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David Toop: Communality or Virtual Sculpture: Improvisation, Technology, Utopias, and Space


I am going to discuss improvisation in relation to music. This talk will suggest contrasts between the communal, libertarian ideals of 1960s-70s free improvisation, and the more open, or less defined, sites for improvisation in the present. In particular, I want to highlight differences between the ideals embodied in 'instruments of virtuosity', typical of the earlier period, and the instruments of expedience (redundant technologies, found and invented instruments, computers, flotsam and jetsam) now common in present practice. Additionally, I will touch on the issue of transcendence, which was frequently an explicit or implied aim of 1960s improvised music, and the move in recent years to a more grounded relationship to place and moment.

Good Morning Good Night, by a trio of Japanese musicians, Sachiko M, Toshimaru Nakamura and Otomo Yoshihide, is a CD that in 2004, challenged my conceptions of what was possible. This is an unsettling feeling, particularly when you have already come to accept, with some ease, previous recordings by the same musicians. Despite, or perhaps because of my strong feelings of disquiet and perplexity, I never wrote about this CD at the time, and now I find I am compelled to return to it.

Finding meaning is the problem. It could be said that the wisdom of looking for meaning is doubtful, since improvisation is an activity that often provides a welcome relief from the burdens of worthy usefulness, readable text, over-determined ideas and calculated intent. The likelihood of finding meaning in a recording like this is remote, though it’s the restrictive definitions of meaning that pose the difficulty, rather than its absence. Given those definitions of meaning that currently prevail, there is little on the surface with which we can engage.

Perhaps I should begin by trying to contextualise and describe Good Morning Good Night. To simplify the context, the musicians are seen as part of a loosely construed movement often known as lowercase. Many of these musicians made their first notable recordings in the late 1990s, although a few players of significance from the earlier history of improvised music – particularly Keith Rowe, Radu Malfatti, and Phil Durrant – have been prominent in these more recent developments. The music is called lowercase, because it tends to be understated, and quiet, lacking in extreme contrasts. The activity level is generally low, to the point at which some recordings are almost silent. Detractors have described the feeling of this music as quasi-religious, or make parallels with notorious art works in which nothing much seems to be happening.

As for Good Morning Good Night, this extends over two CDs, and documents a lengthy, unedited performance in a recording studio. On first listen there seems to be very little activity at all, though this perception changes after hearing the record at intervals over a period of some months. In other words, what begins by sounding like a lot of silence with a few interventions, somehow comes to sound almost busy through the process of familiarity and refined attentiveness.

PLAY CD Encountering the work for the first time, I experienced a sense of disconnectedness. Other people I have spoken to have interpreted its apparent lack of form as a lack of substance. Sounds tend to be brief – the kind of short, harsh, messy sound that happens when dust is brushed off the stylus of a record turntable, or a plug is inserted into an amplifier socket when the volume is turned up. These sounds don’t feel aggressive, however, and in fact, references to emotional states such as aggression seem irrelevant.

Searching for conceptual, or emotional frameworks, is an elusive business. Sometimes there are long, high tones, which introduce smoother lines into the broken, impact sounds and irregular crackles. Nothing lasts long enough to become intense, or reveal a conscious method. There is a stillness, without the progressive resolution we call development.

I hear the music as a fragmentary form of virtual sculpture. The players have developed relationships that are intensely connected, yet they abstain from any overt acknowledgement of this, such as call-and-response interactions, or manifestly emotional reactions.

Despite its length, the piece comes to the listener with a modest agenda. These are individual sounds made on simple electronic equipment, produced and recorded in a room, exchanged by three people who have similar aims and a wealth of experience working together. Apparently, there is no composition, other than the accepted norms of listening, response, specificity, and restraint accepted by the three participants. The sounds are set in relationship to each other, even though they rarely overlap. This is because they exist on a time base and are contained within a series of frames: the CD format, with its name, packaging, and time constraints; the act of recording a relatively silent performance within a quiet room without allowing the circumstances of that act to be compromised by interruptions of any kind. The initial impression is disconcerting, because this seems to be extreme minimalism without the ideology of Minimalism, or its self-conscious dedication to process. I can imagine it would be possible to listen to this CD and not hear it as music, or any kind of significant event at all, other than a faint disturbance of the atmosphere.

To contradict this first impression, it has been suggested to me by a painter of my acquaintance, that a link could be made between the minimalism of Toshimaru Nakamura, and the process painting of the 1990s. Nakamura’s method of connecting input and output on a mixing desk in order to generate interference patterns from controlled feedback, can be compared to the way in which a painter like Jason Martin uses comb-like devices to create intense visual movement through the surface of a painting. In other words, Nakamura has a method which he applies to his chosen technological devices, and he applies this method for the majority of his performances. A question could be raised here:

is this improvisation?

I would argue that this qualifies as improvisation, since the improvisation comes from a mix of unpredictable conditions that are integrated into the outcome, rather than tolerated or suppressed as undesirable elements. These conditions include the minute variations of nuance that are possible in the control of feedback. In this case, the subtlety of nuance is reinforced by the restrained vocabulary of the performers, a restriction that tacitly acknowledges the possibility that feedback is a cumulative phenomenon that always threatens to rage out of control. Each space in which the music is performed becomes vital to the nature of the performance. In this context, I would define space in this instance as a complex event which enwraps the physical environment of acoustics, social space and so on, with physiology, a sense of becoming, and an awareness that each new space is a kind of palimpsest, inscribed on each occasion with auditory marks that heighten the moment-to- moment experience of the participants, and acknowledge the history of previous encounters as they disappear.

This is a sound work that presents itself with disarming frankness and impersonality. Many of the qualities we associate with group improvisation – cohesion and coherence, interplay, reflection and cooperation, richness and variety of materials and movement – are rejected, or more accurately, they are negotiated in such a way to make the listener reconsider these qualities and strategies, even reconsider the act of listening. Is it worth listening, and if we listen to a music that seems as if component parts are missing, how does one sound connect to another? In other words, in the absence of any externally imposed structure, or internally decipherable connectivity, where is the form?

Some of these concerns were present in the early history of improvised music, since the musicians gradually dispensed with the head arrangements of jazz, regular metre, and tonal centre or harmony. An abandonment of principles customarily regarded as basic to the creation of music, was linked to wider concerns.

In the wake of the early 1960s free jazz movement, with its political links to American civil rights, this was a music that described itself as free improvisation, or free music. Freedom, in the most generalised and ill-defined sense, was perceived from a variety of perspectives, as a central aspiration of the era.

In its early days, free improvisation was also perceived as an antidote to the objectification and commodification of music. Improvised music was a time-based, performance art, only fixed through the act of recording, and many musicians shared John Cage’s feeling, that record collections were not music. Recordings of improvised music were relatively rare in the days when high quality portable tape recorders were owned by very few musicians, radio broadcasts of the music were sparse, commercial studio time was expensive and the cost of pressing vinyl LPs was high. Established record companies showed little interest in this new music, leading to a sudden growth in independent production, with the development of an improvisation aesthetic to match. Early records on FMP, ICP and Incus were low budget sessions, recorded quickly, rejecting studio effects such as echo and overdubbing and placing a high value on the atmosphere, energy and live interplay of the moment. Now they are ‘read’ as historic documents. As vinyl originals, many of them have become collectible items with a value that reflects their desirability as cultural objects, their rarity a reflection of the music’s economic struggles with unpopularity at the time of release. At that time, however, they were more like emergency telegrams from the frontline.

The ethos of this kind of unplanned improvisation was conceived during a period when collectivism, in its broadest social and political implications, was imagined in many artistic circles as a real possibility for the near future. Improvisation offered an alternative to the problems of authority, control and property implicit, or at least open to interpretation, in the act of composition. A high level of communication was sought, and often found, within notionally unstructured, egalitarian events. “The best general description of this ethic is socialist,” wrote Eddie PrÈvost in his 1981 lecture – The Aesthetic Priority of Improvisation, “because it exemplifies the ideal of full personal expression located within, and made possible by, a sympathetic collective environment.”

Incompatible though they may have been, political philosophies and radical arts converged with religious and spiritual beliefs in the conceptualisation of this fragile, difficult initiative. In the wake of art movements such as abstract expressionism, actionism, the destruction in art movement, and live happenings, along with associated influences from Asian philosophies such as Zen Buddhism and Taoism, process and its ephemeral outcomes were valued more highly than the shaping of a perfect object.

Profoundly influenced by free jazz, improvisation was infused with 1960s ideals of spontaneity and liberation, both personal and political. Even the utopian aims of the self-sufficiency movement of the 1970s can be unpicked from those strands of improvisation that delighted in natural materials, unprocessed recordings and independence from all outside intervention. The music was conceived as a potential model of society – an experiment in finding a better way to live – with the inevitable conflicts, misunderstandings, revelations and ecstatic communions that such rapid, reckless, uncontrolled evolutionary tactics necessarily entailed. With notable exceptions, the music tended to be garrulous, hyperactive, even hysterical.

“People want to play,” John Stevens used to say in his improvisation workshops of the early 1970s. From my personal experience as a young and inexperienced participant in the first John Stevens improvisation workshops, held at Ealing College in 1971, I know that this overwhelming desire to play, both as a positive, motivational force, and as a potentially anti-social, selfish tendency, was a deeply contentious issue within improvised music’s evolution.

Some of the exercises Stevens devised, either through his experience as drummer with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, or through theorisation inspired by the unfamiliar situations arising in putatively unstructured playing, were aimed at curbing this enthusiastic tendency to play constantly (often at full volume) to the detriment of listening, communication or reflection. With varying degrees of success, he experimented with forms that encouraged the emergence of a satisfying level of musical interaction, even within very large groups (notorious for their tendency to coalesce into grey goo). Stevens, along with many other players of the time, was engaged in a project to resolve two opposing modes of performance: spontaneous, undirected and individualistic on the one hand; ritualistic, celebratory and communal on the other. If we listen to the music from that time, we can hear the way in which the energy arises out of perpetual motion and mimicry, constantly pushing towards an unattainable state of unity. Ecstatic release is inferred, yet never realised.

PLAY CD 2 This was the first movement of a John Stevens piece – Search and Reflect – recorded for BBC Radio Three’s Jazz In Britain programme in 1972. What you hear is an 8 piece ensemble drawn from the Ealing workshop group. I was playing electric guitar, and the other members included Paul Burwell on tablas and Christopher Small on piano. The idea of this piece, as I remember it, was summed up by the title: to find sounds made by other members of the group, and to reflect them. What I hear now amongst the scurrying and agitation is anxiety, based on the fear that communication may not take place. The difference between this piece, and Good Morning Good Night, recorded over 30 years later, is like the difference between a conversation in which the participants talk excessively because they are afraid of silences, and a conversation that is confident enough in silence to be ruminative and measured. I would describe the performances and workshops of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s as heuristic ceremonies: a mix of communitarian learning and self-education that encouraged open-mindedness, quickness, instrumental skills, communality and an almost mystical belief in the powers of sound. Personal individuality was a prerequisite for getting ahead in a music career, yet this had to be balanced by the driving force of the music, whose overriding goal was unity and transcendence, even a microcosmic paradise on earth.

Fairly quickly in the early 1970s, further contradictions began to emerge. Most of the first improvising musicians were either virtuosic jazz musicians and trained composers. The next generation, of which I was a part, had begun in rock and soul music, music schools, art schools, electronic music classes, or informal free jazz jam sessions. Our instrumental abilities, or types of training, were extremely diverse. The first generation of improvisers had pushed their instruments to the edge, using sophisticated, unconventional techniques and equipment to focus on sounds that would commonly be regarded as mistakes. This set its own logic in motion, since if the undesirable edges of an instrument’s capability could be central to music making, then it followed that any sonic device – whether a toy from Woolworths, a garden hosepipe, or a football rattle – became acceptable. The first improvisers had not set out to be an elite of exceptionally skilled individuals, or guardians of esoteric musical insights that elevated them above lesser mortals, but to a degree, this is what happened. Inevitably, though unintentionally, the second generation’s disruption of this elite and its carefully nurtured principles, generated friction at all levels.

This complex, often contradictory history, now informs a broad spectrum of contemporary playing. Improvisation as a ‘school’, however, has been enlivened, broadened and perhaps changed irrevocably by the attitudes and practice of younger players only loosely aware of the historical detail, and by their introduction of new technologies (or new approaches to existing technology) as performance tools. From my recent experience of running an improvisation class at the London College of Communication, a 16 piece group might include 6 laptop computers, a record deck, a Speak and Spell toy, electronically processed violin, electronic keyboards, contact microphones, humming cables, and a power drill.

Good Morning Good Night reveals no information about instrumentation. The use of digital tools, laptop computers running audio software programs, electronics sound generators, and customised audio hardware makes it more difficult to locate this music within physicality, let alone a specific genre history, or tradition of virtuosity. Physicality is present, but it’s the physicality of surgery or bonsai cultivation, rather than karate or tree felling.

Listening to lowercase, we hear music without instruments, with a further implication that we hear music without players. To an extent, I interpret this is an ideal for many performers, who tend to switch or modify their sound- making tools on a regular basis. The technological infrastructure of our society is changing rapidly, so commitment to an instrument developed prior to the 20th century can seem anachronistic. But musical instruments also have a tendency to fix personal identity, and since this is music in which identity itself is malleable and subject to improvisation from moment to moment, the urge to undermine fixed positions is very strong.

There is something of Morton Feldman’s later compositions buried within the deeper unspoken philosophy of lowercase improvisation, along with the abstract minimalism of painters such as Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman. What is attractive here is work that gives the impression of coming into being without human agency, and this has a profound connection to a distaste for showy virtuosity, personality cults, and the fixed values and routines of entertainment, whether they be rituals of stage presentation or the repetitive collusions that pass for communication between musicians and audience.

Despite its dismantling of so many foundations of preceding musical practice – notated composition, metre, harmony and even the loosest suggestion of preparatory discussion – improvisation was driven by a form of conservatism. Even the limited success afforded by such a tiny, economically deprived scene could be mysteriously denied to those who worked outside the unspoken rules. This is typical of small, marginalised cultural movements. Without boundaries and a vociferously expressed sense of what is ‘done’ or ‘not done’, such movements become vulnerable to collapses of identity, confidence and the emotional and physical energy required to pursue their vision.

Amplification and electronics proved to be flash points for this early conservatism. In a 1995 panel discussion that considered the influence of John Cage, composer Alvin Curran spoke about the liberating effect of electronic amplification in the Rome-based improvising group, Musica Elettronica Viva, commonly known as MEV. In the mid-sixties, Curran had moved to Rome and began working with Frederic Rzewski, Richard Teitelbaum, Carol Plantamura, Ivan Vandor, Alan Bryant, John Phetteplace, and Steve Lacy. “Largely unaware of and unconcerned by the direct Cage/Tudor influence on the origins of MEV (primarily through Rzewski’s enthusiastic stay in Buffalo with them, prior to his own return to Rome),” Curran said, “ we found ourselves busily soldering cables, contact mikes, and talking about ‘circuitry’ as if it were a new religion. By amplifying the sounds of glass, wood, metal, water, air, and fire, we were convinced we had tapped into the sources of the natural musics of ‘everything.’ We were in fact making a spontaneous music which could be said to be coming from ‘nowhere’ and made out of ‘nothing’ – all somewhat a wonder and a collective epiphany.”

As Curran underlines, this engagement with electronics in MEV, AMM and Music Improvisation Company, along with the innovations of individual players such as Tony Oxley and Paul Lytton, was primarily an investigation into the hidden, inner sounds of materials that would normally be considered non-musical and, in many cases, non-resonant. Exceptions to this lo-tech, homemade approach, such as Richard Teitelbaum, were rare. Logic would suggest that synthesisers such as the Moog, Arp or VCS3, all relatively recent inventions at that time, would have been the ideal tools for improvisers at the cutting edge of music. In fact, they were regarded with suspicion, more likely to be heard in pop and rock bands, or in electronic ensembles such as Gentle Fire.

In the poorly rewarded field of experimental improvisation, commercially manufactured electronic instruments were prohibitively expensive. Also, as Gentle Fire/Music Improvisation Company member Hugh Davies has pointed out, homemade electronics could introduce elements of indeterminacy, generating unforeseen information in contexts where musicians welcomed chance, accident and unpredictability. This was a positive effect, but for all but the most open-minded of virtuoso instrumentalists, synthesisers and electronic devices seemed to allow a degree of push-button amateurism, a reliance on machines that confounded the absolute necessity in jazz for superlative technique.

With a sense of exhaustion, the collective experiments of the sixties and seventies entered the eighties and found the environment increasingly hostile. Perhaps this winter season allowed the music to reassess itself, and be reassessed. Other initiatives had become (or were becoming) important for younger players: industrial music, noise, the cassette movement, techno, acid house, lo-tech electronics, computer sequencing, sampling, hip-hop, and so on. The ‘school’ of improvisation remained a logical choice for any musician who wished to experience the excitement of making music of unknown outcome, in the moment, in sympathetic company, yet the available tools were changing, along with the cultural history that such players brought with them to school.

Prejudice against electronics was anachronistic, by this time replaced with a fascination for the work of neglected electro-acoustic composers, electronic instrument inventors and tape music pioneers from the distant past; any residual suspicion of popular musics was reduced (amusingly, though with some pathos) to a generational conflict. Adorno’s comment, that “popular music is objectively untrue and helps to maim the consciousness of those exposed to it,” may have been plausible to many first generation improvisers in the 1960s, but by the 1990s, the sentiment was risible.

“Knowing springs to life in the story,” wrote Antonio Damasio in his book, The Feeling Of What Happens. “It inheres in the newly constructed neural pattern that constitutes the non-verbal account.” Improvisation will always be a setting in which players discover and develop their own personal language, their own identity even, at the same time as constructing evolving and shifting structural forms as a collective, real-time enterprise. Priorities have changed, however, and the desire to communicate has a different flavour. Duos For Doris, the 2003 2CD release by Keith Rowe and John Tilbury, is a case in point. The placement of sounds by these highly experienced and skilful musicians, both within the temporal flow of the music and in the (partially illusory) three-dimensional sound field, is considered and enacted with a precise intensity that shapes its own enveloping atmosphere. The analogy of conversation, or communion, can still be applied, but this is a long way from the volatile house meetings of communal living circa 1974. There are long periods when Tilbury seems to do nothing except listen, when Rowe’s contribution seems constant but relatively static, an electronic buzzing of unknown origin that might easily be just the condition of his amplifier. I would say that they construct a landscape, then move within it.

Although important to the cohesion of groups such as AMM, atmosphere was rarely discussed in the early days of improvisation, since this barely understood quality was considered superfluous to qualitative assessments of the playing and its interactive success. In notes written for Duos For Doris, though posted on the Erstwhile Records company website rather than printed on the sleeve, Keith Rowe has opened a discussion on the importance of atmosphere, and what he describes as the “decisive moment”:

“I have become increasingly preoccupied with atmosphere,” he writes, “in particular the kind of atmosphere that one finds surrounding a Mark Rothko painting. It seems to me that when one is in the presence of a Rothko work, but also when one has departed and on reflection, I’m struck not by . . . what an incredible technique, what a painter, but derive more of a feeling of the surrounding atmosphere, its sensation. Somehow I wanted to move what I‘m doing ( intention ) towards this notion of atmosphere, an activity where we are not aware of technique, of instrument, of playing, of music even, but as feeling/sensation suspended in space. Perhaps this is what Feldman meant by music as time, energising the air, making the silence (un-intention ) audible.”

Electronic sounds, particularly computer generated sounds, give some impression of being dissociated from activation. This can be as fractional as the small distance between musician and amplifier, or as significant as the minimal activity of a musician with a laptop, generating layered sounds of wildly varying dynamic scale and virtual perspective, all moving dramatically around the room in which they are transmitted. This shift away from overt physicality and observable technique, towards considered listening, placement, an immersion in the silence and feeling of rooms, can provoke a new kind of listening at its best, both for players and audiences, along with a new consideration of place. As guitarist Taku Sugimoto has said, sometimes he feels he is a member of the audience, even though he is playing the music. The individualism and energy of much early improvisation, still rising on the buoyant currents of free jazz, is moderated for a different age. Fluid, gripping, “suspended in space”, the music moves perpetually in its stillness.