Somewhere There's Music - by John Russell
For me, the terms 'conventional' and 'unconventional' when applied to instrumental techniques are practically worthless in the context of free improvisation, and not a great deal of use in other musics. One of my aims is to have the ability to use all the sound elements that the instrument can produce and, in improvising, to constantly pick and choose their meaning (i.e. their musical function) within the context of a developing music. This runs against the critical grain that searches for a fixed context upon which to pin musicians and their work, rather in the way a Victorian lepidopterist would display butterflies: by killing them.
Musicians, too, can fly into the net by thinking that playing the 'right' notes in the 'right' order and in the 'right' place makes them something they're not. For the student, imitation has some place but it is adventurers and explorers that make the real music. With few exceptions, this creative edge is generally anathema to a music industry that now, more than ever, is built upon the regurgitation of yesterday's food, constantly reprocessed and repackaged. We are told this makes market sense. What other sense does it make? The market-force dogma is put forward not only as an extrinsic means of exchange and communication but also intrinsically as the message itself. Aided and abetted by abuses of new technology, 'live' music becomes reduced to a hollow spectacle serving only to allow an audience to be but never to become. The delight in developing and sharing skills (and by 'skills' I mean those of both playing and listening) is replaced by a screwdriver and assembly plan. It is against this backdrop of an ever more immobile and immobilising world that those musicians and audiences who celebrate innovation, originality and the necessity and inexorability of change, seek to make a new sensibility.
One responds to music through many different filters and combinations of filters that are built up over time. The creative musician/listener is constantly analysing, revaluing and reorganising these, while at the same time trying to find new ones to generate further possibilities; but it is in the act of improvising that 'quantum leaps' can occur. Indeed, sometimes the whole architecture crumbles, leaving nothing at all as a reference point. Then it's time to forget the parade ground of spit, polish and square-bashing.
This applies to both solo and group playing, but there are differences between the two. I don't propose to go into the details of solo playing here, except to say that it is, or should be, an invaluable part of any musician's work and that both solo and group playing can inform each other.
A good group is, for me, one where the musicians share a common commitment to musical development whilst fully recognising each individual's contribution. This does not, of course, imply anything as banal as finding a lowest common denominator, but rather an epiphany.
As an acoustic guitar player, and therefore having a limited dynamic, it may seem surprising that in such circumstances as Radu Malfatti's Ohrkiste, Chris Burn's Ensemble and my own twelve-piece project who performed at this year's London Jazz Festival, the guitar is not swamped by the volume (number and dynamic) of the other instruments. I can assure you that this has as much or more to do with the skills of the other musicians as it has to do with me. This applies to working in ad hoc situations, including those brought together for specific projects, much as in longer-term, more fixed companies. Provided a platform (and thanks to the London Jazz Festival here for their help with the recent Mopomoso event) specific projects can offer a way to present one's work in the context of a larger improvising community, develop existing associations and juxtapose previously divergent strands.
Regular groups offer something else again. Recently reunited with my colleagues in News From The Shed, at the Nickelsdorf Festival, the music had a sophistication that was even more than the sum of its far from inconsequential constituent parts; a brilliant coherence of elements stretching far beyond any usual breaking points. When a regular group of the calibre of News From The Shed is pulling out the stops, it's just a joy to be part of it all as it unfolds.
As a musician, one's overriding responsibility has to be to music and through this to any audience, real or potential. The notion of changing one's music to make it 'more accessible' is to lose sight of the objective.
In terms of production this is manifested by trying constantly to raise standards at venues. With generally ill-informed and ill-willed mediators between musician and the general public, this sometimes seems an almost Herculean task. Here we can but hope for a world of musicians who don't throw away any complexity or depth in striving for clarity; for promoters who provide the best services at their disposal and for audiences not only willing to participate aurally, but to sometimes turn a blind eye to some of the seemingly incongruous circumstances within which this music is often forced to take place. R
Homecooking . . . (solo; Russell on one side of LP only, the other side is by Richard Coldman) (Incus 31, 1978/79); Tea Time, w Beresford/Coombes/Todd/Solomon (Incus 15); Conceits, w Butcher/Durrant (Acta 1, 1987); News From The Shed, w Malfatti/Butcher/Durrant/Lovens (Acta 4, 1989); Cultural Baggage, w Chris Burn's Ensemble - Burn/Butcher/Denley/Wishart/Durrant/Mattos/Hutchinson (Acta 5, 1990 CD); Live At The Qua Qua, w Electric String Trio - Wachsmann/Mattos (Bead 2, 1982); Wild Pathway Favourites, w Martin Archer, a.o. (Ladder Records, Rung 002 1988); Concert Moves, w Butcher/Durrant (Random Acoustics RA 011, 1995 CD); Birthdays, w Roger Turner (Emanen 4010, 1996 CD); Navigations, w Chris Burn's Ensemble - Burn/Butcher/Davis/Denley/Dörner/Durrant/Hutchinson/Mattos/Wastell/Wishart (Acta 12, 1997 CD)
This piece was first published in Rubberneck 15, November 1993
Text © Rubberneck; photo © Phillip Edwards