sounding out scotland – coda

10 01 2018


 

 

 

Clachan church

is situated in an amazing setting, along a stunning coastline, splendid views on applecross that are both twee and very wild. The church is slightly tucked away and usually quiet. it feels welcoming and cold at the same time. there is something about the very plain design and open empty space that is very attractive in its simplicity. similarly, the sound is ample and yet restrained. there is a comfortable resonance with enough sustain and yet not too much tail which allows for a different type of playing. the surfaces are mainly wood which absorbs a lot of vibrations and makes the sound warm in spite of the plain hard surfaces of the space.

by the time i get to this place, my saxophone has accompanied me on the road and, once again, is in need of TLC. and yet, in spite of this, the place is always stirring and the focus it inspires allows me to overcome the technical difficulties. so, like last time i was here, even if the sax sounds a little raw, and the overtones are a little thin… i always like the outcome produced by such a gentle and stimulating environment. and after a deep and relaxing meditation, the second wave of recording is even more inspired and energetic:

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converging inversions
alto saxophone, 30 august 2017
clachan church, applecross, scotland

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a group of young deer
2.1 shakuhachi, 30 august 2017
clachan church, applecross, scotland

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renewed horizon
alto saxophone, 30 august 2017
clachan church, applecross, scotland

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infinite space
alto saxophone, 30 august 2017
clachan church, applecross, scotland

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ragged coastline
alto saxophone, 30 august 2017
clachan church, applecross, scotland

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Cathedral Cave

it is with great pleasure that i complete this series and my journey by a short stop in the lake district. it does feel like returning home, but there is another treat in line, and this is the absolutely staggering presence of cathedral cave. it’s pretty dark by the time i arrive, and it is definitely empty and quiet, although strange and distant noises inhabit the valley.

from the very first sound, the rich ambiance and impressive character of the reverb envelops me, and carry me in suspension. deep absorption.

expanding.

space.

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prajna
alto saxophone, 02 september 2017
cathedral cave

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this, is
alto saxophone, 02 september 2017
cathedral cave

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the maze
alto saxophone, 02 september 2017
cathedral cave

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sounding out scotland – smoo cave 2017

17 11 2017

 

 

This year’s visit of Scotland continues north. Along a tiny beat up single track road across land we join the round tour of Eribol and its majestic scenery. Soon enough arriving in Durness, the sky heavy and textured, i settle into the place sitting on top of the hill by the bunkhouse. My meditation is sprinkled with a few drops while waiting for the right time to set off. By the time I get to Smoo, it is raining heavily and the amount of water that has fallen this season is reflected in the flow of the cascade in the next chamber. I am surprised by the deafening roar of the waterfall coming through into the main part of the cave and concerned it will take most of the sound away. Still, Smoo cave never disappoints and its cathedral like reverberation shines through the sound of crashing water.

There is a very different vibe here than last time i visited. It is certainly more intense and while i am playing one of the long pieces, i can hear the water fall becoming more present and my playing reflects the chaotic flow. There is still that sweet spot when i stand with my feet right in the little brook in the middle of the cave, that inspires gentle sounds, but overall, this session is flowing stronger as i have to compete with the loudness of the water.

 

On the second day, i return at dusk for another recording and there are still a few visitors wandering in and out even though the light is rapidly dropping. I take a few videos that turned out to be mostly a play of shadows (these will come up in a different post). The dampness hanging in the air makes it more difficult for the saxophone, but i still enjoy playing this amazing space. Among the visits, a couple with an infant who seems to be very alert and interested by the music. As evening falls, the cave gets quieter and i play on for a while reminiscing of a day walking miles to a sandy bay and returning in heavy rain. That night was clear though, and camping on the very coast with the tent facing the great big north was quite something.

 

 

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sitting on a hill
alto saxophone, 24 august 2017
smoo cave, scotland

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alternance 1
alto saxophone, 24 august 2017
smoo cave, scotland

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unyielding
alto saxophone, 24 august 2017
smoo cave, scotland

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turning point
alto saxophone, 24 august 2017
smoo cave, scotland

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as many atoms cascading
alto saxophone, 24 august 2017
smoo cave, scotland

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plato’s play of shadows
alto saxophone, 24 august 2017
smoo cave, scotland

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eddies and rocks
alto saxophone, 25 august 2017
smoo cave, scotland

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short turnover
alto saxophone, 25 august 2017
smoo cave, scotland

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as many stars spinning
alto saxophone, 25 august 2017
smoo cave, scotland

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rain dramatic
alto saxophone, 25 august 2017
smoo cave, scotland

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sounding out scotland – north west coast 2017

19 10 2017

 

 

A visit to Scotland was long due. And this is my favourite area. The trip took us from north west coast sea lines through wild moors and lochs to the very northern point. This post however will focus on a specific section of the western coastline, following the path of the steam train – the jacobites.

The first stop was in Arisaig. A large church towering above the town with a view – tucked between green suburbs and a road out to the sea front.
The very high ceiling and wide open space inside the church made a strong impression and it was like stepping out into space. The slow sound inside was indeed very stilling. A single bell marks a warm welcome and the improvisation flows.
When giving tracks titles, one in particular reminded me of an experience i had nearby meditating on the rocks overlooking the sea. so i chose an image i took that day of a view over to Skye with the sun setting over the calm water.

In the harbour town of Mallaig, i found a shelter from the day for a short exploration of this small church on the edge of town. It was like stepping into the 70’s. Both amusing and welcoming, i felt at home in the cosy carpeted warmth. And nudged into motion by the nearby steam train parked at the station and some building works, i let the saxophone sound out this clear close space.

The next stop was the church at Morar. The place looked cosy, but the vibe of the place was not quite right and the space was not responding. I played for a while but could not get into it, and the sax felt raw. So i did not stay for meditation and instead moved on to a more welcoming location.

For contrast, i returned to Arisaig and bathed in that grand space. After a sweet meditation, i revisited the acoustics. A different day, a different light and still the wonderful immersive stillness was very inspiring.

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first bell
alto saxophone, 22 august 2017
arisaig church

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forest of peaks
alto saxophone, 22 august 2017
arisaig church

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silent silver sea
alto saxophone, 22 august 2017
arisaig church

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open skies
alto saxophone, 22 august 2017
arisaig church

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a gentle descent
alto saxophone, 22 august 2017
arisaig church

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interlude
2.1 hochiku shakuhachi, 22 august 2017
arisaig church

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steamline
alto saxophone, 23 august 2017
mallaig church

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white orbs and billows
alto saxophone, 23 august 2017
mallaig church

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contrary measures
alto saxophone, 23 august 2017
morar church

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counter currents
alto saxophone, 23 august 2017
morar church

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slow rise
alto saxophone, 23 august 2017
arisaig church

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a raft in the other shore
alto saxophone, 23 august 2017
arisaig church

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mixed feelings
alto saxophone, 23 august 2017
arisaig church

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sounding out north yorkshire moors

30 06 2017

 

The first stop for this trip was Lastingham. A beautiful village with a splendid church, opening onto the North Yorkshire moors.

The exploration of this church started with the usual meditation: A timely break from the summer heat, enjoying the fresh and quiet space. The meditation was both gentle and strong. Constructive.

From the first notes, the space reveals its understated richness. the dome and arches gently roll the sound into a perfect resonating sustain. never overwhelming, always enriching each phrase, inspiring pastoral calm and devotional entrain with a certain degree of adventurous reverence. ’tis just poetry for the jazzer’s ears.

Lost in sound and in rapture of the moment, i spend over an hour improvising along the accidental local birds, the punctuation of quarterly bells and the whispers of stones who have lived long.

 

After some time along the coast, drawing inspiration from the tides and the sea breeze, the journey continues onto another location i had visited a long time ago. Here also, it is this first time i connect to this place with the alto saxophone, and the latest addition to my panoply of instruments, some home made shakuhachi.

Lady Chapel is in a wonderful remote location overlooking the valley. Tucked in the trees and greenery, it is an intensely quiet place. Always open and welcoming, the remoteness of the place, it’s short reverb time, seem to inspire more intense playing. Something like the spirit of gospel, in the tradition of John Coltrane’s stream, a breathless flow of spirited harmony.

What i mean is that with no less reverence to the place, here i feel i can experiment more and move away from a traditional harmonic approach. A perfect opportunity to try out structural playing. Merging symmetrical harmonic shapes which flow into a self-generating narrative, always moving, always morphing.

For the last few minutes, i enjoy another moment of suspended quiet. An opportunity to try out some shakuhachi i made, gradually tweaking and tuning the bamboo until i find the right balance. I seem to be close now, although the instruments respond differently outdoors than at home.

Here, the 2.85 feels a little rough, and some of the notes catch a little. However, both the latter and the smaller 2.1 are sounding pretty good. And some phrases, listening back to the recordings, sound like the real thing. On one track, i even venture some multiphonics and high overtones – which are quite difficult to hold on the shakuhachi. Little by little, and every time i record something, i feel i made a little progress. It is difficult to put the saxophone down at times, but with more practice and more dedication on carrying the shaks, i probably could come up with some interesting exploration of natural acoustics in the near future.

In the meantime, you will find below tracks recorded in the two places described above. I hope you enjoy listening to those documents, as much as i enjoyed listening to the stories of the places i visit.

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topography of moor lands
alto saxophone, 17 june 2017
lastingham church

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dome and arches
alto saxophone, 17 june 2017
lastingham church

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summer sun on the moors
alto saxophone, 17 june 2017
lastingham church

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refuge in the coolness of the crypt
alto saxophone, 17 june 2017
lastingham church

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stellar scalene
alto saxophone, 19 june 2017
lastingham church

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acute pastoralis
alto saxophone, 19 june 2017
lastingham church

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coastal path
2.85 shakuhachi, 19 june 2017
lastingham church

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coming tide
2.85 shakuhachi, 19 june 2017
lastingham church

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returning
2.1 shakuhachi, 19 june 2017
lastingham church

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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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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

 

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.

In the development of music in western tradition, free improvisation is seen as breaking away from existing models. However, further inquiry will show that in actual fact, it reproduces many aspects which feed right into the current music industry and cultural or social demands.

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.

So 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.

So in reference to the practice referred to as improvisation, as we know it, it is a form of music making that took shape in reaction to cultural currents at a specific point in time. Needless to say that this has brought back into the mainstream the practice of spontaneous creation that had been pushed to the margins by the dominant trend in written, controlled forms, that led to the commodification of music, with focus on perfection of execution, reproducibility, recognisable elements etc.

It is with a sense of irony that one may note that, although Derek Bailey coined the practice of free improvisation in the UK as a clear political positioning against current styles, he still developed a framework described by Dominic Lash (in Syntactics, 2006) using the problematic metaphor of language with its predictable patterns and structure where one’s musical personality is associated with the creation of a recognisable ‘vocabulary’.

Even when individuals break away with tradition, we are never too far from the impositions and demands of a culture ridden with conformism. In other words, no opposition can be so far out as to be in complete isolation; it has to be accepted and recognised by some for its ‘validation’, and, as stated above, is always grounded in and informed by existing knowledge or practices.

 

So, although free improvisation, by definition, should be free of any imposed style, formulaic technique or annexed to any time, culture, tradition or history, it could be argued that a certain degree of knowledge of many 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.

There are very recognisable styles of playing and schools of thoughts, which are associated with locality and points in time. For example, a minimalist approach and a great interest in noise abstraction and structures gives a specific flavour to improvisation that comes out of mainland Europe.

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 resort to a known vocabulary, a database of formulas that can be sequenced and altered slightly depending on context?

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.

When talking about jazz, one has to take into account the importance of African music, where improvisation happens within trance inducing repetition. In the classical cannon, Indian music, ragas have a strong connection to improvisation within frameworks where melody is constructed from strict segments – it is the rules around the combinations of notes and time divisions that give the very flavour to a raga.

In western, industrialised culture, 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 and adaptability, central to free form playing (John Butcher’s article in Son du Grisly points at the times when this friction between style and freedom becomes problematic).

Noticeably, 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, if one understand the deep teachings on emptiness, the material and the way one practices informs what will eventually come out in performance. So what if often referred to as improvisation is, in many cases, a rendition of one’s focus of practice, that is the creative output of influential figures, altered slightly to fit one’s personal sound.

It must pointed out that all the famous jazz players became famous for their individual styles, and due to their own original creations, not their rendition of classics, nor for the reproduction of someone else’s style.

From the present cultural perspective – including the pressure to conform in order to be accepted, copy in order to progress, execute with perfection often at the detriment of creativity – no-one is born an improviser, and we all have to come from (or through) certain traditions, play specific styles, before having the required experience and technique to improvise. This implies the assumption that one is not born but must become free.

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 go against the dominant trends where free-flow is not the desirable standard.

 

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.

However, in it important to take into account the point put forward above, and practice in ways that invite creativity, and avoid formulaic exercises that will tie one’s playing down to predictability.

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 later, 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. For me, it is all about communication, change, adaptability, which is why I do not buy into the premise of a personal identity/sound as point-of-sale.

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 style in 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, as a style, 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 in order 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. And is definitely not limited to the reductivist, formulaic structure of language.

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 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. As we have seen, it is when people stick to their individual sound (ego-clinging) and compromise communication that improvisation does not work.

 

I would like to share with you my personal experience of improvisation. One that, I would argue, is not shaped by 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. Evidently, the more cognitive engagement, the less one is able to access deep meditative states.

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 the integrity required for 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 ‘sp’ word is always a bit of a taboo in the art world.

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, 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. In such places, surrounded in the powerful atmosphere, from sounding out the first note, suddenly, one is suspended in the elevated feeling of fluffy nothingness. Boundless, weightless spaciousness. Out of the deep connection, communication, and empathy required to improvise, blissfulness arises.

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 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, but also has to be an experienced meditator.

You have to let go. You have to listen.

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. Art is taking risks. And this requires complete focus and understanding (balance, rather than control). 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

 

Butcher, John. le son du grisli: hors-serie no.9 – 40 page illustrated A to Z. 2012

 

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

 

Lash, Dominic. Syntactics, 2006

http://forceofcircumstance.blogspot.co.uk/2015/09/derek-bailey-syntactics.html

 

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