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Lab report November 10th 2009: history and lineage

I’m sitting in London writing this.

[I’m typing this up in Cork several days later, however….]

My initial idea for this report, fueled by my less-than-wonderful playing with Paul Dunmall (Paul, of course, is never less than fantastic) [info on this performance…], was to write about the tightrope balancing act between playing something—crafting something—‘musically’ satisfactory (however you gauge ‘musicality’) versus taking what Steve Lacy called ‘the Leap’ (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 experience) wouldn’t have been able to handle. I’m not going to be too hard on myself (I did have a pretty bad cold on the day of that performance), but a lost opportunity is a lost opportunity however you cut it.

Witnessing Filippo Giuffrè’s playing at the November Lab, I thought I heard a… familiar voice; someone with a sound (in that Afrological sense—an approach to musical construction and to the instrument) (Lewis, 2002, pp. 241-242) that I could parse with… ease. Every little gesture, I could almost hear the footnotes: yes, I know that technique, I know that lick, I know that gesture. And though there were elements that are part of Filippo that are not part of me (the shadow of Rowe and touch of Reichel), and probably vice versa (not much sign of Frisell in Filippo’s playing on that night), there was a significant overlap between us. And any exclusion zones (the Rowes, the Reichels) were nonetheless familiar to me (as a listener, if not a practitioner).

Like I said, I could almost hear the footnotes.

Okay, my reaction may have not been a million miles away from that ‘I can do that too’ reaction when Mike Hurley performed at the July ’08 Lab, but the effect was different. Perhaps that difference stemmed from my hoped that being in a crowded space with Filippo would slingshot us into new socio-musical spaces.

In the event, that didn’t happen. As enjoyable and as invigorating as that on-stage encounter may have been (and it’s a shame that it failed to be recorded), we seemed to occupy the same space. ‘Musically,’ I think it worked, but I, for one, failed to take ‘the Leap.’

Anyway, like I said, I’m sitting in London writing this, and another issue is on my mind.

I’ve heard act-after-act, musician-after-musician, each competent, at times with impressive technical proficiency.

And, unlike the lazy magazine critic, I don’t mean that patronizingly; certainly not as an insult. I know that technique is important, and that, in navigating that cyborg (non-)boundary between instrument and instrumentalist, that there is, perhaps, no such thing as ‘empty virtuosity.’

But there are so many performers who sound like countless others; and I ask why I should listen to one as opposed to another.

Yet, thinking of another performance (this one a little while back in Cork), it isn’t enough just to have a niche; not for me, if you are technically incompetent.

I suppose what I am saying is this: I want, at bare minimum, to be able to play—to have a relationship with the guitar that is technically accomplished—but I also want to want to be heard—that listeners/audiences would seek out my playing and my performances. Ambitious? yes. Cocky? probably. But I owe, if not myself, my elders and my tradition nothing less. (I’ll happily take accusations arrogance since the alternative would be insulting to the music—its history, its practitioners, its audience, its community—I’ve chosen to be part of.)

Vijay Iyer’s talk at the Southbank Centre:

Iyer talks of creating “opposites” in performance; of a need for someone or something to be a “foil”. He talks about a dialog with history, with the instrument, with the audience. He talks of “improvising an identity” powered by, and as a result of, social history.


Bailey, Derek (1992), Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music (London: British Library National Sound Archive).

Lewis, George E. (2002), ‘Improvised Music after 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives’, Black Music Research Journal, Supplement: Best of BMRJ (Vol. 22), pp. 215-246.

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