Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Free Improvisation Series: Pauline Oliveros / Loren Rush / Terry Riley

Though recreation of compositions has dominated Western music for the last two hundred years or so, improvisation has not been far below the surface. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt, and Mendelssohn were accomplished improvisers; Johann Hummel even advocated for free improvisation, not just among performers and composers, but among the general public (quoted in Sarath, 2011). It was also, and remains common in organ performance. But as the years wore on, improvisation began to slip away from common practice of performers. It made a resurgence in the 1920's as jazz became a popular form of music, and this led to a lasting influence on Western music. But in the world of Western classical music, improvisation remained rare, and was even scoffed at by John Cage (during certain parts of his career).

Part Three -
Pauline Oliveros, Loren Rush, Terry Riley, et. al.
In 1957, Pauline Oliveros (b. 1932), Loren Rush (b. 1935) and Terry Riley (b. 1935), three composers in San Francisco, assembled at KPFA studios. Riley was asked to provide the soundtrack to a short film about sculptor Claire Falkenstein called Polyester Moon. Instead of writing and performing a piece, the trio decided to improvise it. Rush had been a program assistant at KPFA, and so had access to the station's Ampex tape recorders. The trio recorded several improvisations and picked what they felt was the best one for the soundtrack.
The Ampex 351 (1958), an example of tape recorders from the era. Photo by the Villa Raspa Factory Organizzazione.
The experience of improvisation was so thrilling that the trio decided to meet regularly. They also continued to record themselves, but not just for novelty or posterity: recording enabled them to improve their work through critical listening and discussion, without prescribing “guidelines or structure” for their improvisations. Oliveros notes that improvisation with such imposed guidelines often "fell flat". The use of recordings liberated them from "unnecessary controls", allowing them to "develop trust in process through spontaneity." (Bernstein, 81)
They improvised as a trio, but also with guests. Laurel Johnson, a friend of Oliveros', was an untrained musician and frequent collaborator in the late 1950's. A man named Bill Butler is also listed on the RadiOm website, where recordings of these sessions can be heard, but no information can be found about him. They were also joined occasionally by their composition teacher, Robert Erickson (1917-1997). All three were students at San Francisco State, but studied privately with Erickson, who encouraged his students to improvise. (Fischlin, 53).

Loren Rush, photo from My KPFA - Conversations

Loren Rush remembers Erickson's role in the improvisation sessions as more proactive: "He would ask us to try things, not very much ... And we were perfectly willing to do it, because we were just making music." (Carl, 126)
Terry Riley, photo from New Albion Records
The original trio of Oliveros, Riley and Rush stopped improvising together in the late 50's, and each pursued their own separate interests. But improvisation remained a critical part of each of their work, and in the work of their friends Ramon Sender and Phil Winsor. Instrumental improvisations were used as the raw material for tape-based compositions, as in Oliveros' Time Perspectives (1961). Her earliest electronic compositions were also improvised. (Fischlin, 53)
Pauline Oliveros ca. 1966, photo from Sonoloco Record Reviews
"Improvisation was an all-important tool for all of us in the development of much collaboration and of the community that was continuing to increase its numbers. Even though we improvised together often, each person retained individuality and a style that was specifically different. Even so we bounced off of each other's work with glee." (Bernstein, 82)
-Pauline Oliveros
Bernstein, David W. "The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s counterculture and the avant-garde." University of California Press: 2008
Carl, Robert. "Terry Riley's In C." Oxford University Press US: 2009.
Fischlin, Daniel & Ajay Heble. "The other side of nowhere: jazz, improvisation, and communities in dialogue." Wesleyan University Press: 2004
Potter, Keith. "Four musical minimalists: La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass." Cambridge University Press: 2002
Sarath, Edward. "Message from the President." ISIM Newsletter Spring 2011, Vol. 7, #1. International Society for Improvised Music.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Free Improvisation Series: Lennie Tristano

The next couple of posts will be a series based on research into free improvisation in recordings, which I undertook for my work at Hillsdale College as adjunct lecturer in music. Basically, my point of view is that free improvisation is an approach to music-making, not a style per se. Recorded evidence makes obvious that it developed spontaneously across several styles of music, in several different countries at about the same time, without any apparent communication between the people who engaged in it.
Therefore, this series is chronological, but this is not meant to imply a continuity as if this were a style like "jazz" or "baroque" or "reggae". These styles could be considered culturally-based, and are thus canonical; free improvisation is unique in that it is not.

Lennie Tristano

Photo credit: William P. Gottlieb

Given the integral role that improvisation plays in it, it was inevitable that jazz music would eventually lead to completely free improvisation. Although he has been overshadowed by the reputations of his contemporaries, Lennie Tristano was a significant figure in the jazz world in the late 40's. His approach to composing, often re-writing jazz standards with radical new melodies (i.e. "317 E. 32nd St." and "Lennie's Pennies"), foreshadowed future experiments with tonality by Andrew Hill and George Russell. He performed and recorded with Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, both of whom he profoundly influenced.
In 1947, Tristano was named “Musician of the Year” by Metronome magazine (thanks no doubt to the support of his friend Barry Ulanov, who edited the journal during this time). With this honor came the invitation to contribute to the magazine. Tristano did so with a pair of articles: "What's Right with the Beboppers" and "What's Wrong with the Beboppers". In the latter, Tristano expresses that mere imitation of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker would lead to stagnation of jazz as an art form. But while his convictions were clear, Tristano was no hyper-modernist, emphasizing the value in “contributing” to the music that came before, rather than diverging from it.
Tristano pontificates that “[p]erhaps the next step after bebop will be collective improvisation on a much higher plane because the individual lines will be more complex.” During the next two years, Tristano and his group played some of the first known experiments with free improvisation, even performing it at Birdland. Tristano, and later Konitz, used the term “intuitive” to describe such playing. Sometimes they blended free improvisation with tunes, a la Ornette Coleman, sometimes they just played without any theme at all. These eventually culminated with a recording session with Capitol Records, where these free improvisation experiments were finally documented.
On May 16th, 1949 (the Blackwell guide to jazz says April 23rd, 1949), Tristano and his group recorded “Intuition” and “Digression” for Capitol Records. Now, strictly speaking, these are not totally free improvisations because decisions were made beforehand about the order in which the musicians would begin playing, and the time span between entrances. (One may consider the 3 1/2 minute time limit allowed by the recording medium to be another limitation, though a less controllable one.) However, since it was established that they "were going to improvise strictly from what [they] heard each other doing", it is still worth noting these sessions in a chronology like this.
When they began to play "intuitively", Tristano indicated that the engineer “threw up his hands and left his machine”. Tristano's management refused to pay him for the recordings and the company threatened that they would not release them. Barry Ulanov, who was present at the recording session, publicly challenged Capitol to demonstrate “courage and … enlightenment” by releasing the recordings. This coming from the editor of a major music magazine! Capitol eventually issued “Intuition”, the more upbeat of the two, as a single in 1950 (Capitol 7-1224, backed with a solo piano version of "Yesterdays"). "Digression" stayed in the can until this 10" EP came out in 1954 (Capitol EAP 1-491):

"Classics in Jazz" indeed.

Tristano was a critically-acclaimed jazz musician, written about frequently by major music magazines. He played on Symphony Sid’s popular radio show. Capitol, one of the "Big 6" record companies in 1947, also had Stan Kenton, Peggy Lee, and Bennie Goodman sides in its catalog. (To put it in perspective, this is exactly the kind of exposure being given to Miles Davis at the time.)
The 1950 release of “Intuition” received mixed reviews. Ulanov to describe the new recording as a “[revivication of] the contrapuntal form which underlies the great years … of Johann Sebastian Bach.” Billboard Magazine called it "Tristano's weirdest yet - only the most advanced tastes will appreciate the subtle work of Konitz, Marsh, Bauer and the rest of the group. This is bop to the nth degree." in 1953, Charlie Parker commented that “rather than to make the melody predominant … in the style of music that Lennie and them present, it’s more or less heard or felt.” (There are several recordings of Tristano playing with Charlie Parker between 1947 and 1951.) Of the EP which contained "Digression", critic Nat Hentoff lauded the group's “fascinating study in presumably ad lib counterpoint.” Even composer Aaron Copland weighed in, stating that "something has been developed here [in America] which has no duplication abroad]."
Of course, Tristano also had his detractors. Nat Cole, Tadd Dameron, Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, and others, felt that the improvisations were esoteric, and criticized their self-conscious experimentalism.
It's no surprise that free improvisation didn't catch on of course: it's far too experimental and unpredictable for mainstream radio and club performance, but at least Capitol records took a risk by releasing it. I don’t know of any earlier recorded free improvisation, but it would indeed be exciting to discover free improvisation in ethnographical recordings, some unique home recordings, or long lost Louis Armstrong sides.

You can hear "Intuition" and "Digression" for free on Grooveshark.

Part Two of the series will be George Gurdjieff.


Shim, Eunmi. “Lennie Tristano: his life in music.” Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007.
Kernfeld, Barry. "The Blackwell guide to recorded jazz."
“What’s Wrong/Right with the Beboppers” June/July 1947 Metronome