Mirror Image – album release

15 12 2015

 

Hervé Perez & Roger Mills – Mirror Image

 

Released
14 December 2015
by linear obsessional recordings
 

 

 

“Linear Obsessional is delighted to present this beautifully recorded collection of free improvisations by Nada. Nada is the duo of Roger Mills – trumpet and Hervé Perez – alto sax.
The improvisations that make up “Mirror Image” are revelatory, as both musicians explore a huge range of sonic textures through extended technique and make for a fascinating and engrossing listen as they search out their common ground. Interestingly although both musicians had played together via internet collaborations “Mirror Image” is the result of their first meetings in person. The sound of two musicians communicating so naturally, but also with great control and subtlety, makes this an enormously rewarding listen.”

Available as a free download with accompanying PDF booklet of notes with beautiful images by Arman S. Haghi
from the release page

 

Mirror Image is the debut album of the duo Nada, featuring UK based saxophonist Hervé Perez and Australian trumpeter Roger Mills. While Perez and Mills live on opposite sides of the world, they met through their mutual work with the telematic improvisation music ensemble Ethernet Orchestra. The duo quickly realised a shared aesthetic and continued developing their sound online.

Hervé and Roger would like to thank Elke Utermöhlen and Martin Slawig (blackhole-factory) for bringing us together, Richard Sanderson for releasing the album,and Arman S. Haghi for the original artwork.

This album is made up of three recordings gathered during a residency in Studio_A | Kunstmühle on December 06 and 07, 2014 and includes a live performance of the duo at Club Instabil

 

 

Roger Mills – trumpet
Hervé Perez – alto sax
edit and master by @sndsukinspook
artwork by Arman S. Haghi





sounding out in the south of france

2 11 2015

StSardos2bMazerescampan

 

summer 2015. i retrace my steps from a previous visit in the region, finding new venues to accommodate meditation and music. here are documents that follow new explorations of architecture and sacred sites, sounding out wonderful spaces of magnificent splendour and spirit. i feel once again that the path has led me through increasingly deep experiences and i hope that you will enjoy this new page. indeed this set of recent recordings show that the music keeps on growing and so is my experience of deep listening. getting closer to the underlying concept of this whole project, i keep learning and discovering, finding new understanding of what is happening in the space between improvisation, sound vibrations and our harmonic relationship with the environment. and the more i find it difficult to discriminate between art and life.

needless to say, each and every one of these experiences is very special to me. and much is due to the amazing and inspiring locations i visit.
i really hope that these audio documents will carry an impression of this for your enjoyment.

 

StGironslagrasseVerdun

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lapis sky
alto saxophone, 07 august 2015
église st michel, verdun sur garonne

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nocturne
alto saxophone, 07 august 2015
église st michel, verdun sur garonne

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mouvement céleste
alto saxophone, 07 august 2015
église st michel, verdun sur garonne

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prayer for silence
alto saxophone, 01 august 2015
église st michel, lagrasse

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prayer for the sun
alto saxophone, 01 august 2015
église st michel, lagrasse

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prayer for icecream
alto saxophone, 01 august 2015
église st michel, lagrasse

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marking time
alto saxophone, 28 july 2015
église st giron

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le passage
alto saxophone, 28 july 2015
église st giron

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abbatiale 1
alto saxophone, 27 july 2015
abbaye cistercienne de l’escaladieu

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abbatiale 2
alto saxophone, 27 july 2015
abbaye cistercienne de l’escaladieu

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abbatiale 3
alto saxophone, 27 july 2015
abbaye cistercienne de l’escaladieu

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habitat des moines 1 grand salon
alto saxophone, 27 july 2015
abbaye cistercienne de l’escaladieu

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habitat des moines 1 paysages
alto saxophone, 27 july 2015
abbaye cistercienne de l’escaladieu

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rapture
alto saxophone, 27 july 2015
abbaye cistercienne de l’escaladieu

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third passage
alto saxophone, 26 july 2015
abbatiale de st savin

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the rock
alto saxophone, 26 july 2015
abbatiale de st savin

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waterfall in blue light
alto saxophone, 26 july 2015
abbatiale de st savin

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empty streets
alto saxophone, 25 july 2015
église de campan

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dummy town
alto saxophone, 25 july 2015
église de campan

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silent crossing
alto saxophone, 25 july 2015
église de campan

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retour en arrière
alto saxophone, 21 july 2015
église de mazères

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saline flotation
alto saxophone, 21 july 2015
église de mazères

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medieval meanderings
alto saxophone, 20 july 2015
église de rieux sur volvestre

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filmic gestures
alto saxophone, 16 july 2015
église de montbeton

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the space between
alto saxophone, 16 july 2015
église de montbeton

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the space between
alto saxophone, 16 july 2015
église de montbeton

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pastoral departure
alto saxophone, 09 july 2015
église de st sardos

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mountain road
alto saxophone, 09 july 2015
église de st sardos

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the wild
alto saxophone, 09 july 2015
église de st sardos

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mer de nuages
alto saxophone, 09 july 2015
église de st sardos

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French summer festival and more gigs

14 10 2015

Following on from the previous post featuring sets of live improvisation in Jazz à Luz, here are another few videos shot during the summer i spent in the south of France.

I was invited to participate during the first edition of Festival La Poutre, near Toulouse. Short but sweet, crammed with brilliant acts and musicians, this very friendly and laidback event was like a bowl of fresh air. Of course, many interesting exchanges ensued. below is a couple of documents of a meeting with trumpet player and artist Rodriguez Walkind.

 

Festival La Poutre – the deck

 

Festival La Poutre – in the trees

 

These videos are made up of whatever footage i had. a lot of it is not sync, to make up for the gaps… still, a cool document of a significant first encounter.

 

The following videos have better footage and were filmed through two sets at the Pizzeria Bellefort in Toulouse where they have a regular programme of improvisation.

Cool wine cellar and free pizza, we had a real blast playing there. Heddy surprised us by inviting the brilliant flautist from Amsterdam Mark Alban Lotz to join mr Boubaker on bass, Guy Bayssac on drums and myself on alto.

i am very pleased to have played with such an amazing bunch. great times…

 

 

the first set was a duo with guy bayssac aka ‘canard’. such a pleasure to meet again.

 

 

as usual, the audio from all the above videos, and much more, is available from my website. see the improv section for various collaborations:

 www.spacers.lowtech.org/herve

 

there is more footage coming this way with guy bayssac and another surprise guest shot in café burgaud. so keep your eyes peeled…





Festival in France

5 09 2015

I have enjoyed time away from the screen… but i am back with a vengeance, working my way through many recordings gathered during a visit to France. It had been three years, and it was intense fun to meet up with friends after such a long time. I was very lucky to be invited to take part in concerts, festivals and other musical encounters all squeezed into a short time period.

Of course, i made the most of my travels to explore many more churches, abbeys and other amazing places for my solo project ‘sounding out’.

I also have a few videos, which i am working on. These are only documents of valuable encounters and i have no artistic pretense. Unfortunately, i had to make do with short clips short by a friend in the audience, and some of them are not great. So i’ve had to select whatever was usable, and fill in with what i had handy: other clips from elsewhere which were obviously out of sync with the music and are therefore slowed down, plus a few still shots thrown in for good measure.

Still, is is rather fun to watch back, and really, those videos are only excuses to present some music, and great human moments between old friends and new ones…

Today, i would like to present to you three clips which were shot on the first night of the fantastic jazz/improvisation festival Jazz à Luz. We played two nights in a row next to the main stage, as part of the installation promoting the architectural forms and constructions based on sacred geometry by festizomes.

Below, you will find further links and audio clips to the entire concerts in audio format, including the second night – which featured to fantastic music too (but no video i am afraid).

 

 

 

 

audio from day 1

 

 

 

audio from day 2

 

 

There will be more posts in the next few days presenting other concerts and the whole series of solo recordings, as soon as all this is available online. So watch this space! I hope you enjoy watching/listening, and feel free to comment etc…  till soon,

 

rv

 





Additional thoughts on improvisation

31 08 2015

i would like to update my previous post with some further thoughts. so i will invite the reader to read the previous entry beforehand and then continue with the following.

 

Further thoughts on improvisation

 

I would like to add a few comments in relation to the text I have written on improvisation and, once again, use another scientific understanding in order to illustrate my points.

 

We have seen previously that our interpretation of what listening is can vary greatly from one individual to another. And so, when considering the spectrum of practices from written/rehearsed music all the way to free improvisation via jazz and improvised soloing within set frameworks, we can see that the degree or type of listening that is required is relative to the context.

The further we go along this axis, from written music, all the way to free form, we follow a line that demands more focused and detailed listening skills, towards ‘deep listening’ and further even. We have seen that along this line that the deeper the listening, the less room for ego, and the more empathy is found in the exchange.

 

And so, similarly, we can apply this understanding of relativity when it comes to improvisation. Our understanding of improvisation is not always the same. There is an obvious trajectory here that can be analysed. Starting from written music, where there is no deviation, we move towards improvisation within a given framework, as expressed previously, such as in jazz, etc. And when we consider free improvisation, we move to semi-structured pieces that contain a certain degree of freedom towards a place where there is no defined framework at all, no harmonic or rhythmical predetermination. In the latter case, we could say that further improvisational skills (i.e. a wider range) are required together with more attentive listening.

 

So when we speak of what is improvisation, once again, it is all relative to the position we find ourselves along this axis. For most people, non-musicians or musicians who only perform written music, jazz improvisation may seem mystical or magical. However, for an experienced improviser, used to ‘deep listening’ and free playing, improvising within frameworks seems less magical, and more attainable – provided we have a good knowledge of the syntax of a given genre.

This does not mean in any way that one is better than another. I am only saying that different contexts require different sets of skills or inclination.

And what we mean by improvisation varies in degree of ‘freedom’ or ‘expression’ relative to the musical environment we choose to work in. It also means that the notion of improvisation is malleable.

 

This has many practical implications. I would like to direct the readers’ attention to a scientific research, in order to illustrate this point:

I am very interested in the work of Dr Charles Limb who is a scientist, medical doctor, experienced jazz musician and published researcher. His fascinating work focuses on the brain activity of jazz cats when they improvise. He finds that there is a parallel between what happens in the brain when we use language and when musicians improvise (see for ex. http://www.ted.com/talks/charles_limb_your_brain_on_improv?language=en).

I can see the similarity here, as far as jazz improvisation is concerned, but my guess is that the similarity between musical improvisation and linguistic expression is only relative to what we interpret improvisation to be.

 

Within jazz improvisation, I would agree with Dr Limb: that the brain activity is similar to the use of language. In this instance, musicians draw from existing databases and assemble data in real time, in order to produce coherent expression in a given context. So when we speak in conversation using a language well known to us, and also when jazz musicians improvise, we could say that there are a set number of pools of information that we draw from, such as grammatical rules, syntax, vocabulary, even morphology. To this we can add another pool of data that is a code accepted as emotional content such as inflections, tone, expression etc… The language metaphor stands.

So there is room for creativity here, of course. However, there is so much that we can do with a set number of building blocks and strict rules. There are only a limited number of combinations possible. Hence, jazz musicians started to play ‘out’, that is altering slightly how they use syntax and even make up words, to extend the metaphor. But there are still limitations to what is possible in order to keep within a well defined style.

In language, and in conventional music, if those rules are broken, it leads to confusion, misunderstanding or outrage. We are capable of creativity and improvisation indeed, but what degree of free is this freedom, really?

 

When we consider more open forms of expressions in music, I think that the connection with language actually collapses. As we venture further out along the axis defined above, with free improvisation, indeed, there can be recognisable patterns such as personal sound, stylistic trends etc. where musicians are still operating within a ‘comfort zone’ and drawing from known patterns of behaviour while adapting them to the context.

However, the linguistic metaphor stops working if we go further along the axis into pure improvisation (so called free improv), where all rules and expectations are put aside, when musicians are able to overcome the cognitive pull and allow themselves to completely let go, provided they are confident that their practice is adequate to support their playing, whatever the circumstances. In this case, we rely solely on listening (no pre-determined knowledge of the form) and our adaptive input may take any shape.

The deeper listening skills are at work, the more empathy is at play, the more players can relax into the communal sound making and respond instinctively, and therefore the less thinking, constructing, controlling is required. It also means, as Dr Limb describes, that less self-editing is at work in order to free our creative juices.

So as we free ourselves from expectations, or self-criticism, music tends to flow more freely.

 

Dr Limb has observed that:

“These are contrast maps that are showing subtractions between what changes when you’re improvising versus when you’re doing something memorized. In red is an area that is active in the prefrontal cortex, the frontal lobe of the brain, and in blue is this area that was deactivated. And so we had this focal area called the medial prefrontal cortex that went way up in activity. We had this broad patch of area called the lateral prefrontal cortex that went way down in activity, and I’ll summarize that for you here.

 

Now these are multifunctional areas of the brain. As I like to say, these are not the “jazz areas” of the brain. They do a whole host of things that have to do with self-reflection, introspection, working memory and so forth. Really, consciousness is seated in the frontal lobe. But we have this combination of an area that’s thought to be involved in self-monitoring, turning off, and this area that’s thought to be autobiographical, or self-expressive, turning on. And we think that at least a reasonable hypothesis is that, to be creative, you have to have this weird dissociation in your frontal lobe. One area turns on, and a big area shuts off, so that you’re not inhibited, so that you’re willing to make mistakes, so that you’re not constantly shutting down all of these new generative impulses.”

 

Here again, I personally believe that this is relative to whoever is performing and what is their mind state at that moment. We all are more or less self-conscious and critical at times, and we all have a capacity to cripple our creativity with doubt, anxiety caused by perceived expectations and so on and so forth.

 

 

But I would be very curious to see how much brain activity occurs when, following on shakuhachi masters’ wisdom, we let go of the world desires and expectations, when (and if) musicians are able to approach a near meditative state. And my guess is here that the metaphor referring to linguistic activity collapses.

 

In my own experience, this is only possible when I am not forced to reflect on the music and react. The presence of ego in the mix forces you to step down from a higher state because you have to then think about what would be best to participate.

If someone does not play fair, if a game of power occurs, it forces you to rationalise and negotiate, rethink your position, try to fit in, make projections, etc. against something that is clashing or jarring.

There is something perverse in that ego attracts ego. One has to fall back into a cognitive mode to the detriment of the creative flow (when the cognitive brain kicks in, it implies that less brain power or less energy is available to be creative in the moment).

 

Of course, working harder to make the music succeed can be ‘interesting’ to witness, on an intellectual level. But strictly speaking, it impedes on the creative flow, and as a result, I feel the music is not as good, not as deep, and is less ‘moving’ or captivating. And this is true both for the musicians involved and for the audience.

In order to attain a ‘heightened experience’, uninterrupted flow is necessary. All musicians have to be on the same wavelength to avoid being pulled out of the pure creative zone. Of course, this does not mean that an intellectual approach to music is not creative. It’s all relative and depends on the listener’s expectations. I guess that for the listener too, one has to let go in order to move more deeply into the vibrational world that is presented to you.

But I feel strongly that a live performance should be an experience, not an intellectual exercise.

 

I sincerely believe that this mind state (or the state of no mind) is the highest creative potential that can be achieved, when effortless and perfect communal creation occurs, when communication is balanced and every single sound falls perfectly in place and everyone involved has all the space they need for expression. There is no need for negotiation, justification, control or friction. Alone or in groups, perfect spontaneous creation happens thus.

And this is why I would argue that – contrary to the following quote from Dr Limb:

“Artistic creativity is magical, but it’s not magic. It’s a product of the brain.” (see link to TED talk above) – I think that creativity is not a ‘product’ of the brain. Creativity can be structured by memory and practice (using pools of available data as detailed above), but ultimately, it is best channelled by an empty mind.

Of course one could argue that in order to move fingers (and play music), there is some degree of brain activity occurring. However, I believe that experienced players can have integrated such movements required as ‘finger memory’ so that music may flow just as easily as one breathes.

 

Therefore, brain activity comes in when there is a need to rationalise, construct or control, when we need to allocate energy into the process of negotiating our place within constraints. I can see here the parallel with the need for justification and validation that forces us to inscribe our actions in the safe zone of known patterns. Whereas in pure flow mode, everything has its place naturally. We effortlessly participate the right sound at the right time, or remain silent and leave space for the others. There is no desire or need, only empathy and reverence for the communal sound – whatever is in the best interest of all involved.

 

Once again, this state of selflessness is life in its pure, unadultered state. It is pure creative potential in as much as there is no form in emptiness, no limitation, no blockage to the flow. This is compassion, the empathy of deep listening. And in my experience, regardless of what you play, the positive impact this has on all participants is the greatest.

 

 

additional bibliography

 

Limb, Charles. Many publications and public lectures on the brain activity of musicians :

http://www.ted.com/talks/charles_limb_your_brain_on_improv

http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/media/releases/the_musical_brain_novel_study_of_jazz_players_shows_common_brain_circuitry_processes_both_music_and_language

http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0088665





Thoughts On my experience of Improvisation

29 08 2015

On improvisation

 

This is a subject that has been close to my heart and central to my artistic practice for a long time. It is with great pleasure that I now decide to take time and reflect on what constitutes, in my experience, important aspects of the art of spontaneous creation.

 

Of course, many great thinkers and artists, musicians have written at length on the subject, and in no way do I intend to make a critique of previously published material. This piece of text is merely intended to represent my own personal experience. I shall endeavour to present facts and ideas as simply as possible, or rather, to avoid any contention since it is not my intention to spark a debate nor oppose existing opinions. This is more about sharing my personal research and experience in the hope that what I postulate here will resonate in the reader and invite constructive exchanges.

 

Many musical traditions have improvisation at the core of their practice. Often, improvisation appears within the frameworks of long standing traditions, sets of rules and theory. Once again, I have no intention to repeat what others will have said in a better way elsewhere.

However, I would like to begin by surveying a few facts about certain approaches to improvisation.

 

First of all, I would like to present the idea that nothing is completely independent. Against the contemporary fad in pursuit of the ‘new’, nothing is purely novel, nothing is unique.

I would like to refer to the scientific understanding of the law of causality. Also important, is the law of conservation of energy.

Some may recognise the fact that I often refer to the terminology of Buddhist teachings, and I will draw parallels here with science in saying that nothing is ever created anew, nothing disappears, but everything transforms. This implies that every action, every event, every phenomena is the result of previous experiences; every effect has a cause and often it is difficult to separate cause from effect. We are all interconnected. This highlights the central point in the Buddhist mind that everything and everyone is inter-dependent. This law of causality is known as dependent arising.

 

To further the parallel with the Heart Sutra – a central teaching on the nature of emptiness – I will add the following points:

Nothing is completely independent in that all things arise from a cause, that is why it is said that things are empty, that is empty of themselves – empty of inherent existence, as there lacks an ultimate blueprint that dictates what it is or is not. Things are empty of real existence because they are such only as the result of multiple causes and not by ultimate design.

 

Secondly, I will say that empathy is absolutely essential in the practice of improvisation and this goes much further and deeper than the absolutely essential listening skill required in the practice of musical improvisation. Compassion is the utmost state for a true Buddhist practitioner, just as the empathy of ‘deep listening’ should inform all musical communication.

 

 

Now, how do the law of causality and the practice of compassion relate to improvisation?

 

As stated above, everything is interdependent. Similarly, the practice of music within certain traditions and styles, or approaches, are dependent on many factors. Some will say that one factor or another is more important, but I will insist here that all factors are important. It is just that certain traditions focus on a particular cause more than another.

So what are the factors that inform musical practice? Evidently, different traditions will favour one or another. But I will briefly mention a few.

 

It is most obvious that the history of a given genre is very important in the teaching of that particular practice. Each musical current has a history specific to its genre. And it is of course important to understand the past in order to make sense of present practices and conceive of future developments.

There is no need for me to attempt to write about the history of musical genres, as others will have done this much better elsewhere. However, the following are some of the traditions that feature improvisation in their practice.

 

In the western tradition, it is mostly jazz that springs to mind when talking about improvisation. However, eastern European music also uses it. [see also the discussion in the comments below on how improvisation used to be part of our western tradition]

When talking about jazz, one has to take into account the importance of African music, which also has aspects of improvisation. In the classical cannon, Indian music, ragas have a strong connection to improvisation within strict frameworks.

 

Others will argue that, more than history, theory is most important – and that without a strong theoretical background, one would not be able to improvise within a given style.

 

Another factor that comes into play is the practice of a given technique – or sets of techniques, which very much inform the practice of a given genre of music. But if one was to look further into each of the above topics, they will find that they are indeed deeply connected, in that certain techniques arise from the history of a culture and so on.

 

 

This is very far from being an exhaustive list and I will focus now on the practice of free improvisation, and I will argue that in this instance, all of the above are particularly important – but not exclusively.

 

Free improvisation, by definition, should be free of any imposed style, formulaic technique or annexed to any time, culture, tradition or history.

In order to be entirely free, improvisation per se should operate outside of rhythmical or harmonic constraints associated with stylistic approaches. However, it is important to note that in reality, free improvisation is in fact given to take specific forms and follow certain trends or schools of thought.

 

Personally, I believe that a certain degree of knowledge of ALL traditions and an understanding of techniques specific to many genres should be ascertained in order to be a rounded improviser in the modern world of cross-cultural exchanges.

 

But let us stay away from opinions and look at facts about the practice of free improvisation in the western tradition, and particularly reflecting on my own experience, how improvisation has evolved in Europe.

 

From the onset, and very early in my relationship with the practice of free improvisation, I was aware that there were very recognisable styles of playing and schools of thoughts which are associated with locality and points in time. So how can it be that improvisation should take on predictable forms? Can it still claim to be experimental, avantgarde and improvised strictly speaking? How could jazz cats claim that they improvise if they play the same bunch of notes in a different order? Or play with the same idiosyncratic style but a bit slower or faster, a bit more this or a bit more that, is it still improvisation?

 

Well, it is obvious that there are different degrees to what is referred to as improvisation. It is evident that jazz improvisation (the spontaneous performance of solos within specific and strict sets of rules) is not the same as the said free improvisation that has no pre-established rail to direct its narrative.

 

It is important to understand at this point that throughout history, the notion of excellence, a commodified value that validates one’s musicianship and ability to perform has been strongly associated with one’s ability to develop a personal style. There is enormous pressure in developing one’s sound. Of course, this has to be seen within a culture that is obsessed with individualism and ‘personality’. The dark side of this coin is the creation of proxy in one’s dependency on attitude (mistaken for personality) and egotism (mistaken for personal worth). Of course, this fact goes against the Buddhist ideal of selflessness just as well as the communal act of creation, based on communication, central to free form playing.

 

Copycats who obsessively try to emulate the sound of such and such celebrity to the extent of using the same amplifier, guitar strings, type of reed and so on… do not generally feel at ease with the act of improvising.

Sadly, most music schools, jazz in particular, put extreme importance on reproducing and mimicking the playing of known practitioners while at the same time advocating personal development – in theory. In practice, many players find it difficult to dissociate with this mimicking trend when there is much pressure in playing standards in the commercial scene.   And one has to earn a living indeed. Well, this is another topic altogether.

Ironically, we will notice here that all the famous jazz players became famous for their individual styles and due to their own original creations, not their re-enactment acts of classics.

 

But it is important to take into account that no-one is born an improviser and we all come from certain traditions and started playing specific styles before having the required experience and technique to improvise. Here also, dependent arising applies.

 

I know that some (self-taught) will argue against this. And I know that non-musicians sometimes assume that “any child could play this”. Well, perhaps.

It is a fact that children are more open-minded and enthusiastic and are therefore better equipped to let go, and improvise. However, like any other art form, to be proficient at improvising, one has to develop enough confidence in their skill – which requires, as presented above, much practice and research etc.

 

Of course, it is possible to become reasonably good at playing an instrument without exposure to a specific education. But I will argue that, in order to be really proficient and have enough vocabulary for varied and true improvisation, not limited to a certain range of playing techniques, it is very important to practice in the traditional way as well.

And I am presenting this argument in the genuine belief that I am not biased towards the subject of education:

I will say at this point that I am entirely self-taught, in that I have had not one single lesson in my entire life in the practice of my instrument (apart from the absolute minimum introduction to the recorder, badly taught in French schools). So I have developed my own practice routines (both on guitar then saxophone and shakuhachi), my own exercises and (very slowly) progressed on my own path, with my own sound.

And still, I am adamant that in order to perform even experimental sounds or approaches such as known ‘extended techniques’ for example, one has to practice traditionally, that is scales etc. across the whole range, in order to develop the necessary skills and control. I do not particularly spend time practicing such extended techniques, but I know that in order to master ‘multiphonics’ on the saxophone, it is essential to develop an adequate embouchure and so on – and that is through the practice of scales and long tones across the range of the instrument, and more scales, and more scales and….

 

To finish on the topic of stylistic approaches, I will say that there are many styles of improvisers and we all have a certain background. Looking at the rich scene that has thrived in the city of Sheffield, in the north of England, I could see that musicians I played and performed with had retained a flavour (rather than a defined style) in their improvisations that were reminiscent of their musical culture.

And improvisers come from all sorts of contexts: free jazz may be the most obvious, but also modern classical, folk, country and western even, or noise, rock, or electronic music. And as a matter of fact, like any other music genre, improv is merging with other avenues such as new music, contemporary classical, experimental electronics, field recordings, noise art. You name it.

But in the end, it is up to the individual musician to balance fairly their musical education and taste, the idiosyncratic sound they have developed (based on other players or not) and finally, what they feel is improvising within certain constraints or completely freely.

 

So consequently, recognisable movements develop that seem to ‘stick’ to a particular approach or personal style. And improvisation then negotiates its freedom within such frameworks – where sound has replaced musical genre. For example there was a strong attraction in London for abstract minimalism so much so that anyone playing a ‘note’ would be looked down upon. I feel that this is where style becomes a limitation, and is counter-productive. However, this is down to the behaviour of individual players and is not a feature of improv per se. Fortunately, such fashions or schools come and go. Styles do not define improvisation because it is not a style, but rather, for me it is an approach to creating music, regardless of the style chosen, if any.

To quote a master in a totally different discipline:

« At best, styles are merely parts dissected from the unitary whole. All styles require adjustment, partiality, denials, condemnation and a lot of self-justification. The solutions they purport to provide are the very cause of the problem, because they limit and interfere with our natural growth and obstruct the way to genuine understanding. Divisive by nature, styles keep men apart from each other rather than unite them.»

Bruce Lee

 

 

So once again, I feel the need to draw parallels with the early references I made. We have seen the importance of history, theory and technique. And we have seen that the creative act of improvising is dependent on all or some of these factors. However, some people do improvise without exposure to theory. Others deny technique and do their own ‘thing’, thanks to the liberating punk attitude of the late 70’s.

Styles change, merge and pass away.

 

So if we look into detail and examine with a microscope, what is improvising? Is it defined by history alone? No. Is it just theory? No. Technique? No.

Music, and improvising are not just theory. Theory is a framework. Music is not just notes on a score. It is not a formula. So what is it then and where can it be found?

It is striking how similar this line of questioning deliberately follows the Buddhist analysis of what is self. Self is not the mind, it is not the senses, it is not just our emotions, etc…

And through the close study of the very deep, detailed, and complex text that is the heart sutra, one has to come to the conclusion that the self (and by the same token, that improvisation) does not exist.

The self is therefore said to be empty of itself, and can only be understood to be the observable result of complex streams of causes and effects.

 

So improvisation does not ultimately exist. It is the product of an unruly history of practices and traditions that logically lead to the present state of affairs. Right.

 

But where did music come from? Was music the art of improvisation and then went a different way? What was the first improvisation? Did the caveman sing or played his bone flute spontaneously? Did (s)he spontaneously think I’ll make a flute out of your bones? What was his framework? Did (s)he go to jazz school? Did the bison say “that’s not proper chord changes that”?

 

We have to look further. Is the self inscribed in our very cells? DNA? Does music predate man? And we can go on ad lib, and we will not find the answer, because there is no beginning and there is no end, and nothing was ever created nor disappears, and everything is interdependent, as nothing has independent arising, and so was the ‘big bang’ the first chord or harmony? Well, no because the big bang (and wait for this cos this is going to piss you all off) was not the beginning, and it, itself, the big bang, has no independent arising, and it can only be the effect of an existing cause. That is the law of physics and Buddhists did not have to scalpel the hell out of the atom to understand this 3000 years ago. There I said it. We are all improvising.

 

In order to find true improvisation, we have to look further.

And just like the self has to be found and observed outside of thought, outside of concepts, outside of the framework-limitation that is our oh-so-superior cognitive, linguistic skills…

So Improvisation has to take root outside of theoretical, conceptual frameworks.

 

 

 

By this time, 98% of the audience/readers have just walked away in anger. But if you are still there, I would like to share with you my personal experience of improvisation. One that I would argue is free from theory and tradition. One that is free to dare play notes when others think improv should only be abstract sound. One that has to be loosely, from a distance, supported by skills developed from traditional practice but… but… one improvisation that has to completely let go of such frameworks, that has to let go of all expectations and peer pressures, that has let go of a need to please. Only then can you be completely free. The only limitation would therefore have to be structural to whatever instrument you play, and to what abilities you have integrated.

Improvisation, in this, is like meditation. And through improvisation, I have, personally and undoubtedly experienced moments of deep spirituality, both alone or shared with other skilled musicians.

 

There are references to this is various contexts, although the subject is very rarely talked about. In jazz, some cats talk about ‘the zone’ or ‘when the music is good’ and those moments are regarded as special. Steve Coleman, of all the jazz cats I know, seem to incorporate ‘the zone’ into his creative process and there are a few references to this in interviews on his Mbase site. But his music is so complex, and other players may not be able to get to the same mind state, so that improvisation ‘in the zone’ may only be used to generate material Steve then integrates into compositions. In order to read music from the page, or to follow complex structures, a certain level of cognition has to take place. So, even highly skilled musicians cannot be in deep meditation while performing. However, Steve seems to strike a very interesting balance between the two, even stating in a recent interview about the performance of complex structures written for large ensembles, that spontaneous creation still has a large part. But evidently, he insists that much ‘preparation’ is required. “Spontaneous has a method, has a way”.

The reason I spend so much time discussing (and listening to) Steve Coleman’s work is that his music has a striking spiritual depth which balances his obvious knowledge of music theory, the history of different traditions and of course very impressive technical skills. I believe that it is this balance that reflects real harmony.

 

 

People’s experience and interpretation of the zone varies immensely. There is a tradition, very close to my heart, that takes this much deeper. In traditional shakuhachi playing, Buddhist monks used the bamboo flute as a tool for meditation, more so than for making music. There is a wonderful article about this by master Kiku Day (see biblio).

And I can say that over the years, after meeting, playing, and discussing with many musicians and improvisers, the western understanding of the zone or even meditation is not as sophisticated as it is in Asian cultures that have practiced the technique with scientific rigour, for thousands of years.

There are also writings that coined the term ‘flow’ by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi that may be of interest in relation to spontaneous creativity. But I am not convinced that this business like approach matches what meditation really is, strictly speaking.

 

So it seems that musical traditions and improvising on the one hand, and spiritual practices (that involve a scientific approach to meditation) on the other are always separate whereas I feel that both coexist in reality on a level very few people can conceive of. Or at least this is what it seems because it is never talked about: the ‘s’ word is always a bit of a taboo.

So I would say that it is essential we explore and study further the creative potential of meditative states, or mindful playing in the performance of music. It is an essential factor (even if the practitioner is unaware of what is really happening in the process of improvising) that needs practice, just as much as developing technique does.

 

 

Here, I can only narrate my own experiences on the subject. In a very personal, solo project called ‘sounding out’, I have been, over the years, recording improvisations in a number of outdoor sites. The principle that was to improvise with natural acoustics, and interact with the environment, developed into something much more – that is very hard to describe with words. Just like meditation cannot be defined or taught, it can only be hinted at with guidelines so the practitioner finds their own path. This is purely because meditation is a state that resides entirely outside the realm of intellectual analysis, outside language, outside the Imaginary or the Symbolic. It is pure experience of the Real.

This can only be achieved when a number of circumstances converge so that no distraction, emotional context, external pressures etc. take away the necessary complete focus. Gradually, the mind clears just like sediments settle and murky water becomes translucent. This takes time and discipline, just like the practice of music.

There have been very special places, with outstanding acoustics, but mostly with a certain quality of energy, that take me there, and suddenly, one is suspended in the elevated feeling of fluffy nothingness. All is sound, all is vibrations. All is empty. Emptiness is form, form is emptiness. And the only reality feels like compassion because compassion is the very structure of pure life and creativity.

The space where I play expresses itself and vibrates the soul. Music plays itself. I was not there. It was not me. There is no style in improvisation because form is empty.

Sounding out is not improvisation on acoustics or birdsong. It is letting the rock and the walls of sacred sites sing through my instrument. It is the music of that place, at that moment. It is meditation on the now. It is being the now, being the place. It is telling its story, not mine.

 

 

To truly improvise, in the purist sense, one has to be a skilled musician (see beginning of this text) but also has to be an experienced meditator.

You have to let go.

You have to let the music flow.

You have to let the instrument play itself.

You have to let go of ego, and accept to merely channel the music of the moment and of the place.

 

All the theory and the practice that we are so attached to are, in the end, just there in the hope that you are good enough a musician to be able to keep up with what’s going on. And you have no control over it other than to try and not bum-note it. All those years of practice are summed up right there. It is the only preparation, the only net not to fall flat on your face and try to keep up with the flow.

 

 

Control, security, certainty, performing excellency and predictability are all illusions that form the ground for commercial, commodified entertainment. It is not life, it is not music and it is certainly not improvisation.

 

 

Ride the wave my friends, be the cool surfer balancing on the flow of life. Enjoy the view cos there is no good, no bad, theory, expectation, style or anything to burden your mind with.

 

Only a peaceful clear mind can be completely and truly creative.

Improvisation, like compassion, is life.

 

Be happy my friends. Meditate. Ride the wave.

 

Peace.

 

Hervé Perez

28 august 2015

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

 

Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1990

 

Coleman, Steve. http://members.m-base.net/

 

Day, Kiku. Mindful playing, mindful practice: The shakuhachi as a modern meditation tool. 2014

http://www.kikuday.com/

 

Hancock, Herbie. Harvard lecture series

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EPFXC3q1tTg&list=PLFT-q6IUNLEEIdVFXylP8q41axib6ycOn

 

 

Heart Sutra. Traditional Buddhist scriptures. Many publications and comments also avail. online from reliable Buddhist sites such as

http://fpmt.org/

See the 3-days lectures by HH the Dalai Lama

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tRJ2WFcHPcA

and

Chandrakirti. Introduction to the Middle Way. Boston and London: Shambala publications, 2004.

 

Lacan, Jacques. The Real, the Imaginary and the Symbolic.

In

The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book I: Freud’s Papers on Technique (ed. J-A Miller), N.Y.: Norton, 1988

 

Lee, Bruce. The Tao of Jeet Kune Do. Ohara Publications, 1975

 

Oliveiros, Pauline. Deep listening institute workshops.

http://deeplistening.org/site/

 

Sounding Out.

https://sndsukinspook.wordpress.com/category/music/sounding-out/

https://soundcloud.com/herveperez

 

 





sounding out top 10

22 08 2015

while working on brand new recordings for the series ‘sounding out’, i decided to look back in time, and review all the locations featured on the soundcloud page dedicated to the project:

 

 

 

 

so here is a sample selection of some of the best acoustics and inspiring spaces i have visited in the recent past. and guess what. YAS woz there.

 

1 – Ilam church. hidden gem. beautiful and intimate. my relationship and my playing have evolved with many visits.

 

2 – Dore Abbey. place of magic and history in the golden valley, gently spoken through the stone of its old walls.

 

3 – buxton dome. ex-hospital now university property with unique sonic magic. reverb + delay + whispering gallery.

 

4 – Clachan Church. plain chapel in the mist of remote applecross. energy like mountain streams wild raw beautiful.

 

5 – smoo cave. cascade and cathedral chamber. strong character, challenging response and inspiration in gentleness.

 

6 – stoney middleton. unusual architecture and shape. great for sound. subtle, bright and soft.

 

7 – St Catherine. out of this world experiences in this chapel at the top of a hill. plain, bare, expansive.

 

8 – Rydal cave. lifted out of this plane of existence into fluffy clouds. all is sound.

 

9 – Cathedral cave. exposed to elements. dark damp raw edges. the sound takes you to a different reality. soft suspension. pure bliss.

 

10 – St Sardos. surprisingly generous village church. plain dark appearance. sound gently-powerful and sophisticated, wide and brilliant.

 

this last track is a sneak preview…:

the new series of recordings i am currently working on are from the very recent trip to France. it features some outstanding locations. small village churches with surprising character and large abbeys, abbatiales, cathedrals… it has been a real treat and i am very excited to share all this with you. so keep your eyes peeled as some great sounds are coming your way here, on soundcloud or my website (visit field rec / sounding out).

and as usual, i’d love to hear from you.

cheers

rv

 

 








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