Advice Is Free

Here’s some advice about playing free music that I’ve picked up since starting Glitchpuke. I can’t remember exact words so all the quotes are really paraphrases!

“It should always feel like it’s growing.” – Arnoold Dooyewerd (Conservatorium van Amsterdam). This suggests starting off  with room to grow, either in volume level, density of notes, complexity, etc. Also it can guide choices – if it feels like growth has stopped, do something new. This concept relates nicely to Steve Lehman’s “directionality”, which is the feeling that the music is going somewhere.

“The way notes are attacked has the greatest impact on mood.” – Arnoold Dooyewerd. This seems extreme (actually Arnoold never put it so bluntly), but it works because it takes players out of their usual technical mode of thinking. Instead of abstractions like scales and chords, they can focus on emotion, physicality and raw sound.

“Don’t be passive.” – Andrius Dereviancenko (sax player in Glitchpuke). There have been times when I stuck too much to a supportive role in our improvisations. Supporting and listening is essential, but it can become a habit that’s hard to escape. If a player always lets others lead, this is boring and a refusal to take responsibility! I think this is especially a risk in noise music.

“Use shapes.” – Michael Moore (Conservatorium van Amsterdam). In classes where he would join with group improv, Michael always gave his first idea a memorable shape, for instance, incorporating a trill, a slide, or a chromatic approach. This resembles the motives found throughout jazz and classical music. However, in free improv you have no guarantees about the harmony that will emerge. So I use the word “shapes” to describe gestures that can be re-used no matter what the harmony.

“Save and reload sounds” – Okkyung Lee. This is just one little part from a workshop I attended years ago. It suggests that players try and memorise things that occur improvisations so they can leave them, and later return to them. This is great because it means taking control. It encourages players to try hard to be aware of what’s going on. Finally, it encourages structural thinking.

“Learn to recognise your group’s habits” – me. Using a familiar pattern of any kind is a temptation once your band has played together enough. It could be a volume build, a bass note shift, a type of drumbeat, a way of dropping out. If this happens, it’s essential that everyone is aware of it. Nowadays, I think it’s even worth making up words to describe things that your band does!

Experiment or Ritual?

Recently I listened to some Derek Bailey free improv stuff that Sidney Yendis sent to me… and from there I found myself checking out another UK experimental guitarist, Keith Rowe.

… Maybe check out  a few seconds of the video I watched to see if your reaction is the same as mine:

I liked the sounds, and hated the presentation. Which is strange, because we see a middle-aged, white, nerdy man fiddling with complex equipment on a table… that is, experimenting. And isn’t Glitchpuke all about experimentation?

We’ve always had a trial-and-error, experimental approach to making sound –  “scientific” as Sidney put it once in a rehearsal. But after seeing Keith Rowe, and thinking about what I blogged about our recent gigs, I realised that live, Glitchpuke is absolutely married to the ritualistic aspect of performing. I’m pretty sure Sidney, Andrius and I all love our roles as musicians, emoting, gesturing, taking the attention of a crowd. This ritual approach is the opposite of experiment, because the whole point of ritual is that everyone knows what’s meant to happen.

How can we put these two opposites together? I think there is a way. In our gig in the Gerrit Rietveld Academie, there were some amazing moments when strangers would walk in on our performance, and we would mess with the social dynamics by playing so quietly that we almost weren’t playing. Listeners were unsure whether to interpret us as performers or people. They laughed, broke off conversations, avoided eye contact, stood fascinated, etc., etc. I think what we were doing was experimenting with the ritual of music-making!

To me, sitting in a white t-shirt behind a table is throwing away a big part of what makes music so interesting. I hope that Glitchpuke can use the knowledge that all three of us have, of how to make a compelling performance (or ritual), as another factor to experiment with!