Sounding Out returns to North Yorkshire

26 02 2017

Traveling to a short retreat in a secluded and wild area in the North of England, i stopped at a wonderful site i had visited before. Christ the Consoler church in Newby is quite a unique space of impressive presence. The architecture is both grand and intimate as it is a commissioned church on private grounds.

The acoustics are similarly subtle and elevating at the same time. The feel of the place and its sonic quality provide a very interesting balance to my playing. The space requires the usual reverence inspired by the religious sites i have explored, and yet, its private, quiet and somehow isolated quality provides a sense of freedom and adventurous exploration.

So on that day, my playing was similarly balanced between the soulful melodic approach that sacred architecture often inspire, but also featured contemporary angular aspects of my recent research which has started to come through in a more marked way. In a recent article, i have presented a series of simple composition ideas that act like a springboard for my explorations in symmetry. I am now starting to witness how this latter approach is blending with a melodic sensitivity.

This is good progress, and hope to see the technique develop into a smoother method for improvising narratives, free from predictable harmonic movements. At least, this is the aim, and i do play in this freeflow way most of the time. But right now, my fingers are particularly focused on trying things out. I just can’t wait for the time the exercises have sunk in (and the new approach to harmony is finally memorised – which takes a looooong time), and i finally can step away from the practice into a proper freedom of narrative development.

 

This is really exciting for me as i am developing a sound i like, with a coherent method, achieving freedom of creativity, all without falling into the pit of predictability, the usual jazz clichés and patterns, or going through the motions of playing changes, as is often heard. So the aim remains the quite lofty method of freely developing coherent melodic and harmonic narratives in improvisation.

And my experience of Newby Church was inspiring enough to trigger this modality of playing. The space was allowing for both contemplative moments and free flowing sections. The reverb was rich yet subtle, grand yet intimate, and in the flux of sound that traveled the spiritual space, i could place both fast and slow, single pointed melody and harmonic play, abstract and structured approaches. A well balanced session, and a very liberating experience.

So it was only fitting to once again return to the use of water footage i have filmed recently and use the metaphorical association of waves which when combined create complex forms. Obviously, this applies to both sound and water; and the video acts as a metaphor as it puts both together in a random way, forcing the mind to make associations. And of course, synchronous movements inevitably happen.

At times, the video montage looks like sound and inspiration are crashing and flowing across the space, through me and my instrument. This exactly how such experiences feel to me. So the juxtaposition of the video clips live in the performance space with water abstraction works perfectly.

 

By now, and having read the previous presentation, the theme that runs through the titles of this triptych will become quite clear a reference to Foucault’s most inspiring work “Les Mots et les Choses” (transl as the Order of Things), with the added layer of meaning taken from the buddhist understanding that forms are empty and therefore highlighting the irony of obsessive taxonomy of empty forms, projected meaning of the modern technological world. Indeed, attachment to forms lead to suffering or rather unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) in the understanding that there is chaos inherent in all compounded things. This association hints for me at the cultural drift towards decorporated abstract thought, symbolism and the virtual, and the dissociation from the experience of reality which starts with Language and a propensity for projection.

Now that i have thrown together Foucault, Saussure, Walter Benjamin, Lacan and Freud all into the same bagful of buddhist teachings, just in the space of one paragraph, let us get literal and on a lighter note. Presenting the light filled Church of Christ the Consoler and musical notes and sounds that it inspired…

 

 

 

 

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as usual you can hear the full audio:

the order of things
alto saxophone, 04 feb 2017
newby church, christ the consoler

 

 

 

 

 

contemplating circles
alto saxophone, 04 feb 2017
newby church, christ the consoler

 

 

 

 

 





sounding out in the south of france 2016 ctd

18 06 2016

Auvillar1bAuvillar2bCieutat1bCieutat2bGedresbLuz1bLuz2bStMartory1bStMartory2b

 

During the second half of my stay in France, visits to locations were a little more leisurely and i took the opportunity to revisit other know locations.

The town of Auvillar towers over the Garonne river, located on the travel route to Compostelle, it features an old covered market square built with measures for grain and cereals – some of which are now rare.
It is a busy place with tourism and local trade, and similarly, the church is buzzing with bursts of activity. In between visitors and prayers, i managed to squeeze a little empty space with melodic overtones…

While travelling across the pyrenees, a few places punctuated the journey. in Barèges, spa town situated high up in the mountains, a powerful torrent crosses the town. After an energising meditation by the water, i stopped in the small local chapel to keep my practice fingers running along. And of course, inspired by the gentle yet powerful vibe, i recorded a couple of pieces.

In luz, it was a pleasure to revisit the 12th century building of the fortified Templar church. The solid outside wall are drenched in sun and exposed to wild elements while the inside, in contrast, is dark and completely still. This displacement mirrored a space i could feel between the force and gentleness of the natural elements, so present and powerful in the area.

My head still in the rushing waters of torrents and high mountain glaciers after a day walk. i stopped for meditation in a small town, on the road returning from gavarnie. for once, i did not have my saxophone with me and decided to put to use a brand new shakuhachi i had just finished making. Its frail and gentle sound filled the grand space of the church and suddenly echoed the force i’d felt while watching the creation of a new waterfall from snow melting.

The last day in the mountain area, i had to make a couple of stops, just to review an amazing church i remembered from my previous trip. In the small passage town of Cieutat, the church was still just as overwhelming, but the more active feel of that particular morning removed some of the mystical quality. These last two visits were punctuated with flower duty, water changes and general church bustle. As i settled into the feel of the place, i caught myself playing similar chord structures and colours to what i had played during my last visit there. Was this harmonic movement really in the stone? Part of this place… For a second, i had a weird flashback, and yet made no effort to repeat the material from memory. And of course the improvisation took me somewhere else, but i could sense that that same colour / feel / tone was in the music, only slightly different – like a person you know well and meet again further down the line of their personal history.

Rushing down the mountains and on the road back to civilisation, on the way to my next gig, another quick stop took me to St Martory church… The flower duty and water changing provided background and clear marks where the atmosphere was saturated with the underlying sound of the nearby river. At first, the drone of passing water merged with traffic entrained me to play long overtones and focus on the interplay between harmonics contained within the breath sound. Soon, a pulse developed, water rippled, melody splashed. gesture. movement and form.

 

 

 

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le repos des plaines
alto saxophone, 02 june 2016
église de st sardos

 

 

 

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jours de lente
alto saxophone, 02 june 2016
église de st sardos

 

 

 

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roads and waterways
alto saxophone, 27 may 2016
église de st martory

 

 

 

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new flowers
alto saxophone, 27 may 2016
église de st martory

 

 

 

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the journey of water
alto saxophone, 27 may 2016
église de cieutat

 

 

 

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crest lines
alto saxophone, 27 may 2016
église de cieutat

 

 

 

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ripples from falling pebbles
2.1 shakuhachi, 26 may 2016
église de gèdres

 

 

 

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contrepoint de rivière et vent
alto saxophone, 25 may 2016
église de luz

 

 

 

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courte descente libre
alto saxophone, 25 may 2016
église de luz

 

 

 

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road squiggles
alto saxophone, 24 may 2016
église de barèges

 

 

 

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torrent under a low sky
alto saxophone, 24 may 2016
église de barèges

 

 

 

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sarrasin champart
alto saxophone, 17 may 2016
église de auvillar

 

 

 

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millet avoine
alto saxophone, 17 may 2016
église de auvillar

 

 

 

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sounding out in the south of france 2016

14 06 2016

PBuff1bPBuff2bStSardos11bStSardos12bStSardos13bStSardos14bVerdun11bVerdun12bVerdun13b

This year, my trip to France has been much focused around a series of concerts with my friend Henry Herteman. And i will share many documents of these in a future post.

Sounding out is of course always active as i have my saxophone everywhere i go, and if not, some new shakuhachi is near at hand. So any opportunity, or rather, any possible place i encounter is always a pleasure.

But this time, only a few choice cuts are on the menu. i have instead concentrated my efforts on old favourite locations and a few surprise finds. Each recording is also shorter and more focused.

In this post i present the first half of my explorations while at the beginning of my journey. and it begins very early on, after driving through the night, and a coffee break after dawn, i found myself walking around the picturesque town of Pierre Buffière and discovered the church was open. So not quite into the first leg of my trip, and still in transit, i decided to make a morning call and enter the dark resonant space that offered a cool haven and a change of pace.

A sense of movement is still in me, slowly tuning in to the stillness of the place. A clash between the bright day starting outside and the dark interior. Feeling tired and displaced. My mind wanders and continues its journey into imaginary landscapes. Traveling light and swift.

Soon after settling down into my new home, i visited the local church that remains a favourite with its vast sound. St Sardos is a quiet village with outsized church design. Its magnificent reverb is inspiring and lifting while calming and instilling silence. A strange combination that seems to bring out of me the most gentle melodies and adventurous harmonic work made possible by the very long tail.
As soon as i started making a sound, i slipped into a timeless zone. all is suspended.

And finally, the third location i present today is the deep blue interior of Verdun sur Garonne. This place is so very poignant, it always had a deep effect on me.
The strange feeling of a known place. But a different one that has traces of memory so fine it escapes the touch.
There is no other way to describe this session, but with a quote: it is the time my saxophone gently weeps.

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paysage connu
alto saxophone, 06 may 2016
église st michel, verdun sur garonne

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mémoire augmentée
alto saxophone, 06 may 2016
église st michel, verdun sur garonne

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des phi au point de faille
alto saxophone, 06 may 2016
église st michel, verdun sur garonne

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cascade de blues
alto saxophone, 06 may 2016
église st michel, verdun sur garonne

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l’oubli
alto saxophone, 06 may 2016
église st michel, verdun sur garonne

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first shade
alto saxophone, 05 may 2016
église de st sardos

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painting in relief
alto saxophone, 05 may 2016
église de st sardos

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the convent
alto saxophone, 05 may 2016
église de st sardos

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if i knew
alto saxophone, 05 may 2016
église de st sardos

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raining red
alto saxophone, 05 may 2016
église de st sardos

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silent flower
alto saxophone, 05 may 2016
église de st sardos

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by night and by day
alto saxophone, 04 may 2016
église de ste croix, pierre buffière

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by vales and hills
alto saxophone, 04 may 2016
église de ste croix, pierre buffière

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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
église de cieutat

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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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it is said
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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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, sharing my research, in the hope that what I postulate here will resonate with 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. And there are as many degrees between composed work and improvisation as there are styles and musical practices.

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.

With this understanding of the law of causality, it is also important to consider 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.

 

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.

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.

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

 

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, avant-garde and improvised strictly speaking? Can one claim they improvise if they play the same bunch of notes or sounds or even ‘structures but in a slightly 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.

 

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. In a culture where control, predictability etc are central to the commodification of products, improvisation has to be ‘re-learned’ as if one has to free oneself from the norm, and free-flow is not the desirable standard.

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. To develop this level of confidence require the development of skills. However, one could argue that skills are developed through ‘play’.

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 80’s 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 play 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.

 

 

To further the comparison between the practice of improvisation and meditation, and introduce the idea that deep listening is absolutely central in that it offers a gateway for complete immersion into sound and allow oneself to be part the the vibe, or soundscape that is spontaneously created.

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.

 

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, it has to be written. It is clear that that improvisation ‘in the zone’ is used to generate material which 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 when mental processes are required.

However, Steve Coleman 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 in the performance of complex music. 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).

There are also writings that coined the term ‘flow’ by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi that may be of interest in relation to spontaneous creativity. However, i feel that this term has been associated with commercial, business like approaches where using the flow is a means to an end. This loses touch with the whole purpose and integrity of meditation, and the notion of flow becomes artefact, superficial commodification of spirituality.

 

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 research and practice, just as much as developing playing 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 – that is outside of the studio’s controlled environment.

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. It 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. Boundless, weightless spaciousness.

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. Narratives form and follow their own paths. There is no style in improvisation because form is empty. Even the idea of style becomes irrelevant. No desire. Vibrations arise and interact. Music is communication. This is the natural order of things. It is pure physics.

 

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

 

 





the science of mind

21 06 2015



when we think of calming down the mind and we become aware of what’s going on in the mind, we say ‘waow, there’s so many thoughts’.

it’s not that there are more thoughts than ever, you start to become aware of what’s going on in your mind from morning till evening. we are full of thoughts.

because the mind is like a spoiled brat, constantly moving here and there, reminiscing the past, imagining the future, and never in the present moment.

so try to focus your mind.

we say it’s like the butterfly. the butterfly stays on the flower, so he sorts of goes away for no reason then comes back. so, it’s ok, you will be distracted, but you should bring back your mind.

and so meditation will help you to become the master of your mind.
and master of the mind is not the absence of freedom. often people think ‘i am going to control my mind, sort of reducing my freedom.’

take the example of the sailor at sea. what is freedom? to let the boat wherever the currents and the wind blow? that’s not freedom, that’s drifting.

freedom is to take the helm and navigate where you have chosen to go.

so if you are in charge of your own mind, that’s freedom.

matthieu ricard
in
“The Buddhist Science of the Mind”