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Lab report December 7th 2009: futzing

…or not so random thoughts about not so random techniques

The Vortex, London, November 22, 2009

Ingrid Laubrock leans forward, the tenor just about balanced on her right thumb. She shakes the horn, her fingers barely press the keys. There’s a flurry of (imagined? quasi? pseudo?) notes.

Sonic Arts Research Centre, Belfast, May 16, 2009

First time I hear Justin Yang play, I hear something similar. His approach is nothing like Laubrock’s, but, in Justin’s sound, I hear an approach that seems almost exclusively made-up of these complex of gestures.

To call them ‘extended techniques’ would be problematic; techniques extracurricular to orthodoxy might be a better description.

If I’m making Justin out to be anything like John Butcher, that would also be misleading.

The Vortex, London, November 23, 2009

Henry Grimes is not walking, he’s not playing lines, he’s not holding tones. His left hand shifts in steps, but what you hear is something else. His free fingers—‘articulate’ is so much the wrong word, ‘delineate’ ain’t much better—draw out problematic complexes—clouds of… stuff.

Stet Lab, Cork, December 7, 2009

And Marian Murray does something that’s not a million miles away from Grimes’ technique. Sliding her left hand on the fingerboard, her fingers moving ‘randomly’ (which is not quite the right word), and her bow draws out unexpected harmonics sound one register then another. She creates unpredictable, angular, jumpy phrases through deploying a, when you break it down, simple technique.

The term ‘randomly’ articulates the problematic of improvisation in our consciousness.

If I were to switch on my Composer’s Brain™ (© 1971, Pierre Boulez Inc.) for a moment, I might have heard echos of Ligeti in Grimes’ playing.

…or maybe Xenakis.

Chick Lyall once remarked that improvisers are, in a sense, lazy. He claims an inspiration in Xenakis, but responds to this inspiration with his own improvisative ‘shortcuts’ to obtain analogous results.

These terms (‘lazy,’ ‘shortcut,’ ‘random,’ etc.) articulate the problematic of improvisation in our composerly consciousness.

Another one of my teachers, Richard Barrett, also sees Xenakis as an inspiration—as model—and also problamtizes the boundary between improvisation and composition.

And how did I and Justin arrive here? Both of us with teachers from both the AACM and (so-called) New Complexity?

Department of Music, Edinburgh, date uncertain, 1996?

I remember watching Pedro Rebelo hit some clusters on the piano.

Let me rephrase that.

I remember watching Pedro Rebelo ripple some clusters on the piano. It’s almost fractal—characterized by a self-similarity—a technique for embedding detail and information at different scales.

The effect is almost an information over saturation while avoiding the homogeneity of noise.

On the guitar, I first encounter a technique for generating this kind of complexity in Fred Frith’s playing, and later, almost by accident, I’d find a technique to do that myself.

I’d later call these techniques, for lack of an, AFAIK, existing term, ‘futzing.’

Teaching this technique—‘throwing your hands around the fingerboard and hoping for the best’ or ‘sweeping though the strings and catching a surprise’—turned out, I’d later discover, to be a difficult thing to do.

How do you teach something that is so under theorized? (and how did Coltrane, Taylor, Sanders learn/develope it?) Neither ‘intentional’ (‘deliberate’ and ‘authorial’) nor ‘noise’ (e.g. the Cagian denial of agency). These things—‘noise’/‘intention’—exist on a line, and it isn’t so much about riding the border between them, but steeping off that line. We want to enter a space that is not about control, nor the lack of it, but about surprises, densities and irregularities; about relationships—differences and negotiations… maybe cyborgs.

As someone said elsewhere:

Let me put my cards on the table at this point and say, that for me, virtuosity is a significant element in how I relate to the instrument, how I relate to performance, and how I approach improvisation. Leave aside that vision of a raw, competitive, athletics concept, and I might argue for virtuosity as an interface between the instrument and the instrumentalist. If performance in general, and improvisation in particular, is the (re)enactment and (re)negotiation of identities, boundaries and relationships, then the space between actors (human and non-human) must be a site of (re)construction and (trans)formation.

I suppose what I might be arguing for is, taking my hat off to Donna Haraway, a cyborg improviser—the (un)natural, contradictory, partial identity that is techno-organism (Haraway, 1991). Should I insist on the stable category of human (me), or the stable category of the artifact (guitar), or the hard-edged boundary that separates us, no music can be made. It is in the re-negotiations, and the fluid motions, of the boundaries, the (temporary) creation of hybrids and networks that music (as side-effect) can be improvised.

Virtuosity, to me, means the confusion and connectedness of the (blurry) categories of the musical, the social, the cultural and the technological. On a good day I’m not sure where the cultural ends and the technological starts. Sometimes I wonder if my body stops at my fingertips, or whether it continues through to the fingerboard….


Haraway, Donna J. (1991), ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’ in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge), pp. 149-181.

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  1. […] improvisers, our activities and engagement with real-time play might be more… constructive if we step-off this line between Cagian denial of agency and authorial determination. As improvisers, I value your (and my) identity and history (maybe even our prejudices), but I hope […]

  2. […] Han-earl Park, January 26, 2010: ‘Lab report december 7th 2009: futzing’ […]