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Lab report January 12th 2009: healthy disrespect for the comfort zone

A couple of days after the January Lab, I was discussing with Murray Campbell how you avoid getting too comfortable in the context of group improvisation, and he said something interesting, that you should have a “healthy disrespect for the comfort zone”.

It’s an issue that popped up before (I briefly touched on this last month, Bruce Coates talked about with the Risk Managers in November ’07, and Chick Lyall in February ’08), but it came to the fore after talking with members of OPKA the day after the Lab. It strikes me that, as good as OPKA’s performance was this month (and there was some fine playing), there’s perhaps a danger that this is as good as it’s going to get; that OPKA is getting a little too comfortable with the current mode of interaction and their roles within the OPKA micro-society.

avoiding chamber music

As both an improviser and a sometimes orchestral double-reedist, Murray contrasted the (useful? successful?) mode of operation in improvised music with what he called the “chamber music mentality”. In chamber music, every part is essential—there is no string quartet without a viola, you cannot have SATB without the alto. Additionally, in every section (and to some extent, between parts), ‘blending’ is the primary criteria for being a good ensemble player. And these parts, these musical roles (viola, alto, second oboe, etc.), are predefined; every player inherits this role and, to some extent, is subsumed into it.

Let’s call this the chamber music criteria…

  • every part is essential
  • ‘blending’ is the primary goal
  • every role/part is externally defined

…and keep this in mind in the subsequent discussion.

meanwhile, in improvised music…

Murray told me that growing familiarity, in performing with Randy McKean in recent years for example, actually leads to a move away from the comfort zone. Murray told me that the duo with Randy really took off with the realization that, whatever Murray did, it would not ‘break’ Randy. Additionally, the acceptance that Murray was ‘dispensable’ (this isn’t exactly the right word, but Murray and I struggled to find the word that encapsulated this idea): if Murray stopped, the performance would go on just fine without him.

In other words, whatever Murray did, Randy would handle it.

I’ve been prone to sports metaphors in the past, but Murray came up with a new one: table tennis. A great game of table tennis is not one that you score points, but in which all your resources—your body, your mind, your training—tells you one thing, but circumstances outwit you. You reach for the ball, but it ball heads in a completely different direction. You loose a point, but you go wow, how did that happen?

On the other hand, a boring table tennis game, from both the players’ and the spectators’ points of view, is one in which the players know exactly what’s going to happen. Lob, lob, lob, lob…. Table tennis ain’t chamber music; we can’t all be reactive, we need to inject left-field choices into the mix.

Thus, going back to our chamber music criteria, Murray posits that not only are these, at best, peripheral issues in group improvisation, they can become liabilities.

So, let’s put together an alternative list:

  • every one is ‘dispensable’/‘inessential’
  • it’s important to add something unexpected/incongruous/different
  • you have the possibility, and the responsibility to, (re)define you role

random observations and questions

Performing in a virus fueled haze…

As I was battling through a cold, my recollections of the whats, whens, hows and whys of this month’s Lab are a bit hazier than normal. (That, incidentally, is why I’ve concentrated on more general points in this report, though I plan to return to a more focused agenda next month….)

The duos with Murray (who was also suffering from a cold) were not, I think, up to our usual standards (we did, for example, much better in June). But I’d be less than honest if I said I wasn’t disappointed…. (And, yet again, I do that tired, lazy whump at the 1:31 mark on ‘the one that almost got away’yuck, yuck, yuck.)

However, I’m curious how much did work considering my mind and body seemed to be unable to grasp anything other than the most rudimentary tactical decisions. How did it sound to everyone else?

Trusting your (former) students?

Back in July, I wrote that

…sometimes I seem to be the one holding the group back in performance. Listening back to, for example ‘evening echo’, it’s the guitarist holding the group back. Marian Murray, Neil O’Loghlen and Veronica Tadman do not need me to make concessions. They know how to swim, and I don’t need to provide the floatation device.

And that’s my problem during my duet with Tony: an unjustified lack of trust in Tony’s [Tony O’Connor’s] abilities. I think I’m still stuck thinking that I’m performing in a classroom context, and not in the big bad world.

The two ditties (the two ‘versions’ of ‘the one that almost got away’) with Murray, myself, Tony O’Connor and Veronica Tadman were, perhaps, the first time when I finally managed to let go of certain issues of trust.

Do you know your improviser-teachers’ moves?

Apropos of nothing to do with Stet Lab, but one thing I noticed during the recent performance by FURT was how much I could anticipate Richard Barrett’s gestures. Now, Richard was my teacher, and I also noticed something similar with another of my (former) teachers, Chick Lyall, when he performed last year. So my question: do you know your improviser-teachers’ moves? Can you anticipate, with unexpected, above average accuracy, their gestures? Do you share their timing—their rhythm?

I ask partly because I got the feeling that, during this month’s Lab, Tony and I were sometimes spookily locked together.


  1. Tony O Connor
    Posted January 26, 2009 at 11:20 pm | Permalink

    I’d say there’s definitely an element of shared reaction. I remember you telling us about trying to perform where every sound is completely unpredictable based on what came before, and how interesting that was. That’s something I practiced a lot. And it’s an odd thing to do, because it can become more and more difficult to do, the longer you practice it, because you can start to develop habits of dynamic and tone. In the end, what I practiced more was the headspace where I could do that; where I was interested myself in what I was playing, and where I tried to have no attachment to what had come before, just playing moment to moment. So, while a philosophy of unpredictability might imply that two people shouldn’t be able to lock in together, perhaps the methods used to achieve that unpredictability, if similiar enough, could produce the same effect.

    Another thing I’ve noticed is that I can’t seem to shake off the feeling of a pulse while improvising. I have no real attachment to it, in fact, I’d say it has almost zero impact on what I play, but I definitely feel it.

  2. Posted January 27, 2009 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the comment… and I’m always interested to hear what other improvisers practice.

    Another thing I’ve noticed is that I can’t seem to shake off the feeling of a pulse while improvising. I have no real attachment to it, in fact, I’d say it has almost zero impact on what I play, but I definitely feel it.

    I think I know what you mean.

    This might deserve a article of its own, but I’ve kinda got a… (“love/hate” is too strong an expression…) a fluctuating relationship with the pulse. Some years ago, after hearing, yet again, another amorphous, uniformly soft-edged, mooshy rubato improvisation, I decided I wanted the spikes and rhythm in my playing (which is pretty much how the duets with Murray went in ’07). It’s only in the last year or so that I’ve begun to rethink this…

    I still want the pulse to be there, I just don’t necessarily think it should be constant or consistent, or locked in sync.

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] Okay, how about this: to what extent, and in what way, was that trio a familiar retread, and to what extent was it something outside the comfort zone? […]

  2. […] Han-earl Park, January 18, 2009: ‘Lab report January 12th 2009: healthy disrespect for the comfort zone’ […]