Simon Fell - Summer 2003 & Fall 2004

Simon Fell, London, June 1996

Simon Fell is extremely hard to pigeon-hole. Like many a contemporary "classical" composers, heís written pieces for orchestra and chamber ensemble. But as a "jazz" bass player, heís long been involved with leading improvisatory ensembles, like the London Improvisers Orchestra (of which heís a founding member), and heís played and recorded free jazz with pretty much all the big names in Europe, as well as most of the down-town NY folks. (Check out Registered Firm with Joe Morris to hear one of my own favorites.) Plus, Fell has kept his record label, Bruceís Fingers, up and running since 1983. Heís also been associated with electro-acoustic improvisation (what Iíve called "no-I music"), having recorded Extracts with VHF for the then fledgling Erstwhile label way back in 1999. Heís made "xenochronous" music, involving post-production jiggery-pokery, and has utilized alea techniques ingeniously and with great success. Heís worked in the area of fairly straightforward electronic composition. Heís even gone into a Zappaesque territory on a couple of recordings. His integration of improvisation with "classical" composition on such releases as Kaleidozyklen, Thirteen Rectangles, and Composition No. 30 are probably unmatched both for audacity and thoughtfulness (and thatís no mean feat). In his works, youíll find blues, Boulez, Ellingtonia, Stockhausen, Taylor, and noise ― not just slapped together, but organically merged. I came relatively late to Fellís output, when an excerpt from the wonderfully cuckoo Fell / Charles Wharf realization of Fellís Frankenstein was included in a Resonance sampler in the late 90s, and I havenít been quite the same since.

~ Walter Horn


Simon Fell Interviewed, Summer 2003 & Fall 2004

Questions contributed by Nat Catchpole, Walter Horn, and Joe Milazzo.

Why the double-bass? Any specific inspirations / influences on that instrument you'd like to mention or discuss?

Rather prosaic answer to this one Iím afraidÖ I was asked to play double bass at school because my school needed a bass player and had a double bass which no one was playing. I was at that time studying music, but not actively playing an instrument, and it was thought that it might be a good thing if I was. Itís a situation which Ė as a bass teacher in later life Ė Iíve seen replicated many times overÖ

But the thing is, Iíve never really thought of myself as a bass player in a specialised "city & guilds" way Ė i.e. excessively interested (if not obsessed) with the mechanics of basses and their construction, technical questions, the theory and history of bass lines etc. Essentially, Iím simply interested in all musical questions, all instruments and their potential Ė I just happen to (mainly) play the double bass. For me technique (on any instrument) is simply a means to an end, i.e. the realisation of something musically worthwhile. The kind of musicians I feel little connection with are those (and there are many) who seem to see music as a potential way of demonstrating technique. Such musicians are often incredibly impressed by other people demonstrating their technique (rather than making interesting music); in fact some musicians sometimes give the impression that they play music mainly for the specific purpose of impressing other musicians. This whole side of music-making is something which Iíve always found incomprehensible.

Anyway, back to the question. I donít feel technically influenced by any particular bass players, apart from those who have authored technical literature which Iíve found useful (Sigi Busch & Franz Simandl, take a bow!); Iíve acquired such technique and ideas as I have through a sort of stumbling, inefficient auto didacticism, and have never felt particularly moved to emulate other bassists. Having said which, there is of course one almighty exception: I have been hugely inspired by Charles Mingus. I doubt my music could have existed without Mingus (heís not the only such figure, but heís the only one whoís a bass player); as "jazz" composer, leader / director and all-round "rhythm section invigorator" his work showed me so much that might be possible.

Since Mingus, a few players have shed some further light on what I thought about playing the bass Ė in roughly chronological order, those players who influenced me at certain points might be Harry Miller, Barry Guy, William Parker and John Edwards. But Mingus remains the key, along with what goes on in my headÖ

Simon Fell, Cambridge, April 1998

You studied English literature for a time in the late 70's and early 80's. What relationship, if any, exists between your literary studies and the work you pursue now as a composer and improvising musician?

I'm not sure if there's any... if there is it's fairly subtle. My studying of Eng Lit was a bit of an accident. I just happened to be very good at it, and it was easier for me to get into University to read English than to read music. I suppose my experience of literature Ė particularly Joyce & the modernists, particularly poetry Ė was that this material often had a complexity and ambiguity that I often found missing from much of the music I was hearing. And the ambiguity and plurality of meaning that makes poetry work for me is also the same thing that I find exciting in music. I don't mind the purity of simple music, but I find a lot of music crosses over into being simplistic and patronising the listener.

So it's this frame of reference which I find most resonant for my work in music; of course I've been inspired by particular literary works Ė I've always been a keen reader Ė but probably no more so than the average musician.

As someone based outside London but close to it, how do you perceive the regional distribution of improvising musicians in the UK? Are the scenes outside London self-sustaining?

Mmm... not sure quite what the question is here. I guess I perceive that the regional distribution of improvising musicians in the UK is pretty similar to the distribution of all kinds of people, in other words that there are lots in London, but many who are outside London. But as in so many walks of life, the London-centricity of both the (London-based) media and the people who are already in London acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy, persuading other people that London is the place to be if you're serious about your music (or whatever it might be). Which is absolutely not true. London is simply the place where there are perhaps more musicians (and door money gigs) than anywhere else, so people get to play more frequently and it's easier to check out musicians, try out projects, etc. [Although there's no particularly substantial audience in London - most of these door money gigs are rather feebly attended, probably more feebly than in Leeds, Manchester or Newcastle say.]

But this approach does have its disadvantages Ė you could argue that the easy availability of "turn up and play" free music gigs in London facilitates a tendency for the music to develop a certain homogeneity, and perhaps makes musicians and audience less sensitive to the specialness of the performance situation. You could argue that; personally, I suspect that thereís no ideal paradigm for the development of musical "scenes", and each situation has its pros and cons. The advantage of the London scene is that it does seem fairly self-sustaining, although this may just be through sheer weight of numbers. And if Ė for any reason Ė the room at the Red Rose Club was no longer available for example, then I think that would be an awkward setback for the London scene.

The scenes outside London seem to be less stable, if only because almost all of them depend on the dedicated work of one or two committed individuals; these people are often eventually ground down by circumstance, lack of support from the arts infrastructure, lack of support from an audience, lack of support from venues owners, etc. (But there are exceptions. Some clubs negotiate a generational change with success, like the Termite Club in Leeds for example, although of course things always change when someone new takes up the reins. But promoting improvised and similar musics is such a thankless task that you canít really blame someone for using their own taste as a yardstick!)

Drawing back to look at the national picture as a whole, I personally am concerned by what seems to be an increasingly prevalent trend towards Arts Organisations and other "establishment" bodies withdrawing any kind of support (or other formal recognition) for improvised music; a philosophically and musically vital and crucial genre, towards the development of which British players have both contributed seminally and continue to be among the worldís foremost practitioners.

How do you perceive the relationship (musical, economic, other) between the London / UK scene and those in Holland, Germany, Austria, Italy and elsewhere?

Ad hoc, fragmentaryÖ really based on personal relationships between musicians and interested promoters, rather than any cooperation between cultural bodies. Of course the grass is always greener on the other side, but it seems that there are cycles in most countries (generally to do with much larger economic and political shifts) where improvised music, experimental music and free jazz periodically have a relatively high profile and receive substantial financial input for a while, and then drop of the agenda again. I think most musicians who have been around a while could point to the ups and downs of the music in various countries, and those who are particularly canny may be able to tell you where is particularly "hot" at the moment. But I guess most people are like me, and just go and do gigs when weíre invited; and of course when youíre a guest you are usually well treated, so naturally things seems rosier than at home.

Although we seem not to experience the same large-scale cultural policy cycling in the UK (the music just being consistently ignored by the mainstream media), there are actually UK festivals where itís possible to play improvised music and get an international-style fee (although not many!), and the pictureís not quite as black as some musicians would have you believe. But naturally most of those gigs actually go to visiting artists, with their promotability and scarcity value; itís only natural.

As a footnote to these two questions, it might be worth mentioning that Jo & I are in the process of relocating our activities, and to outside the UK for the first time. By the time this interview is published we will be living in central France, so perhaps my status as someone qualified to answer the above might be thrown into doubt anyway!

KaleidozyklenComposition No. 3013 Rectangles

What connections, if any, do you see between your freely improvised work, your through-composed work, and your "xenochronous" pieces (where disparate parts are put together afterwards)?

I would say they're all points on a spectrum Ė the spectrum of what I find interesting, and the language I use to express it. My attitude to improvisation is that it is indeed "spontaneous composition", although I know that approach is not popular with all players; some prefer a stream of consciousness approach, for example. The only difference I feel between this and traditional "fixed" composition is really the timescale. "Fixed" composition takes a lot longer to realise of course, although each improvisation has a lifetime's technique and ideas in it (hopefully)... although so does each composition! I would perhaps say that each of my compositions is what I would have liked to have improvised at that point, if I were physically able to play all the instruments simultaneously, and had the mental capacity to think on so many simultaneous levels. (Although the extra input from the musicians during performance is always important too, and provides an additional source of inspiration, especially when writing for players from the jazz / improv tradition.)

Another basic practical difference is that improvisation (apart from solo playing) is a collaborative affair - which can be uniquely rewarding in a way that's very difficult to simulate in any composed situation, although it can sometimes be frustrating. But that's the nature of music-making. But I have experimented with some (semi-) composed collaborative projects, often with Charles Wharf (e.g. Frankenstein), or the Pure Water Construction project with Martin Archer. These can be stimulating, but are definitely a different sort of beast to the traditional "solo" composition.

I would regard "xenochrony" as just one of many compositional stratagems which I used in my composed music. It's pretty hard to imagine xenochrony in the sense I understand it happening during an improvisation, almost by definition. Of course you can get things that sound like it, but as soon as you label it then that becomes a compositional decision (I can see this might be worthy of expansion sometime!). For me, the use of xenochrony in composed pieces is simply a way of allowing musicians from the improvised music (and jazz and rock) tradition(s) to do what they do best, without let or hindrance, and still incorporate them into complex, confusing or disconcerting compositional structures. Almost a case of having one's cake and eating it, as we say in England...

Score, Composition No. 45

Could you provide us with a detailed definition of "xenochrony"? Could you also talk a little about how you arrived at this method and what you feel your experience with that method taught you as both composer and improviser?

Well, my understanding of "xenochrony" (which is not necessarily any more valid than anyone elseís, as Iím not consulting a dictionary here!) is events which have independent external temporal frames of reference happening simultaneously Ė coexisting in current "real" time, and by implication creating a new temporal frame of reference which is much more complex, unpredictable, stimulating and interesting Ė but nevertheless which can still be relatively easily read in relationship to conventional linear "time". In simple terms, you could describe it as "listening to two things at once, and finding out what new relationships that generates", and of course this is a technique ideally suited to the recording studio. But in fact my early inspirations in this field came mainly from composers trying to work with "real-time xenochrony", including Ives (of course), Nancarrow, Cowell, Stockhausen, Braxton, Mike Westbrook and several others. Eventually, I was made aware of Zappaís studio experiments in this genre, and works by Ornette and James Blood Ulmer which also fed into my ideas about what was possible. In some ways my work in xenochrony has been about trying to find the link that would bridge the gap between the two working methods. Iíve always wanted my studio-realised xenochrony to sound more live, and my real-time xenochrony to sound more heterogeneous; a musical space where perceived relationships shift uncertainly between the real, the meta-real and the unreal.

Part of the importance of this particular strand of my work has been the extent to which itís enabled me to understand the role of the "active listener" in appreciating improvised and some other experimental musics, and reinforcing my realisation that the relationships between elements of music (and by extension what people normally consider as the "understanding" of music) is primarily dictated by a mixture of being immersed in a cultural vocabulary, and the basic laws of physics (not the same thing as Western tempered tonality!), rather than some absolute musical truth. Listeners to improvised music (and xenochrony) are well versed in the art of appreciating obscure, complex and unpredictable relationships between musical elements, and in that sense provide a paradigm for how those truly interested in music should listen; advanced, subtle and complex musics of this kind are analogous to textural richness and ambiguity of post-Joycean literary modernity. In this context many "music-lovers" unfortunately seem determined to restrict the richness of the musical texture to that of accessible childrenís literature.

As both composer and performer this work has helped me focus on how any element really only has meaning in a context, and that whether one is composing or improvising one is essentially realising a context in which each element of information can carry its full weight of significance, or at least emphasise the group of potential meanings which you feel are most relevant. Not all improvisers would agree with this, and there are some who would wish to posit a "stream-of-consciousness" approach; personally I feel the differentiation is not actually valid, and that itís only a question of the speed, facility and inward / outward balance involved that allows one to classify a performance as part of a spectrum between "free-flowing" and "considered". And it is rare for any two individuals to share the same perception of this element of the mechanics of the music.

Simultaneously however, if improvisation is about anything, itís about taking musical responsibility for the sounds that you make; I suppose the perverse side of my personality enjoys the fact that xenochrony for improvisers often involves them relinquishing that most important and precious of responsibilities and passing it on to me, although it is then an inherited responsibility that I actually take most seriously.

Could you expand on this comment: "I've always found serialism attractive... It seems to me that serialism is the only real compositional technique which has taken the history of how things should be thought of and thrown them out of the window while at the same time retaining the basic form." [quote from AVANT no. 8, 1998]

Well, what I was alluding to by this was the difference between my perception of what happened with Schoenberg's discovery / invention of dodecaphony, and how it is generally portrayed by the wider world of music. Most musicians (even some who should know better) describe Schoenberg's period of free atonality and subsequent 12-tone work as a "revolutionary" upsetting of the musical-applecart, which challenged everyone's perception (and many people's continuing perception) of what music should do. Well, yes and no. Yes, if you imagine yourself as part of a conservatoire-orientated Western European tradition, obsessed with pitches, their hierarchies and their relationships, a sensitivity developed over 300 years of precious specialisation. But all Schoenberg did was invent a new order to put the notes in, one not dictated by or reflective of the tradition to which he himself was so wedded; so in one sense perhaps this does seems truly revolutionary, as revolutionary as the aleatoricism of Cage or the ready-madeism of Duchamp. But if you listen to Schoenberg's music from this period in particular (and most of his life in general), especially with ears which have grown accustomed to atonality, you realise just how traditional his approach to form still is: his use of dance rhythms, variation structures, sonata form, etc. Indeed, in the earliest period of 12-tone composition, these traditional forms were stressed by Schoenberg, as a way of allowing his listeners to hear that his music was simply a continuation of the Austro-Germanic tradition, rather than a replacing of it. So what I meant by "retaining the basic form" is that essentially this is just 19th-century classical music with note order swapped about, subject to (from a traditionalists' point of view) non-musically derived note choices. I'm sure I don't have to explain why I find that so exciting; it's a simple but devastating idea, simultaneously revolutionary and nostalgic, and ties in with some of the conceptual experiments I and some of my favourite composers have indulged in.

Could you talk more about the importance of serial techniques to your own music? You've indicated that serialism has a kind of emotional bouquet for you -- you find it "simultaneously revolutionary and nostalgic" -- which seems a rather unique response to this sort of music. Could you also give us a little more detail on the kind of "conceptual experiments" of yours that have been inspired Ė if I understand you correctly Ė by serial composition?

We all live lives overstuffed with information, and of course I suppose for any of us perhaps 90% of what we know or believe is based on hearsay, supposition, vague impression, received opinion, etc. That seems to be part of the human condition. But I think itís important that those of us who care about music donít swallow historical caricature wholesale, or base our thinking on the propaganda created by vested interests to indoctrinate the uninitiated. This is why I make the point about serialism Ė and to judge by the documentaries recently made by a certain spiteful and evangelistic post-modernist composer for British TV Ė itís a point that still needs making; even your comment about a "rather unique response" seems to be part of this unbalancing effect. My argument is simply that, unless youíre closely bound up in the conservatoire-based Western-European tradition, "classic" serialism really doesnít make that much difference to what happens in the music; weíre only talking about the order of the notes, thatís all. Itís typical of Western European classical music that it is built primarily upon the construction and analysis of pitches and their relationships, and therefore the revolutionary tearing-up of 300 years of ideas about how these notes should be chosen would seem dramatic in this context; but from where we sit, being aware of musics where (for example) rhythm, timbre or architecture may take complete precedence over pitch, and the fact that Western European classical music represents only a tiny part of the spectrum of human music-making over the millennia, we might be inclined to classify this as a storm in a teacup. The serial compositions of Schoenberg and Berg are not dramatically different to their pre-serial compositions, or for that matter to the (almost) contemporaneous works of Mahler and Strauss, especially if we take them out of the specialist classical hothouse and play the to the "man in the street". Of course, Schoenberg was keen to emphasise the line of continuity between his serial music and the Austro-Germanic tradition, and thus deliberately utilised well-established, familiar (and nostalgic!) forms, voicings and orchestrations in his pieces. To me much of this music seems incredibly nostalgic for the imperialist certainties of the 19th century, with this kind of "human" serialism a continuing part of the Romantic ideal of individual expression / expressiveness.

The difference comes with Webern really, but this is not really about serialism / non-serialism. Itís about composers who think differently, regardless of the tools theyíre using. What Webern wanted to achieve with his music is different, and in part contains the seed of many of the elements of modernism demonised by the conservatoire jobsworths; but his music would have been different and would have addressed these issues whatever the justification for his note choices. You could say that the most nolstalgic thing about serialism is that it reminds you of a time when it really seemed to matter how you justified the order that you put your notes in, and when the "note police" really had a power to control, censure or prohibit certain orderings.

As far as my "conceptual experiments" with serialism, I think its main effect on me was to open up the possibility of writing music without having to join that exclusive club of people with really well-trained ears who knew all the technical terms for every kind of historical usage of every kind of relationship, and who in some ways seemed to be limited by their awareness of the achievements of the past Ė I realise now that this was very much a young manís view, but I was indeed young at the time. So serialism gave me a method which I could use to expand the rudimentary construction methods of my own music, whilst alienating those whom I saw as reactionary; but in fact this was also music which I genuinely liked the sound of, certainly much more than the "proper" stuff which all the people with taste seemed so keen on.

From that point on Iíve tried all the well-explored methods of total serialism, and have applied this to text and other information given to improvisers, to instrument / musician selection, to the application of electronic effects etc. Iíve also recently (as part of my work on Compilation IV) been exploring a quasi-serial ordering of selected parameters of musical material based on other numerical systems derived from the overtone series, from Stockhausenís experiments in temporal chromaticism, from Le Corbusierís Modulor system of division of space, from George Russellís Lydian Chromatic Concept of Vertical Tonal Gravity etc. But I suppose they key thing to point out is that these are always only starting points for me, rather than fixing systems. I suppose my experience as an improviser makes me unwilling (or unable) to resist the flexibility to pursue, develop and explore the unexpected event, regardless of whatever system one is meant to be working under.

Termite OneFrankensteinIST, Ghost Notes

Are the boundaries between academic music (e.g., Ferneyhough) and non-academic music (e.g., Fell) beginning to break down at all in Britain. Are teaching gigs at Oxford ever offered to people like Evan Parker?

Iím not sure the boundaries that affect the work of people like me in this country are between academic and non-academic, although I understand what you imply by the use of those terms. For instance, I donít think any composer would set out to write "academic" music, itís just that for many composers (as for many musicians in all traditions) teaching and teaching-related activities are a valuable way of sustaining a bearable standard of living in a society which places no real value on creative music, especially that developed from within the improvised music or jazz traditions. Each musician finds their own answer to how they want to balance these issues, but teaching can be part of that. I suspect several of my colleagues may consider my music "academic" these days, since for the last few years most of the funding Iíve received to realise projects has been research funding from academic institutions, and many of those projects have been realised by student performers within university and college environments. But I think that simply tells you something about the type of music that Iím interested in making, and something about the continuing inability of the UK to provide any kind of effective and efficient public funding for the arts, especially creative music. And within that overall picture, music from the improvised tradition remains a no-go area for "official" funders, despite the UKís exhilarating track record in this area. (As in so many other things, Britain seems to be moving towards an American model for arts funding Ė i.e. none whatsoever except that generated by private sponsors & collectors, and those crumbs which can be scraped from beneath the university dining tables.)

To return to the question, for me the differences (boundaries) seem to be social rather than anything else. As a self-taught composer whose professional performing experience has all been in jazz and improvised music, I now realise that the reason for going to music college is not necessarily to learn how to compose music "properly" (which I was very wary of), but to forge the contacts and associations which will allow you to become part of an established scene when you leave college. And certainly in the UK, the contemporary classical performance scene (which is where much of the academic music you spoke of gets performed) is very self-referential and inward looking, with its own way of doing things and no real desire to look outside that continuum (in other words, exactly like every other music scene I suppose!). Of course these days everyone tries hard to give the impression that they read The Wire and interact with whatís hip. Suffice to say I wish people (of all kinds) would spend less time reading about what they should think about this or that music, and more time listening to it and deciding for themselves what they think.

As for Evan being offered a teaching gig at Oxford, youíd better ask him about that. But if you mean Oxford University (the famous one) then I would doubt it... although if you included Oxford Brookes University (the not-famous one) then quite possibly. The university scene in the UK is pretty effectively split between the Old and the New (former Polytechnics etc), with the old taking the part of the Establishment, and the new filling the role taken by the Art Schools in the 60s and 70s Ė i.e. a haven for the creative and the avant-garde. If it sheds any light on the situation, Iíve been living in Cambridge (or near thereto) for over 20 years, during which time Iíve undertaken creative music projects with several educational institutions, and have taught double bass or improvisation at many, but Cambridge University Faculty of Music have never invited / asked me to do anything whatsoever; simple as that. At the same time, Anglia Polytechnic University (the "new" university whose Music Dept. is based in Cambridge) have commissioned several pieces, performed some, assisted me with research and travel funding, undertaken some publication, asked me to run improvisation classes and generally proved very supportive. I suspect it will still be some time before creative musicians outside the Western European classical tradition are really taken to heart by the old establishment, and when they are it will doubtless be jazz musicians, media composers, prog rockers, anybody except improvisers whoíll see the benefits!

Could you discuss your experiences with students and student ensembles a bit more? I'd be especially interested in hearing you describe some of the instruction you provide for young improvisers. What sort of models, if any, have you used? What sort of teacher--student relationship do you feel is most valuable when that relationship involves the discipline of improvisation?

Well, I have to be honest and say that most of my work with student and inexperienced players has been through necessity rather than choice Ė at least in the first instance. The fact of the matter is that the economics of the kind of music-making Iím involved in, plus the curious "outsider" standing of British improvised music and its offshoots, have meant that Iíve never (yet) had access to an ensemble of professional "classical" musicians (contemporary or otherwise!). Although some such players have been kind and brave enough to take a chance with my music, the vast majority of the ensembles have had to be made up of the kind of players that I can gain access to (and afford); add to this the inevitable tendency that any funding made available to this kind of music in the UK has to have some kind of "educational" or "community" benefit Ė art for artís sake (or art as R&D) being politically unacceptable these days Ė then you have a situation where I often find myself hunting among the student community for musicians with an interest in the unusual.

Having said which, although I didnít set out to become a composer for student ensembles, working with students has several advantages over working with "professionals". Firstly, theyíre likely to have much more time available to rehearse a piece, and work on more esoteric matters such as different approaches to (and outcomes) of the process of improvising; this often means that what the players may lack in technical ability, they compensate for with extra time and preparation. Secondly, student players tend to be less combative, judgmental and provocative (although of course a minority are), a problem which is pronounced among certain types of professional players (perhaps less so as the years pass). Thirdly, although the majority of students (like the majority of everyone else) are not interested in anything new, broadening their horizons or being personally creative, there is a significant minority who are, and these players can produce some superb work. And making contact with these players at the beginning of their musical experiences does give one the vague hope that something good may come of it.

As far as instruction for young improvisers is concerned, Iím not sure to what extent I ever get involved in "instruction". I would say my aim is to provide an environment where people understand that itís OK to try something even if it doesnít work out, and that itís better to experiment Ė even if the results are of variable quality Ė than to merely do what "works". The fact that the Compilation series are recording based projects is helpful in this, in that everyone knows that if we try something and I / we are not happy with it, it will stay on the cutting-room floor; this enables me to encourage people to try things that they would never risk in front of a live audience. Live performance is therefore more difficult, but is simply the next stage in this process Ė requiring editing before the event rather than after.

If I do have any "golden rules" they might be something like (in no particular order): (a) donít play just because you happen to be holding an instrument, play because you have something to contribute; (b) if you canít remember what your point is Ė stop playing! (c) when youíre not playing, youíre listening Ė an equally (if not more) intense activity; (d) never play just because no one else seems to be [see point a]; (e) donít dominate the musical discussion simply because you can, but you can dominate if your point merits it; (f) etc etc. I tend not to use "models" too much, because I would always start this process from the principle that everyone can improvise, and that improvisation is the most natural and automatic response to any potential sound-making environment Ė my job is to debrief people whoíve been brainwashed by the Western European / Free Market model of there being a "right way" and a "wrong way" to do music. Unlearn all that; although remember your technique (whatever it might be). Models can set up a hierarchical pantheon of aspiration which I feel is the bane of mainstream music-making, and which can be counterproductive at this stage.

As for the teacher / student relationship Ė I think it has to be a musician / musician relationship, with everyone involved understanding that one of the musicians (the "teacher") has considerably more experience in working in the field, and has spent much time considering the aesthetic questions arising; but also everyone understanding that this doesnít mean the "teacher" is a "better" musician or improviser than the others Ė and indeed that such a way of thinking is completely unhelpful.

Composition No. 53, Morton's Mobile

What was the origin of Composition No. 30? What was the experience of making that piece of music "happen" like?

What was the origin of Composition No. 30? Why my own twisted brain, of course! In fact the original version of the piece (which is somewhat different to the realisation released on CD) was written as a "live" piece (in the traditional concert-hall sense of the word), a concerto grosso for improvising trio (Hession / Wilkinson / Fell), concert pianist (Joanna MacGregor), rock guitarist (Tim Beckham) and orchestra. This line-up came about as a result of a scheme dreamt up by Ben Watson to combine what he (at that time) felt were three of the most interesting things around, and although there was never enough impetus to realise a performance of this piece in the original version (although I remain open to offers), the brain-storming process did generate enough energy for me to secure some research funding from the Arts Council of England, which I used to compose the original score.

That was in 1994, and for some time the piece remained a theoretical construct Ė i.e. an unperformed score. For 3 years I went around metaphorical cap in hand trying to secure funding to realise a version of (at least some of) the score, and in 1997 was successful in receiving a grant from the UK National Lottery which started the ball rolling. I then revised the score & instrumentation so that it reflected more of my own interests (and perhaps less of Benís!) and began the long process of realisation.

As for the nature of the experience of making that and similar pieces of music, I can think of two analogies. I think of film-making, and Orson Welles rueing that fact that heíd spent the vast majority of his life running around talking to money-men, middle-men & idiots, doing any ridiculous job that came to hand, just to try to scrape together enough money to do his own workÖ well I often feel like that. Of course film-making is on a larger financial scale, but the problems are similar. These kind of projects are by their very nature relatively expensive Ė they use a lot of studio time (and increasingly it needs expensive studios to record acoustic instruments well), and a lot of musicians (and I always like to pay reasonable fees to the experienced performers who participate), plus an awful lot of my time (and Iíve got to eat, keep warm, etc). So a hell of a lot of my time is spent just trying to solve very basic practical financial questions Ė time which could be much more creatively spent, I assure you. But hey Ė itís going to be the same for any independent artist working on ambitious projects without institutional support.

My second analogy is that realising a Compilation project (and Iím just coming near to the end of Compilation IV at the time of writing) is a little like drinking a lot of beer. It starts off as being exhilarating, refreshing and satisfying, but before long becomes something youíre continuing to do because you started it and a process is now in motion. And pretty soon you realise youíre not enjoying it any more, in fact itís making you feel ill and youíd like to stop. But you keep going because it canít last much longer and youíre stubborn; you might as well finish it now youíve started. And then you feel really bad and you wish youíd never started this thing, and youíre promising to anyone whoíll listen that youíll never ever do it again. I guess a Compilation project is very similar to this process, even to the fact that eventually you forget how unpleasant the experience was and are seduced into doing it again; the main difference is that once the pain has passed, you can look back on the recording and (hopefully) feel proud of what youíve achieved Ė Iím not sure whether any element of a drunken stupor would generate that feeling.

Do see any real possibility of subsequent performances of big pieces like Composition No. 30? Would someone like Rattle ever perform a piece like this with, say LSO?

Unfortunately, I doubt it, for all the reasons given above. I just donít have those connections, and those type of performing institutions are so trapped in a cycle of funding fashionability that theyíre never going to find their way to my door. I simply donít fit any of the criteria which currently drive the programming and funding of those kind of concerts, as far as I can see. And I donít have a publisher who can make those connections for me, and push my music into those situations. Of course, I could do a lot of this myself (although it would have been easier if Iíd started 20 years ago), but I just donít feel drawn to the task. Basically, I want to make music, and if itís a choice between schmoozing, hustling and networking on the one hand, and staying at home and writing, editing, mastering or otherwise creating some more music, then Iím always going to go for the latter; itís the only thing I really want to do (even though nobodyís really caught up with most of the music Iíve done already yet!). The only time this situation might change is (perhaps) when Iím old enough to get into the "last chance to see / hear" category, and somebody decides to programme some music to celebrate (my survival to) my 70th, 80th birthday or whatever.

Before then, I suspect that any future performances of pieces like Composition No. 30 are going to either come through the route of student / college-based performances, or maybe something put together by a (relatively) well-funded jazz / improv festival (presumably outside the UK) as a special event Ė but Iíve no idea where that would come from! As far as I know, I donít seem to have any big fans running international festivalsÖ (get in touch people if youíre out thereÖ) Suffice to say Iím not holding my breath.

Do you see any sort of linear progression in your pieces -- is there any "advance" of any sort between, say, Frankenstein and, say, 13 Rectangles?

I note (with approval) the inverted commas around the word "advance"; of course thatís far too loaded a term in its implications to be comfortably used here! But yes, there have been significant changes in my work over the years, and certainly Thirteen Rectangles (in 1999) marked the beginning of what was (for me) a new compositional era. Whether any of these changes constitute an "advance" would probably have to be left to the individual listener. Iím sure there will always be people who would rather hear the free jazz of Hession / Wilkinson / Fell, or the free improvisation of numerous groups Iíve been involved with, than any of my "composed" work. Fine; I respect that, sometimes I even feel that way too. But I am interested in moving on, and trying to create music which doesnít already exist, rather than simply replicating whatís already there (however good it might be) and which other people might be able to do better. I do feel an advance in the sense that I now know more clearly what I want to achieve, and have much more of the technique, experience and insight necessary to achieve it; but doubtless what Iíll be trying to achieve in 5 yearís time will not be the same as Iím trying to achieve now, and Iíll probably feel just as far away from it. But one has to keep trying Ė as Beckett has it, "try again - fail better".

More specifically, my current feeling is that Thirteen Rectangles marks the beginning of what might be called my "mature style". With that piece I began my exploration of new ideas about a system of composition based almost exclusively on a series of very personal melodic constructs, subsequently utilising counterpoint, simultaneity, canon, retrograde and harmolodic transposition to build larger forms, rather than a conventional harmonic forward momentum (in this Iíve been influenced by many things, including an idea of harmonic gravity Ė rather than end-goal-orientation Ė derived from George Russell). The original melodies have thus far been composed in a wide range of different disciplines, ranging from absurdly complex mathematical principles to free-flowing intuitive improvisation. The use of these melodies as the raw material for a complex collaging of different timbres, styles, textures and idioms gives me the freedom I need to develop large structures in a wide range of methods and voices, whilst still retaining a unique individual voice (inevitably, since all the raw material has my ideas and musical identity stamped right through it). Whilst there were many problems brought to light during SFQís work on Thirteen Rectangles Ė which were addressed in the Version 2 revision which was recorded and released on BF Ė the possibilities this work opened up were for me very exciting and have provided the direction for most of my compositional researches of the past 5 years. Above all, these techniques have informed (and are informing) the development of the Composition No. 62 series, which will eventually include Compilation IV.

By comparison, my feeling about Frankenstein (which Iím still very fond of) is that itís a collaborative work, produced under constrained technical and financial circumstances and in a fairly freewheeling and reckless way, which as a result has much more of an "of the moment" feel to it than some of my composed work Ė in that sense it lies closer to improvisation than Rectangles, even though both pieces have the probably the same proportion of improvised material (but in Rectangles I began to get more and more interested in "site-specific" improvisation, i.e. improvisation which is clearly related to and part of the adjacent compositional structure Ė not unlike good jazz improvisation Ė but which is also "free" in every possible sense apart from where it finds itself occurring; Iíve found that some musicians can help me with exploring this idea better than others). Plus, donít forget most of the composition(s) in Frankenstein were not mine (or Charlieís), so in some ways I think of it as our "jazz" album! Thereís even a version of "Hereís That Rainy Day" on thereÖ

Indubitably some people will actually prefer the playfulness and spontaneity of the earlier record to the distilled concentration of my post-Rectangles universe; I donít have a problem with that, but I hope there are at least some people who are interested in following the researches Iím currently undertaking (rather than where I was 10 years ago). I believe Iím just beginning to make the music Iíve really always wanted to make, a music which will be not quite like any other. I just hope Compilation IV lives up to these aspirations!

Are there any musicians you'd particularly like to work with? Are any of your compositions (as opposed to your performances) collaborative?

Like everyone else, I have musical heroes, and of course I would love to work with some of them Ė those who are still with us. One day of course Iíd love to play with Braxton. Anyone who knows me knows my deep and everlasting respect for this manís achievements. But in some senses Iím not sure what we would do togetherÖ of course I could just ring him up and ask him if he would like to do a gig (and a lot of people would do just that), but to me that feels incredibly presumptuous. This manís music has been motivating me for 25 years, I canít just think of him as one of the musicianly crowd. Of course, there are other musical heroes, but Iíve been lucky enough to work with many of them Ė people like Derek, Evan, Han, BrŲtz etc. Iíve never worked with Tony Oxley, which is one aspiration still to be realised.

The other great influence on my musical thinking whoís still around is Stockhausen, although itís even harder to see how we might ever work together. Unless he picks up his intuitive music thread again. But in some ways Iíd rather leave my heroes as heroes; working with someone can sometimes disabuse you of your presumptions of their genius!

More prosaically, I really would like to get the chance to work with some of the incredibly skilled, passionately committed contemporary classical performers who are out there. There are some players Ė Andrew Sparling comes to mind for example Ė who really can inject the fire, passion and fury into notated material in the way that my music needs. Much as Iím grateful to the student community which has mainly performed my music over the last 10 years, there really is a tendency in these groups (as there is in many many professional orchestras) to just sit back and play "normally", no matter what the notation says. How many times have I heard VarŤse, Ligeti, Messiaen (and my own music) "normalised" in this way? For heavenís sake, when VarŤse writes ffffff itís because he wants it to be incredibly loud, not just loud!! Wake up people Ė get a sweat on! Iíd love to work with people in a classical context who are prepared to put themselves out for me the way improvisers do every time. The BBC Symphony Orchestra comes to mind, although the problem of working with large groups of professionals is another whole thing altogether.

As for collaborative compositions, as previously touched on I would put forward Pure Water Construction (with Martin Archer), along with Frankenstein, M.M. and Five On Genius (with Charles Wharf). Although itís nice to be asked, collaborative composition is almost a contradiction in terms for me, howeverÖ and who knows when (and with whom) the next one will be?

Hession / Wilkinson / Fell + Joe Morris, Leeds, June 1996

How has Stockhausen been influential to your own work? Have you ever had that experience you've described, of "working with someone... [and it] disabus[ing] you of your presumptions of their genius"?

Iím not sure how much Iíve been particularly influenced by Stockhausen, and in what sort of ways. I know Iíve found his relentlessly creative individuality inspiring, and the fact that it sometimes tips over into eccentricity (or further), thus making him a figure of fun amongst "sensible" musicians further adds to his appeal for me. This stubborn expression of an irrepressible unique musical personality Ė despite the mockery, alienation or neglect this might entail Ė makes everything he does of interest to me. But I would also say exactly the same thing of Braxton (who is almost certainly the most important single influence on my work), perhaps more so. And maybe of Ives too.

Iíve been sporadically inspired by Stockhausenís theoretical writings, although my musical influences mainly reflect an interest in how the personís music sounds, rather than the theories behind it. Theoretical inspiration can come from musiciansí writings, but as often as not may come from other sources.

As for the working with geniuses part of the question, I think Iíve come to the opinion that the idea of the musical "genius" is an unhelpful myth. Some musicians are without doubt more technically gifted than others, with that manifesting itself in various possible ways. But that doesnít seem to necessarily lead to interesting music. Far from it. Individual performances (or compositions) may "work" well or less well, but this can often be independent of the track record of the musicians involved. Eventually one might say that such a specific musician generally produces interesting work, or even almost always, but Iím not sure Iíd accord anyone the implied infallibility of genius. Weíre all human beings trying to actualise interesting things we havenít heard yet, thatís all. Sometimes we think weíve succeeded, sometimes not. (Youíll notice I use the term "interesting" a lot here; I think in some ways thatís the ultimate goal a piece of music can aim forÖ)

Anyway, if I had worked with any geniuses whoíd disabused me, you donít think Iíd tell you, do you? After all, Iíd probably want to work with them again sometime, and geniuses can be as thin-skinned as anyone else!

How have you been able to keep your Bruce's Fingers label a going concern for 20 years? What has the experience of being the primary documentarian of your own musical activities been like, both personally and in terms of career management?

I suppose it depends what you mean by "a going concern"; by many of the criteria you might use, BF isnít an active record label in the traditional sense. Essentially itís just a channel for me to publish recordings that I canít find anyone else to publish, as and when I can find the time and money to do so. As a result, records tend to come out in batches, with increasingly longer gaps in between these days. Distribution is patchy, sales sporadic.

Anyway, how do I keep it going? Firstly, by investing a certain amount of whatever money I do make from commercial music in keeping the label afloat. The thing runs at a loss Ė although less dramatically so now than in the earlier years Ė because the one and only rule I set for myself was that I would never let a commercial consideration dictate anything about the music that was released on BF. I figure I could easily cover my costs (maybe even make a tiny bit) by putting out records that people wanted to buy Ė but I donít, I put out the records that I want to put out. If some people want to buy them, thatís a bonusÖ If you canít base this kind of thing on aesthetic rather than commercial criteria, then whatís the point? Obviously, my tastes have changed over the years, but ultimately thatís still the criterion I use.

Secondly, by being together about the whole thing. Keeping good accounting, being business-like with distributors and customers, trying to be professional about it rather than the flaky "creative artiste". Sometimes people are surprised that itís just me doing all this, but it is. However, I havenít really got time to pursue all the possibilities properly, so it will always be a rather awkward half-way house. But if I say Iím going to do something, I do it; I also expect the same from the people who work with meÖ I donít always get it!

The experience of being the primary documentarian (great phrase!) has been very positive for me. Although initially I was forced into it by not being able to interest anyone else in what I was doing, looking back I wouldnít have swapped the artistic control itís given me for anything. (Except perhaps a lot of money, but thankfully Iíve never had to face that temptation!) On several occasions that I have had involvement with other labels, itís involved confusions, delays, disappointments. Things can be badly mastered, badly edited, sleeve notes misspelled or misprinted, releases badly delayed, etc. Having said which, my thanks go out to the handful of labels over the years whoíve actually done what they said theyíd do (and sometimes very well). But a lot donít. I think the most frustrating thing in the world must be to produce a piece of work which you feel is important, and then stand by while somebody else screws it up (or leaves it on a shelf for a couple of years) Ė or worse.

"Career management" is a funny phrase. I know what you mean (I think), but it sits funnily with my experiences in creative music. I would say the "direction of my activities" (rather than "career") has lurched about in a seemingly eccentric pattern, driven only by a mix of what I wanted to do and what people asked me to do at any given time. Certainly in the projects I initiate I feel there is some artistic progress shown; with some of the others Iím not so sure. But very few of the things I do make sense in terms of "career management". If I wanted to make a "successful career" out of creative music I would need to do things differently (and I have seen people do itÖ). Personally, I just work on whatever I want to work on at any given time, to the best of my ability Ė without any concern about whether it enhances my "career" Ė and hope that someone else out there will be interested.

Having said all of which, of course running your own label means that you have some control over how your records are packaged and marketed, and Iíve certainly no objection to corralling a few good critical quotes if it will mean someone may listen to my music who might otherwise not bother. But Iím desperately trying to build an audience, rather than a career.

What are you working on now?

Well, Compilation IV has been occupying most of my time for the past year or so Ė maybe longer. It includes notated passages of a sustained density and complexity which Iíve not achieved before, and it has taken a long time to get these written down and prepared for the players. We had a batch of recording sessions a couple of weeks ago involving 58 players, working through improv, conduction, graphics, free and not-free jazz, orchestral music, big band stuff and electronics. I anticipate spending most of the next few months editing, mixing and overdubbing this material, and with a little bit of luck perhaps the album will be ready by the end of the year [2003]. But donít hold your breath

Other projects which have tied me up over the past couple of years Ė most of which are recently finished and in the pipeline for release Ė include: ISTís Lodi album; SFQ1ís Three Quintets; the Mancini Project album (with Pat Thomas, Steve Noble & Han Bennink); SFQ2ís Liverpool Quartet; the ZFP Quartetís Music For Strings, Percussion and Electronics; a new Badland album; plus a lot of new compositions (with plenty of notes!), at least some of which have been documented and should appear in the near future. Iíll make sure youíre kept informed!

Charles Wharf / Simon H. Fell, London, April 1996

How might you describe the "real" (i.e., existent) audience for your work? The "ideal" audience?

Very small, apparently (the "real" one that is; obviously the "ideal" audience would be hugeÖ) But numbers aside, my ideal audience is one which values creativity, originality, unpredictability, experimentation rather than "reliability" or "consistency". It would be an audience without genre prejudices, and without stylistic no-go areas, but with an insistence on depth and richness of material. It would be an audience that is prepared to sit down and listen to an album as a work to be listened to closely, perhaps repeatedly, before it can be critically assessed Ė and be prepared to grow into an appreciation of something which initially seems unsatisfying (or perhaps just unfamiliar). An audience who are interested in asking ďwhat would happen ifÖ?Ē rather than ďcan I have some more of that stuff I already like?Ē. Of course, my perfect audience would be thousands of people who share my tastes and ideas. But that really is too frightening to think aboutÖ


For more information about Simon Fell and his available recordings, see: http://www.brucesfingers.co.uk/.

All photos courtesy Jo Fell.

Posted by joe on March 4, 2005 7:53 AM
Comments

[you donít think Iíd tell you, do you?] - wonderful stuff. Thanks, Mr. Fell. Thanks, Mr. Horn.

Posted by: H. Brandner at March 4, 2005 1:14 PM

Very good work. Quality writing about quality music. Chapeau! (And welcome to France, Simon!)

Posted by: Dan Warburton at March 5, 2005 9:04 AM

before this gets buried, I'd like to also chime in and say this was a really interesting read, nicely done on all ends. in a just world, Simon would receive/have received as much critical respect and financial support as his hero Braxton and John Zorn. it's a shame and a loss to the world that he hasn't, we may never know what he could have created if given those opportunities. it was a pleasure to work with him on the VHF CD, the first release on Erstwhile, and it's too bad that our interests diverged after that.

Posted by: jon abbey at March 5, 2005 2:55 PM

Hello!

Nice interview indeed (and hello to Nathaniel Catchpole- write me a mail!!!)

'' it was a pleasure to work with him on the VHF CD, the first release on Erstwhile, and it's too bad that our interests diverged after that''

well maybe of some interest to you- i am proud to announce that L'Innomable will in this year release VHF album ''Statics'' that will continue a fine musical story of this trio ...

Posted by: lukaz at March 7, 2005 11:21 AM

"well maybe of some interest to you- i am proud to announce that L'Innomable will in this year release VHF album ''Statics'' that will continue a fine musical story of this trio "

great to hear!

Posted by: jon abbey at March 8, 2005 5:06 PM

Nat/Walto/Joe:

Nicely done, gents!
An interview where the questions & responses are sufficiently potent to merit careful re-reads.
The scene Fell describes,& the concomitant scene-making/grant-chasing, confirms (like we needed that)conditions are pretty much status quo wherever you work.
Fell's work ethic, focus & not taking shit from the arts establishment is a kick in the head.
Again, nicely done.

Posted by: Jesse at March 8, 2005 5:25 PM

"Part of the importance of this particular strand of my work has been the extent to which itís enabled me to understand the role of the "active listener" in appreciating improvised and some other experimental musics, and reinforcing my realisation that the relationships between elements of music (and by extension what people normally consider as the "understanding" of music) is primarily dictated by a mixture of being IMMERSED IN A CULTURAL VOCABULARY, and the basic laws of physics (not the same thing as Western tempered tonality!), rather than some ABSOLUTE musical truth. Listeners to improvised music (and xenochrony) are well versed in the art of appreciating obscure, complex and unpredictable relationships between musical elements, and in that sense provide a paradigm for how those truly interested in music should listen; advanced, subtle and complex musics of this kind are analogous to textural richness and ambiguity of post-Joycean literary modernity. In this context many "music-lovers" unfortunately seem determined to restrict the richness of the musical texture to that of accessible childrenís literature."
(emphases mine)

Mr. Milazzo take note--can you sign THIS gentleman up?!

Posted by: H. Brandner at March 9, 2005 8:57 PM


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