Interview by Frank Sani, 15th November 2002
Evan Parker once said that "improvisation makes its own form". I suppose it depends what you are doing, but as a solo improviser it must be difficult sometimes to be totally free, without any structure. So I was wondering if you ever prepare a structure or some technique to use at some point, or if you just go for it, completely free.
I think it's constantly changing for my own playing. My early solo attempts were more concerned with the actual sounds, in a sort of microscopic way, and then the structure came from that. I generally don't predetermine a structure. I never think of climaxes or obvious starts and stops. It's more of an evolving response to sounds that I've just played, maybe, or a response to the room. Sometimes it depends on who has played before me. I am, however, interested in limiting certain parameters, in that I'll have distinct areas that I'm working in. Perhaps I'll limit the palette, or decide to work with an e-bow for one piece, work with a bow for another, or deal more thoroughly with one area, though if I do have those thoughts before I improvise I usually find I change them completely the instant I start playing.
Is the key to improvising not rehearsing structures but rather the instrument itself, so as to be able to access any particular timbre that you want at the time, without nasty surprises? Do you rehearse any particular technique?
No, I don't practise going from one technique to another. I do experiment and search for sounds on the harp in private, but I don't do this sort of technical jumping around the harp or try and get hold of a plectrum and pick up a cork as quickly as possible. It all happens in the moment, responding really to the sound and what the sound dictates at the time. I used to rehearse a lot with other musicians and then listen back to the recordings. The need for that perhaps isn't as great now, because I have a fairly good idea of what my sound is, of what's going on, of what it can potentially do, though it's still interesting to meet up with people and refresh things.
How do you approach the question of time? If you have a half hour slot before somebody else and play for just five minutes, how do you decide whether to walk off or start again? Does the audience know whether you've finished or not? If there is no time limit, do you consciously "spread out" the improvisation, the material?
Generally, I've developed an in-built notion of how long I've played for. When I first started improvising, if we were asked to play for twenty minutes we'd play twenty-five to thirty minutes, but the tendency now is to say, right, we've got a twenty minute slot, and we do actually finish around twenty. You develop this in-built clock. It's also interesting when a piece has finished but the audience doesn't realise it's finished, and it takes a really…really big strain to start again, because the preceding piece is still in the air, and to actually play again is difficult. There tends to be a minute's silence before I can erase the sound from my mind and then start afresh with another piece.
Hopefully before they start clapping, or coughing…
(Laughs) With certain groups I'm working with silence and maybe we have two or three minutes' silence within the pieces, which can be incredibly intense. The players have to really focus on every minute sound. When I prepare the harp I sometimes find myself stuck in a position with a bow and I can't move for fear of making an unwanted noise. I find it an increasingly interesting way of working actually, because you can't hide behind noise, you have to be very precise about what you do.
Do you work with silence in a positive way, in the sense that you plan or wait for it in between notes or sounds? How does it feel to be in charge of silence, to know when to start playing again? Isn't it a bit of a sneaky enemy when you're performing alone and you've got an audience waiting for you?
When I began there was a tendency to play all the time, to fill the space with frantic screechy-scratchy improv. Then I began to focus more on different paces, silences and reduced material. It's not necessarily quiet for quiet's sake, but rather a matter of really exploring that sound range. The silence is as much a part of the music as the sound. I don't think of it as negating noise or my instrument, it's more about framing the sound; actually the silence is as interesting as the sound.
Do you find that certain environments suit this approach better?
Oh, absolutely! A lot of London improv gigs are in rooms above pubs, and the music has to compete with jukeboxes and people talking, and it's just so intrusive. It's impossible to have any kind of focus, let alone a focus on small sounds or silences. So any space where I don't have those sounds is beneficial.
I played an open air concert in France recently with Assumed Possibilities (Mark Wastell, Chris Burn, Phil Durrant), in a small village called Mhere where you could hear dogs barking, a cat mewing next to the stage and a bike going round the village (laughs). I find the effect that the environment has on my improvisation interesting: some improvisers let the sound of the environment come into their improvising - though not in an obvious way - while others are more self-contained. I like to think of my music more as responding to the environment that I'm in, not in a call-and-response way, but being sensitive to the room that I'm in and the sounds around me rather than playing the same in every situation.
How do you find studio recording? In one respect it's good that there's no intrusion, and you have more control over the sounds that you want to come out on the recording, but you've got the pressure of time..
I did a couple of solo recordings in studios and I found them very difficult, especially since the rooms were dry and uncompromising. I do find that with any performance space that has a dry acoustic, I feel a pressure to push the sounds out, overplay perhaps, which isn't how I want to present my music. So I do like a little warmth in the room, and then I don't worry that there's a microphone in front of me or that time is running by on a tape, as long as I'm interested in the sound that the room reflects.
Are you comfortable using a microphone with reverb, or some kind of electronic device on the harp - apart from the e-bow - to amplify the sound so that in a noisy environment you can really dominate the environment around you rather than being dominated?
I've always really disliked amplified and electric harps, where you have a pick-up for each string. I do own a pick up for the harp but it just sounds awful coming through an amplifier or a P.A. For larger spaces like theatres I will amplify with a microphone, but only so that it is barely noticeable, so that it lifts the sounds a little to help the people at the back, but that's as far as I want to go really with amplification. Playing with saxophones, drums, electronics, I would find myself swamped very easily. As a response I would try to play louder than they did (laughs).
Would that limit your sound to a certain kind of timbre?
Yes, I guess I'd be limited to one dynamic and it'd become far more industrial.
How much do you use unorganised sound, as colour, rather than individual melodies? The harp is after all a very precise instrument, like a keyboard, terraced into pitches.
I find that the more abstract noise elements still have pitches, albeit well hidden, so that's always a consideration even if I'm playing noise.
Do you feel you've found a particular voice of your own? Do you find yourself referring back to previous performances, or to the performance itself?
I'd like to think I've reached the stage where I've found an individual voice. At first the main concern was to get away from traditional harp sounds, with their romantic connotations - arpeggios and glissandos. I avoided all that; I was more interested in relating to - consciously or subconsciously - people I was playing with, like Phil Durrant, Mark Wastell, Chris Burn, Derek Bailey or John Butcher, getting the harp to sound like a saxophone or a violin. Then, I went through a phase of not wanting any of my sounds to sound like any other instrument, and now I'm coming round to using harmonics, multiphonics, perhaps letting some more harp sounds come in but sort of a.. (laughs) hardened inclusion of the harp sounds, informed by where I've come from. The harp can sound so twee and beautiful; I always try to get away from all that.
I suppose it would be like trying to play Feldman on bagpipes.
Do you practise scales and exercises, as usual?
Yes, I do, because of my job as a freelance harpist. I do play scales and exercises. Though I wouldn't say I do it for my improvising. Harp technique is something I try and escape really, when I improvise.
Do you have you any ideas about improvisation in a social context? One of the things that's been going on from the 1960s onwards is primary school improvisation. I was wondering if you had any ideas about what benefits there might be for children, and if you'd used your experience to promote improvisation or help musicians developing a musical personality.
Most workshops I've held have been with adults, so I've not really done workshops with children. I teach the harp, but I think the parents mainly want their children to pass their exams. I've had some pupils who've shown an interest in working in a more free and abstract way, and I encourage this and get them to improvise and devise little pieces. I think though with this music you have to come to it by yourself, you have to find your own way. People have approached John Butcher for lessons on how to improvise, and he usually refuses - I don't think you can be taught.
When I improvised at the University of Edinburgh with Nigel Osborne we did some work on Joseph Beuys and his videos, and some of the students had a total psychological barrier, and could not let go of playing scales. I wonder if there's a way of maybe re-educating young musicians.
A lot of the pieces I use at the beginning of workshops are from John Stevens's "Search and Reflect". They are especially useful to get you to listen to other people while you're making a sound, and also to think in a more abstract way. There is a tendency sometimes in a workshop where somebody wants to come in and show that they can play their instrument, so it is a bit of a battle to get them to listen and submit their ego to the group.
How much freedom do you have as an improviser within an ensemble? There's a subtle line between your freedom and your relating to the others - the interdependence with the other players. Do you think there are advantages playing with a group (in that you can relate and respond to others with less of a strain on you as a soloist) or do you sometimes feel that the group takes over, and you're taken in a certain direction (so much so that for instance the group might carry on playing when in fact you want to stop)?
Every group I play with is different. As for "taking the strain off", sometimes playing with a group can be more demanding than playing solo, but that depends on whom I'm playing with. I have played with two very large improvising groups: The [Lawrence] "Butch" Morris Conduction Orchestra, which did a Contemporary Music Network tour of England in 1998, and the follow-up group to that, the London Improvisers Orchestra. The first was conducted by "Butch" Morris and he'd developed this whole system of dictating the music - I didn't feel that we were allowed an individual voice in that context; we were more like colours on a palette that he could draw from. I think the L.I.O. went in the other direction, where everyone was afraid of saying what they wanted to do with the orchestra, so you ended up with a multitude of ideas, thirty people all playing at once, drowning the quieter instruments. Both are approaches that I don't particularly favour. The larger groups I enjoy playing with are Chris Burn's Ensemble and Broken Consort.
Ensemble started off using structures, and it still deals with structures actually, but I feel that when everyone's really listening you don't need them; Broken Consort has an unspoken agreement to explore a specific area. With smaller ensembles, like IST [Improvising String Trio: Simon Fell, Mark Wastell] we have worked in the past with composition, structures, and graphic scores. In the end I felt there wasn't such a need to do it with a trio, more often than not the music that we improvised was stronger and more interesting than the compositions we played. Only with really large ensembles does there come a need for structures.
I was going to mention another ensemble, which is Sealed Knot [Rhodri Davies, Mark Wastell, Burkhard Beins], which I saw last year in Huddersfield. The balance was incredible - there was silence, there was sound, quiet sounds, bursts of sound.. it really seemed as if there was some kind of connection between the players, a democratic principle that all worked with. To quote Derek Bailey: "Even the musically successful groups seem to lose some of their fertility after around two or three years. At this point the music becomes too obviously a dialogue. The indefinables get defined or disappear". Probably it depends on whom you play with, but do you ever feel that being in a group too long means that what actually started out as a good thing becomes a kind of self-repetition?
Well it's both, really. Derek is constantly playing with new people. In his Company events, he puts together a collection of people from disparate musical experiences and gets them to improvise together.
Have you played with them?
Yes, I did Company in New York and Marseille. A lot of my groups and projects are with Mark Wastell - I've played with him probably the most, and because we've played together in so many different contexts we're constantly pushing each other. It can be hard when you have a history of playing together to keep things fresh. With our longest running ensemble IST we've played together since 1995, and we seem constantly to re-invent ourselves, as the easiest thing for us to do would be to fit in. A lot of what I try and do when I improvise is to play in a different way - as well as playing different sounds - to approach playing differently. What's been interesting about all these longer-term groups is that we are always changing how we approach playing together, but in a complementary way. It's a continual organic development.
What about the idea of equality? You might say that a string quartet is equal, but the first violin is often considered the leader. Obviously improvising is quite a different experience - would you say that one of the positive sides of improvising is that you have people from different musical backgrounds who all have to work together, creating the material as they go along?
I do hold the general premise that people can be equal in the music, but with the possibility of many interesting power shifts happening in an improvisation at any one time, though it is difficult not to notice the predominance of a vast number of men involved in the music. Maybe it's a hangover from free jazz, or maybe it's the venues that are intimidating. There are, though, a lot of interesting young women improvisers playing now, like Margarida Garcia, Annette Krebs, Alessandra Rombolá, Ruth Barberán, Isabelle Duthoit, Andrea Neumann and Angharad Davies (my sister), but things are still far from balanced.
Would you say that playing in a group context is more rewarding - I'm talking about reaching that moment where you know that you've got it, that moment that you get sometimes when it all fits in together? Sometimes you don't get that moment at all.
I think that I can experience that in every combination that I play in. There is a very distinct difference between playing in a duo, a trio, and a quartet: they all have their uniqueness. To generalise, playing in a duo can be a very intimate dialogue, where you both have to work really hard; in a trio, you can perhaps sit back a little bit more; in a solo obviously you're really focused throughout. There's no preference, though I didn't have a great experience improvising solo when I first started, and I think it just takes longer to build on that, and find your own voice. I've reached the stage where I'm comfortable with my solo improvisation.
Have you ever found yourself in any nightmare situations?
I'm not talking about playing at some Working Men's Club (though maybe you have?!), I'm talking about just going out there and feeling that that it just didn't happen that night. Does that make you want to stop? Do you ever have doubts about what you are doing?
I've been in so many groups - ad hoc groups perhaps - where I really just don't want to be on the stage, because people are drowning me out, not listening, or bulldozing me. Sometimes I'm very critical of my own playing, and I think a performance didn't work for a multitude of reasons. Sometimes I just sense that the audience hate the music, or hate me (laughs). I can't help that having an effect on me, an influence on how I play. Sometimes I'll play improvised music in a contemporary music or jazz festival, and I feel this incredible pressure to play in a certain way, and then it's harder to go and present my own material. I just want to go and play my own music, but then I have to fight with having to gear it to something I imagine that the audience like.
I did this tour with John Butcher recently, and we were playing at a lunchtime concert in Newcastle, and the majority of the audience were expecting Bach, Brahms and Beethoven - so we were quite unexpected. A couple of them walked out saying: "This is utter rubbish!" (laughs) So I have to get through that, and in the past that would have bothered me and make me think, oh, I've got to play a bit more harp, to show them that I can play the harp, and all this sort of stuff. Now I've reached the stage where I think, well…fuck it! (laughs) I just have to do my stuff and present my music honestly. I can't let an imaginary audience dictate what I do.