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Lab report July 10th 2008: consequences of a noisy head

Normally, nothing runs through my head when improvising. Occasionally, a thought will suggest, in an unobtrusive way, “Oh, that’s quite cool, you should copy that”. Or, as when I was first messing around with extended techniques on my bass, “My luthier’s gonna kill me…” But, at this Stet Lab, for the first time, a thought sounded loud and clear in my head almost immediately, and brought forth an emotional response which I don’t think left me for the whole performance. The emotion was panic, and the thought that caused it was, “Oh Christ, it’s too melodic…”

Hence the retuning at the start of ‘you have to answer them’, and the mental wincing whenever I hit a overtly melodic phrase. Another thing that threw me off was that I found Han’s playing on the night to be quite unexpected. I don’t know, you think you know a guy, and then he starts playing melodies on you… But surely expecting anything in advance can only lessen the action of immediate response and improvisation? For the last few Stet Labs, I’ve been playing with widely varying types of acoustic instruments, all played in disparately bizarre ways. There was no way I could anticipate what was coming next, and responding to those quiet unamplified sounds with my completely electric instrument and my large-but-still-appropriately-sized amp posed its own difficulties. After a while I just accepted the limitations of the situation and, I think, some acceptable music happened. Sometimes.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the insurmountable difficulties of the situation forced my mind to give up and get on with it. Because, when playing with Han, a lot of these difficulties disappeared, and that’s when my brain got noisy again. I didn’t have to watch my volume too carefully when playing alongside an electric guitar, and while Han was making use of chords, string noise, tapping etc, my mind kept perking up and going, “Ah! I know this”. The problem, I think, is that this type of improvisation should be an immediate response, and every time a thought gets in the way, it puts a filter between the event and the response. There are times in the first piece where this barrier breaks down, like the strange antiphony section, but mostly I was just quietly panicking along to my own internal monologue. “An E major? What are you THINKING!? Oh great, some more string noise, yeah, that’ll win them over… Muppet.”

Things got better during the second piece. I tried to accept my jittery state of mind, instead of trying to blot it out or calm it down. That, the addition of a pianist playing several kilometres outside “the box”, and an intriguing title for the piece, made ‘let me have the funny hat’ much more dynamic and interesting, I think. It’s now probably one of my favourite Stet Lab recordings.

After hearing him practice a few exercises before the gig, I had an idea that Mike Hurley’s performance would involve some fairly complex and dense playing, but I was still impressed by the clarity of each note he used, especially in ‘heard in my foot’. A good reminder that mad experimental music can be made without the use of strange sounds, and while still articulating every well-tempered note.

And finally, I just wanted to mentioned that I found the last piece, ‘they’re going to demolish the music department’ in general, and Eoin and Marian’s playing in particular, to be hypnotically captivating. Something about the sparse, floating piano notes and scratchy to-and-fro violin bowing. It sounded like the dark, tangled woods from a fairytale, or something.

Also, the idea of being obligated to answer your phone if it goes off is stolen (with gusto) from a Futurama audio commentary.


  1. Posted July 30, 2008 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

    Well, there’s certainly nothing wrong with melody. (We’d never ban such things at Stet Lab, would we…?)

    Anyway, it’s interesting that we both felt lost during that first duet. Wonder if it’ll be one of those recordings that grows on me… certainly I’m finding new stuff in it everytime I listen to it.

  2. Veronica Tadman
    Posted November 19, 2008 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

    I am really upset that I missed this Stet Lab: Tony’s review really is a positive one. I particularly agree with him on the idea of how the response should be immediate and there shouldn’t be room for the brain to think about it. The speed duets that we did in February really re-instate this fact and is something that I should really take on board!

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