Free Improvisation

I’ve just got back home from a gig and it’s around one o’clock in the morning. I was playing guitar and bass with a large free improvisation ensemble at a one day festival of Experimental music. There were about twelve ensembles and soloists performing at the event and my band were the last to perform, hence the late hour.

I have to confess that I didn’t attend the whole event, which began at three o’clock, but I have a few observations to make about the artists I did see.

The first observation I have to discuss is that of space. In recent years, space has become the most important element in music for me, but many musicians don’t seem to consider it. What I like to hear from both composed music and improvisations is, not only the musicians leaving room for one another to allow for a musical discussion, but also leaving gaps within the fabric of the sound to allow the music to breathe and to frame the musical gestures. What I heard from several of the groups tonight was a complete disregard for space within their music and a layering of very similar sounds to create an aural mud. I remember reading a good analogy for this in a letter in The Wire which compared this kind of improvisation to mixing paints. The writer suggested that in mixing paint you have at your disposal a range of beautiful colours, but if you mix them all at once, all you get is brown. Sadly for me, many of tonight’s performances were brown.

Something else that disappointed me was the lack of rhythmical impetus in much of tonight’s music. All the performers, with the exception of the one, relied solely on the percussionists and drummers to create any momentum in their music. Most performances were of a very static nature – not in itself a bad thing – but gave the impression of motion through the use of driving or repetitive percussion. I can’t help thinking that perhaps some of their music would have been better without percussion, as they would have had to consider the impetus of their performances at a fundamental level.

My final observation is not a new one and has been a bug bear of mine for some time: guitarists. As usual it was the guitarists who let the side down in several ensembles tonight. They tended to be the worst culprits in terms of not leaving space and creating “brown” music and they really did not seem to be listening to their band mates. My other problem with the guitar is the sound. It is such a limited palate that the guitarist needs to work so much harder than the other musicians to create variety. Many guitarists try and expand the palate of the guitar by using effects, but this just seems to add to the “brownness” of the music. On top of this, every gesture on the guitar is already a cliché.

Although a guitarist myself, I often elect to play piano in improvisations because of the problems with the guitar I have already mentioned. When I do play guitar, I go back to basics. I deliberately use a very limited sound with strong associations (fat Jazz guitar sound) with no effects. I also avoid using any extended techniques, as these have all become Rock clichés on the guitar. I suppose the challenge I am setting myself is to say something new without putting on a funny voice.

I wouldn’t say I was succeeding yet, but improvisation is all about failure.

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2 Responses to Free Improvisation

  1. Another way to avoid guitar cliches is to try different tunings. I wonder if the general problem you describe is anything to do with the way people often learn the guitar in the first place? Often people will start by learning to play patterns from tab, which can lead to them thinking even more in patterns of finger movement than would be the case if they had learnt in other ways.

  2. Steve says:

    I think you’re right, tab plays a role in the problem as do learning methods such as the “cage” system etc.

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