How do new music and improvisation interact?

Clare Simmonds
January 8, 2018

The relationship between improvisation and composition is hotly debated. But how do today's performers perceive both? Do two worlds collide? In the run-up to their performances at Borough New Music Series 4 (9 January and 16 January 2018 respectively), the clarinettist Ian Mitchell and percussionist Simon Allen - two good friends, master improvisers and performers - independently share their experiences of performing improvisation and performing new music with the Artistic Director, Clare Simmonds.

CS: What does improvisation mean to you?

IM: Lots of different things in different contexts, and that answer is not a cop out! It depends on what you're required to do by those who have booked you, the ensemble or a composer, or a group of people just getting together to make music in their style. There's a huge range of styles and references, from ornamentation through to walking on stage with a completely blank canvas, not knowing where on earth you're going to go in the music.

There's the free improvisational approach, that comes out of John Cage's ideas of sounds. I used to work with a group called AMM, in which you'd never ever ever talk about what you're doing. So, we'd go off on tour, and just walk on stage. Somebody in the group would start doing something - exploring sounds on their instrument or whatever - and then you'd walk off 45 minutes later, have a break, come back and do it all again, walk off at the end, and go off for a really good meal and a few drinks - and crucially, not discuss it at all! That's one extreme.

Another kind of improvisation might be playing above chords. One example is jazz (which I don't do), and another is folk music - I used to play in an Albanian folk band. The solos in that music are basically improvised. That kind of improvisation (like Indian improvisation) is based on knowledge of what's gone before. So there are lots of references, not a completely blank canvas.

Then you go along to graphic and text scores, where you're interpreting in some way what is on the page, but it's completely up to you as to what you think is appropriate. I remember giving text scores to the first year undergraduates at Exeter University, and somebody said, “Oh, it's all right to play anything then. Can I play a Mozart sonata?” And I said, “If you genuinely believe that that is appropriate, then yes you can. But if you're just doing it because I say that I'm not telling you what to do, then no you can't!”

For improvisation, you've got to be absolutely honest with yourself. That's one of the most important things. You can't just play any old thing in whatever style, and think, well that's OK, isn't it? The best people in all these styles I've mentioned really care about what they're doing, and that goes for them all, from Ravi Shankar to seventeenth century Baroque specialists. So improvisation doesn't have one specific meaning. There's an understanding that it is not formalised.

SA: For me it's all about measuring time. There’s a particular kind of relationship between the players and between yourself and your instrument, which feeds you in a way that is quite different to performing notated music. Working with traditional notation sits in a particular part of my brain, I find. These days I play very little fully notated music. In terms of composition, there's a lot of wrangling around this subject. Some improvisers howl at the idea that composers use improvisation as a compositional tool, because there's a danger that something is being watered down, it loses its honesty and spontaneity. But all the different ways of employing improvisation as a way to communicate ideas are equally valid; there isn't that much to argue about.

CS: What interests you about improvisation? What draws you to it?

SA: Perhaps it’s to do with having a difficulty with authority? And also the fact that when it comes to making music, the things I want to learn through doing that - perhaps there's a need for them to be quite personal, I'm trying to communicate something from myself to the world... which doesn't preclude the fun you can have working in other ways, of course! To be improvising with other artists is to explore communication, forge new conversations and try to crack problems open. It's also an extremely social activity, even if you are an insular character of few words – you’re still involved in complex social communication.

CS: How did you get into improvisation?

IM: My clarinet teacher at the Academy was Alan Hacker, who was very involved in contemporary music, and worked with Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle, Sandy Goehr, Boulez, Stockhausen ... music in that 'neck of the woods'. As Alan's student, I inevitably got involved in it too, because he got me along playing second [clarinet] in the Fires of London Ensemble for example, or playing an independent part, or whatever. I got a reputation for that kind of music. In the mid-70s, I decided to do a degree, so I went to Goldsmiths part-time. There was someone in the year above me doing the part-time course too, and his name was John Tilbury. We'd never met. The professor there was Stan Glasser, who organised a conference (I can't remember what it was about), and asked me to give a recital at the conference with John. So John and I met up in his tiny flat in Holloway Road. I asked, “What are we going to play then?” He said, “How about this?” – and he climbed on a chair above the piano and got out a piece of music which was just blocks and squares and oblongs on a piece of paper. It was Earle Browne's December 1952, a seminal piece. I'd never seen - never mind played - anything like that. So we played it, John played some Cardew, I played Cage's clarinet sonata (all notated formally), I might have done some Birtwistle (Linoi). For the Browne, John said, “When we get to the end I'll just turn the page upside down and we'll do it all again!” I thought this was all amazing! Keith Potter, who still teaches at Goldsmiths, was there, and afterwards he said, “That was really interesting. It sounded like you were playing Birtwistle all evening, and John was playing Cage all evening, even when you were playing together!” That made me think about it all, and I found it extraordinarily liberating. In fact, John and I became very close friends and he got me involved in a different area of contemporary music – the Cardew set, graphic scores, text pieces and then the amazing AMM, a revolutionary group. It's extraordinarily different walking on stage knowing that you don't have to be counting 5/16 and coming in on the third beat, but also having huge responsibility. John is the most wonderful improviser I've ever come across, and his integrity is second to none. I began to learn such an enormous amount from him and his colleagues, and feel I'm still just sampling and learning all the time. That sense of approaching music totally differently was the most important thing for me. It's interesting that John plays Bach and Mozart wonderfully, and he plays free improvisation, Cardew and Feldman absolutely supremely. So things are not exclusive, and that influenced me a lot and made me feel that it was something worthwhile pursuing in a very serious way.

SA: When I began playing, at a very young age, I played lots of repertoire, and life was dedicated to the pursuit of becoming as ambidextrous as possible – all of those calisthenic concerns, and listening to lots of music. At university, I began playing a lot of contemporary music, and in the 80s, the music being written was getting more and more complex. Two things fascinated me. One was heavy complexity, playing stuff by composers like Richard Barrett, Ian Wilcock and Michael Finnissy. Whilst at the same time, I was involved with several experimental groups. One group that had a big effect on me, called George W Welch - played music written predominantly by Ian Gardiner and Andrew Hugill. Lots of harmony, lots of tuned percussion and pieces by John White and Gavin Bryars, a lot of which stays with me now. But as far as playing heavy complexity went, I recall after one big note-busting phase, feeling I’d had enough. I was in my late 20s and there was a period of six months where I didn't feel like playing a note! At the end of those six months, I took up the darabuka, and then (as you did in those days), went on a long foray exploring music from other parts of the world. Most of the world’s music not being notation-based, notation became the first thing that started to lose importance for me. In many traditions, the need to extemporise is just something you do - and then from extemporisation, improvisation bubbles up. For a period, I was invited to provide things that essentially weren't my own – musics from other cultures – things that really didn't belong to me. It feels uncomfortable in retrospect, yet the activity of exploring them was really useful. I think it enabled me to cut free from my training. In a sense, the greatest respect I could ever pay to all those traditions I delved into, especially Persian music and West African music, is not to play them. They have a profound effect on the way you think about the world, and that's what's important. But the crux, was what I learnt alongside the experience of playing these things. Now, though I have moved on, those studies have fed both the physicality and mental processes of what I do today; they are invisibly embedded deep in everything I do, not just in making music.

CS: Do you see a relationship or link between performing new compositions and performing improvisation?

SA: Yes, they're both equally interesting… but then no, I can't see a relationship between the two things because they don't really sit separately in my mind. For example, a recent concert at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival concert I took part in: two new pieces commissioned by Simon Reynell (Another Timbre record label) from Magnus Granberg and Jürg Frey. Magnus's piece presented the players with the DNA of a work in cellular form, which provides improvisatory seeds to work with. Jürg, on the other hand, notated every single minutiae, and the music is crystalline. As ever, the performers involved in that concert were chosen for their ability to interpret compositional intent – whatever the means employed. One of my favourite playing situations is a band I have with four friends, who are all visual artists. It's a free improvising band and of course, their training is completely different to mine. They hail from all over the world, artists working with materials, dealing with the same concerns as composers - it's just that their usual materials are different - they have a different relationship to time and memory. In that situation, it could be said that there is an element of composition, in the form of retrospective discussion that occurs after playing, which is digested – and feeds into the next performance.

IM: Well, yes, one link is taking it all very seriously. That might sound banal and uppity, but it's true! Not dismissing anything until you've explored it and thought about it. We've all played pieces that we've thought “oh this is a dreadful piece”, but then you think, “well – is it because of the way I'm playing it?” It often is! A little anecdote. I run a bass clarinet course at Benslow. They play in quartets and groups. In one of the sessions, I had given a group Prokofiev's 'Romeo and Juliet' to play – a famous bit. I walked in to do some coaching, and one of them said, “Oh, this is a dreary piece, isn't it?”. So I said, “Well, play it to me”. And they played 'bom... di...di... bom … bom' [very slowly]. And I said, “Do you know the story of Romeo and Juliet?” “Yes of course I do!” “OK, so there are two families, warring factions, they're killing each other, they're arguing, and there's two lovers, one from each side, and I said, you're just plodding around as if you don't care about anything at all, and you've not been thinking about all the clues that are on the page. Just the title gets you thinking about the context of it and the music. It's quite martial, and then in the middle there's a beautiful with string harmonics and flutes...” I said all this, and then right, “Now play”. And it was a revelation! I thought, job done, that's good. And afterwards, I thought, it doesn't matter what kind of music – a text score, a piece by Bach, you've always got clues on the page about how to approach it. So whatever the music is, I try (and I don't succeed all the time by any means) to see what's there, and draw that out.

CS: How do you imagine listeners appraise improvisation? Do you think they listen with different ears? Do you think about the listener at all when you improvise? For people used to attending concerts as a listener, you often hear comments saying they don't know how to listen to improvisation or new music.

SA: There are so many different modes of approach and possible outcomes when someone says they're improvising, I think it's impossible to say you don't know how to listen. There will always be something that you can respond to. If we call improvisation a means to an end, and someone says they don't know how to listen, I wonder if they're talking about the end, not the means. When I perform, do I think about how people are going to respond? No. Never!

IM: When I'm improvising (it's mostly free, aleatoric stuff), I don't think about the audience at all. I have to get involved in the sounds that are around me and that I'm creating. I think that's got to come across and draw them in. If I was thinking about the audience, I would be playing in a way that is a 'sop' to them – thinking, “oh, perhaps they need something loud and fast now” or whatever, and that would influence how I play, but I don't think it should. It's difficult not to think about the audience sometimes, but in a sense you have to exclude them. They might walk away not liking it, and if so, I always ask them to find out why (it's important to make them think!). If you're an actor, you don't think, “I've got to try to get a laugh here”– or in a death scene, “Am I dying well enough?”! It's fair enough to say they don't know how to listen, but I'd ask them, “Well, what do you listen to in a piece by Lady Gaga or Beethoven?” There are all sorts of things that might be interesting – gosh, they can play so loudly, and now it's quiet, and that's very dramatic, or wow, how fast it is, or oh, didn't that come up in the oboe before – even simplistic things can draw you in, no matter the style of music is. You don't have to 'understand' (awful word!) - I don't understand most of the music I play, my job is to explore it and put across something. When people go to an art gallery, and they stand in front of a picture, sometimes they walk on to the next one in three seconds, and sometimes they stop in front of one and spot things. It's the same in music. There are things that you might spot that I'd never have thought of. It's all one continuum.

CS: Tell us about your Borough New Music concert for Series 4, with Guest Artistic Director Robert Percy: how you chose people to work with, your work with composers, and how you chose repertoire.

SA: Rob Percy and I met on a dance course in 1999 – International Dance Course for Professional Choreographers and Composers – a two-week course that I think may have been directed by Nigel Osborne. It was an extraordinary time. There would be 8-9 multi-instrumentalists, 8 composers, 8 choreographers and nearly 30 dancers from all around the world. We'd make new stuff every day. Robert was there as a composer, and I was working as a facilitating musician. He is a lovely guy and we had a great time. Yet actually we've never played together, so this Borough New Music concert on 9th January 2018 is a first outing!

IM: For the repertoire in the forthcoming Borough New Music concert on 16 January: I had never heard of Rob Percy, which was fine – someone new! Dan Kessner too, I'd never heard of, Carla Rees suggested his piece. Tom Ingoldsby I suggested because we needed a trio and Carla and I had recorded his piece years ago (though Tom wasn't there and we hadn't played it to him). I don't have any experience of working with any of them. But generally, if I'm organising repertoire for my group Gemini for example, I'm quite selective about composers. I have worked closely with a small number of composers of differing styles – Howard Skempton, Philip Grange, or David Lumsdaine for example. I choose to work with them because I like both the people and their music. Getting to know someone's music is important – not just one-offs (though I do those too of course). For example, I met David Lumsdaine in 1973 and we just brought out a CD of music in 2017! We've played lots of his music and introduced it to all sorts of people. I really enjoy working with people I see as friends. For the bass clarinet CD I'm recording at the moment, most of it is commissioned from composers I know and like. Another example is Cheryl Frances-Hoad, whom I knew as a cellist, as I was playing with her for a dance company. So for this solo CD, I asked Cheryl for a piece. That approach satisfies me more. It's got to be music that I feel comfortable with.

Find out more about the work of Simon Allen and Ian Mitchell from their Web sites.

On Tuesday 9 January 2018, as the opening performance of Series 4 of Borough New Music, Simon Allen (percussion) performs 'Open Plan: Self Assembly Event' with Robert Percy (furniture-maker). On Tuesday 16 January 2018, Ian Mitchell (clarinets) performs with Lisa Nelsen (flutes)* and Clare Simmonds (piano) in a recital of works by the composers Robert Percy, Dan Kessner, Tom Ingoldsby and Ken Hesketh. [*replacing Carla Rees who is indisposed]

All concerts take place at St George the Martyr Church, SE1 1JA (opposite Borough tube) at 1pm. Admission is free and light refreshments are served afterwards.