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Lab report March 10th 2009: the possibility of failure

What is the status of ‘failure’ in improvisative performance? Is the notion of failure relevant to improvised music? If relevant, is it important in the ongoing practice (evolution, mutation or adaptation) of improvisation?


For me ‘oxleygrass (Marie’s phone)’ really doesn’t work as music. I think, at best, it’s a technical demonstration.

The ditty didn’t go anywhere: no changes (abrupt or otherwise) in dynamics, velocities, densities, complexities, (ir)regularities, etc. Pretty run-of-the-mill stuff. In that conversation with Melanie L Marshall, Paul Dunmall compared a successful improvisation to a string under tension: you want to increase the tension almost to breaking point without actually breaking it. In those terms, this ditty had no tension—no tug, no pull. Is that failure?

Does ‘choose your own adventure’ really work any better than ‘oxleygrass…’? Perhaps more successful (certainly more listenable) as music, but the results are a little too familiar from the performer’s point of view (that would be mine). No surprises, all hackneyed stuff.

So that raises an interesting question: not withstanding the desirability of both, is it better to fail as a piece of music, yet leap into the unknown, or is it better to craft a listenable piece of music, but remain in a safe space? [More discussion about safety and comfort…]


The lack of the volume pedal (a component of this cyborg guitarist that I’ve been questioning for some time) probably contributed to the nerves as (undesirable?) surprises awaited me as a result.

There’s a logic to the (controlled?) abandonment of safety nets. Their absence can reveal who you are (and might be) without those prothesis. In engineering terms, by removing a component, you can test out the behavior of the rest of the (cyborgian) system. (Franziska Schroeder recently introduced me to another derogatory term by Komposers for real-time interactive musicians—‘naked improvisers’. In that sense, does the lack of volume pedal makes me more naked?) What I discovered wasn’t exactly wonderful.

I’ve worried that my ‘phrases’ (defined rather broadly) tended to be uniform, and hypothesized that this was due to the minimum/maximum cycle of the leg-foot-pedal complex. What I discovered by taking the volume pedal out of the chain was that I hardly phrase at all without it, and, during those few moments when the gestures did delineate a phrase, its articulation was indistinct and had even less variation.

As I struggled with this, the tactician took a back seat, leaving larger term variation untouched. It’s only several minutes into the performance (at about the 4:50 mark) when I think to do something about it.

Where to go from here?

Melanie was surprised that I decided to abandon the volume pedal at the start of the gig (see ‘clichés: getting all the crap out of the way’ below). I agree that it was a risky strategy, and not very successful in this instance. I would, however, like to try such opening gambits again; they have the smell of potentially being dramatic for me (and perhaps for the audience).

negotiating risk

The duo with Ros Steer (‘it’s double bass night tonight at Stet Lab’) went better, even if (or because of) the logic of that improvisation was oblique. A disaster, perhaps, according to some formalist criteria, but that doesn’t bother me (I did, after all, give up being a Komposer a long time ago).

Even as I’m aware that she’s a newcomer to the Lab’s stage (and, I’m guessing, also a relative novice to this practice), I’m testing out the network: how does Ros deal with contrasting elements, with being left alone, with gestures that don’t (seemingly) relate to hers.

In contrast, during the closing quartet (‘siren’), the high-volume trio of Owen Sutton, Kevin Terry and myself threaten to overrun the quieter voice, Méadhbh Boyd. We give her space, but she doesn’t take it. The trio of familiar improvisers and a newcomer makes for a hazardous combination. Is that failure on the trio’s part?

clichés: getting all the crap out of the way

Han-earl Park: “I think I’ve run out of ideas.”
Veryan Weston: “That’s when the creative stuff happens.”

Recently, I’ve got into the habit (if that’s the word for it) of ‘getting all the crap out of the way’: starting the gig by throwing in (out) all my clichés, habits and standard tropes. I did that recently in a duo with Mark Sanders, and, to some degree, with Franziska this month. This requires you to trust yourself to still find stuff—that your creativity can still find expression—beyond what you already know you are capable of; that your craftiness isn’t bound by your history (even as it is based on, bounces-off of, and is perhaps defined by it).

I never went through that moment on March 10th, and perhaps that frustration finds expression during that last quartet. Now, is that failure?

Having said all that, these atoms—clichés or otherwise—inform me (and perhaps audiences and my fellow performers) about who I am—my history, my lineage, my identity. As I’ve said before I can trace almost everything I do to my musical ancestors.

the fourth wall: or maybe I should listen to my own advice

Last year I actually did something (near-direct quotation during an improvisation) that I warned my students against as too risky, and I did something similar this month (breaking the fourth wall). I managed to pull it off last time, but I don’t think the results were worth the gamble this time.

During this month’s event, I though it’d be an amusing, humorous gambit to start with a restart. (It was also an attempt to explode the improvisative practice.)

I also decided to do the same with the closing quartet. Though I think Kevin and Owen got the joke, in retrospect, perhaps it was an alienating moment for Méadhbh. (It also maybe came across as an assertion of leadership, though Kevin admirably seemed to take it as a call to rebellion.)

The breaking of the fourth wall can work sometimes (it did that time), but apparently not under these conditions, and not this particular way. If a significant aspect of the art of improvisation is the art of persuasion, I lost the trust of the audience (and my fellow performers) at that point. …And it felt like it put a spanner in the works for the rest of the event (and not in a good way).

(This was doubly problematic as curator, and that’s part of the reason for delegating the task of refereeing to Kevin. I’ve said that curating Stet Lab is “an art, not a science”, and I’m still learning on the job.)

aiming for greatness?

I think Owen found the last quartet a disappointing experience. I told Owen that it wasn’t going to be great every time. It can’t be. We aim for greatness (however you define that) perhaps (I know I do), but we often fail.

I told Owen that, regardless of the success or otherwise of the performance, he has at least the right attitude for this way of musicking. An attitude that encompasses a personal (or shared) understanding that some outcomes are more desirable (however you gauge that) than others. Add to that a sense of how to improve (evolve, mutate and adapt)—a creative intelligence—that makes the next one likely better than the last, and you have the model improviser. Aren’t we, to borrow a term from Mark Dresser, involved in a personal pedagogy? (Dresser (2000), ‘A Personal Pedagogy’ in John Zorn (ed.) Arcana: Musicians on Music (New York: Granary Books), pp. 250–261.)


  1. Kevin Terry
    Posted April 1, 2009 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

    You know, I really enjoyed the ‘oxleygrass’ spiel. Although the fact that I play guitar helped a lot, some non-guitarist part of myself got on quite well with the music.

    It would have been more interesting if it weren’t so boring and, similarly, it wouldn’t have been half as interesting if it weren’t so boring! Stet Lab does not have a history of mono-dynamic music. Furthermore, it was good at what it did.

    Perhaps an alternate title might have been philip oxleyglass or philip oxleygrass?

  2. Veronica
    Posted April 11, 2009 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    Very funny Kevin, Philip Oxleyglass, deary me….

    Reading between the lines it sounds like you thought your set wasn’t good? What was it that you feel was so bad about your performance last month? I’m a big sufferer of not liking what I do, but I’ve learnt that one has to ignore our feelings and gauge the success of a performance on the reaction of the audience. The reaction I felt was pretty decent, so don’t be so hard on yourself.

  3. Méadhbh B
    Posted April 29, 2009 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

    “”the high-volume trio of Owen Sutton, Kevin Terry and myself threaten to overrun the quieter voice, Méadhbh Boyd. We give her space, but she doesn’t take it. The trio of familiar improvisers and a newcomer makes for a hazardous combination. Is that failure on the trio’s part?”””

    Sorry for the late response. My experience as a newcomer into StetLab was an interesting one. I did bring my fiddle along because Han encouraged me to, but I didn’t feel confident enough to go up initially….despite Han offering an open invitation after his slot…..I didn’t feel it was the right time…. All sorts of thoughts were going through my head ‘All these sounds are cool, will I bother playing at all or will I just listen? nice beer….etc’. Of course I signed up for the final quartet.

    So first thing is first, I explained to Kevin that I didn’t bring my pickup, so in my mind, I was immediately handicapped..the simple point of volume, and the restriction of my instrument in that respect. So yes, I did battle at first (before the retake rightfully initiated by Han). Following that, I waited for space, and reacted within those spaces whatever way I decided.Owen left down the sticks and suggested a decrease in volume, Han and Kevin followed this briefly, but before you know, it’s back to full-on assault-bursts of guitar-ness, which was cool, but I felt ‘what can i do here? i’d prefer to sit back and listen…’ I did pick up on gestures, but as I am not yet experienced enough, my responses were…well….not as good as they could have been. But despite all the hiccups, from volume to inexperience….I enjoyed it.

    I do believe that with experience you become more fluent in this, there is a fluency evident in all of the performances that night (bar my own!). Whether it’s ‘pidgin-hybrid’ or idiomatic… Han said the power of persuasion!

    So I’m in agreement with Han, that a trio of seasoned improvisors mixed with a novice may be hazardous…..however:

    nothing ventured nothing gained ….and similarly:

    small risk , small reward!

4 Trackbacks

  1. […] (Bailey, 1992, pp. 57–58). Playing with Paul, it seemed a shame that I didn’t throw in the kitchen sink; after all, there’d be nothing I could do that Paul (with those extra two decades or so […]

  2. […] tried to address this issue from the other side before, so let me paraphrase that here: What is the status of ‘success’ in improvisative […]

  3. […] pedal at home. I really felt I needed to physically part with the volume pedal rather than simply disconnecting it from the signal chain, and since the it’s grafted onto the footstool, I’d require some other means to anchor the […]

  4. […] Han-earl Park, March 29, 2009: ‘Lab report March 10th 2009: the possibility of failure’ […]