Are you playing an instrument or playing music? I’m old-fashioned enough to be leery of improvisation. Spent the weekend listening to new(ish) CDs of music that was not strictly composed; not in the authorial sense. For most of them I could make the argument that these are compositions, not improvisations.
There’s a growing, interesting genre of music that defines, develops and interprets compositional parameters as a joint process between musicians. These pieces aren’t an a priori realisation of a composer’s indeterminate score, nor are they spontaneously improvised. This seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon. Off the top of my head I can’t think of examples of these methods going back as far as “free improvisation” in the 1960s. There was “group composition” but that was just a term for improv musos who had to play art galleries instead of jazz clubs. It’s a sign that the genre is evolving, maturing.
I’ve been working through a rich vein of discs sent from the Another Timbre, Intonema and Immediata labels. Violinist Angharad Davies and pianist Tisha Mukarji recorded a set of improvisations over two days this February, released under the title ffansïon | fancies. In an interview on the website it mentions that the second day of recording was forced by “circumstances”, but this helped the album immensely. Material from the first day was evidently reworked, developed and refined for takes used on the final release. (“It struck me that this is a particularly fruitful way of using improvisation.”) The results show the benefit of additional time for reflection. Each piece reveals a focus on detail without losing sight of an overall direction or shape. Sounds are allowed to develop and change over time without rambling, giving each piece a character that can range from spiky pointillism to deconstructed folk music.
The St Petersburg-based Intonema label finds plenty of room to wander within what appears at first to be a pretty narrow range of music. The wandering is both musical and geographical. Tri presents a state-of-the-art improvisation in electroacoustic music with venerable electric guitarist Keith Rowe and Ilia Belorukov and Kurt Liedwart on various instruments, objects, computer processing and electronics. It documents a live performance and listening at home it’s hard to get too excited about all the technique on display. Sympathy to the guy in track one with the cough.
In contrast, Belorukov’s collaboration with Gaudenz Badrutt on electronics and “objects” and Jonas Kocher on accordion makes for fascinating listening. Rotonda is a live performance inside the Mayakovsky Library in St Petersburg. The musicians note that the space of the rotunda and its specific acoustics makes it “the fourth collaborator” in the piece. A compositional constraint is introduced: “acute attention to silences and extremely careful work with sound”. A slow, deliberately-paced music unfolds over nearly 50 minutes, each performer knowing that the resonance of the space will fill and colour their inactivity. A welcome relief from the horror vacui that affects so many musicians, without ever becoming a dry, didactic exercise in silence.
Tooth Car features Canadians Anne-F Jacques and Tim Olive playing live in the US: two fairly short extracts, which may be all that is needed for audio only. The limitations here are mechanical. Jacques constructs rotating surfaces that are played and amplified, while Olive amplifies other objects with magnetic pickups. The rotating devices provide regular ostinati throughout each piece and the various colours of metallic scraping suggest something close to sound sculpture.
For real group composition, Polis presents a combine, of intentional sounds and unexpected factors. Electroacoustic composers Vasco Alves, Adam Asnan and Louie Rice collaborated by preparing compositions and then mixed them, playing the mix through a car sound system that drove to various locations around the city of Porto. A complex but not impenetrable blending of sounds emerge, with different tracks overlapping each other, elaborated upon by different locations and live sampling of urban spaces. A neat convergence of pure sound, documentary, field recording and spatialisation.
Perhaps more conventional, Volume by the duo Illogical Harmonies on the Another Timbre label clearly identifies itself as a jointly composed piece. The violinist Johnny Chang and double bass player Mike Majkowski improvised together over several months, transcribing, performing and revising until they had sculpted this hour-long suite of five movements. This painstaking process has produced a beautifully restrained and focused performance, which at first sounds like a concentrated study on intonation and tuning but on closer listening reveals beautiful details of refined ornamentation and subtle relief.
Anthony Pateras has built a career out of being both a composer and an improviser, and his own Immediata label has recently produced a series of limited edition CDs of works that lurk in the grey area between the two domains. (Downloads are also available on Bandcamp.) I was going to discuss a couple of these now but I’ve just been listening again to his collaboration with Erkki Veltheim, Entertainment = Control. We’re back to straight violin and piano here and this bravura performance is part lost minimal epic, part social commentary, part virtuosic tour-de-force and part pisstake. I was going to say this disc is ideal if you think The Necks are too fussy or Charlemagne Palestine is too straightlaced, but then I started reading the extensive sleeve notes again. Pateras and Veltheim discuss fascism and sadomasochism, the Marx brothers, punk cabaret and the plague of El Sistema amongst other things and I can see I need to save all this for a separate post.