally, but they aren’t considered as important as just playing. I do not have first hand experience, but from what I understand a similar situation can be found in Berlin.
Now the perception of these improviser’s communities ( I call them this because self-supporting, self-inspiring communities is just what they are) to an outsider, someone unable to experience them at close hand, will maybe naturally suspect stagnation. Again though, this stagnation is an overview linked to the genre of improvised music as a whole. It does not consider that the true measure of improvisation’s ongoing creativity is to be found in its impact on individuals. If a young musician finds improvisation, and begins to rethink his/her work as a result, and then develop not only as a musician but as a person, directly through the act of improvisation then the music remains creative and valid. There are some fantastically creative musicians in London right now. Paul Abbott and Grundik Kasyansky’s use of electronics as jarring disruptors of acoustic instrumentation is thoroughly inspiring, refreshing, and as original as anything else I’ve heard in a long while. Sebastian Lexer’s extension of the piano way beyond its standard acoustic properties has become refined to the point of the creation of a new instrument altogether. Ross Lambert and Seymour Wright continue to surprise and change and challenge with every performance.
While Ross hasn’t recorded very much specifically for a CD in years, Seymour seems less interested in the little silver discs every time I speak to him. The idea of mere documentation of the work in progress appeals to these musicians, hence the archival of Interlace concerts online, or Wright and Abbott’s ongoing Flat tree pole… project that presents every last second of these musicians’ work in a trio alongside Benedict Drew, but these projects do not seek to present a finished product, they merely invite others to share in a process.
The process of improvising, and the considered evaluation of what is learnt from it continues to thrive as a creative force for music in London, and in Berlin, and probably elsewhere albeit on a smaller scale. certainly when the small group of Korean musicians visited London recently it was remarked how easily they collaborated and communicated with local musicians and how similar their approach to working together was to the current London scene. No other way of making music can really deliver the same results or have the same impact on musicians as improvisation. Only when these communities cease to evolve and change, create and innovate within themselves then improvised music can be considered to be completely stagnant. If you measure the state of the genre without considering these localised hotspots, or equally if you consider its vitality through merely the music that is released on CD then you are only judging it by one aspect of the music alone and ignoring important and increasingly relevant developments elsewhere.
To finish, I should make it very clear that I do not consider a “purely” improvised approach to music making to be any more valid than any other. I should also reaffirm, for anyone that does not read this blog regularly, that I continually seek, as much as anyone else listening to this music seeks, to find innovation and new forms of creativity in experimental music. I am as excited by the new technology as anyone. I am probably more enthused by conceptual reappraisals of experimental music than anyone else currently writing about it. I was as inspired by the Instal Festival as I was by the As alike as trees festival. I am not championing one way of making music over another, merely refuting the idea that improvised music is stagnant and pointing out that CDs are not an accurate measure of its creativity.
I will close by pointing out one thing that does concern me a little about the way improvised music is developing. Increasingly, as technology and electronics become easy to pick up and use, there seems to be more musicians and less of us that just listen. Certainly in London this feels the case, as audiences are generally speaking made up of between fifty and a hundred percent other musicians. Maybe its my imagination, but it feels like the number of people that just listen without attempting to make music themselves is diminishing, and I’m not sure that this is a good thing. The perspective of someone outside of the act of creating music is, in my experience often very different to that of a practicing musician, and I think we need as many different perspectives on the music as we can find.
This essay has offered my own perspective on things, nothing more. As I finish writing I hope I can publish them here and not have to get involved with a bad tempered argument in the comments below. Good natured discussion is great, but my experience in these things leads me to fear the worst. If you consider something here worth commenting on, please try and remain civil. Thanks in advance.
Oh, and the image above isn’t something I made, it just came up on a Google image search for the word “innovation” and seemed to fit!