SIMON H. FELL  Report On The Composition Of Improvised Music No. 4

First published in Rubberneck 28

'London Skyscraper' and 'Compilation III': some problems of and strategies for working with large improvising ensembles

(i) problems During discussions with the Editor on the theme of this issue, he expressed vehement dismay at a perceived paucity of large-scale improvising ensembles working completely freely, without structural mechanisms of any kind. (It's interesting to note how politically charged language can become in this context; substitute the word 'support', 'restraint', 'assistance' or 'impositions' for 'mechanisms' in the previous sentence and you'll see what I mean.) I'm not sure to what extent this impression is historically accurate; many of the examples of this work one might allude to occur as episodes within some sort of overall structuring, however loose. Nevertheless, the Globe Unity Orchestra have certainly worked extensively as a freely-improvising large group, and Chris Burn's Ensemble have regularly interspersed improvised pieces amongst their repertoire of structures; doubtless everyone will have their own examples. At the time of writing, London Skyscraper (the 23-piece group formed to participate in Butch Morris' UK Conduction tour in November 1997) has been wrestling with the possibilities of an existence post-Butch - whether this is viable and if so what form it might take. It's a little too early to predict the outcome, and there seem to be many unexpected difficulties in this process, but part of the group's work in its current series of monthly London concerts has involved completely 'free' collective improvisation, with predictably mixed results. (Perhaps the Editor could check this out next time he's in town!)

However, it cannot be denied that large-scale group improvisation has always been a scarce commodity, and 'successful' examples are worth their weight in gold. Why? Experience leads me to assert that the essence of working with large ensembles is that all the difficulties and uncertainties of improvised music making are multiplied proportionately, while the possible benefits (i.e. making good music, albeit of a different sort) remain roughly equivalent. As a result it seems likely that any scarcity in large-scale group improvising is simply the result of the same sort of factors which have affected large-scale performance generally, but exaggerated in improvised music (in Britain at least) by the complete lack of a thought-through institutional infrastructure for sustaining this part of our cultural research & development. There are practical problems to do with lack of funding for workshop/rehearsal and performance, and an absence of appropriate venues in which these activities may be undertaken with the long-term view necessary to develop this type of performance successfully; these are then combined with the sheer mental and physical stress and exhaustion inherent in trying to co-ordinate large numbers of performers.

But more significantly, there are often aesthetic problems too. The more I work in the field, the more I'm forced to accept that there is no 'absolute truth' of improvised music, no realisation of this principle which will be universally agreed to have achieved the music's full potential, and opinions on the merit of a performance will often vary widely even amongst experienced listener/performers. There can be few things more dispiriting than having assembled a large ensemble to give what you thought was a fine performance only to find that a large proportion of the group disliked the resulting music intensely and would rather you hadn't bothered in the first place! Small-scale groupings make it possible to assemble a set of almost like-minded musicians who will have similar objectives and aesthetic aspirations, and as a result will offer sustained enthusiasm and practical support; but the statistics of a large group will almost invariably throw up several members who are not really sure whether they want to be there; since free music runs almost entirely on enthusiasm and good will this can act as a considerable damper on a project's future prospects. There are also straightforward but often overlooked difficulties in large-scale performance; actually hearing what other players are doing can be difficult if they are physically separated from you by a large number of musicians. This can limit the potential for subtle interaction to only those musicians who are relatively near, or encourage musicians to play more loudly or forcibly than they would otherwise consider. Imagine a conversation between four articulate friends and then compare it to twenty-five people taking part in an open discussion, each trying to get their point across. Of course, because something is difficult does not mean it shouldn't be attempted, on the contrary; nevertheless it is easy for those not directly involved to underestimate the problematic nature of this kind of work.

The lack of external infrastructure for this music means it is perhaps to be expected that most instigators of large-scale projects start from a personal concept which they wish to explore. Not only does this provide an objective which side-steps the question of mutually-agreed aesthetic criteria, but it also obviates the necessity for the musicians to accept public responsibility for the whole of the resulting music, which can be problematic for improvisers with their own artistic identities. But as soon as one artistic vision has dominance, the role of the large group as an improvising ensemble tends to become blurred. However, it would be a mistake to rigidly categorise improvisation as either 'directed' or 'free' as if these were the only two possible states. One should not forget that there is a spectrum from rigidly directed to completely 'free' improvisation; what's more, no point on this spectrum represents a perfect ideal and to dismiss directed improvisation because some examples prove unsatisfactory is as foolhardy as asserting that all freely improvised pieces will be 'successful'. It might be wise to bear in mind that if some of the most experienced and skilled improvisers in the music's history have reservations about large-group free improvising it may just be because experience has taught them that it's a high-risk strategy, possibly with musically modest benefits. But the nature of improvised music is such that if anyone disagrees, they are at liberty to test the outcomes for themselves and will find no shortage of musicians prepared to assist them! Whilst 'abstract' large-group improvisation can thrive, it seems to rely on a combination of factors which are sufficiently infrequently encountered individually that their extremely sporadic coincidence is hardly surprising; perhaps the question should be how does it ever manage to happen at all?

(ii) strategies In commissioning this article the Editor initially seemed to feel that my recently-released large-scale project Compilation III might provide a useful source of experiences of large-scale improvisation, but in fact Compilation III contains very little (if any) music which I would describe as 'large-scale improvisation', being essentially a composition informed by (and with space for) improvisation and aleatoricism. Similarly one could make great distinction between work like Butch Morris' Conductions, John Zorn's game pieces, the LJCO etc and true 'group improvisation'. So as far as this less 'abstract', individual-guided work is concerned, what methods are available for working with large improvisation-derived groups? And what are the dangers of these methods, and how can they be avoided? Firstly, I'd like to assert two categories of structuring, to be located on the spectrum we discussed earlier; non-invasive and invasive. My definition of non-invasive would be those methods which seek to define very general principles, such as who might play when, a very general description of the type of material to be explored (either verbal or notated) or an indication of the mood/atmosphere which the piece might seek to generate (without specific musical instructions). The essential point of non-invasive structures is that the musicians should feel sufficiently unencumbered that they can improvise sensitively, creatively and effectively, using their musical sensitivities alone to guide them. I've written in Rubberneck before about the debilitating effect structure can have on even highly creative improvisers, and this type of 'score' would seek to avoid that by a very light touch. In order to render the non-invasive principle feasible, the instigator/leader/composer (more politically charged words!) has to be prepared to relinquish certain things. I am increasingly of the conviction that improvisers cannot improvise to the best of their ability if they are aware that their improvisation may be interrupted at any time, requiring them to suddenly change to a different activity; any group which simply feels it is waiting for the next cue will fail to make the best use of the musical space made available to it. One of the most traditional ways of circumventing this problem is to have two types of performer, the soloist(s) and the rest, and for the musicians to be allocated one of those two roles at any given time. Soloists are allowed freedom to develop material, hopefully in their own time, whilst the 'rest' follow cues, realise notation, etc. This is of course the organising principle of most large-scale modern/contemporary/free jazz. Its main disadvantage for the improvising ensemble is that it tends to encourage an either/or mentality, with musicians either free to contribute spontaneously or not. Since one of the skills which proves essential to large-group improv is the ability to judge the appropriateness of playing at any given time, and where within the wide-ranging spectrum from silence to total dominance to place this contribution, this compartmentalisation must be a backward step. It seems to encourage musicians to resign their responsibility for the music, which is the last thing improvisation should seek to inherit from classical forms.

It seems to me that a more valuable option is to accept that an improvising orchestra is not going to be able to (or more properly neither needs to nor should want to) emulate the structural effects and cohesive strategies employed by composed music, and in refusing to try and force the musicians through these hoops, one can allow the tender flower of improvisation to flourish more readily. This doesn't mean that structuring has to be abandoned; it's just that one can't necessarily expect to receive rapid, prompt and accurate responses to instructions and good improvisation. One of my own 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 put on display. 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 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. The musician's part of this equation is that they have to take responsibility for the contribution they're making, and not abuse this freedom simply because it may be easier to just play than try and make a particular concept ‘work’.

Other structuring techniques explored by post-Butch Skyscraper include hand gestures and conducting (some derived from Conduction, some not), game and text-based pieces, as well as complete freedom. The degree of success has, of course, been variable, but this is inevitable and even desirable. [In one of my earlier Rubberneck pieces I wrote about improvised music’s move away from the experimental; the difficulties of large-group work mean that it is much more likely to tread the thin line between ‘success’ and ‘failure’ in a way which can be extremely stimulating – and very frustrating.]

Some of the pieces mentioned above most definitely would fall into the invasive category, and by this I mean a scheme or structure which requires the musicians to divide their attention between improvising and some other activity (watching the conductor, reading music, throwing sponges around(!) etc). These invasive techniques seem to be the ones which prove most problematic for improvisers, and much care is required if they are to be used with any degree of success. One of the most frequently experienced invasive techniques is the use of conventional music notation to assist in the process of structuring. It’s worth remembering that Western European music notation has developed from a simple aide-memoire for spontaneous elaboration and flexible realisation into an all-pervasive restraining straightjacket which has become an object of worship in its own right. When I use notation with improvising musicians, I try and encourage them to return to this original 'aide-memoire' state; a more familiar parallel may be my instruction to play the notation "as if it were a jazz standard that one already knew". 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. [The fact that Compilation III was a studio-based project also enabled me to elicit a much more experimental, reckless, investigative or provocative approach from inexperienced or first-time improvisers; on the understanding that any unsuccessful experiments would never see the light of day, the musicians were much happier to dip a toe into the more extreme areas of their soundworld, both technically and emotionally.] As mentioned earlier, I feel that other structuring techniques, such as conducting, game-play etc, need to have a certain lee-way built in which allows the musician freedom to deviate, if one is to retain the essential benefits of group improvisation.

Before closing this article, there is one approach to large-scale spontaneous music to which I must return; London Skyscraper owes its very being to Butch Morris and his Conduction principle, without which the group would never have been brought together. The resulting music made on our November 1997 tour proved controversial, with many committed improv fans failing to experience the type of music which the stellar line-up had led them to expect. Perhaps this results from a misunderstanding of the highly evolved Conduction system which was applied to the British group: it seems to me that the Super-Conduction we experienced actually set out to enable spontaneous composition by the conductor; in order to achieve this Butch has developed a highly complex series of signals to appropriate many of the parameters previously the preserve of notation, and requires absolute and utter attention and immediate response from the musicians. In the hands of its codifier the system is now sufficiently comprehensive that one is much better served to think about a solo improvisation by a composer/conductor rather than a large-scale (directed) improvisation. Butch's rigorous grip on the ensemble's activities means that he improvises with the ensemble's assistance, and many Conductions no longer specifically use musicians with explicit improvisation skills; listeners expecting or wanting Globe Unity may have been disappointed, but as music which raises (and sometimes answers) many fascinating and crucial questions about the nature of spontaneous creativity and the hierarchical standing of the truly creative ensemble member it deserves the attention of all those interested in alternatives to the mainstream. And time will tell whether in London Skyscraper Butch's legacy will develop a significant independent life (and British identity) all of its own.

© SIMON H. FELL November 1998

London Skyscraper (now renamed London Improvisers Orchestra) perform at The Red Rose Club, Seven Sisters Road, London on the first Sunday of every month (except January & December). Simon Fell's Composition No. 30 (Compilation III) is available from Bruce's Fingers, catalogue no BF 27 This is the fourth in a series of essays exploring the implications of attempting to 'organise' improvisation; interested parties will find previous instalments in Rubberneck issues 15, 17 & 24.

Reprinted courtesy of Rubberneck

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