Sunday, August 21, 2011

Free Improvisation Series: the Nihilist Spasm Band

The Nihilist Spasm Band
Many bands need to get high to play well. We need to play well to get high.” - Hugh McIntyre
Since 1965, the seven-member Nihilist Spasm Band of London, Ontario, has been making its unique, bizarre music. They are the earliest all-improvising ensemble on record (that I know of) to emphasize instrument building as a primary part of their improvisational language. For them, “total free improvisation” implies more than just a lack of any compositional structure. It also implies freedom from 12-tone equal-temperament (12-TET) and from what they call “conventional musical skill and knowledge”; in short, a detachment from the principle features of Western musical culture: compositional order, common tuning, and standardized pedagogy. Others may have felt this way, but the NSB is the first to state these as explicit goals.
The Nihilist Spasm Band in 1966. Photo from 20centsMUSIC.
Derek Bailey identifies two perspectives on the relationship between a musician and her instrument: that which views the instrument as a “collaborator” and “helper”, and that which identifies the instrument as a “liability” or an “intrusive” factor. [1] His explanations, while somewhat undeveloped, presume the musician's interest in honing a technique on the instrument, however unorthodox it may be. The Nihilist Spasm Band appears to have no such interest: the process of assimilating with the instrument is simply a part of their improvisational process. In this sense, they are essentially and proudly amateur, placing them closer to Jorn and Dubuffet than anything else in the modern free improvisation continuum.
The NSB places great emphasis on building or adapting instruments which are “completely flexible. For example, a piano produces the same not every time the same key is struck. This is no good for it imposes a scale. On the other hand, a fretless stringed instrument can produce absolutely any tone within its range, as well as glisses.” The NSB are also quite comfortable with non-pitched sounds, leading to their being known as one of the first noise bands. In spite of this, they are not intent on isolating their audiences for the sake of isolation; “We have been accused of venting our hostility on the audience. But we do not need an audience to play … When the hostility of an audience is reflected back at them many times magnified by our amplifiers, the effect can be very disturbing. On the other hand, a sympathetic audience can give the band a real lift.” [2]
“Entertainment attempts to take people away from the life experience, and my job as an artist is to intensify the life experience for myself and for those people who care to observe or accompany me. Similarly, performance interests me little. It smacks of crowd control and manipulation of people. My music involves a negation of craft as a means toward free exploration of sound.” - John Boyle, founding member
A recent photo of the Nihilist Spasm Band. Photo from Nihilist Spasm Band.

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[1] Bailey, Derek. "Improvisation: its nature and practice in music".
[2] McIntyre, Hugh. Liner notes, "Vol. 2", Nihilist Spasm Band.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Free Improvisation Series: The Free Form Improvisation Ensemble

The Free Form Improvisation Ensemble
The social changes which occurred in America during the 60's can be seen wherever you look, including music. Some of these changes are visible on the surface: take a look at experimentation with different instrumental techniques (Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler), unique or modern instruments (Sun Ra, Rahsaan Roland Kirk), and melodic relation to given harmonies (George Russell, Herbie Nichols, and earlier, Lennie Tristano). Many of the most important changes, however, require a closer examination of a broad cross section of music from the period. By looking at “this music" [1] which emerged in New York City in the late 50's and 60's, we see a couple general highly inter-related trends: 1) a questioning of established social relationships, especially the roles of lead instruments vs. rhythm section, and interaction within the rhythm section itself; and 2) a heightened emphasis on individual freedom in improvisation. Both of these are pretty much ubiquitous in the social movements of the 60's, so it is no surprise to find them present in jazz as well.
Ornette Coleman presented a simple and very attractive model for the freeing up of improvisation in a jazz setting, one which kept to the head-solos-head format. This format was also used by Albert Ayler, John Coltrane, Sonny Sharrock, and other proponents of “this music”. Sometimes improvisation was incorporated into a larger compositional framework, as with Miles Davis (late 60's), Cecil Taylor, and Bill Dixon. However, recorded evidence of completely free improvisation during this period is rather scarce. One notable exception is the Free Form Improvisation Ensemble, which grew out of a series of collaborations between bassist Alan Silva and drummer Clarence Walker in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Pianist Burton Greene started playing with them in late 1962, and by early 1963, the group also included Gary Friedman and Jon Winter, who both played woodwind instruments.
Burton Greene and Alan Silva. Photo by AC Wieringa
Silva distinguished the FFIE from the “jazz bands [who] were still using the rhythm sections the same way – continuous flow, with people improvising; in and out … We really thought that we were five people thinking collectively.”[2] Silva refers to the rhythm section and its role in the improvising ensemble, and this is a very important point. In conventional jazz, the role of the “rhythm section” was as a support structure for the front line. They played throughout the piece, while soloists took turns improvising. If this order is abandoned, the “rhythm section” as a functional unit ceases to be; more broadly, the “soloist” and “accompanist” both also cease to be: players are (in principle at least) all equally relevant to the musical task. When the musical task is, as Greene described the FFIE's aesthetic, one of “spontaneous composition”, the level of individual musical freedom is indeed quite unprecedented.
The FFIE played only a handful of concerts during its existence. In 1964 the group became members of Bill Dixon’s Jazz Composer’s Guild, an organization of musicians who were committed to building an alternative infrastructure for the performance, recording, and distribution of their music. The Guild’s most prolific activity was the organization of two concert series in late 1964, which garnered quite a bit of attention from the mainstream jazz press. Most members of the Guild concentrated their efforts on some combination of composition and improvisation; indeed, the FFIE played “scores” occasionally as well. But among members of the Guild, and that community in New York as a whole, they appear to have been the most committed, on principle, to completely improvised music. Their only commercial available recording (released in 1998) features a recording of the band’s final performance at a Guild concert series in December 1964. Shortly thereafter, the Guild itself ceased its activities.
Today, Greene and Silva are well-respected, but peripheral figures in the jazz scene. Their activities in the FFIE did not appear to have a particularly strong impact on the free improvisation scene which erupted in the 1970's. But the general activities of this radical group of musicians (the Guild, and various artists who recorded for ESP-Disk') were highly influential on some of the most major figures in the history of jazz. By 1961, John Coltrane can already be heard moving into the territory he would later dedicate himself to; he was a known admirer of John Gilmore (of the Sun Ra Arkestra), Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, and Albert Ayler (with whom he took lessons.) Miles Davis' 2nd Quintet experimented with the free soloing pioneered by Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, as can clearly be heard on Miles Smiles, Nefertiti, The Sorcerer, and others. Live recordings from this period through 1970 provide even more dramatic evidence of this. Jimmy Giuffre, who wrote the jazz standard “Four Brothers”, led a highly experimental trio with pianist Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow, which explored 12-tone writing, tone clusters, and free improvisation. Charles Mingus allowed the members in his ensemble to explore the kinds of territory they wished, which was often quite “outside” of traditional jazz. Jackie McLean, an accomplished and influential bebop saxophonist, released a series of curious and exploratory recordings in the mid-1960's. So while free improvisation was overshadowed (some may say suppressed) by the commercialization of jazz which began occuring in the early- to mid-70's, its influence is still felt whenever we listen to A Love Supreme or Miles Smiles.
[1] This is Bill Dixon's term for the music of the 60's.
[2] "The Free Form Improvisation Ensemble" liner notes; Cadence Records, 1998.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Free Improvisation Series: Derek Bailey

Derek Bailey (Joseph Holbrooke)
Derek Bailey was one of the most vocal proponents of free improvisation, recording dozens of albums over a career that lasted over four decades. His contributions to free improvisation have been vast and multifaceted, including a book called Improvisation: its nature and practice in music, a valuable historical and philosophical text.
Derek Bailey
The first group in which Bailey freely improvised was Joseph Holbrooke, composed of Bailey, bassist Gavin Bryars, and percussionist Tony Oxley. Based in Sheffield, England, the group was formed in 1963. The group started out playing modern jazz; when they disbanded in 1966, they were playing completely improvised music. It is important to emphasize that this shift was organic, based on their emotional responses to traditional jazz rather than on intellectualization about it. Oxley summed it up: “The exclusion of the jazz vocabulary was an emotional act of feeling … when you're wearing chains, you don't become aware of them through intellectual process. You can feel them.” Bailey refers to the process of replacing “inherited things”, which were “stilted, moribund and formal” with things that felt “logical and right”. For the men in Joseph Holbrooke, the solution was in leaving behind the jazz idiom, in which they felt trapped, in favor of a more suitable frame of reference for their work.
But to create a new idiom would be to establish new boundaries. Therefore they sought to create music which was non-idiomatic, allowing them to draw from their personal influences at will. Bailey was interested in the music of Schoenberg and Webern, particularly in potential for improvising based on intervals rather than on chord-modes; Bryars would later become a well-known composer, and his study of the music of Cage, Messiaen and Stockhausen began during this period; and Oxley had an affinity for the modern American jazz of Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, and Cecil Taylor. Their interests undoubtedly overlapped, but this is the general picture outlined by Bailey. Once the decision was made to remove the restrains imposed by composition, the three musicians were able to explore these interests in a mutually satisfying way, to listen and learn from each other through improvisation.
Unfortunately only one recording of the original Joseph Holbrooke has ever been issued: a 10-minute recording of John Coltrane's “Miles' Mode”, issued on a CD with interviews and other information. Perhaps other recordings exist, although Bryars is doubtful of this; we can only hope that, if they exist, such historically important recordings will eventually be issued.
Bailey's commitment to free improvisation continued up until his death in 2005. Many of Bailey's other projects involved exploring group and solo free improvisation; his work with the Music Improvisation Company from 1968-1971 is also particularly noteworthy as an early example of free improvisation, as well as for its excellent musicianship.