SIMON SAYS... INTERVIEW WITH SIMON H. FELL
First published in JazzLive
questions by Pepsch Muska
How did you get involved in music (first musical experiences, why did you choose the bass, etc....)?
Beginnings: like many people of my generation and earlier, I had piano lessons at an early age as a matter or course. I think this was part of my parents' middle-class aspirations; on reflection there's certainly no history of musical performance, ability, or appreciation in either of my parents' families. As is often the case, these early lessons led to nothing in particular, and fizzled out after two or three years. About the age of 12 or 13 (again perfectly typically) I became interested in pop (and rock) music; I suppose the only significant factor was that my (maternal) grandfather was very interested in domestic (reel-to-reel) tape recording. Under his tutelage I made several failed attempts to thread tape, record and edit; several of these failures seemed to me to be more interesting than the music I was trying to record anyway (I'd always liked the weird bits) so I eventually got my own tape machine(s) and starting making tape pieces.
As far as playing the double bass is concerned, I became a bass player through a situation which recurs time and time again in schools world-wide (probably). Our school orchestra needed a double bass; the school had an instrument, but no-one was playing it. I was 14 or 15 and was studying music, but did not play an instrument; so it was decided that I should play the double bass, and that was that. I really didn't know much about it before I started lessons; all the music I was listening to at that time used bass guitar, although I had heard Harry Miller on King Crimson's Islands. (I know King Crimson are deeply unfashionable, but the truth remains that for a lot of teenagers in the 70s they opened a door to free jazz and improvised music; an area which most of us didn't even know existed.) Now, having played the double bass for nearly 25 years, I can't imagine life without it. Even if I couldn't play any more, I'd want to have a few basses around the house; I just love the way they're so big and get in the way all the time.
What kind of music did you play at the beginning of your musical career?
I was very fortunate in having a small group of friends at school who were very interested in Beefheart, Zappa, Faust, Can, Neu, Kraftwerk etc. So we mainly tried to make music like these people's, often using lots of electronics and tape manipulations along with electric guitars and drums. (I made tape and electronic sounds before starting to play the bass with these groups.) Later on we also picked up influences from contemporary classical composers (especially Stockhausen) and the emerging UK punk rock scene. In 1976 (when I was 17 and had developed some ideas about the double bass) myself and two other members of this clique started playing improvised music with Paul Buckton in Leeds; on my third improvised music gig I played in a trio with Roger Turner and John Russell, so perhaps I haven't come very far! (Although in those days I really didn't know what I was doing......) I only started playing jazz and 'straight' classical music later; my interest was in 'experimental' music from the start it's just that my definition of 'experimental' has mutated over the years.
Do or did you have any idols (famous bass players, musicians....)?
Yes and no. I think it's a mistake to set up any artist for unreserved adulation, as a truly creative approach will always result in work of variable quality and interest, and this needs to be acknowledged and encouraged. I'm certainly not that interested in bass players as such. I consider myself as a musician who happens to play the double bass, rather than A Bass Player. I really can't understand the mentality of people who are obsessed with the minutiae of instruments and technique, and who listen to music because it features the bass, or to check out what the bass player's doing. I'm very concerned to get the best sound out of my instrument, particularly when amplified, and I share this obsession with most double bassists. However, if I find myself listening to The Bass Player in any situation, then I think the music's probably failed. I'm interested in music; I'm not interested in bass playing unless it's as part of good creative music.
More generally though, there are musicians whose example has inspired me tremendously, particularly in my formative years. The list will be familiar to those who have read some of my CD booklet notes or other interviews, but here goes. Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Charles Ives, Anthony Braxton and John Cage would have to be among the key figures. The sheer visceral thrill of first hearing the classic Coltrane Quartet was one of my first inspirational moments, although over the years Coltrane has had very little influence over the actual music I make. I still get high on some of his solos (e.g. Transition from the album of the same name), but in retrospect I can see that that quartet contains many hints of what I dislike about much jazz too: McCoy Tyner's solos have always seemed tedious to me, and there's far too many long bass solos (sorry Jimmy)! I guess Mingus is my man from the 'classic jazz' catalogue because he almost uniquely combines a tremendous ability to swing a band really hard from the bass chair (and an understanding of the looseness and flexibility which is essential to successful swinging), with an almost absurdly extended ambition as a composer. (In some ways I feel I'm writing about how my music might be one day...) In Mingus' best music he encourages these two seemingly irreconcilable tendencies to cohabit one extremely shaky yet irrepressibly creative and proud edifice. Listening to the 1964 (quintet) Town Hall Concert album changed the way I looked at the world for ever. Charles Ives' bravura recklessness in composition has also inspired me; in a way it's the equivalent of Mingus' wild throwing together of bluesy sloppiness and intricate harmonic and rhythmic constructs. In both cases the outcome is always uncertain, but imbued with a spirit of danger and excitement. Of course not all Ives' compositions fit this bill (neither do all Mingus' recordings), but - even though it might be an obvious choice - listening to the second movement of Ives' Fourth Symphony at full volume still makes me hysterical with delight. This is another piece of music that changed my teenage self for ever.
On a more philosophical level, John Cage's explicit authorisation of the use of chance (and more importantly his undermining of 'The Composer' as some kind of special, gifted, musical being) is perhaps more than anything responsible for an untutored, 'ordinary' enthusiast like me ever considering composition. For me, Cage's ideas breached the impenetrable walls of the conservatoires, universities and special schools where the musically gifted are indoctrinated into the 'proper' ideas about composition (and many other things); whilst 'classical music' is still too much the preserve of the 'classical musician', Cage's unique resignation of musical responsibility and obligation makes it impossible to think about composition as anyone's 'special preserve' ever again.
Ultimately, however, if any one musician has consistently inspired me for the past 20 years it's Anthony Braxton. He incorporates some of the qualities of the other people in this list, but with one key addition. His melodic writing is perhaps the most wonderful musical sound it's possible to imagine hearing. The first Braxton record I heard was New York, Fall 1974 and after the first 8 bars of the first head I was well and truly hooked for the rest of my life. His work with the 'standard' jazz quartet instrumentation might well be the most sublime body of work of any 20th century musician; he has produced much great work in a multitude of formats (of course), but if I ever were to ask myself why I would still be interested in playing jazz in the 21st century the answer would be 'Braxton'. Right, I'll stop gushing now..... Oh, and I've forgotten Webern!
You play (and write) different kinds of music (jazz, improvised music, 'classical' music...) any difficulties with that? What kind of music do you prefer? Is there any formation you prefer trio, orchestra......?
There are significant difficulties with working within different fields, I'm afraid. Mainly they result from the fact the whole world of music-making (listeners, critics, marketing, other musicians, etc) is geared to people knowing what you do (and what to expect). It is possible to develop a reputation for eclecticism, but this often means that nobody asks you to do anything (or buys your records) because now they know you're unpredictable! As Lol Coxhill explained to me: if he'd stuck to doing just one thing he'd would have had a much more 'successful' career. In my case, I love playing improvised music and couldn't imagine life without it, but trying to realise intellectual concepts about structure and form is also something I could never abandon. My whole career has been a question of juggling these two often contradictory elements. I'm sure if I'd restricted myself to just playing improvised music, I would have a lot more work than I have now (and probably be a better player). But I can't get this composition thing out of my system. Perhaps this is why I've always been so keen on recorded improvised music; the selection of pieces, ordering (and perhaps editing) into a cohesive, satisfying structure for an album, (rather than just a collection of pieces squeezed onto a CD) has always been one of my compelling interests.
Another of the difficulties stemming from this is that when I write music, I often write it for people who can read complex notation like the best classical musicians, swing like the finest jazzers and improvise brilliantly, since this is the music I can hear in my head. For some reason the musicians always have problems with this!! But this is where I would like to be musically; gradually I'm pushing my music nearer to this point. I'll be 40 in January, and psychologically I'm regarding that as the end of the 'exploratory' phase of my career. From next year I intend to really start focussing on the music I need to make to draw these strings together, with perhaps fewer red herrings eating up valuable time.
As far as types of groupings are concerned, I do feel that the trio is possibly the perfect medium for Improvised Music. Of course it depends who's in the trio, and I'm not saying all the trios I've played in have been equally successful, but a trio gives enough space for genuine communication and clarity of movement. And, unlike a duo, it's possible for someone to stop playing and still have group activity, so it's easier to vary texture without forcing someone into a solo situation.
As for composed music, I really look forward to the day when I can work with a motivated chamber orchestra of 10-15 players, possibly including some improvisers, and realise some of my ideas about composition for medium-to-large ensembles. Everything I've done in this area so far has been at least partially strangled by compromise and lack of commitment from the performers; still, perhaps it will happen one day.
But the grouping I really want to get to grips with over the next few years is the 'classic' jazz quartet arrangement: wind instrument, piano, bass & drums. You'll have gathered from previous answers that the Coltrane Quartet, Braxton's Quartets and several others have been tremendously important to me. For years I've been tiptoeing around this format, doing almost anything but a 'quartet', but I think the time is right for me to try and address some of my compositional ideas to this most dear of formats. It's like a classical composer writing a string quartet, or a poet writing a sonnet; it's not something to be taken lightly, and you don't approach it until you feel you have something to contribute to the genre. Of course, I don't want to recreate what already exists, so it will be far from a 'jazz quartet', but it will certainly swing when needs be! Naturally, finding the right musicians could be difficult, but I do have a few ideas. Goodness knows when you'll start to see any results, but this is where my energy will be going for a while.....
What kind of compositional techniques do you use (graphic notation...)?
I think my fondness for serial composition is well known. Mostly this manifests itself in conventional Western music notation; it's the way I ask the musicians to play this notation which provides the unpredictable element, along with my choice of musicians and their personal tendencies. With respect to this point its worth remembering that Western European music notation has developed from a simple aide-memoire for spontaneous elaboration and flexible realisation into the all-pervasive restraining straightjacket we are familiar with. When I use notation with improvising musicians, I try and encourage them to return to this original 'aide-memoire' state; I often ask them to play the notation "as if it's a jazz standard that you already know". This is sometimes difficult when the notation is extremely complex, but only as long as the player tries to play it 'right'; as soon as someone grasps that there are several 'rights' (and I'll let them know if they spill over into the 'wrongs') the process becomes relatively straightforward. At some stage one starts to see the return of energy and personality into the musician's playing; and it can be possible to reinject spontaneity and commitment into apparently sterile notated materials. In Compilation III I worked extensively with students, amateurs and other inexperienced performers, using this type of approach to notation to overcome their fear of not being able to play the music correctly; once they realised that I was quite happy for them to play it as accurately as they could manage (but not necessarily any more than that), a positive deluge of spirited commitment was unleashed.
Recently I have been expanding my options by experimenting with serialising (and otherwise ordering) other types of material. A lot of this has been the result of wanting to compose for IST, (the string trio with Rhodri Davies & Mark Wastell), even though Mark doesn't read music. So I've been working with elements of texture, timbre, intensity etc rather than pitch or rhythm. A good example of this is Composition No. 42 (Cubism) from the recently released IST CD. Also, I've had chance to explore different structuring methods for large ensembles thanks to working with London Skyscraper. This has included different cueing methods and some (very un-Butch Morris-like) conduction. The important element of all this work is that I choose musicians who can bring something to the performance, so whatever method of notation is chosen it must allow the musician to make that contribution. One of my recent compositions for London Skyscraper was Composition No. 43 (Papers), which made extensive use of permanently displayed cue cards to signal changes of activity. Whilst this of course is nothing new, the important point about the piece is that the musicians responded to the cues as and when they saw them, rather than when the card was first displayed. I was quite happy for musicians to miss a cue and catch up, or even to miss several sections altogether, if they felt that the music they were making merited more attention than my suggestions. This is a difficult step for a 'composer', to sometimes say "actually, what you're doing now is more interesting or creative than what I've asked you to do, so please carry on", but it's a step which composers working with improvisers have to be prepared to take as a matter of course.
You run your own label why? (economical or artistic reasons......)
I suppose the initial impetus for starting Bruce's Fingers would have to be the foolhardy ignorance of youth. Like many young musicians starting out on their careers, in 1983 I sincerely believed that all I had to do was make the music I could hear in my head, and the musical world would fall over itself offering me money, recording contracts, fame, etc. Or at least I thought there would be some kind of career progression where things would get easier and projects become successively more significant. Of course I was completely wrong, but the realisation of that comes later. So, since the first two or three labels I sent tapes to didn't reply, I simply thought I should put this stuff out myself. I had also realised early on that making one's way in the 'business' had as much (or more) to do with your ability to 'hang out' and be part of a 'scene' as it did to do your music. Since I've never been very good at any of music's social skills I decided I would start my own 'scene'. I was short-sighted enough to think that once a tape was made or an LP pressed, the world would fall over itself trying to buy it; I had no ideas about distribution, advertising or anything. Of course I'm now a grizzled pessimist (but still socially challenged).
Having had quite a few years to get used to being independent, I now take for granted an artistic control and freedom which can prove very hard to resign. Even when I'm preparing work for other labels, being so aware of what can go wrong means I like to retain as much control as possible over the editing, mastering & packaging of the music. I'm not saying this is a good thing; I think having everything as your responsibility can result in a sort of obsessiveness which can make it difficult to move on. On a more positive note, it's incredibly exciting to be able to create work and publish it immediately, rather than have tapes tied up with record labels for months or even years, outside your control and beyond your reach, while the music's life-force ebbs away.
Of course, there's one main disadvantage, and it's financial; Bruce's Fingers costs me significant amounts of money to keep afloat. I'm afraid the majority of the recordings the label issues don't even come close to covering their costs. Usually they're cross-subsidised by earnings from gigs, compositional royalties etc. But I guess that's covered by the next question!
Can you tell me a bit about the economic situation of musicians in Britain? What about yourself can you make a living from playing and composing?
It depends on what you consider a living! The answer's probably 'almost'. Most of my colleagues either have to have day jobs, or live very restricted lifestyles. Jo and I live fairly cheaply (we've no children and a small mortgage) but I couldn't survive without regular subsidy from Jo's (tiny) income. After struggling very hard to make ends meet for the first 10-15 years or so of my 'career' things seem to have become a little easier recently. Nowadays about two-thirds of my income comes from direct music-making (gigs, record sales, royalties, commissions etc) but I do top that up with about 10-15 hours per week double bass teaching, for about half the year. This is just about enough to enable us to tick over, but I don't suppose we'll ever be able to move to a bigger house or make any other significant improvement in our lifestyle! And of course there many be no gigs next year and everything could collapse.....
It's hard to say whether any of this economic deprivation for creative musicians is particularly specific to Britain (and many players here find it even more difficult than I), but it's certainly well-known that Improvised Music (and even Jazz) are really not taken seriously by the British establishment as being anything to do with cultural research & development, despite the pivotal role British musicians have played in the development of European Improvised Music. With the sole exception of the LMC Festival there are literally no well-paid, well-promoted, media-friendly performance opportunities routinely open for British improvisers; state funding via the Arts Council is both laughably feeble and completely lacking in any understanding of the way the music operates or a vision for its future. This situation has certainly deteriorated significantly in the 20-odd years I've been playing Improvised Music; probably it will continue to do so. I suppose my greatest hope for some chance to finally realise all these ideas still trapped inside my head is now to win the our National Lottery (only 44,000,000 to 1 odds)! Inevitably one's will to continue is sometimes sapped, but I'm not going to be stopped for a while yet, if I can help it.....
© Simon H. Fell/Pepsch Muska 1998
reprinted courtesy of JazzLive © JazzLive 1998
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