Technique and Improvisation

Taken from 'Musics' - September 1978






Transcribed and edited by Steve Beresford and John Kieffer. Annotations and corrections by participants.


SB: I'll try to define performance technique. Most people who have instrumental technique have also got performance technique, but certain people without instrumental technique can still bring off a performance by other techniques which aren't actually to do with articulating ideas on the instrument; which might not even be defined as music by most of the people here.


I suppose I was thinking of someone like Ian Hinchcliffe, who performs using a piano. I'm not particularly interested in talking about performance technique today - I think it would be better if we restricted ourselves to talking about instrumental technique. If everybody's agreeable?


DT: I'm afraid I can't divide the two. I can't talk within that kind of restriction.


JK: Is there supposed to be a difference between the technique necessary for improvised music and the kind used to play a score?


DT: The distinction made between something one works up at home in relation to a performance ideal...

The notion of performance is current anyway - it's a piece of linguistic and educational terminology - and I think it refers to an ideal.


There's a distinction for a lot of people between something you would work up privately, in terms of an ideal, and then present. At that point, the notion of charisma, or presentation or of presence comes into it, which is seen as nothing to do with instrumental technique.


SB: Well, I postulated those divisions, but I don't accept them. But some people do, and I was trying to be diplomatic and say, let's not talk about that area because it could be confusing.


DT: Never mind being diplomatic. What improvised music is partly about is to break down those divisions.


EP: If I'm the one you're being diplomatic for, I think I can rephrase it so that we can talk about what we have different points of view about. I think that the definition of technique as 'being able to do what you wanted to do' was adequate all the while 'what you wanted to do' was clearly purposive. That all kind of spoke for itself. But now, the question of what technique is, is confused by the deliberate use of incompetence as a technique. You can't say it's technical incompetence, if someone wants to use incompetence in their performance. You can only say, what is the question that that now asks about technique?


So I'll turn it back to you [SB] and say, what do you mean in a performance where you play the piano like a child, when you have a fully developed technique?


SB: I'm interested in using as wide a vocabulary as possible, although I don't like the word vocabulary. As wide a set of whatever...I want to use anything I can, and it includes that. Anything that I like, and maybe things that I don't like.


DT: Before it gets too specific, what Evan is in fact saying is that causality has ceased to be significant.


SB: You are suggesting that everybody who plays in an apparently incompetent way can play normally, which isn't necessarily true.


EP: I was limiting my discussion to you. I know that your range of apparent accomplishment is very wide. Maybe you've chosen to emphasise more and more the area of apparent lack of accomplishment. It's not an adequate answer for me, for you to say that you're interested in a wide range, because there's been a certain narrowing, a focussing on...[the incompetent]


RL: You think he's doing something wrong in limiting himself?


EP: Not wrong. I'm just curious as to why that should be the emphasis.


DT: I don't see it as being fruitful at this very early point.


RL: What Evan said earlier about technique is that until recently an audience would know what the guy up front was going to try to do, so they'd have a way of deciding whether his technique was adequate. Now they wouldn't know that.


DT: They'll be presented with having to ask the question all the time. What are the objectives of this person in relation partly to themselves and partly to everything else that's going on.


SL: There is an argument that technique isn't relevant at all any more, which has been voiced in MUSICS.


CKN: I can remember John Stevens writing long ago about his workshop, with people coming in literally off the street...


DT: That's absolutely true as well. He's a person who has got a talent to work with people like that.


SL: But he channels untalented people through his own technique.


RL: He makes it minimal enough for everybody to have some part in it.


CKN: What do you mean by channelling?


SL: He organises unskilled improvisers into achieving something - some kind of composition in his own terms.


DT: I'm sure he'd quarrel with your term 'unskilled improviser'


Unskilled in terms of conventional technique, but I'm sure John would assume that everybody was a potentially skilled improviser.


SL: I don't think he would. I've heard him dismiss lots of musicians because they 'can't play'.


DS: John and Trevor have got this experience as performers. People who they bring in without experience are not being treated as equals.


RL: I thin John's idea was to get people who can't play involved in something they enjoy, and that would lead them into something else. I don't think he ever wanted people to stop there, at a stage where they had to take their orders from him.


SL: I don't think they have that much say - they're directed quite closely.


DS: They have certain options which they wouldn't have in a straight piece. It's a co-ordinated, directed thing.


RL: I think that John realised that there were certain things that could be done without technique that are still worth doing.


PB: I attended one of John's workshops for a couple of years. I saw them as technical workshops, working on techniques of improvisation, rather that instrumental ability. It can only be seen in the context of the massive over-emphasis on technical virtuosity or facility. He was teaching techniques about how to listen, how to be sensitive, how to make various kinds of contributions. I saw them as group improvisational techniques. He actually listed them; all the pieces he did were concentrating on one specific improvisational technique. Did somebody define technique as 'how to do what you want'?


EP: How else can you define technique?


SL: There are lots of definitions, actually.


SB: Well, I'll try to criticise Evan's definition, which is by no means the worst one. If you're an improviser, 'what you want to do' should be changing every second.


RL: I don't see why, necessarily.


SB: Because improvisation is about change, about flux rather than stasis. I don't mean in general terms, ie 'I want to enjoy myself' of 'I want to play loudly' but in very specific terms. What you want to do in the next second is changing from second to second.


SL: Here's a definition from Phillip Wachsmann: 'Technique refers to the ability to efficiently communicate what you wan. You cannot achieve technique without having something to say, neither can you communicate much without the technique to do so.'


SB: Who said that music is about communication on that level? Who said that you have an object which you want to express, a sentence that you want to say to people?


RL: It's that ancient thing about there's a form, and you pour the content in, and the people who are listening have to reach inside the form and pull the content out for themselves to see what it actually is. I think the whole form/content thing is behind that. That's a misguided...


CKM: Seems to be no place for what you want to say, as opposed to actually saying something.


SB: It's a totally closed definition which is nothing to do with the fact that you might find out things inside of your playing.


RL: I'd agree more with you than the implications of Phil's definition. I just disagree that it's got be necessarily constant change from second-to-second.


SB: I'm not saying that if you're not doing that then you're a bad improviser. I'm saying that , if you want to define technique, you have to be aware of the fact that improvisation is about a constant change. Fundamentally, it may stay completely static for five minutes...


SL: I don't think it is about constant change in terms of performance. There's a thing you (PB) said once, which is about an ideal of improvisation being a consistency of attitude. I think that's one of the strongest things in the music.


SB: What does that mean?


PB: I wonder...surely the ability to keep changing...


SB: ...must be a technique.


DT: That's my basis for technique...the ability to keep changing in the course of one performance and throughout the continuity of all my music. And that's my fundamental.


SB: I find that a better definition.


PB: It's not a definition - it's just an application of the word.


DT: Evan said something interesting a few weeks ago about his duo with Paul Lytton...that at some point you decided that you weren't interested in newness for its own sake, but that you were both interested in developing certain things that were established within the music. All my efforts go into keeping change going all the time, whether it's through verbalisation...for along time Paul and I would just talk in rehearsals. It was to do with change, examining motivations and weeding out weaknesses in terms of stuff that was being hung onto.


SL: Is that what change means in terms of your performance - to look at what you've just done and then move onto something else?


DT: I reject most things I do anyway.


JK: How much does a change in technique occur between performances rather that during?


DT: I think it happens a lot and that brings in the element of surprise, which is closely related to instrumental technique. How much is surprise a technique - not surprise in the sense of a self-conscious disruptive mechanism?


SB: I think Evan devalued that in his speech at the Soho Poly...suggesting that there are two different types of people - some of them want something new all the time and others don't. It seems to devalue that attitude. It's not a question of cheap thrills, like buying something new. It has to be seen as a process; if it's a continuing process there must be something new happening but it's not to do with getting a new toy out of it.


EP: What interests me is, what is the value of projected incompetence? It's the difference between Dave Solomon playing the 'cello and Dave playing the drums.


SB: You'll have to ask Dave.


EP: Well, I've asked you and you've avoided the question [note: I think that the question was based on false premises. I don't think I avoided it. I think I questioned its premises - SB]


DS: What I was doing that night was similar to Han Bennink - he tries to project his drumming technique and apply it to other instruments. It's interesting, whether Han has developed a technique on those instruments. I did piss around a lot on a 'cello at one time. It comes down to, do people who pay to get in want to see that sort of thing?


JK: Another thing was, you were put in that position because Hermann Hauge was an hour late.


SL: do you call Ornette Coleman playing violin projected incompetence?


EP: No, but I can't see that he would have made his reputation on his violin playing, and he seems to carry the violin playing on the strength of what he can do on the alto saxophone.


PB: Something more extreme - Han Bennink playing 'Fiddleelddif' on his solo record - on which there is on attempt to do anything technical. Nevertheless I think that it works. Maybe he's working with other ideas, other than musical articulation. You're extending your mental techniques.


EP: Han's great ability is that he can provide a secondary level, at least, f listenability, or dynamic impact.


PB: It's only after a while that you realise what he's actually hearing, which is getting into the sounds within the sounds, perhaps.


SB: The note becomes a rhythm.


PB: Because he keeps repeating it and not changing it, you start listening to it very carefully. If you listen to any sound, It opens up a lot. Most techniques seem to be to do with not the actual sounds but the movement from one sound to another. You start getting involved with structure, rather than content.


EP: I would say that the last thing Han projects is a lack of accomplishment. What he does is convince you that he's found a new way of playing that instrument.


SL: He has said that, whatever instrument you play, you have to learn the tricks.


RL: But that doesn't mean conventional technique.


SL: He says it's possible to do it, just by looking where the holes are on a clarinet.


SB: I'm not sure about that tricks thing. Terry Day could see an instrument he'd never come across before, which is based on a principle he couldn't understand, and he might be able to do something very interesting with it.


EP: So we're talking about categories of superior and inferior human beings.


RL: There are some people who are naturally good at playing anything you thrust into their hand and others who aren't. Han Bennink can do it.


DS: Talking about people who are exercising their techniques...


EP: That's right - natural rhythm in a certain sense.


DS:..(No, no) on instruments they are not used to...


JK: I think this discussion is a bit of a waste of time. We're trying to define individual approaches to technique as being 'right' or 'wrong'. I think they all exist at the same time and one of the things I've found interesting over the last year or so is how the various approaches are overlapping.


EP: Yeah. That's why I wanted to discuss this rather more specific question.


PB: Does anybody remember something Examiner No 12 wrote in MUSICS 3 about free improvisation, to do with once you move outside traditional technique you get a situation where other forms of structuring become involved. Technique is to do with limiting yourself to certain aims whereas in improvisation other forms of structuring and ordering come into play. Going back to John Stevens - he's talked about music as a conversation, as a celebration and as a social activity so that you get, maybe, the dynamics of group interaction ordering the music rather than any specifically musical criteria. What you have there are techniques of handling interactions with other human beings which is different from musical techniques but nonetheless important.


SB: Can I go back to Evan's snide gripings which obviously have something to do with Evan categorising everyone except him in this room as some sort of utopian leftie who thinks 'everybody's equal man.'


EP: That's not fair. You can call them snide gripings. I'll accept that. (laughter...)


SB: All right. It seems that you're maybe threatened or disagreeable with something that seems to be coming out of the conversation which is to do with 'everybody can play music'.


EP: No! You keep missing the point. I'm quite happy to accept a definition [of technique] as 'being able to do what you want to do'. Whether that's a small amount of material or a very large amount of material. So if what you can do is bang on a drum like a child until you get distracted - that is a perfect technique. The kid is the kid playing the drum. What I can't understand is the symbology of someone who can do more than that misrepresenting himself.


You're [SB] the main one to do that.


PB: What you are implying is when you play as technically and complex as possible which we all know just produces sterile classical Western music.


[Any music which allows for over-facility is vulnerable to abuse of this kind - bebop, 'light' piano music, Indian classical music, etc - note by DT]


SL: I can't imagine how anyone would consciously want to play badly.


RL: It's not as if a performance of Steve's consists entirely of pretending he can't play the piano. (laughter)


EP: Can I just explain to you (SB) that I've watched you with some interest. You're one of the younger musicians who've come onto the scene whose work I've had to pay attention to. So this is not through lack of respect for your abilities of intellect. The question come from not understanding. So it's a request for an explanation.


PB: Can I make a comment on Steve's playing. I don't see it as being incompetent. He might play a simple tune and stop. I see it as setting up a situation which sets up certain expectations and changing that. It's like setting somebody up for a gag. You feed them a certain amount of information and then you stop and do something else.


SB: I was at the Plough one night and Barry Guy was playing a solo and the guy next to me said, 'Has this bloke ever seen a double bass before in his life?' We all know that Barry Guy had a fantastic technique and he's unbelievably fast and he can play any piece of music on sight - whatever it is. The other thing is that I'm not trying to make an in-joke and I'm not interested in appealing to a group of people who know the joke to the exclusion of others. What I'm interested in doing is bringing out things that usually aren't part of a performance and making them a performance, on a certain level, which is to do with how Dave plays the piano, or how Richard Leigh plays the piano, or how a cat put on the piano plays the piano, or how a glass dropped on the floor makes a noise. To me that's part of it as well. Of course, I'm interested in being funny. I'm interested in being awful and embarrassing. They're external things, they're not actually just performance things.


PB: I f we could move the discussion into a wider field. Jazz music has always been t do with instrumental technique and developing it on specific instruments whereas in other areas of music it doesn't seem so important. I was thinking about the New York Fluxus-type avant garde pieces - George Brecht, LaMonte Young. Nobody says 'he can't play his axe' in that situation.


SL: It's the difference between music and theatre again.


PB: Well is it? It's not theatre and it's not playing 'Donna Lee' as well. There's something in that stuff that makes you take it seriously but totally avoids problems of whether he can play his bonfire or not.


DT: You're talking about relationships of categories of artwork and the visual arts at the end of the 19th Century moved into a different position which radicalised attitudes to technique [Kandinsky, Malevitch, Ernst, Schwitters, etc, etc] whereas music in a sense intensified the concern with technique during that period. I suppose now we are in a transitionary stage of music where there are certain music-related forms which have completely ignored all the musical requirements and they stand as a question-mark to people who are involved in 'real music'.


RL: What sort of things do you have in mind?


DT: I was speaking very generally. I find it quite interesting to see the way that different categories of art activity develop and overthrow their basic premises at slightly different times in world history. Dance is another activity which is obsessively concerned with technique so it's quite interesting to look at it in relation to music. They work at it continuously. They have to. They think they have to or it will all fall to pieces. There is this threat for anyone who is thinking about instrumental virtuosity that you have to work on that every day or else it will collapse. For me that's completely against my whole way or working and I have to put myself in that context. The way I do that is to regard playing as a kind of martial art which is to do with precision. Equally, it's to do with frustrating precision.


SL: So you think that precision is important.


DT: It's important to me and it's also important to frustrate that precision within performance.


RL: By changing...


CKN: ...and creating tension.


DT: It's a way of upsetting one's own preconceptions about the curvature of the event.


RL: Why do you want to upset your own preconceptions?


DT: It's to do with the problems of habit in human beings - how you have to come to terms with habit, which is something that Evan's talked about a lot in the past, and to accept that human beings are very adaptable creatures. There was a thing on TV last night about NASA researches on the way the body adapts to zero gravity. It's quite frighteningly fast. Immediately it steps into it, the bones start to dissolve, in a staggeringly fast time. The body move into a situation and adapts to it, and then if it moves out again there are all these physiological problems.


RL: How do you practise?


DT: I only practise on the conventional instrument (concert flute).


RL: Maybe it's the habits you build up during that that you want to...


DT: No, no, no! The habits are to do with conceptualising the music...freezing the music, because I think you can always work on habits on a mechanical instrument, designed for a mechanical age, by mechanical means. Admittedly you do get blocks sometimes which have to be shifted.


RL: Do you find using a lot of instruments that you've made yourself, without those sort of intentions behind them, is a help?


DT: That was the whole point in doing it. It wasn't to do with exotic chic - it was to do with fucking that up.


RL: At the same time you practise only on concert flute?


DT: Yeah.


SB: Can I come in here and talk about freezing a bit and a definition that Evan used earlier which has fucked up my thinking a bit. It's to do with the example of the kid playing the drum, and Evan says: 'technique is doing what you do' or something like that. What did you say?


EP: I said right at the beginning that up till say the last 2 years a rough and ready definition was 'being able to do what you wanted to do'.


SB: OK. What you are saying is, historically that definition has become invalid.


EP: It seems to have lost any precision it had because what people want to do now can be to ask the question: 'Why should I want to do anything in particular?' I'm asking what is the symbolic function of a music that is based on that premise?


SB: OK. Let's go back to that and I'd like to talk about 2 examples. The Ramones and John Lee Hooker. The Ramones are just doing what they do. There is nothing in that music to do with them doing anything they can't do. On no level are they stretching or redefining...I mean, they have by the absolute finiteness of their music actually created another music because it's totally finite and completely specific.


SL: Actually, they just do what their manager tells them to do.


SB: OK. John Lee Hooker playing the guitar seems to have what we would call, in conventional guitar terms, a crude guitar style. It seems to me, that what is important about JLH's guitar playing is what is inferred through his guitar playing. In other words, he's pushing out the boundaries of his expressivity and his music. We're dealing with two things that are 'technically limited' and they are interesting for exactly opposite reasons.


DT: By talking about JLH you've raised a lot of interesting points that make it very complex. JLH stutters and his music relates to that as far as I can see, because people who stutter and play music are in an incredibly difficult position because you don't stutter when you sing, so there's always that communication split. The same applies to Alvin Lucier. He's got a speech defect. He transcribes interviews personally and includes all the speech defects in them - they seem to be seen as artworks along with his music. It's to do with conceptions of potentiality which relates to things like bodily awareness. In the end technique is to do with the relationship of the body to technology as far as I'm concerned, in the sense that we are talking about it now.


CKN: Can we go back to something that you mentioned that I think is very important and that's 'habit'. Something I read once, I think written by Paul Lytton, was to the effect that every time he sets up his drum kit slightly differently so that when he goes like this...

...he won't get the same sound he did last time making that movement in an attempt to get out of the habit thing, however subtly habit sneaks into your playing. I think it's important to recognise this.


DT: I think it is. Steve (SB) has used that as an image to illustrate a point of his in his interview with Steve (SL). It's a very convenient thing for drummers. It starts from that ridiculous idea of what a 'kit' can do as opposed to a flute player or a saxophonist, for example.


RL: You could have a saxophonist taking one of the keys off. (laughter)


DT: It's not that interesting because at a certain pitch everything stops. You're not getting a multiplicity of events.


RL: You could surprise yourself. If you're stupid enough you could surprise yourself for a long time. (more laughter)


DT: How much is your (EP) technique to do with self-surprise in relation to acoustics and so forth?


EP: As an ideal to bear in mind, it's quite high on the list, but to what extent it's realised in a given performance, I don't know, because it has to be balanced against some other criteria like coherence.


DT: Coherence?


EP: Well, developmental coherence. For my purposes I have to feel that I'm going on in a certain line. It would be possible to do something new that was made easier in that it had no relationship except juxtaposition to the work I've already done. This was the big change that came over me after the first couple of years working with Paul (Lytton) that, in a set, by doing A you could produce sound B, the numbers of new sounds produced didn't mean anything in terms of the feel of the music.


SL: That's what I tried to say about surprise versus consistency.


EP: That's what I was talking about in terms of surprise versus developmental coherence.


DT: It's to do with configuration, really. That's where the surprise should lie. If you get into a state in improvised music (and it's incredibly easy to do, especially in long-standing duos) he goes 'bang' and you go 'Oh yeah. I remember - 'bang', which is appallingly easy to do. Human beings just drop into it.


EP: Every time you come to the point where a habit could intervene there are two ways to approach it. One is to do the opposite of what's expected of you; the other is to do it as exactly as you can to what you did last time and neither of these things will actually produce the same sound. You can do it either way and I'm very interested, at the moment, in sometimes trying to do exactly what I did last time, because it comes out different anyway.


RL: The thing that both these approaches have in common is that they're very conscious and contrived. I mean, I can imagine consciously responding to something somebody has played in either of those ways. The reason I mentioned it is that I talked about this with a friend, more or less making the same point that you made and he was completely horrified. I put that down to the fact that he's done a lot more playing than me and he's in a much better position to feel horrified by my idea.


EP: What was your idea?


RL: Well it was something like that. Situations I've been in where I could see the same old thing happening and wanted to do something to stop it happening, and he seemed to think that was very contrived. I agree that it is contrived but I don't see it as a criticism.


SL: I'm not sure what you mean by contrived.


RL: Well, the idea that something happens and you think either do this or do that - then do it. Is that what you mean?


EP: Well, when you start to describe what happens in your head while you're playing music, it's first of all after the event and secondly transcribed into a different medium and thirdly approximate. So given all of those things, I'd say 'yes' something does happen in my head where I choose between A and B.


SL: Which surely must happen all the time. If you play a note, it's a question of whether you mean that note...


EP: That's right.


SL: Contrived, if you want to look at it that way.


SB: To say that anything conscious is contrived is to mystify the whole music.


EP: I think the 'whys' of it can be talked about easier than the 'hows'.


PB: When David (Toop) and I played with Evan at the Teatro Technis there was a passage (listening back to the tape) where I started playing harp with a skull as a plectrum and David said, 'Yes, the music needed something singularly inappropriate at that point'. It hadn't been my intention at that time to do anything disruptive. I was adding something to it, like a counterpoint...


DT: Individual perceptions are important in improvised music - that you can do something just right for this minute and someone can think 'Oh God, you've really fucked it up...'


PB: That really is just frustrating habits. At that point I'd put down one instrument and I was listening and you two were 'blatting' away (laughter) and I just did something else. I'd been working emotionally up to that point and I just stopped and made it an intellectual choice which would obviously frustrate a subconscious habit.


DT: There was a point you made in MUSICS which relates to a lot of this - what you said about Han (Bennink) getting involved in the microstructure of sound and this to the casual listener can appear as 'four-square bonking'. You were talking about Roy Ashbury. You said the same thing about listening to Frank Perry's playing. What he was playing didn't interest you much but what he was hearing that you could also hear was incredible because he was assembling this amazing collection of overtones and so on (working in the air) and the actual mundane business of going 'donk, donk, donk' was pretty dull.


EP: This seems to me to be more basic than this other thing. This gets back to these two schools - one of which sees the interest of music as a history of ideas expressed through different pieces and playing techniques, which it then makes a contribution to, by talking about all the other things. That's what I now think of as 'metamusical' activity. The other type is something that says there's so many other possibilities to just do something new, even though all this has already been done, music is so open that you can find a little corner and scratch away and sooner or later you've made a new contribution to it.


PB: To simplify: the difference between Richard Bernas playing one note interminably and Frank Perry playing one note interminably.


RL: Frank would choose a nicer note. (laughter)


PB: No. It's just that Frank Perry might be hearing what was going on and that would become apparent.


DT: Interestingly enough Richard Bernas in a recent concert made a distinction between what he called performance and other areas including conceptual work, yet you were classifying him there as a conceptual artist and he sees himself as a performance artist. His definition of performance was 'Actions in the real world'.


SB: The fact is that Richard Bernas was playing composed music and however many overtones he does or doesn't get from E flat, he's still got to play E flat because that's what he's told to do.


RL: There's a thing you said earlier that I think is important about surprise. It seems to me that what has kept classical music going is there's some potential for surprise in it.


[here the conversation went into a lengthy discussion of classical music and rock'n'roll music related to so-called 'definitive' recordings]


SB: We're talking very liberally...we know people like to listen to the same old things over and over again.


PB: We know we do...


SB: ...we have to work out why? On a very basic level I'd say it was to do with alienation, because we're all alienated. We're living in an alienated society doing boring repetitive things day after day and to a certain extent we're attracted to boring repetitive things.


EP: I'd say it was because we don't want to die and we're constantly trying to freeze time.


SB: All these things. Relating to the same old rock'n'roll records; going to the same old Beethoven symphonies, same old Charlie Parker records, trying to imitate Evan Parker...are to do with the same way of thinking that it seems improvisation is trying to go against. It's trying somehow in its completely incoherent way to break down what I call alienation and Evan calls fear of death, which I think may be the same thing. In one's own performance you have to come to terms with your own alienation and you have to do things that are to do with those elements you are trying to fight against, like trying to be somebody else. I'd like to be Han Bennink sometimes. He's one of my heroes and I'd probably go out and play a toy drum kit because he's my hero. I don't think he should be my hero and I'm against heroes but I know I've got heroes. I know I'd like to be Chuck Berry, John Coltrane, but part of one's performance is to do with living out those myths and trying to come to terms with your own bullshit, your own alienation, and your own perversion. And that's very important, as well as : 'We're spaced out and healthy and we eat health foods and we play healthy sensible music.' That seems to be the attitude of a lot of American musicians and I think that they're as alienated as we are. I don't believe they're healthy.


SL: So you're saying your performance is a kind of personal therapy.


SB: On one level, yes.


RL: If you're right about improvisation as a way of making music and the functions it has: what about the listeners? If people, who have up to now, used the experience of hearing things over and over again as a way of getting past their fear of death or alienation, do you think it might be possible for them to listen to constantly changing improvised music for the same reason?


SB: It's a process - it's not some sort of epiphany.


EP: That's move much more to the Cage aesthetic. You don't mind offering some continuing version of what 'Steve Beresford' music is? You can imagine certain types of performers being interested in having as little connection as possible with previous performances and setting out quite determined to cancel out whatever idea of their music they'd made in the last performance.


SB: Not necessarily.


EP: I think that's what is implied by a lot of Cage's work.


SB: Yeah. I don't see myself as a Cage follower at all.


EP: So change within continuity is something that we all seem to accept, which brings us to a question of style which I've always thought would be difficult to avoid in this conversation. What's the significance of style.


JK: Surely style is just differing techniques?


RL: What do you mean, 'just'?


JK: Certain people will isolate certain aspects of their technique and exploit them and produce a stylistic identity.


CKN: What's the dividing line between style and habit?


JK: Well, style is more of a static image and habit comes from development.


EP: Style and habit are opposite sides of the same coin and your job is to alternate the face uppermost as often as the music needs it.


CKN: How much of style is something your audience assumes [the next part of the transcript is complete nonsense - Charlie is a sensible chap so we assume that the transcriber mash it up - typesotter(sic)] and habit something your audience assumes. How many people look at themselves of style as opposed to habit? Style is more of an outside thing.


EP: That's right. It gets very difficult 'cos if you accept this idea of performance based on change within an overall directionality or continuity then there must be certain constant elements which provide that continuity, whether they're habits or something better than habits seems to be a very difficult question.


RL: I think David already answered that earlier when we were talking about surprise and how to keep things fresh and get away from habit. Everybody's got habits and a general sort of habitual approach.


DT: I would actually reverse your analysis of how we can cope with style and habit. For me style is something outside of my control because I'm an untrained musician and I don't have the facility to change style in the way that trained musicians have. Maybe I'm misunderstanding what you mean by style.


EP: No. You have a self-critical faculty and that's all you need.


SL: Style is something that I would see as techniques plus personality.


EP: I'm taking it (style) to be that which provides the continuity from performance to performance yet which is not any one element of string of elements in the performance. So there's something there behind the sound of the music which is about attitude. Attitude filtered through performance produces style.


DT: One of my ideals in performance which is what I wrote about in my 'gaseous' piece in MUSICS 15 is where the music starts to generate itself. We're talking very loosely about things like control and freedom and those kinds of concepts here. How does that relate to continuity; how does that relate to style?


CKN: If we could go back to one thing you (EP) said about style related to continuity. That would seem to contradict in that people come and see something being repeated as opposed to the surprise element. Does style stop surprise?


EP: I don't think it's like the late '40s and '50s as far as technology is concerned, when as soon as a new machine that makes a sound or a circuit that makes a sound is invented, somebody writes a piece for it, not that there is a huge conceptual jump, now, to make in producing a new sound. You could say that even Cage's intentions cancel out because his music is recognisable - even the music that is supposed to be indeterminate of composition still comes out sounding like Cage music, whether he plays or not.


SL: I think that's not true in the whole of his music. There are things that are completely unrecognisable from different periods of his development.


PB: You can with most people.


RL: You can pick out bits that do sound more similar than they ought to be in view of what he said he wanted the music to be.


SB: Haven't we agreed that Cage is a bullshitter anyway?


EP: No! You can't say that.


RL: He is, but we haven't agreed it.


SB: Haven't we agreed that what Cage's music is and what he says it is are two different things.


EP: Somebody had to do that to get it out of the way, didn't they?


SB: Yeah, fair enough.


RL: I think you could say the same of Ornette Coleman.


DT: I think you just take it different ways. I consider John Cage's writings to have been a partly liberating force for me and I consider Ornette Coleman's music to have been a partly liberating force for me. I never was interested in much of Cage's music.


CKN: His music and his books seem to so completely separate.


* * * * * * *


PB: We all, I think, feel that there is some sort of essence within the activity of playing music which isn't necessarily identifiable as style, or pattern, or...We all know why a piece of music is working or not; we all know why we play it...


SL: I'm not even sure if that's true - that there is a uniform agreement when something is working or isn't.


PB: No, but we all know when something is working for us. There's something behind it. Improvisation is more particularly about trying to articulate that essence rather than messing about with birds on telegraph wires and all the other stuff that goes on as a sort of rationalisation about music. It's not just music, it's the tools for doing certain things. When you start talking about that essence all the problems about technical facility disappear. Two pygmies playing bamboo flutes - they're not doing it badly or well; they're doing it for a long time and it's a significant utterance. Same thing with 'Fiddlelddif' - a significant utterance.


CKN: It's a problem for me, maintaining a sense of conflict in terms of making the music interesting, and maintaining a sense of unity in not upsetting the group structure.


SB: That's why I liked Evan and Paul (Lytton)'s duo because it seemed to be dealing with those sort of problems specifically. I found that very interesting.


CKN: I think that's a certain area of technique that is very difficult.


SB: That is also the problem with any human interaction - surely. I'm not devaluing it. I'm saying it's very important from any point of view.


CKN: Not to a lot of people. A lot of people like listening to very 'together' music...


DT: It's not necessarily true because a lot of people (not myself) have personal relationships which are very easy and they thrive on that kind of relationship, which is a very smooth kind of thing - when you start making analogies between music and personal relationships, which I think are useful, you have to remember there is some kind of detritus, a manifestation of the interaction which most people call the music. I wouldn't separate them myself. There's something which you can record on a tape, whereas there's no specific thing with a personal relationship you can say 'that's the thing I'm going to record on the tape as being a manifestation of the relationship.' And that manifestation can be static or develop. A lot of people have musical relationships that are very smooth and they thrive on them and they produce music that Charlie (CKN) would call 'syrupy'. It's stuff which probably none of us are particularly interested in because it's self-congratulatory and...


EP: A lot of music we like from other cultures, say a piece of scratch zither and barrel-drum improvisation from Korea will actually be very smooth...


DT: Very conservative. a certain sense. Their rhythmic structures, their scales...


DT: We're living in a different kind of society. I know that! It's not something I haven't thought about. I'm aware they're radically different societies with a radically different context, which generate radically different situations.


JK: That's what I was trying to say about the complexity of the dividing lines that come up. The problem of approaching them in both 'pure' musical terms and 'social' terms with ordering and so on...


DT: Yeah. [Quoting from his gaseous piece in MUSICS 15] 'Unity in improvised music, at least, seems to come through the resolution of the contradictions inherent in sound as a medium of communication.' So, on the one hand it's a very chaotic medium - it's diffusive; on the other hand it's quite precise as in verbal language on a certain level. Individual technique comes into that. Most of the things I practise every day on the flute are concerned with articulation and embouchure - they're no use in loud music - I can't use them - and that's true of almost any music I play. My individual technique works on the same things that other people work on traditionally but it's just out of the window. It wouldn't be, maybe, if I played a louder instrument or used an amplifier or had better technique, and that comes down to individual personal development within a group music.


SL: I've a question about programming elements into music that contradictory is a kind of perverse way to go about making music.


DT: I don't programme them in - it just happens.


SB: I think the whole consciousness of contradictions is very important. If you listen to the 'Threepenny Opera' - Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht were very conscious of the contradictions and were programming contradictions into it. Especially if you see the film - there are just very obvious ironic contradictions in every scene of that film, very often to do with the style of the music and they were quite conscious.


SL: I think I've witnessed improvisations where people have gone out of their way to be contradictory and produced no music at all. Han Bennink in many situations.


* * * * * * * * *


DT: There's one important point with all these things - it's questioning how far, partly, the boundaries that we set for ourselves and partly the boundaries that are set for us limit potentiality and to what degree you can expand beyond those boundaries. As I said before, technique relates to the body and to the attitude to the body. Most people's technique is a reflection of how their body governs their lives. I see that as being really fundamental. That's a very basic political point - it creates a lot of rifts in the music and affects the development. It's one thing to be philosophical about beginners and experts and all this kind of thing, but when it's on a very personal and you might even say embarrassing level it's not something people are prepared to share on an overt level - it comes across as fuck-ups in the music. Sometimes they are very good - a lot of people can turn that to their advantage, but watching on those people's development, you wonder how long they can turn it to their advantage. Like the drug syndrome or whatever. How long can you do a certain thing before you go to pieces.


SB: One of the biggest problems is how people actually privatise particular facets of their music and how they use very traditional methods of categorisation, and how people's problems with their music are only dealt with in private situations, in their own front rooms practising or something when they are very fundamental points that would be best dealt with in performance or in a less privatised situation.


RL: I don't know what you're talking about, actually.


SB: Well, how people perceive their music. I'm talking about that, and how they see most or all of those problems as technical in the traditional sense, and technique problems are seen as just private problems, individual problems and not to do with a group or with relationships on any level. They're just to do with you, the solitary musician coming to terms with your own torment...


CKN: That sounds like John Stevens...


DT: Why?


CKN: terms of 'worried about technique' whereas JS says in one sense technique...


DT: I think Steve really means 'worried about everything.'


SB: I mean 'worried about everything'. That has been translated into a mere 'I have to go home and practise'.


EP: That's the other side of this collective business. We have to worry one another. We can't just sit here and say 'You're great'. After a while, if we really confront one another with fine points of difference then we can blow them up, and some of the fine points of difference aren't that fine really. They're quite basic and if we're honest about it we can turn that into something important to ourselves. I don't think we should look for a comfortable situation.


JK: I'm still not exactly clear what you mean, David, about relating to the body. Can you say a bit more?


DT: Well - making some sort of bodily relationship with technology through initially bodily articulation which is governed by one's own flexibility, bodily potentials (basic as well as developed bodily potentials). I don't know if you're interested in Reich and all that kind of thing?


JK: Interested, yes.


DT: Well, I'm interested in all that and I see that as a social reflection. I don't see any division between mind and body - the language is so constructed that you can't avoid making that division. The music is in fact a manifestation of all these problems. These fine differences...become very basic, very personal to people and you see them as fractures, as dissonances in the music.