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Lab report February 10th 2009: train wrecks and other fascinating disasters

Stet Lab, Cork, February 10, 2009

Before we go on stage, I joke with Jamie Smith that we’re the two guitarists who’re going to be tripping up each other (and that the drummer, Owen Sutton, will have to pick through the carnage).

By ‘tripping up’ I’m not implying that the results weren’t going to be interesting, musical or fun.

FrImp, Birmingham, November 1, 2007

The first time I perform with Jamie, we spend the entire first set—forty-odd minutes of it—colliding with each other. That really was a train wreck, but the two horn players seem to relish the opportunity to fly over the heads of the two guitarists.

By ‘train wreck’ I’m not implying that the results weren’t interesting, musical or fun.

The Lewis Glucksman Gallery, Cork, February 11, 2009

The day after the Lab, I discover that Mark Sanders (a little like Murray Campbell) works well as a jump-cutter. After the feeling-each-other-out moment, our duet settles into a kind of classic coordinated block-structure dance (after-Oxley-Taylor).

Jamie (a little like Franziska Schroeder), however, is very much a parallel-track improviser.

I talk to Jamie about this later, and his map of the group resembles nothing like mine.

How do I fit in the picture?

FrImp, Birmingham, November 1, 2007

During the second set, Jamie and I settle into an agreement. The results are more ‘successful’, but are they more interesting? musical? fun?

This ‘agreement’ still operates, at least from my point of view, in the Glucksman performance 15 months later. I basically stay out of Jamie’s way; and Jamie, out of mine.

The Lewis Glucksman Gallery, Cork, February 11, 2009

Halfway through the concert, Paul Dunmall soars over the heads of the two guitarists.

I’m still stuck at the medium scale. In particular, next to Paul’s incredible variability in velocities, speeds, densities, spaces and (ir)regularities, my playing—my contributions—seem more limited than ever.

Because of this, I’m considering jettisoning the volume pedal for a while to see what happens. I rely on the volume pedal; it’s been my hook into specific traditions of guitar playing, it’s how I breathe, but maybe my reliance is blinding me to certain possibilities. If you can imagine the topsy-turvey image of my knee as diaphragm, and ankle as jaw, the foot as mouth, you’re close to how clumsy this system of breathing might be. It’s breathing cycle never gets above a certain allegro, and below a kind of adagio.

My home, Cork, January 14, 2009

I’m wondering why so many relative novice improvisers will jettison preparations—tactics and ‘tricks’—when they finally hit the stage. Why, I ask, do they make it so impossibly hard for themselves when there are easier ways.

Murray opines that they are perhaps aiming for art rather than fun. “It’s always better to try to have fun, than to make art,” he says. “If you try and make art, you’re likely to end up disappointed, but if you’re having fun, you just might make art by accident.”

Art as a cherry-on-top.

Murray quickly adds that once you take the easier routes, you are in a much better position to add extra complications.

Stet Lab, Cork, February 10, 2009

Jamie’s guitar is hooked into an amplifier that is determined to misbehave. It’s humming and buzzing away. Jamie turns to face it, rotates dials this way and that, and finally says, “I like that noise.”

Trying to imagine—to anticipate—how I might be able to respond to that steady-state noise, I reply that it “makes it very hard for me….”

Jamie laughs, and so do I.

Jesse Ronneau’s apartment, Cork, February 13, 2009

Jesse Ronneau tells me that what I do is not improvisation, that what I teach is not improvisation, that I instead act on a philosophical agenda.

Well, yes, I do have my own idiomatic allegiances, ideological agendas, social habits, cultural traits, psychological quirks, but I fail to see how we could be rid of them, and I am skeptical as to whether an emancipation from these would necessarily amount to a good thing.

…And if I could be agenda-free (identity-free?), what would that mean to real-time, on-stage interaction (whether you’d call that ‘improvisation’ or not).

According to Jesse, during our October performance, I was being ‘uncooperative’ (“always interrupting” and “doing the opposite”). For whatever definition of ‘improvisation’ Jesse subscribes to, whatever it is I do, does not fall under it.

We’re talking cross-purposes: I’m not sure what ‘opposite’ might mean in a musical-performance context (never mind one in which identities and relationships are being (re)negotiated in real-time). Isn’t saying that this (performance infected by agendas, etc.) is not improvisation, akin to saying that polemical or ideological disagreements are not democratic?

It occurs to me in retrospect that our discussion, ironically, is a good illustration of this: a disagreement does not make this any less of a conversation, and musical ‘oppositions’ (whatever they might be) does not make a performance less of an improvisation.

An Spailpin Fanac, Cork, February 11, 2009

Paul Dunmall is explaining to Melanie L. Marshall how easy it is to improvise: “there are no wrong notes.”

The Lewis Glucksman Gallery, Cork, February 11, 2009

I’m as surprised as anyone that, despite the initial configurations (Mark and myself; Paul and Jamie), that by the end of the performance the foreground interactions exist between Mark and Jamie, and between Paul and myself.

Jesse Ronneau’s apartment, Cork, February 13, 2009

I say, “if you play clang, I might play clang, but I might play bloop, or bleep… scratch, or whatever, I fail to see the problem.”

I don’t have a problem,” Jesse states. After a pause, he turns to me and adds, “you are the problem.”

An Spailpin Fanac, Cork, February 11, 2009

Paul is explaining to Melanie how easy it is to improvise: “there are no wrong notes.”

Aine Sheil’s apartment, Cork, February 21, 2009

I tell a story about teaching improvisation.

There’s one sticking point that, every year, I encounter: the notion of having multiple (contradictory) goals, (incompatible) volitions and (complex) agencies within a group, all driving the performance, but none having control. It seems the single consistently difficult (scary? threatening?) concept to grasp. In the students’ opposition, there may be invocations of the neo-Cagian denial of agency, or the dogma of command-and-control; the temptation is to let the music ‘just happen’, to be subsumed into chamber music, or to separate the leaders from the followers.

It occurs to me in retrospect that a student’s resistance to the idea of a complex of agencies is, ironically, a good illustration of it: disagreements, after all, fuel the engine of a discussion, and multiple goals, volitions and agencies have a corresponding function improvised performance.

An Spailpin Fanac, Cork, February 11, 2009

Paul tells Melanie that “there are no wrong notes.” You can’t make mistakes, just choices that may be better or worse.

random observations and questions

Flaws’n’all, and it’s by no stretch of the imagination a perfect piece of music (whatever that means), ‘the two Pauls…’ with Paul Dowling, Paul Dunmall, Veronica Tadman and Kevin Terry may contain some of my favorite surprises during the February Lab, and ‘it’s a great door, innit?’ by Paul Dunmall, Neil O’Loghlen and Mark Sanders, the musically strongest moments…

The best moments of hardcore tactical maneuverings may have been by Paul Dowling, Paul Dunmall and Owen Sutton towards the end of ‘last call for the big band…’.

Were Paul Dowling and Owen Sutton in groove mode?

Next to Paul Dunmall and Mark Sanders’ decades-long experience, we’re all very much junior parters in this musical enterprise. Are we all going to be transformed in their wake? (And I’m struck yet again the oddity of this latter-day, transnational improvising musicians’ tribe (of which I am embedded): seniority rules.)

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  1. […] and I don’t mean this in a bad way, but it’s no particular secret that Jesse and I don’t always see eye-to-eye on things […]

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