At every point of my research, whether it be through my own practice, talking to others, or through academic research, improvisation is concerned with liberation. The specifics of the forms of liberation vary from person to person, practice to practice, yet they are all concerned with the breaking from standard theoretical, aesthetic, or ideological structures. For some it is in an effort to find uncharted creativity, to relate closer to their music, or to escape from it.
As the reasons to improvise are so different, I wanted to first better understand the practices of my peers, artists and musicians who are prominent practitioners in their fields. Through these conversations I was able to understand something about their practice, as well as my own motivations to build software instruments to improvise with.
The five artists that I talked to are composers, performers, musicians, artists and friends, who engage in an experimental, exploratory practice. They have all undergone a formal musical education which imposes some predispositions of practice, and a construction of cultural value. It was this question that opened all our conversations. It was this question that opened up my own research topic.
Throughout I will distinguish specifically when associating improvisation to music. An improviser is one that explores the possibilities of predefined structures, spaces, and/or culture. In terms of all the improvisers and groups mentioned, they are using music as their playground, but allow their work to exist in forms like performance art, installations, video art, comedy, education, and many more.
My first conversation was with Peter Farrar and Laura Altman. Peter Farrar is a saxophonist who has been prolific within the improvisation scene in Sydney for over a decade, extending his practice to composition, hip-hop, and electro acoustic music. Laura Altman is a clarinettist and electro acoustic composer who too, extends her practice into the realms of folk music, jazz, traditional composition, and electro acoustic music.
Both Peter and Laura are prolific performers and improvisers playing with many notable Australian and international artists, and as permanent members, sometimes leaders, of improvisation ensembles around the world. During our conversation we talked about their individual practices, and about two groups in particular of which they are both core members, the Splinter Orchestra and the Prophets.
Liberation is very different depending on who you ask, and in which context they practice. Laura and Peter both talked in non-specific terms about how, rather than specifically liberating them from something holding them back, it was more the sense of being libre, free, unrestrained by training, tradition, or preconceptions of value. Laura and Peter used Splinter Orchestra and Prophets to illustrate these feelings.
Prophets are a group born out of a will to collectively improvise grooves, with no idolisation of the individual artist, and embracing the musicality of the “un-mastered” musician. To achieve these goals they employ techniques outside of a musical practice. By adorning themselves in custom made brightly coloured costumes, they take on alternate identities removing their own histories, musical or otherwise. This allows the musicians then to play instruments that they have little to no training on, obscuring any preconceptions of mastery as imposed by their audiences, or themselves. For the members of Prophets, they are liberated from the historical position of mastery, and any constructs of ego, embracing their music as a collective endeavour. The music dives headlong into a space of fragile possibilities based upon collaborative support, and happy accidents.
The Splinter Orchestra is a fluctuating, twenty person strong ensemble that too is concerned with collective practice, and embraces the contributions of artists that would not normally be considered musicians. The constitution of the orchestra is made up of many kinds of music making devices which in no way is prescriptive. Its primary form is to make collective improvised music where all kinds of mastery are welcomed. the Splinter Orchestra is concerned more with the conservation of a strong community of like-minded, creative individuals who wish to explore music together.
I mention these two groups as they contain all the artists I spoke to. These groups unify them in their creative intention, and demonstrates how very different practitioners are involved in quite a distinct collective practice. Furthemore these groups exist as meeting places to explore interests and issues outside of their musical practices.
The other musicians I taked to; Melanie Herbert, Bonnie Stewart, and Rhys Mottley are members of the Splinter Orchestra. the Splinter Orchestra acts not only as a creative collective, but as an important social meeting hub. For Rhys it was the difference between not playing music, and becoming a regular member of the Splinter Orchestra, Prophets, the manifestation of Rebel Scum and his development of a solo practice.
Melanie Herbert is an electro-acoustic composer and improviser, her compositions use field recordings and improvised clips which often take the form of multi-speaker installations. Her work has been installed in art galleries and presented in festivals across Australia. My interest in talking to Melanie was to understand what drew her to an improvisational practice from a background in composition.
Melanie’s entrance into an improvised performance practice came from joining the Splinter Orchestra. Like many of the other members, Melanie joined the ensemble after appreciating their music for many years. She views playing with the Splinter Orchestra as a break from her compositional practice, playing an instrument she is not formally trained on allows her to embrace the collective spontaneity of improvisation, liberating her from any of her formal training. For Melanie, there is a delineated separation between her practice as an improviser and composer. She has no interest in liberating herself from her compositional training, rather it enriches it while living in parallel.
Rhys Mottley and Bonnie Stewart make up the improvising duo Rebel Scum, self-described as a concept band performing narratives involving aliens travelling through space. Rebel Scum started as a name on a list, and a question about what alien music would actually sound like. It came after speculating about the plausibility of the famous cantina scene in Star Wars Episode IV : A New Hope.
“Is that really the music that aliens would be playing in a bar? […] Maybe they would be playing this fucked up shit, like this really weird noise music that everyone is kinda into anyway…” (Mottley, 2018)
Both Rhys and Bonnie went through formal music training, which they referred to as “Jazz School”, Bonnie on the drums, and Rhys on the guitar. I was curious about this time in their lives in relationship to their current practice. They concurred that they had no regrets following formal education in jazz and recognised that neither of them would be here today if they hadn’t engaged in it. However Rhys was clear that there was a long time where he didn’t want to play guitar any more as a result of his jazz training, commenting that it was repulsive to him to hear the guitar in the way that he was trained to play it. It was only after moving to Sydney and joining the Splinter Orchestra did he start to rediscover music through free improvisation.
”..fallen out of like with the Jazz language […] this new world that is a bit more open, exploring and finding something else.” (Stewart, 2018)
Rebel Scum liberates both of them in rejecting the structures of jazz improvisation, as well as a reincarnation of their roots in Punk music. For them, rather than adorning themselves in costumes to expunge their history and any preconceptions it may carry, they situate themselves in an imagined story from a galaxy far far away. They do not ignore their practices as highly trained musicians, rather ignoring any elitism jazz school may have applied, and acknowlede their passions for punk and science fiction as a means to re-discover music. The liberation here is less about abstaining from oppressive structures, and more about embracing a playfulness, and the lost merits for ones own cultural mouldings.
Improvising performance artist, and theorist Mattin talks about an improviser’s search for fragility. He recounts Radu Malfatti when talking about musicians breaking from their musical orthodoxy, as the consolidation or re-metabolisation of fragile moments that an artist has encountered (Mattin, 2005, pp.22).
Mattin is an improvising, performance artist that works with computer hardware, open source software, and fluxus like techniques in cases where he physically alters computer technology (Monoskop, 2008). My introduction to his practice was through his writings on improvisation and open source software, where he expands the application of improvisation beyond musical practice.
Rebel Scum, the Prophets and the Splinter Orchestra are all engaging with this fragility, pursuing not only to re-metabolise fragile moments, but to create new and unexpected ones. Mattin (2005, pp.22 )states that “there is a fine line between being persistent in pursuing a particular line of research, and getting comfortable within one’s methods”. If anything Peter, Laura, Melanie, Bonnie and Rhys are liberating themselves from the comforts their trained musical methodologies, and are interested in an expanded palate that improvisation has to offer.