Sunday 18 November 2007


Is Impro the primal musical mode?

“This music is always inherently political, because it’s about absolute freedom at all costs.”
- David Keenan

David Keenan is a name that’s been reverberating of late. I first heard him interviewed about his free folk outfit Scatter on Radio Three’s late lamented Mixing It. Later he sprung up last September to give a talk about the spirit of impro at the Colour Out of Space festival of “exploratory sound”. Then there he was again, in a recent Guardian feature on how hardcore punk was colliding with free jazz.

In the Guardian he continues: “once you go beyond the avant-garde, you’re back to being absolutely primitive…The first time music was ever made, it was improvised – yet to me, a lot of the improv that came out of free jazz became impossibly cerebral. What we want to do is return improvisation to its role as the primal musical gesture.” In other words, while the Guardian was writing about punk and jazz Keenan’s heart was more in folk. He’s even written a piece on this for the Wire entitled ‘The New Weird America’, and no I can’t claim to have read it so please bear in mind what follows is my interpetation! (Bizarrely, whilst writing up this piece I went to see the ‘Imagined Village’ folk night, in which programme Shelia Chandra comments “I like the way old singers never sing a verse in the same way, a tradition I feel I belong to.”)

In a more fulsome mode when given mike-time at the festival, he started from the assumption that rock music appears to offer freedom – but as soon as you start playing it, it becomes like going to work. ‘Popular’ music to Keenan becomes a ceaseless tug of war between the musicians and the marketing men. The spirit of the music comes from freedom, the escape from the drudgery of repetition, but in order to be sold it must become regularized, commodified, bottled. New developments in music ceaselessly reassert their free nature only for their proponents to sacrifice it for music biz careers- starting with folk but also blues, continuing through acid rock, hip hop etc. How can you sell someone a gig ticket if you’re simultaneously telling them you can’t be sure what they’re going to get? Isn’t that like a supermarket telling you there might be milk in that bottle, and it might not be off? Keenan waxed particularly lyrical on the question of time. To him keeping to the beat was factory time while improvisation was the antithesis of mass production.

Even the act of recording becomes problematic. In rock music the recording is the primary thing, fans dutifully buy gig tickets on the understanding they’ll get to sing along to what’s on the record. But for free music the primary thing is the live event, recordings are like snapshots you take of a holiday, triggers to remember what being there was really like. Moreover, music critics tend to side with the moneymen. Largely students of cultural studies disguised as music fans (tracing Hendrix’s guitar lines to napalm bombs in Vietnam etc), they’re always trying to frame music - take it out of the moment to pin it to some overall trend. (Amusingly, Keenan singled out Simon Reynolds as an example.)

Such theories perhaps have a particular resonance for me. I got into music later than other things, clinging to Marvel comics and science fiction paperbacks long after my classmates had succumbed to buying pop singles. And as a writer I inevitably got into it through the words – words were the hook that led me into song structures. I quickly warmed to things like the first Velvet Underground album, where the music’s main job is to illustrate the words like a sound artist. (Just as Reed sings of taking a hit of heroin, so the music speeds up and careers into simulating the effect.) But the all-engulfing soundscapes of their second album, frequently erupting to drown out the words, left me headscratching. Which of course meant that when I finally got absolute music, when I grasped that music didn’t need labels or literal functions any more than a painting needed to be representational, I got into it with a vengeance. I had the zeal of the converted.

But for all that, and even allowing for the fact that Keenan’s such an impassioned polemicist, it seems to me there’s much to commend itself in what he’s saying. It’s interesting to note that improvisation presents such a phobia for so many people. It’s understood how someone can learn the guitar, by sitting down and practicing chords. But if the same guy gets up to play those chords in an un-predetermined order everybody is astonished he could do it. Yet unlike guitar playing improvisation is something we are all doing in our daily lives, on a petty level pretty much all the time. We simply don’t notice we’re doing it.

Several members of Keenan’s panel compared predetermined music to going to work. (Perhaps partly influenced by the fact that impro musicians don’t get to give up the day job very often!) And work is of course a classic example of somewhere where we’re expected to behave like the appendage of machines. For example, call centre staff are often given lists of answers to likely questions, which they’re expected to regurgitate without deviating from. But call centre staff often do deviate, not just to relieve the monotony but because the script of standard answers never turns out to be as universal and all-embracing as it was trailed. In general at work, we quite routinely reassure our boss all is going to plan, while extemporising madly. Improvisation is not a bizarre mystery indulged in by artistic types, nor the last resort of the desperate. Improvisation is quite simply a contingent part of being alive.

“We’ve faced emergencies before! We can improvise, adapt, in the shortest possible time!”
- Quatermass Experiment

There’s an old jazz adage “improvisation is just composition speeded up”, but it’s not the saving time which interests me. It’s the way improvisation forces us to make choices before our conscious minds have had time to even absorb them, making us live by our instincts for a bit. Improvisation can be a way by which we tell ourselves something we already know, but are unaware we know.

On the other end of the scale to a call centre job, the time I saw Terry Riley’s In C performed live it did strike me as (pseud’s corner entry coming up) a model for a perfect society. By not constraining the players through time but uniting them by key, Riley devised a means where each person could be themselves yet simultaneously add to the overall group. The result was a fluid amorphous thing, not necessarily tidy but always far more than the sum of its parts. It was a thousand miles from many free jazz nights I’ve endured, where every band member seemed clamouring to be the front man in a momentous clash of egos.

Moreover, now might seem a good time to start improvising. Krautrock stalwarts Faust always insisted their records should look like bootlegs, to enhance the idea they were works in progress not final statements or definitive editions. Yet the economics of the time meant those ‘bootlegs’ had to be released on major labels. Nowadays a combination of CD-Rs, internet-ready sound files and much more have made musical micro-publishing (in essence becoming your own bootlegger) far easier. Some such as Damo Suzuki (another Krautrock stalwart) have given up studio recordings entirely in favour of bootlegging their own gigs. Others have gone so far as to suggest that micro-production will become the default distribution method for all music, whether improvised or otherwise. Moreover, all this is happening inside a culture where we can communicate more quickly (if not always instantly), where waiting for the definitive composition to be finally released is coming to feel more and more antiquated.

“He’s making it up as he goes along!”
- Heckler in Life of Brian

But if there’s much to commend in Keenan’s stance, if you take it to the max his ‘total freedom’ shtick will turn out not to be a skeleton key but a blind alley. Perhaps it’s just my natural moreishness, but I can’t see improvisation vs. composition as an either/or choice. It’s more of a balance which needs to be realigned. Take Terry Riley’s afore-mentioned In C, which gave its players much space in which to improvise but did so within the framework of game rules and guidelines. Or take Can, who would improvise wildly for hours but then play the tapes back and reduce them down to what seemed to be working the best. In a similar way we all live by the rule of gravity, which leaves us unfree to bound tall buildings. Yet the dancer or acrobat can use gravity in his performance, turning its forces to his own ends. Constraints can enable too.

A similar rule applies to words or song structures. During the whole three-day festival, out of a raft of performers, few used words as anything other than a sound source. Yet if the urge to innovate is innate in us, then so is the desire for stories. Folk music, the very wellspring of Keenan’s argument, is awash with stories. The idea that stories have or must take a single definitive form dates only from print, just as the same idea in music does from recording. David Thomas’ antics with the 2 Pale Boys are a case in point, a classic example of freeform storytelling married to improvised music.

Keenan’s argument also rests upon some more philosophical underpinnings, which again might appeal but taken in their most absolute form turn out to crumble. Firstly the suggestion that improvisation could be a talisman which could keep the money-men out of our temple sounds a little na├»ve in this day and age. If it moves they’ll try to make money from it, and if it stops moving they’ll try to sell it. But more widely, like the Surrealists, Keenan seemed to conceive of a ‘true self’ - locked away inside us from years of social conditioning but re-accessible through a series of ritual steps. It’s a charmingly romantic notion, but there’s no reason whatsoever to believe it. The Surrealists merely replaced the bourgeois fetish for consciousness and reason with their own for the unconscious. But the point is to combine the two.

Similarly the idea that free music can take the cultural studies away is reminiscent of the modernist mirage that art can somehow be purged of culture to be left pure and universal. Sounds are prized over chords, and chords over words for this very reason. But art is made by people so it will always be a form of social engagement, whether we choose to admit it or not. Denying this will not dispel it.

In short, Keenan was saying much that was worth saying. Improvisation is contingent to creativity, and we should embrace it not shut the door on it as soon as we can while fossilising what it sent us. His voice is necessary but a necessary corrective, by which we might realign ourselves. But at the end of the day he was serving up a malt when what we really need right now is a blend.

PS I absolutely adored Scatter’s version of She Moves Through the Fair played during his interview on Mixing It, which I (whisper it) taped off the radio and have replayed frequently since. But I found his performance in The Tight Meat Duo a pointless meander through the most tedious of free jazz byways. You pays your money and you takes yer choice!

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