The musicians participating in this project were asked to answer a series of structured questions: their backgrounds, thoughts, theories, methods, and influences.
Describe your musical background/heritage?
Michael Edwards I started playing clarinet at thirteen and the oboe soon thereafter. No one in my family played musical instrument and I didn’t consider a career in music until at eighteen I went to study at Bristol University. It was there that I became interested in composition, eventually specialising in it and doing a Masters. I was 22 before I got switched on to computer music (after hearing John Chowning’s Turenas at the Warsaw Autumn Festival in 1990). After moving to Stanford, in California, and coming to grips (slowly) with computer programming, synthesis etc. I started to develop Algorithmic Composition programmes in Common Lisp. After graduating and a brief stint as a software engineer I took up a Guest Professorship at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, and after that a position at the University of Edinburgh, where I still work. I guess all this puts me ﬁrmly in the academic classical musician camp, and indeed, the contemporary classical music scene, combined with computer and electroacoustic music, was my training and playground. However my ﬁrst love was probably pop and rock, from Diana Ross and the Supremes to James Brown, from Pink Floyd to Deep Purple. There’s something about the apparent freedom of expression in that big and varied world that sits right with me, especially when compared with the strict, formal, and hierarchical world of classical music but that might just be a case of the grass is always greener. I came to improvisation only a couple of years ago, ﬁrst with the computer. I’d given up the oboe soon after arriving at Stanford (I guess it never really was my instrument: it was more of a challenge than a passion) and didn’t play an instrument regularly again until a friend sold me a Selmer tenor saxophone in February 2007. I’ve been playing that and soprano sax pretty much every day since, mainly with an eye to free improvisation, though of course as an improvising saxophone player you can’t help but be consciousof jazz but I have very consciously decided not to learn jazz technique. Perhaps I sound a little jazzy sometimes, but that would be more due to my admiration of, say, Peter Broetzmann, than from a conscious desire to continue that tradition. Paul Elwood I’m a composer that plays bluegrass banjo with a background as a percussionist in orchestras. Jean-Marc Montera I’m originally from Corsica. My grandfather played guitar in an unprofessional band and I always had a guitar near my hands... I was strongly attracted by rock music and later by European free music without forgetting traditional music from the Mediterranean and extra-European. Karin Schistek I had classical piano lessons from the age of eight and studied IGP (combined studies of classical piano performance and piano teaching) at the University of Music “Mozarteum” in Salzburg and at the University of Music in Vienna. I chose to do the second part of my studies in Vienna because it was the perfect place to concentrate on contemporary classical music. (My piano teacher was a specialist in contemporary music and the avant-garde-concert scene was very alive). Improvisation was always part of my musical life, either privately (improvising on my own) or as part of my education (participating in improvisation workshops/projects)
What instruments do you play and which will you use in this project?
Paul Elwood Banjo and voice. Jean-Marc Montera I play mainly guitars (6 and 12 strings). Sometimes I also use the chittara a traditional 18 string instrument from Corsica - depending on the context. Karin Schistek Piano, clavia nord synthesizer (I will play both instruments). Michael Edwards I used to be an oboe player but now I play tenor and soprano saxophones. I also play computer, using software developed in Max/MSP and a Yamaha WX5 MIDI Wind Controller. I will play all of these in this project.
Do you ‘extend’ the instruments at all beyond their normal use
(e. g. special effects, electronic manipulation)?
Jean-Marc Montera I use pedals and electronics to modify the sound in real time. Karin Schistek Yes, I get inside the piano and apply a variety of objects to the strings. I use the piano as a source for all kinds of sounds and do not just play the keys. Michael Edwards I’m not sure that we could speak of ‘normal use’ when it comes to the computer. I do use multiphonics on the saxophones, as well as some altissimo (very high) notes. What I don’t do much of (yet) is play saxophone and computer simultaneously. Paul Elwood Yes. I bow the instrument, and employ a variety of percussive effects ranging from scraping the strings, using the head as a drum, rubbing the back of my instrument, creating a variety of bowed and plucked harmonics, playing behind the bridge, etc.
Who are your musical and improvisation heroes/mentors?
Karin Schistek Malcolm Goldstein and Garth Knox. Michael Edwards Peter Brötzmann, as mentioned, but also Evan Parker and John Butcher on saxophones. I also admire very much Archie Shepp’s tone, individualism, and talent for placing notes exactly where they belong. I like Han Bennink for his outlandish and unstoppable creativity; Frank Gratkowski and Ned Rothenberg for their elegance and control; Ariel Shibolet for his tone, registral counterpoint, and obsession; Malcolm Goldstein for his spiritual maturity and for using the violin as a clear extension of himself. But these are all fairly recent discoveries on my part as they relate to improvisation, to which I came late. My ﬁrst great love and still probably the composer I most admire, is Beethoven. His naked emotion, even aggression, is something I immediately connected with as a child (I was never one for the grace of Mozart, though I admire him of course). For similar reasons I love Mahler, above all for reaching beyond his musical means (if that makes any sense). Discovering Xenakis (in particular Rohan de Saram’s recording of Kottos) shook my musical foundations: I can still feel the aftershocks. Berio, Lachenmann, Ligeti, (late) Nono, and Ferneyhough have also been massive inﬂuences over the years. Paul Elwood Bluegrass legend John Hartford, composer John Cage, performer/composer John Zorn, and guitarist Eugene Chadbourne, among many others. Jean-Marc Montera Derek Bailey.
Why did you agree to do this particular project?
Michael Edwards I instigated it. After playing for a day with Karin, Jean-Marc, and Paul in 2006 I knew we had to do it again. We have quite different backgrounds (we’re all from different countries) but similar drives, I think. Through improvisation we can bring together something quite unique in our mix of rock, country, and contemporary classical attitudes. Paul Elwood I enjoy the people involved and love free improv projects with people that know how to do it. Jean-Marc Montera Because both the human and the musical possibilities appealed to me. Karin Schistek I love improvising; especially together with other people.
What motivates you to improvise with other musicians?
Paul Elwood A chance to interact with a wide diversity of players in a variety instances and geographic locations. Just this week [July 2008] I organised an improv session based on Appalachian folk tunes with musicians based in Taos, New Mexico. We performed on instruments including the banjo, berimbau, bouzouki, jaw harp, and double bass. The oddest improv I did was suspend on belay ropes 80 feet up the side of a cliff in Tennessee with my banjo. The audience below sang drone tones that I played over. Jean-Marc Montera Because they are other musicians! Karin Schistek I am motivated by the musical exchange; inspiration for new ideas; a bigger variety of sounds; the challenge to bring different musical and personal characters together. Michael Edwards A basic need to make music, directly and physically. I think many years of programming algorithmic composition systems (which by their very nature are very removed even more so than traditional composition from direct music making) made this need even stronger. I also very much enjoy the democratic process of making music in this way. Although a training in composition gives you real insights into writing for the majority of traditional western instruments, there’s nothing quite like making music with someone who knows their instrument deeply, intimately (arising from years of playing). This brings to the performance gestures, colours, and textures that only such knowledge and skill can offer.
What is your approach to group improvisation?
Jean-Marc Montera That depends on the number of musicians. Up to three or four musicians I prefer to play without any pre-planning. Karin Schistek I approach group improvisation through just playing together to get to know each other musically; discussing music/improvisation in general and the music we make together in particular; planning improvisation-pieces (I personally like to plan pieces roughly even if I/we do not stick to the plan). Michael Edwards During the ﬁrst rehearsal I just play and maybe try a few different things at a quicker rate of change than normal. I try to establish relationships with the individuals in the group, seeing what works with them. In a performance, when I’m not leading, I listen carefully to what my partners are doing and if I think I can add something that would beneﬁt the current texture I do so, otherwise I’ll stay out. With reactive computer sound processing I might set a few processes running and delicately fade them in to see how they blend with what’s happening. If what I have is working I develop it, otherwise I’ll try something else. Paul Elwood Listen, listen, listen.
What are your goals and aims when improvising?
Karin Schistek My big goals are: • to enjoy the music I am creating • to create “expressive” music (music that excites me emotionally and hopefully also an audience) • to create “interesting” music (meaning that it keeps me, the other players, and the audience interested). At the moment I am aiming for the following and this should help to reach the above goals: • expansion of my musical ideas (either something I want to express in music or pure musical sounds I can use in a bigger context) • 100% concentration on my playing (meaning to pay 100% attention to the ﬂow of the music I am making without judging it or planning too much in advance. I want to react to and develop my music in a natural way) • Improvement of my playing technique (so that I can express my ideas more exactly) • Improvement of my communication skills with other musicians (To make it easier to concentrate on the music only. I want to collaborate in creating music rather than just putting sounds together.) Michael Edwards To ﬁnd a spark of musical energy with one or more of my partners; to get lost in the process of listening and playing that’s when I know that something good is happening. In terms of musical development I also try and this is what I ﬁnd hardest in improvisation to make the most of the current musical idea(s), moving in a direction that is both logical and yet interesting and surprising for the audience. Paul Elwood To listen and play interactively and hopefully sensitively with what I hear. Jean-Marc Montera Alone: to broaden my own limits. With others: to try to do that together.
Do you make music any other way
(e. g. composing, performing composed music)?
Michael Edwards Yes, I compose written music for instruments. I also digitally process sound in both real-time and non-real time for combination with instruments in performances of my compositions. I used to make electroacoustic (tape) music but haven’t done this for a number of years now. As a student I used to conduct but haven’t performed pieces by other composers since the early 90s. Paul Elwood I’m mostly a composer chamber, orchestral, electronic and I write a lot for the banjo with electronics. Jean-Marc Montera Rarely I play in a quartet called Bad Boys with Chris Cutler, Daan Vandewalle, and Arne Deforge. We play Cage, Stockhausen etc. I also play with writers and poets, and with Skalen, a video/dance collective. Karin Schistek I interpret classical pieces.
If you answered yes to question 9,
how does improvisation compare to your other music-making activities? Is it better, worse, or just different when it comes to reaching your musical goals?
Paul Elwood Improv is another skill that I can employ many different types of music-making experiences require different skills. But all music making requires that the musician listen and interact according to the situation. Not better or worse, but I’ve developed a happier career as an improviser than as an orchestral percussionist a skill I hope I’m through using actively. Jean-Marc Montera It’s just different. In any case I play only in the projects I like, with musicians I’m sure to be able to go on tour with. Karin Schistek Both activities (interpreting and improvising) inﬂuence each other and I would not like to miss either. None of them is worse or better. Each activity allows a different approach to creating and experiencing sound. When interpreting I have a very particular imagination of the sounds I want to produce and I spend a lot of time realising them. This involves plenty of detailed work as well as putting details together into a wider musical context. When improvising I have an idea of what kind of character/atmosphere I want to express musically (e. g something dark and soft) using all sounds and noises I ﬁnd appropriate. I like the diversity of styles I can play, through interpreting pieces from different periods and improvising freely. Michael Edwards It’s different, perhaps better at some things (e. g. spontaneity), perhaps worse at others (e. g. playing together). I have different musical goals when improvising, especially in groups. In fact I probably don’t have any pre-conceived goals at all as I usually don’t know what will happen.
Do you ever ﬁx an aspect of your improvisation in advance?
Jean-Marc Montera See question 7. Karin Schistek Yes, sometimes I want to create a certain atmosphere/colour/character. (at least to start with, even if I drift somewhere else). Sometimes I decide how long I want to play. I usually do not mind if I do not fully realise an idea as long as the music is interesting to me. Michael Edwards Sometimes yes. A mood or character may be ﬁxed in advanced often just before I start playing, as a reaction to what has happened musically at that point. I may also decide loosely on a length of time to play a certain instrument. Last week [July 2008] I played an improvisation at the Montreaux Jazz Festival with drummer Christophe Fellay and pianist Sarah Nicolls. In that one-hour piece there were four smaller pieces written for the piano by Christophe; these could be started at any time and in any order. This worked very well and added something special in a context that was otherwise 95% free improvisation. Paul Elwood Sometimes I like to set parameters with musicians like playing within a certain dynamic or determining duos or solos in advance.
Would you describe your improvisation style as “free improvisation”
or is it something else?
Karin Schistek Yes, it’s free improv, because I don’t play within, for example, the tonal system, or with ﬁxed rhythms or musical form. Michael Edwards Yes, I would call what I do free improvisation. Paul Elwood I free improvise in all situations including bluegrass and jazz but improvisation in all contexts requires certain sensitive parameters (listen/respond). Jean-Marc Montera It’s easiest to describe it just as “free improvisation”.
Do you think that free improvisation has become a recognisable idiom/style?
Michael Edwards Yes, I think it has, despite the variety of ﬂavours. Paul Elwood Yeah, unfortunately it has. There is often a clichéd frenetic, atonal quality to the music. There is sometimes a fear of rhythm and tonality (see below). And often we free improvisers take ourselves way too seriously, leading to a lack of humour in an activity that has potential to be quite humorous, yet musical all the same. Jean-Marc Montera I don’t think so, because to become idiomatic would mean it was dead. I think free improvisation is the result, the sum of what we digest from the different musical styles and other acts of life. Karin Schistek Yes.
If you answered yes to question 13,
what characterises the free improvisation idiom?
Paul Elwood Free players often seem afraid of improvising freely in a tonal manner. Though years ago I played informally with some members of a very good professional improvisational ensemble called BL Lacerta in Texas. They weren’t afraid to employ tonality if the occasion called for it. Atonal and extended technique gestures seem to be a traditional part of the lexicon. Jean-Marc Montera See above. Karin Schistek My personal deﬁnition is that it is not restricted to a certain tonal system, rhythms or form and is open to any kind of sounds or noises. Generally free improvisation is associated with a “style” that developed in the 1960s in the U. S. and Europe with musicians like Cornelius Cardew, Derek Bailey or groups like AMM and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble. Michael Edwards A few things spring to mind: atonality; aggression; speed; extended techniques; noise; layers of sound; long-range homogenous form; long waves of dynamic development; spontaneity; craziness; the (cliched) dynamic arch structure; avoidance of melody...These may be just the things that strike me. There are certainly plenty of examples of people who would avoid these things of course.
If you answered yes to question 13,
are you happy to play within that style or do you do anything to subvert or move away from it?
Jean-Marc Montera I said no… sorry! Karin Schistek Yes, I am happy to play in that style. Michael Edwards I enjoy many of the things I mentioned above and so am happy to deliver these things where I can and where it is ﬁtting. I do sometimes throw in something that references jazz or tonality (melodies I suppose) because that seems fresh and appropriate in the moment. And I do deﬁnitely try and subvert the musical processes taking place if I think they are becoming a little tired. Paul Elwood Well, subversion seems to be part of the roots of improvisational music - that is breaking free of the structures of much music that has gone before, so I guess now the subversion - and maybe extension - of free improv would be to create a formal structure collectively, on the spot, that everyone intrinsically understands without prior discussion. This is possible when you have the chance to play with the same musicians for a long period of time. That’s when you can sort of understand the direction someone else’s thoughts and musical ideas are headed in a spontaneous manner.
Again, if you answered yes to question 13,
what in your view is the future of free improvisation?
What will keep it alive and developing?
Karin Schistek I think it will be there for a long time as it feels to be a very natural way of making music. Because it is free it can develop in lots of different ways and exist in various places. If free improvisation is done out of an urge to produce expressive music rather than putting sounds together in an arbitrary way or to play in a free style just to oppose other styles it will stay alive. I do not think that it can develop into a ﬁxed style with certain rules, because that would be a contradiction in itself. Michael Edwards I very much believe that computers will continue to make an impact in this ﬁeld. Laptops are ever more present at free improvisation concerts. But they are very often there only to process and re-colour the arguably more esteemed instrumental sounds. I think computers will be used more instrumentally in the future. It is a matter of interface. My wind controller hooked up to the laptop allows me, for instance, to interact in a very instrumental manner, reacting quickly and dynamically. As to what will keep free improv alive and developing: the indomitable spirit of musical adventure. People always have and always will play together, spontaneously. What I think will help raise the interest further is the process that is already underway in musical education: the inclusion of many different types of music into what is considered acceptable and ‘clever’. Undoubtedly the classical music world has always been conservative and hierarchical, but it is no longer the case that everything which falls outside the western classical canon is frowned upon by academia. The multiplicity of musical styles made available through recording technology renders it impossible to consider the score as the dominant and only acceptable form of creating, disseminating, and studying music. A renewed interest in and support for improvisation and group music making is the inevitable outcome of the current musical environment. Paul Elwood Paradoxically, being open to structure may save free music. John Zorn got it absolutely right in his game pieces. Works like Cobra are free though operating within a very strictly deﬁned but ﬂuid structure. Jean-Marc Montera I think the directions given by Derek in his book (Improvisation, its nature and practice) are still relevant. Radical and open!
To what extent do you agree with the following statement?:
“There has to be some degree, not just of unfamiliarity, but incompatibility [with a partner]. Otherwise, what are you improvising for?”
Michael Edwards I’m always careful with absolutes but I understand and can to a large extent agree with this point: if you’re too compatible with a partner then there’s a good chance you don’t have anything to say or that you’ll repeat yourself. A good dose of incompatibility should provide a point of friction and lead to a challenging musical investigation. Paul Elwood Refer to my answer to question 15. I’d agree if we added that “there also has to be some degree of familiarity and compatibility with a partner.” Jean-Marc Montera I completely agree, all the way up to the ﬁnal musical result! Karin Schistek I agree that improvising also means to react to unexpected events and to deal with them. In that sense there has to be space for some sort of uncertainness. But I think there is always something unexpected even if you improvise on your own. To my mind there has to be a consensus of musical goals for a group improvisation to be successful.
To what extent do you agree with this statement?:
“[Improvisation] is more or less proﬁtable wanderings in a well-deﬁned maze where the composer, performer and listener know the rules and references.”
Jean-Marc Montera Not necessarily. No one knows the rules. This music is not reserved for an enlightened minority. The people who say so know neither this music nor the listeners. Karin Schistek To be honest I do not understand who the composer and listener are in that context. Are the composer, performer and listener one person? Quasi three aspects of the improviser? This statement has a negative feel to me. “More or less proﬁtable wanderings” suggests that improvising means to string together sounds in a goalless way which I do not agree with. I think there should be an urge to express something in music. Michael Edwards This statement holds when you apply it to some well-established improvisation forms, e.g. bebop, rock guitar solos, perhaps even classical Indian music. It may well even apply to what we now call free improvisation there may be no clear rules but there are very strong clichés. The statement seems a little pejorative, dismissive even (“wanderings”), and frankly, I’m not sure how useful this statement is as a description of improvisation as you could very well apply it to modern composition.
In making music, how, if at all, is the methodology of classically-trained composers different from that of rock/pop/jazz/improvising musicians and how does this difference manifest itself in the music?
Karin Schistek I think there is a clear difference as classic and rock/pop/jazz are different styles and composing and improvising are different activities. A classical-trained composer plans a piece in advance, usually writes it down, so that it can be performed many times in at least approximately the same way. The performance is a short event in comparison to the great preparation. A rock/pop/jazz improviser usually interprets a pre-composed piece and builds an improvisation that is based on the required style, tonality, rhythm, and form. The music sounds different, because they use different tonal or rhythmical material. Sometimes rock/pop/jazz improvisations can sound more alive as they are produced on the spot. On the other hand composed classical music can sound more interesting as it was planned and edited in advance. Michael Edwards This is a huge question that, in order to answer successfully, would need perhaps many pages. To try and be succinct, the obvious difference between composition and improvisation is that composers (of any style) tend to develop structures in non-real time, carefully considering each aspect of their music and most often ensuring that the ensemble will be harmonically and contrapuntally consistent with a uniﬁed style and musical vision. Free improvisers don’t have the luxury of thinking for hours about what they should do in a speciﬁc musical situation as they don’t know exactly what that will be. Neither do they generally have control over their musical partners. One result is that improvisers rely on a set of musical materials that are developed over years and then re-cast and further developed in the heat of the improvisation. Another result of the real-time demand is that and this is independent of style now by necessity improvisers usually make use of a more simple harmonic language, or use none at all that is common to the group (as is often the case in free improvisation). But the very freedom that improvisation implies usually results in a less formal performance atmosphere that can provoke extremes of musical expression and when you have a group of accomplished improvisers who all know their instruments very well, things can become extreme very quickly. On the other hand, the very act of interpreting another person’s composition, reading the notes and trying your best to overcome often very demanding technical challenges to realise your vision of the composer’s goal, tends to create an atmosphere of ﬁnesse and control. (No matter how ‘wild’ the music may become, you always have to be ‘under control’ if you’re playing prescribed notes and there I make a big difference between the improviser being IN control, and the interpreter being UNDER control.) In some ways I suppose it’s the distinction that Nietzsche made between the Dionysian and the Appollonian: the wild, drunken Bacchanale versus the cool, ‘proper’, intellectual experience. OK, so that wasn’t very succinct... Jean-Marc Montera I would say it’s not a question of methodology... it depends on the composer, musicians… (see the minimalist and post minimalist American musicians for instance).
When moving in the avant-garde areas of classical, jazz, rock, free improvised, and pop music, is there contrary to common perception perhaps more in common than not, in the intention of the music at least, if not always in the sound?
Michael Edwards ﬁrst of all, personally I think I always enjoy the same thing in music, whatever its style: direct and passionate human expression. I feel that in Xenakis as much as in Led Zeppelin or James Brown. This is, of course, not the only reason to make music, and some of the drier, more intellectual or formal modern compositions (Cage included) would negate this assertion. But, without wishing to become simplistic to the point of banality, there’s often a strong desire among artists to do something ‘different’. Those who achieve that we often call avant-garde. So I suppose the short answer to the question is, yes. Jean-Marc Montera I think the common point could be the sound as John Cage deﬁned it. According to him, the musical styles are... anecdotal. Karin Schistek I think the avant-garde area is the perfect place for different styles to meet, because everyone seeks something new and wants to move away from the original style(s) he is coming from. I agree that the musical outcome of classical/jazz/rock/pop and free improvised music can be very similar.