addendum to second edition of Derek Bailey’s book Improvisation


Occasional Writings

As you can read elsewhere in the book, I put my bass in its case in 1966 and did not play it again after I abandoned improvisation as an ongoing, engaged, activity. This was partly a response to my growing disenchantment with improvisation but, in terms of the bass as an instrument, also reflected  my reaction to an encounter with a particular bassist whose playing struck me as a kind of confidence trick – one that, I felt at the time, was made especially possible by the improvising ethos. However, I took my bass out of its case in 1983, had it repaired and restrung, and started improvising again (within limits). My ambivalent feelings about improvisation are still there and some of my conceptual objections to it still remain. In a way my ongoing caveats about improvisation no longer come from a possible hostility between the improviser and the composer, but rather stem from my perception of difficulties within the activity of improvisation itself. Perhaps the following sequence of events might make this clear.

I have found myself being drawn back into improvisation, little by little, chiefly because of the demands of teaching. Until 1978 I had been teaching in a Fine Art department and so I did not have to confront the question of improvisation as a burning issue in terms of musical practice – although I did even find improvisational painters less interesting to me than those who took a more considered, cerebral approach!  But once I started teaching music again, that is dealing with musicians rather than visual artists, in deciding what to teach, one of the first things that concerned me was the need to avoid passing on to musicians, or embryo musicians if you like, the kind of difficulties or hang-ups that I’d had as a player or as a composer. That is, my own tastes, my own prejudices which arise from accumulated experience, should not be transmitted to them in such a way that they become their own unquestioned premises. If I was to give a history lecture about a composer for whose work I had little sympathy (I am thinking, for example, of, say, the middle period of Schoenberg, of serial composition, of some aspects of European modernism) then my distaste for some of that music should not be transmitted to the students, at least not at undergraduate level or when they are encountering the music for the first time. I felt that I should discuss the music as it is in itself, and as it was hoped to be received. I could describe it; I could analyse it; I could discuss it within a relatively objective framework and say what its merits are within its own terms. Only if I was pressed would I express my own feelings about the music. This “distant’ approach corresponds a little to the way that I was  composing  during the early 1970’s.

But of course some of the student musicians were aware that, in the past, I had been a serious bass player and improviser and asked me, on occasions, if I would help them with their own work by playing with them. The first instances were when some students were playing transcriptions of jazz solos and wanted a bass player ( there were none in the department at the time) to  play bass lines. I did help by playing, initially not on my own bass but on a poor college bass (made, I think, of Czechoslovakian plywood). This gave me little sensation of what playing such music was like, but at least it gave the students some experience of being accompanied. I  found myself talking about jazz in a historical context too, and I recognised that there were substantial aspects of jazz that had helped formed me as a musician and my own repudiation of those should not become part of their thinking. I talked about people like Bill Evans, Lennie Tristano, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Scott La Faro and others, to put forward the view that their music is as important as any other music of the twentieth century. Little by little I found myself moving more and more towards accepting the music and even taking pleasure in hearing it.

Eventually I found myself playing this music again. I also developed improvisation projects for students,  on approaches to “free” improvisation,  and a number of visiting musicians contributed to these projects. I also put improvising musicians into part-time teaching positions. Serious improvisers like Evan Parker and Paul Rutherford began to work as instrumental teachers and, at the same time, help inform the atmosphere of the department. So, for me, improvisation came alive again as an important aspect of a music curriculum, an aspect which I see as academically essential. Musicians should be given the opportunity to encounter improvisation as a serious musical activity and to develop an informed response to it both practically and intellectually, especially where they are being taught by a sceptic. I have also found that more and more, with my own compositional work, the  musicians I respect as colleagues or with whom I collaborate are those who have some experience of improvisation, and who are capable of adjusting their playing or of playing with the kind of freedom that I would not get from a musician who is  tied exclusively to notation.

When I am playing as an improviser, however, I still feel uneasy. I have played over the past few years within ‘Company’ projects, both in Leicester and London and in a broadcast with ‘Company’ musicians. I found this challenging, and at the same time not nostalgic. I tried to deal with these improvisations within the terms that they were presented. I have also begun to play jazz again in limited circumstances, especially with musicians who have had a similarly ambivalent attitude to playing jazz. My friend and colleague Conrad Cork, who now  teaches jazz at Leicester, had stopped playing jazz and he and I brought each other back into a performing environment. I now play with a jazz trio – with pianist Frank Campbell, which involves a mixture of ‘free’ and ‘harmonic’ playing-  and I have worked on compositions for jazz players such as Charlie Haden, Bill Frisell, the sax quartet which Evan Parker formed and others.

My objections to improvisation have not been eradicated, they have been assimilated into a broader musical practice. The principal conceptual difficulties still remain for me: that of the personalising of the music, and of the unity of performer and music. I find it above all uncomfortable to watch improvisers work, and I find recordings of improvisations seldom rewarding.  If I have to experience improvisation I would rather it be as a player than from the outside.

(footnote, added March 2000)
Since this article I have begun playing again with Derek Bailey and Tony Oxley, following our reunion for a concert in Köln, September 1998 celebrating Tony’s sixtieth birthday.

Gavin Bryars