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Lab report October 9th 2008: being Paul Desmond

In familiar ensembles, with performers you’ve worked with a lot, it’s often fruitful (and fun) to push and pull, and discover alternative relationships, and observe the network respond, change and reconfigure itself. Similarly, in a musical meeting between strangers, it’s also interesting to ‘test’ the network; to ascertain the wheres, whens, and under what conditions, of performers’ responses.

But between those two, for me, lies an interesting gray area (I encounter this situation less often than the other two).

If group improvisation is a kind of social negotiation, you’re often trying to figure out what options you have, and what position(s) you might occupy within the group. With that in mind, let me walk you through the three improvisations by Jesse Ronneau, Veronica Tadman and myself (Han-earl Park).

speeds of gestures and decision making

That would be speeds, as in apparent lack of, and decision making, as in many, many choices carefully considered and, for the most part, abandoned before sounded.

Jesse Ronneau’s a very different kind of improviser. I have no background in after-Darmstadt European or Euro-American noise, and I doubt Jesse has much of a taste for after-AACM creative musics. Certainly my interactions with him contrasts greatly with those between myself and, say, Murray Campbell. Jesse’s bass playing has a kind of inertia (I don’t mean that in a bad way); slow, deliberate, often in holding position around which you’re invited to orbit, sounds that you are invited to contrast with, pauses in which you can end up second guessing yourself (a kind of parallel trap to the one I fell into in July).

Throw into the mix Veronica Tadman’s wetware instrument (her voice) which cleverly resisted occupying the foreground to Jesse and my hardware instruments’ background (which was, according to my own musical prejudices, where it ‘should’ be), and I find a context that’s sometimes difficult to navigate.

Let me clarify this: there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with what either Jesse and Veronica were doing, but since the aggregate network behavior was alien to my sensibilities, I had to quickly figure out how I might make my contributions ‘work’ (however you define that) in that situation.

I often felt like I was clutching at straws, and if there was a kind of guiding principle to this, it might be summed up with Anthony Braxton’s description of Paul Desmond:

He [Desmond] had already plotted out five seconds ahead of time what he was gonna do, and you could hear it in his music. It looked like he was a very slow player, but in fact he was making very quick decisions…. He was far ahead of what you heard: what you heard had been edited completely….

Anthony Braxton quoted in Graham Lock (1988), Forces in Motion: Anthony Braxton and the Meta-Reality of Creative Music (London: Quartet), pp. 62–63.

Searching for a way to operate in this group, I was trying to reach Braxton’s Desmond in my musical personality (i.e. carefully considering many choices, but selectively executing only a small number of them). And that’s not a position I’ve tried to occupy in a long time (possibly since the Church of Sonology amplification in Edinburgh, 2002). It turned out, however, to be an interesting scheme for generating tactics in real-time, if not one that I feel compelled to return to.

I think, to some extent, all three of us were being Braxton’s Desmond that evening, and now, looking back on it, I wonder if it may have been more fruitful if I had tried to be someone else. I only realized this when talking to Jesse after the performance. I told him that, towards the second-half of ‘a sad and twisted story’, I had chosen an (un-Desmond-like) simple strategy—a conditional behavior. I would continue with near-silent moments interspersed with Sforzando psuedo-clusters until the other performers had changed their gestures significantly. Turns out Jesse had realized what was happening and thus refused to budge, and, for me, that was one of the more interesting things I contributed that evening.

some random observations

Like July, wasn’t this an awfully male Lab? Having done not too badly on the gender front (at least until June), I think there’s going to have to be some hard work ahead trying to redress this issue. Not to take away anything from Veronica’s contributions, but the departure of a couple of Stet Lab (ir)regulars has left difficult gaps to fill.

So we’re back in the formal space of the Ó Riada Hall. This makes certain interactions with the audience harder (in particular, trying to encourage people to sit-in), but November’s Lab will be in The Roundy which I hope will prove to be less intimidating, and open to ad-hoc associations.

This is mostly due to my recent lack of effort (due to a lack of time!) inviting, prior to the event, people to sit-in, but I had problems with the recital-like nature of this performance; it gets us away from the Lab’s mission.

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  1. By Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) « Safety First on October 18, 2008 at 12:33 pm

    […] Listening to Han, Veronica and Jesse perform at the October Stet Lab showcased (as Han pointed out) a huge difference in approaches to improvising. This strategy (does it have a name?) allows for […]

  2. […] Han-earl Park, October 16, 2008: ‘Lab report October 9th 2008: being paul desmond’ […]