Month: October 2018

Artist of limits.

(This article is inspired by a talk given at the Philosophy of Improvisation: Aesthetics of Imperfection Workshops) To be the master of perfect is inconceivable to Joe McPhee – he can only ever learn how to be a bigger mess. The Joe McPhee Trio concert on Thursday the 4th of October marked a reunion between Joe and Paul Hession, who had not played together in 15 years. With all but a brief sound check, the trio delivered a totally improvised performance to a general listenership who remained seated for the entirety of the concert, even between two breaks. “The audience gives back”. Total improvisation is not just musical. As we can see, it constitutes the whole act of getting on the stage with someone who you’ve not communicated with prior to the performance. Thinking too much, therefore, will slow you down. We return to the child as example. Children are not suspicious or protective. Because their responses are not analytical or self conscious, they are capable of purely experiencing. They don’t think too much; they just enjoy being.  …

The Instrumental Impulse.

(This article is inspired by a talk given at the Philosophy of Improvisation: Aesthetics of Imperfection Workshops) Improvising pianist, Adam Fiarhall, likes the rival   aesthetics of imperfection and perfection and is, in fact, at peace with crudeness. Perhaps where a problem with perfection versus imperfection arises resides in our tendency  to separate practice from performance. This is relevant for the musician but does not exclude the dancer, the marathon runner or the surgeon practicing on a human cadaver. How can the performance be the “real thing” if we don’t regard practice as “real”? Adam spoke about developing an improvisation vocabulary for unconventional keyboard instruments. He prefers to play on “prepared” toy pianos (prepared as in arranged to perform extended techniques). This, in combination with actively developing his musical vocabulary during practice, reinvigorates his sense of ‘instrumental impulse’.    To me, the ‘instrumental impulse’ is the genetic component to improvisation that Hamilton depicts in his book. This is the idea that improvisation is undetectable; for what would it matter, aesthetically, if something was not improvised but had an …

The Present Imperfect.

(This article is inspired by a talk given at the Philosophy of Improvisation: Aesthetics of Imperfection Workshops)  Improvisation is like instant coffee! There is no romanticising – improvisation does not pretend to be anything it is not. Improvisation is incomplete; it is not given much thought, if any. What if this is precisely what makes improvised music impressive? “We’re not here to be functions”, says Chris Corsano, free improvising drummer. We are here to create and transcend. Chris is inspired by the use of the past imperfective in Spanish classes. The dictionary will say that the imperfect, not found in the English language, combines the past tense with an imperfect aspect. If a perfect tense (such as past, present or future perfect) connotes something as ‘whole’ and complete at a definite time, the imperfect tense is to refer to something incomplete. This can be like saying “When I was younger…”. There is no definite time or end. The imperfect aspect describes a repeated, continuous event – when something occurs in time, no matter what the external. It refers to the viewing …

Imperfect Interactions when Improvising with others.

(This article is inspired by a talk given at the Philosophy of Improvisation: Aesthetics of Imperfection Workshops) If musical composition is a means of achieving perfection and musical improvisation takes value in imperfection, what we are dealing with, aesthetically, is not an issue of taxonomy. The difference is in the spontaneity. Graeme Wilson, free improvisation researcher and performer, views composition as solitary, and improvisation as inherently social. What implications does such a spontaneous environment create when making music with others? There is a collective anticipation as the players imagine what course the music will take. Every musician brings different strengths and weaknesses, all the time not approaching the performance with any “preconceived notion as to what kind of effect to achieve”, as musician Ornette Coleman describes his idea of unmediated emotional expression. “When I improvise with others” maintains Graeme, “I want to achieve creativity, not perfection. I don’t know how I can achieve perfection”. Very often, jazz musicians meet their fellow improvisers for the first time on the stage. Graeme claims that spontaneity helps in circumstances like these, …

That’s Not Freedom, That’s Taking License.

(This article is inspired by a talk given at the Philosophy of Improvisation: Aesthetics of Imperfection Workshops) Feldman’s compositions don’t impose themselves on you, and they refuse to shout about their meaning or importance – even their length. They also resist your attempts to predict what might happen next. His music is full of repetition, and yet nothing ever repeats. What I mean is that individual chords, textures and rhythmic ideas reoccur, but they are never (or very rarely) the same. – Tom service  Graphic musical scores ask you to withdraw meaning and information from symbols, pictures and texts. Many argue that such non-standard notation requires a performer to be visually literate and imaginative – the music depends on their individual choices of interpretation.  But where does the composer belong in this story? Do performers mistake the freedom associated with graphic scores for licence? What are the pitfalls in interpreting graphic scores such as those by Morton Feldman? John Snijders, music lecturer at Durham University, made this the focus of his talk. Cage, a contemporary composer, described Feldman’s music as …

Perfection and Authenticity.

(This article is inspired by a talk given at the Philosophy of Improvisation: Aesthetics of Imperfection Workshops) Recording is known to be a laborious, time-consuming process. Many takes and crumpled sheets of manuscript paper later, the desired sound might be vaguely achieved, and we haven’t even started talking about quantising the beat or splicing yet. Rock guitarist and sound engineer Dave Lloyd spoke about editing improvised recordings. Is audio-editing on the composition side of the spectrum? Surely, yes, if recording includes corrective techniques, and time to make choices. Early 20th-century composer, Schoenberg, claims that composing is like slowed down improvisation – “one cannot write fast enough to keep up with the stream of ideas”. Almost in the same vein, Schoenberg’s contemporary, Busoni, stated that to put something on paper is inherently imperfect because it is impossible to capture everything. Does the same apply to recording? We can thus, perhaps, infer that an aesthetics of imperfection versus perfection is problematic. Imperfection is a valid potentiality in recording and composition as much as improvisation. In adopting a perfectionist attitude, are …

The Aesthetics of Possibilities.

(This article is inspired by a talk given at the Philosophy of Improvisation: Aesthetics of Imperfection Workshops) What is the perfect performance? Does such a thing even exist? Perhaps perfection is a transient moment. Upon looking back at a video or recording, for example, is it still perfect? Most importantly, can we draw something positive from the aesthetics of perfection? An aesthetics of imperfection versus perfection can be toxic. Improvising pianist, Pak Yan Lau, suggests that we should opt for something more positive, namely, an aesthetics of possibilities. Often, when we are just trying to be, calm is gatecrashed by the inner judging spectre who is inside us all. It ceases to be all about the music. An aesthetics of perfection can lead to comparison to others, for example. Brahms never felt that he could live up to the music of Beethoven. An attitude of perfectionism means that it is all about getting there, less about the process of going through getting there. William Blake refers to man’s judging spectre as their Urizen (their ‘reason’) – a jealous, unimaginative, loveless …

Architecture of Imperfection: Unfinished Sketches and the Sublime.

(This article is inspired by a talk given at the Philosophy of Improvisation: Aesthetics of Imperfection Workshops) The sketch gives a creative and artistic link to the practice of architecture. Despite computational design, algorithms and software that have extended the abilities of the architect, the hand-drawn sketch is still important today. If the sketch is the expression of the building, then our imagination is entertained with the promise of something more. During Elizabeth’s talk, I found myself asking whether or not a potential can be more beautiful than an outcome. Elizabeth showed us some realistic depictions of scenes from Shakespeare – but can paintings go beyond the literal? Can the visual convey the sublime or is ‘material’ their limitation? The ‘sublime’ goes beyond what we can see, and the ‘beautiful’ lies in the form. From al fresco, to painting on a canvas; the frame around a painting represents the notion of the ‘work’ and, thus, portrays artists and composers as ‘desk workers’. The product is of central importance. If Plato and Aristotle believed that the arts, …

Ethics and Embodiment in Dance improvisation.

(This article is inspired by a talk given at the Philosophy of Improvisation: Aesthetics of Imperfection Workshops) truth and reality in art do not arise until you no longer understand what you are doing and are capable of but nevertheless sense a power that grows in proportion to your resistance – Henri Matisse  It is not uncommon for dancers to agree on the fact that to dance is to lose oneself in the process. Theatre and dance academic, Annie Kloppenberg, believes that “space is felt, not just seen”. To me this is suggesting that to experience space is a process and not a product. In other words it is suggestive, not exhaustive. Movement transcends the ocularcentricity in dance; this inclination towards the ‘unseen’ is revealed in the very etymology of the word improvisation. Improvisatory dance, says Annie, leads to an attunement, expressing possibilities, composition and collaboration, and a ‘productive friction’. This ‘productive friction’ suggests that imperfection can give the wrestling with the unstable a sense of structure. In a sense this is all-inclusive. Perhaps everybody can improvise. Is …

Rarely heard, small unwanted sounds from the focus.

(This article is inspired by a talk given at the Philosophy of Improvisation: Aesthetics of Imperfection Workshops) With his prepared semi-acoustic guitar balanced flat on his lap, David Brown set off to show us his fascination with ‘imperfect sounds’. Using utensils such as pegs and a fanlike device related to the sound of a fly, David produced twangs and clangorous sounds that constitute his personal musical vocabulary. These are the unwanted sounds, almost musique concrète in their conversance with metallic, bubbling and helicopter noises. The sounds that make you feel uneasy. In his music, David uses the superfluous sounds around what he is trying to create. Think of accidental sounds in a violin recital, for example; say, the scraping noise of the bow when it is applied with slightly too much pressure on the string. This is an example of a sound that is meant to be inaudible. It belongs in the void or the ‘focus’, according to David. An audience member asked whether or not there was an entertainment aspect in his set up. Does he ever find …

Still water moves.

(This article is inspired by a talk given at the Philosophy of Improvisation: Aesthetics of Imperfection Workshops) Gardens are forever maturing. I have watched my grandmother plant seeds, water them, watch and worship them. Perhaps after a certain point, your garden becomes independent and self-sufficient. You lose an element of the control you once had. Phil Robinson’s  talk was more like a long poem asking this: does improvisation have a place in the garden? Could improvisation in gardening challenge our assumptions around perfection? Many think about repeating patterns of form and colour when they think of a garden. We, as the gardener, can make the choice to use yellow against blue – opposites on the colour wheel. Perfection is, by definition, a singular and static idea. But consider water. It brings patterns to life. What colour is water? When it reflects, it leaves some of itself behind. Water is also a home. Birds come to water, for example, and we enjoy their presence and their movement in the garden. When I see rowers on the river Wear here at …

The Mistake as Material.

  (This article is inspired by a talk given at the Philosophy of Improvisation: Aesthetics of Imperfection Workshops) Corey Mwamba’s thoughts on the mistake gave me more questions to run with than answers to sit down with and that is why I enjoyed listening to him so much. In this video, skip to 1:45 and you’ll see a little trumpeter improvising. If you look carefully, there is a moment during which the boy behind him winces. Funnily enough, it is at precisely this moment that our little trumpeter plays a clashing D note over an opposing E-flat chord. “Rationally speaking”, says Corey, the D note in that harmonic context was a mistake. But should we be rational when we are creating music? What is a mistake? Is it signalled by someone’s response, such as the little individual’s grimace – surely that is material evidence of a mistake? Where is a mistake located exactly? Corey believes that the mistake is located in our perceptions. What you perceive as a mistake, the person next to you might perceive as an …

“Stardust” : Seeing and Imagining what Isn’t There.

(This article is inspired by a talk given at the Philosophy of Improvisation: Aesthetics of Imperfection Workshops)  “I must apologise before I start”, said Martin Mayes, and proceeded to confess that he had pre-prepared his presentation. So much for a workshop based around the theme of values in imperfection and improvisation! Alas, he shall be forgiven, for he talked about everything from the magic of stars and horns to shepherds. What, with covering this much ground in a mere 30 minutes, following a plan was probably a good idea. If stars are the moment of perfection, then the dark space around them are the imperfection, explains Martin. Does this then mean there is more space for imperfection? Or perhaps that creating involves the bringing together of moments (stars) that are unrelated, and this involves inevitable contact with the imperfect. Lets suppose that you are a fortunate reader who lives somewhere unplagued by light or air-pollution and that you can go and stare at the stars tonight. What are those shining things really? What is that out …

Struggle and Surrender : Process and Material in Painting. 

(This article is inspired by a talk given at the Philosophy of Improvisation: Aesthetics of Imperfection Workshops) It comes as a surprise at first that visual artist, Claire Zakiewicz, does not make art. She prefers to label her creative work as a practice in listening, learning and observing. Claire and her art reside in a world called spatialised time – a wonderful place where shapes of sound, dance and drawing are related back to the material world we live in. This world exists in the crossroad between two chief species of time. Intellectual time is a purposeful sequencing of parts or events and is, therefore, affiliated with ideas composition and product. Real time, familial to ideas of improvisation and process, is the experience of these sequenced parts. So in the land of spatialised time, Claire’s artistic house is located in a town called ‘perspectives in motion’ where the artistic system adopts a temporal focus attributable to Claire’s interest in the philosophy of the two species of time mentioned above. In the course of one prickly affair, …

An imperfect introduction to Imperfection.

The abstract noun, ‘Imperfection’, has quite a comfortable locale in our everyday modern vocabularies. But take a minute to really sit on the word. To repeat it out loud a few times. To think about what on earth it actually implies. You will find that ‘imperfection’ ceases to be a straightforward entirely; it becomes quite a mysterious entity of word. Ours is a perfectionist post-modern society. An example among many is the occasion of recording in music. We no longer have to attend concerts; we can simply spread our limbs across the living-room sofa and select a piece, an artist and an edition. Not only can we adjust the volume but we can skip whole sections with a simple drag of our index finger across the screen. Henry Pleasant is far from wrong in suggesting that we have become an audience “charged with laziness”; our ears refuse to make an effort with anything unfamiliar and we become accustomed to the polished feel of recordings that have been revised, corrected and auto-tuned. Comfortable, routinely and reliable …