Simon H. Fell “Collage is one of my weapons”

He crosses three worlds of music, “classical” contemporary, jazz and free improvisation, and this renowned composer and double bass player has a name for the resulting hybrid: “fourth stream”.

When art is the first victim of the international economic crisis and the neo-liberal ideology that governs the planet, Simon H. Fell keeps a personal struggle: to make music for orchestra with classical musicians, improvisers and jazzmen. He tries the impossible and show us that there aren’t enough great ideas to achieve when the will to do it is stronger than any surrounding mediocrity… an interview by Rui Eduardo Paes

kaleido.jpgRui Eduardo Paes - | You presented “Kaleidozyklen - Composition nº 57” as “classical music realised with the sensibility, techniques and flexibility associated with experimental jazz and improvisation”…

Simon H. Fell | Well, an attempt to realise it. I think that’s what I said…

Rui Eduardo Paes | Your compositional work, specially for large groups and orchestras, trie to achieve that in a general way, but “Kaleidozyklen” might be the most “classical”. What is the purpose of your “messy heterophony”, the name you give to your associations between written music, verbal notation and improvisation, and between extreme complexity and the opposite?

Simon H. Fell | As far as I remember, the term “messy heterophony” is one I appropriated from Martin Archer, although he may well have sourced it from elsewhere. It’s just a convenient phrase which seems to encapsulate the exhilarating combination of complexity and looseness which the best modern jazz composition seems to excel at, and which is something that “jazz” still does so much better than most “classical” music.

Rui Eduardo Paes | Can I conclude this is another approach of the “encounters” between classical music and jazz proposed by the “third stream”?

Simon H. Fell | I’ve described a lot of my compositional work as “fourth stream”, because I’m not aiming to duplicate the achievements of those people working in the “third stream” idiom of the 50’s & 60’s; I want to expand the remit of this concept to include the developments realised in free improvisation since this time, and consequently reflect at least three different realms: jazz, classical and free, although the use of all these labels and terminologies of convenience is something which I greatly deplore.

This constant obsession with trying to pigeon-hole music according to which tradition you think it’s coming from - rather than simply listening to it in its own right - is a problem which plagues music and its appreciation. Certainly it does in the UK, where no-one’s interested in promoting, funding or supporting your music unless they can categorise it conveniently… and yes, I’m exaggerating, but it’s a problem!

Rui Eduardo Paes | In “Kaleidozyklen” you return again to what seems to be a great passion of you: serialism. Can you tell me the influence it had on you?

Simon H. Fell | I’m very interested in structures, patterns, architecture, coded information, etc. I think as a composer you pretty much have to be fascinated by some of these things, since if composition’s about anything it’s about clarifying some implications of the music and its structure, and putting others to the side. If you have experience of improvised music, you can no longer believe, as some people seem to, that music can only be brought into being by “the composer”; rather the composer is simply the person who suggests which of the billions of possibilities inherent in the musical universe we’re going to examine for the next few minutes.

Anyway, going back to the mid-seventies, the initial attraction of serialism was twofold; firstly it seemed to prioritise the manipulation of numbers and codes, which I’ve always enjoyed, over the intangible preciousness of traditionalist “music lovers”; in my younger days their love of beauty, tone, Western intonation was something I very much wanted to sweep aside. In some ways serialism allowed me to (a) thumb my nose at traditional concepts of beauty, (b) begin composing straight away without waiting to learn a lot of old-fashioned stuff which I didn’t see as relevant to what I wanted to do, and (c) remove my (at that stage undeveloped) personal taste from the equation - for this reason I was also very interested in Cage and aleatoricism. But the second, and probably most important, element of this is that I just liked the way serial music sounded, and still do. I don’t find it “difficult”, “complex” or “obscure”, I really enjoy it. Of course I wanted to experiment with something that could make music sound like that.

Of course, in the intervening 25 years I’ve learnt a lot about the music I want to make, and (I hope) how to make it. Whilst I still use serial methods regularly, I’m not a serialist; I tend to manipulate the outcome of my serial experiments (along with my aleatoric experiments, and my historical collage experiments, etc.) so that they come out sounding how I want my music to sound. In this sense, and this sense only, I suppose I’m a postmodernist; I’ll use any compositional technique which seems to have the potential to realise the music I want to create, but always filtering them through my personal idiosyncracies!

Rui Eduardo Paes | Why the use in “Kaleidozyklen” of quotations by Strauss, Stravinsky, Ives, Varèse, Mahler, Messiaen and Brahms and, in the jazz side, the use of some orchestral processes of Charles Mingus, Sun Ra and Gil Evans? Is important for you a close connection with the recent history of music?

Simon H. Fell | Collage has always been one of the main weapons in my compositional armoury; I’m particularly interested in the effect generated when something familiar, or almost familiar, appears in an unfamiliar setting, and the complexity of resonances this can create. To a certain extent the quotations you allude to are really autobiographical acknowledgements of key compositional insights from my career, but then subjected to processes which disrupt, de-personalise and destabilise the direct implications of these references. Most of the composers quoted were themselves quoters (indeed most composers are) - whether it’s Strauss constantly quoting himself, Ives and his love of the vernacular, or Mahler being quoted by Berio, etc. - and I was interested in what would happen (how it would sound) if they were all quoted together, in a structure determined by non-musical means. Not sure what Brahms is doing in there, but it doesn’t really matter; these technical minutiae become irrelevant on the music becoming absorbed into this new piece. I’m also very interested in the process involved in knowing something only as a quotation in another work, and there for part of that work and that context; and then much later hearing the original source, and hearing it as a (predictive) quotation. This has happened to me many times!

As for Mingus, Sun Ra, etc., “Kaleidozyklen” is actually a rare piece in my output in that I don’t think there are any real jazz elements in the mix, apart from perhaps a few seconds in “Movement III”; of course the way of thinking about writing music that comes from a knowledge of the modern jazz tradition is right in there, but there aren’t really any direct musical expressions of “jazz playing”; in some ways this is a “third stream” work, although the (con)fusion is between “classical” and free improvisation. But this was actually as a result of practical factors outside my control; if I’d been able to use the musicians I’d wanted for the performance, there would have been a lot more direct reference to contemporary jazz performance techniques.

compilation.jpgRui Eduardo Paes | In your “Compilation” works, there’s no “fusion”: jazz, free improvisation (or so it seems, but it may be structured), classical music and even rock (like in the Part 5 of “Compilation III - For Improvisers, Big Band and Chamber Ensemble”) coexist without melting, differently from “Kaleidozyklen”. It’s also a much freer and less conceptual work, depending the results, precisely, from the clashes between all the idiomatic and non-idiomatic elements. “Kaleidozyklen” is from 2000 and “Compilation III” is from 1998, but I think this has much more to do with your other work than the very classical, very systematic “Kaleidozyklen”. Is the “real” Simon H. Fell here, or is your present compositional/orchestral concerns better represented by “Kaleidozyklen”?

compilationtwo.jpgSimon H. Fell | Essentially, my interests are much better represented by “Compilation III” than “Kaleidozyklen”, even though I feel my technique has developed considerably, and “Compilation III” feels very old to me - don’t forget the piece itself was written in 1994. I would do things differently now, and the result would be better, but “Compilation III” is nearer to my own unique area of exploration. “Kaleidozyklen” was in effect me seeing what I could do with only an ensemble of classical students and myself; I would have dearly longed to have had other improvisers and jazz players with me, but it was not possible. So it was an experiment to see what I could achieve in as near to a mainstream “classical” context as I’ve ever got; I’m very pleased by the outcome, but it’s not as idiosyncratically unique as “Compilation III”, although I’m glad it still doesn’t sound quite like anything else…

Rui Eduardo Paes | I suppose this simultaneous dedication to the classical, the jazz and the improvised music fields is not very peaceful for you. There’s always someone that doesn’t like the “other” things you do. Do you feel dislocated in each of the “scenes” you’re in, the improvised scene, the jazz scene, the classical scene? They consider you one of them or there’s always some suspicion? If so, does that affect you in some way?

compilationdrei.jpgSimon H. Fell | Yes, absolutely. It is far easier to just fit in to an existing scene and try and exploit (or explore) the potential of it, than trying to make music that doesn’t fit particularly into any of the scenes. Which I can only assume is why so many musicians seem happy to continue their particular tradition, even when it’s an “avant-garde” tradition! And the whole structure of music making in all societies seems to be based primarily around the social contacts and friendships built up as part of being on “the scene”; if you’re outside that most of the people providing funding, work opportunities, and other support assume that you’ll be looked after by someone else’s “scene”. The effects of these questions tend to be simple and very practical; it’s very hard to get funding for the work I do (always a problem in Britain anyway), and it’s very hard to get work in terms of performances and commissions. Promoters, funders, record labels all tend to be frighteningly conservative, even when they think they’re “experimental”, although there are a few notable exceptions…

Rui Eduardo Paes | I noticed that, when you play with other musicians, collectively or in someone’s groups, you do it more often in free jazz contexts - something very different from what we find in your own projects, where jazz has not necessarily a free identity, going deeper in its roots, and where improvisation is generally non-idiomatic. So, how do you relate to free jazz, peacefully or with some conflict?

Simon H. Fell | Well, this kind of work reflects the kind of situations that I’m asked to participate in. There seems to be an inertia in people’s perception of your musical development, although this is perfectly understandable, and a lot of the time people are thinking about the way you played 15 or 20 years ago when they ask you to do a project. And again, this sometimes comes down to the conservatism of promoters, who will often only offer you a gig if you’re going to play the music that you were playing many years ago, rather than the music you play now, and which is far too awkward for the audience.

After my initial terrific passion when I first discovered the music, my relationship with free jazz is now more like my relationship with other repertoire musics (classical, modern jazz, etc.), in that it’s a music I love, and it’s always a pleasure to be asked to play it, but a lot of it seems to have forgotten to move forward. Too much of the music that I hear in all these genres doesn’t tell me anything new, and - whilst I’ll always enjoy a good performance of a classic piece of free jazz - to get onto my life-changing music list these days you have to show me or tell me something new about the possibilities of creating sound, creating relationships between instruments, creating relationships between sound and non-sound, etc. Every time I hear a piece of music I ideally want to hear something that moves forward my understanding of what’s possible with sound - of course this is too high a demand, and there is much enjoyable music which confirms what you already know, and indeed reminds you why you love music. For me most free jazz is now in the latter category, but of course I could hear a piece tomorrow which surprises me completely.

istproject.jpgRui Eduardo Paes | You’re one of the few players of your generation to play both in more conventional contexts of free improvisation and in the radical improvisation domains, like with the IST project. Generally, musicians of those sides don’t mix, which means that even in the improvisation scene you’re a crossover. I suppose you don’t think that the “old” and the “new” improvisation are so afar from each other than some say it is…

Simon H. Fell | No. I think there’s a lot of posturing going on within the improvised music community, as with any other community. Essentially what’s important is that people play with conviction, with a focus on the implications of what they’re doing, and with a belief that there is actually something worthwhile that can be created through playing; within this context the music will be interesting, challenging and worthwhile, regardless of its idiom. The problems come when players become lazy, desensitised or intransigent, playing in a certain way because that’s the way they play, or because it’s easiest for them, or because the audience like it, or because it’s easy to get gigs, or whatever. That’s when the magic evaporates from the music. I don’t consider the “new” improvisation either “new” or “radical” per se; as with any other music, it only becomes so by what it is, not by the posture it adopts.

Rui Eduardo Paes | What attracts you to the “new improvisation” practices? The non-linear, fragmentary playing, avoiding the use of phrases and even conventional notes, the permanent flirt with silence, with the use of big spaces, the preference for textures and not structure?

Simon H. Fell | Yes, all of these things attract me, but in any music. But I don’t regard any of these as “new”; they’ve all been part of improvised music as long as it’s existed, and some of them are also found in other traditions dating back through the whole of the 20th century, not to mention traditions of non-western music. And the minute that musicians start formalising these elements into an official “language”, “idiom” or “style” (as some players have), and then start playing that way because that is their language (or someone else’s language that they’ve appropriated), the music loses its interest for me. It becomes just another musical club you can be part of.

I’m interested in players as individuals, and the contribution they make to a specific musical situation; some of the players I admire and like to work with come from the “new” improv stable, some from the “old” improv stable. But I’m sure none of them actually would want to have such a label, and I think those who might do themselves no favours by it.

Rui Eduardo Paes | The concert of the new Zíngaro-Fell Project, with you, Carlos Zíngaro, Marcio Mattos and Mark Sanders, at the Guimarães Jazz Festival was one of the most interesting moments of the 2002 edition of that event. What is your impression about that first public presentation of this new group? It’s a project for the future?

Simon H. Fell | As you know, that was the first time we’d played together as a quartet, and I’ve not heard the recording of the concert, so my impressions are very unreliable and extremely subjective - it’s a very different experience being part of a performance than listening to it objectively. But I think the concert went well, and the feedback I’ve had from people who heard the concert has been good. The project was not really the idea of any of the musicians, in the sense that the festival commissioned the collaboration between Carlos and I, and then we chose musicians we would like to work with. So of course this was always bound to be a project with a unique musical identity…

I’m certainly hoping it’s a project for the future, as I’d love to do it again; as there’s meant to be a CD release of the concert recording, that will give us a good reason to continue the group! The problems are going to be the traditional ones in this music; not enough hours in the day to develop all the projects that need developing, too many musicians and groups chasing too few performance opportunities, promoters being overwhelmed by musicians having too many projects which they wish to develop, etc., etc. Still, Carlos seemed quite keen to perform again, and he has good connections on the international circuit, so perhaps something more will happen. But regardless of that, it was one of those experiences which you can only have with improvised music; turn up, meet up and play. And it’s perfect!

Rui Eduardo Paes | Tell me about other personal projects you’re involved in now. The continuation of the “Compilation” series? A more serious commitment to classical music? Something else?

Simon H. Fell | My main commitments at the moment are the SFQ group, which is now my main vehicle for small group composition, and “Compilation IV”. I’ve been very excited by some of the things SFQ has achieved (and very depressed by others!), but it is a difficult project to organise. The musicians are very busy, the music is difficult and needs a lot of rehearsal, and I’ve tried to keep the whole thing “professional”, which has led to funding problems. Also, I’ve been very disappointed by the reluctance of promoters and labels to commit to the group’s music…

“Compilation IV” is currently gestating. I’ve written a good deal of the music, and some of it has even been adapted into pieces for SFQ & SFD. I’m excited by several new ideas in this project, and I know if I ever can get it recorded it will update everyone on my thinking about what might be possible in the “fourth stream”. But on the negative side, I’ve no idea whatsoever how the realisation of the project will be funded; the funding possibilities in the UK for projects like this have declined dramatically even since the difficult days of “Compilation III”, so practical problems may prevent this work from being finished for many years.

compilationvier.jpgOne of the problems I have is that the music I want to do, whether it’s recorded (“Compilation”) or live (SFQ), is expensive to realise and requires a lot of preparation, rehearsal and regular performances to realise its best possible outcomes. So why do it? I can’t help it, it’s an expensive format, like film or opera, but it’s what drives me. I’m basically working from within a scene (improvised music) which has no real provision for any of these ideas about extended, complex projects, and where these ideas are not part of the underlying culture; however, I’m determined to continue trying to realise these ideas, since it seems to me that what really makes a difference is not just having ideas, but actually being able to make music out of them. I already know too many musicians who have been defeated by the system, and keep their ideas to themselves.

Rui Eduardo Paes


selected Simon H. Fell recordings