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Lab report November 10th 2008: out of my depth

I knew this was going to happen sooner or later. Not exactly coasting, but I’ve been fairly comfortable with the tactics, strategies and lexicons I’ve deployed at Stet Lab. Minor criticisms here and there of course, but nothing that seemed to warrant a wholesale rethinking of what to play or how to improvise.

But those security blankets—tactics, strategies and lexicons—seem now to be liabilities.

A little background: since a set of gigs in late-2007 with Murray Campbell, I’ve pretty much retired the devil-on-my-shoulder improviser. Prior to this, I’d been a more (for lack of better word) ‘careful’ improviser; one that thinks first, thinks second, thinks third, and only then, after careful consideration, maybe (and just maybe) acts.

Although it was with those performances with Murray that I found this other way of improvising, it emerged, in retrospect, as a solution to problems flagged up at another musical encounter in 2007.

How do you evolve as an improviser? Under what conditions do practice and approach mutate? If change is a response to the environment, magic is just ’round the corner since, this month, I was out of my league—out of my depth.

the adrenalin response

In his report on the July Lab, Tony O’Connor wrote that

…Improvisation should be an immediate response, and every time a thought gets in the way, it puts a filter between the event and the response.

What Tony called the ‘immediate response’, Franziska Schroeder terms the ‘adrenalin response’—the decisions you make, the paths you take, during heat-of-the-moment, seat-of-your-pants, real-time performance. This is the response, since those performances with Murray last year, that I’ve come to rely upon. I’ve also come to (and red lights are flashing even as I type this word) expect the resultant choices to be dramatic, imaginative, circuitous and lateral-thinking.

However, on November 10th, in the company of Franziska, this response was exactly what turned out to be a liability.

During the duets with Franziska, I was flummoxed by the context and content—by Franziska’s playing. My adrenalin responses tended towards obvious choices, and the devil-on-my-shoulder would return to say ‘no, no, no, no, that’s a dumb choice, you can’t do that!’ The devil would slow me down, but perhaps more worryingly the number of options would shrink. At various junctures during the performance, I would compute a set of possible routes, but the devil would discount this and that (“that’s obvious, don’t do it; that’s naive, you can’t do that…”), leading to an ever diminishing set of choices. I could almost see doors shut one by one.

It’s ironic that the thing that apparently caught Tony off guard in July was that I was “playing melodies” because what threw me was Franziska’s lines. Lines reach into areas of my playing that I’ve neglected, and I was too unsure of my skills to make an excursion into that territory. Questions that popped into my head during the performance:

How do (should? can?) I even parse that?
How do I make (il)logical translations / transmutations / transformations that can (be made to) make sense within my own lexicon?

It’s no coincidence that, for me, my best contribution to the performance occur when the line rested for a spectral-dynamo-plus-percussion encounter (‘warmed me up…’). Although, if I take a step back, ‘doesn’t have broken glass on the floor’ is probably a more successful improvisation—less safe, not as easy, more of a troublemaker.

But, by and large, if my adrenaline-choice-machine was doing anything, it was always looking for the nearest, most convenient route, avoiding interesting, circuitous options—the ones that lead off-the-edge into ugly-beutiful spaces and serendipitous-contradictory relationships.

playing (and listening) differently

Franziska showed me, beyond a doubt, what options were not available to me.

For me, this is all good: now I need to go find other doors.

After all, the floundering and stumbles of a year ago led, overtime, to a new approach, and I’m optimistic that these new challenges will lead to something else. I very much doubt the return of the devil-on-my-shoulder improviser, but I expect to be playing (and listening) differently in future. I know it will take time to patch up the holes, to lay the groundwork for approaching new choices, and to reinvent and abandon tactics (habits?), but if past experience is anything to go by, in the coming weeks, I’ll emerge from this a different player.

…And that’s my little note of thanks to our guest improviser-saxophonist-theorist.

an unanswered question & a note of thanks

Given my difficulties at the last event, how come I was happily playing lines in a duet with Marian Murray in May (‘don’t eat the red acid!’)? What was so different then?

A personal note of thanks to Kevin Terry and Veronica Tadman for the help running the last few Stet Lab events (putting up posters, flyering, managing the door, setting up the stage, writing press releases, etc). November’s Lab, in particular, could not have happened without them.


  1. Veronica
    Posted November 20, 2008 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    This is a fascinating review and one that I relate to much. The brain working over-time is an issue that I do battle with. Could it be nerves?

    If we look at improvisation from a social point of view, is it that maybe like the way as humans we develop as we mature and wisen, that once again your improvisation technique and views are once again re-developing. They do say that we are always learning or re-learning. Or another way to look at it is Religion: one’s religion
    Personally I found the duets between you and Franziska to be intense (in the positive sense of the word) and inspiring.

  2. Posted November 20, 2008 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the kind words. Glad we were inspiring 🙂

    The brain working over-time is an issue that I do battle with.

    My brain (and I’m guessing yours) is working all the time… and should be working all the time. It’s the thing that stops us doing ‘mindless’ auto-pilot nonsense. I think I know what you mean, but the problem isn’t so much the brain or mind, but the devil-on-my-shoulder (call it the critic, the nanny)—the entity that always second guesses choices and gets in the way of a decision.

    Could it be nerves?

    Funny thing is, I’m actually almost certain that wasn’t the case: I felt pretty relaxed…

    This is something I go through sporadically. Some new context or stimulus that I’m ill prepared to deal with. I agree, this is how we learn (change and mutate) as performers, as improvisers, perhaps as people.

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