Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule?
No fixed schedule. My working life is determined in the main by my erratic sleep patterns.
How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamless?
Cardew was the master of seamlessness: he never allowed one thing to dominate, to make unreasonable demands on his time. And he never seemed to prioritize in the way that most of us do. The reason for this was that for him every activity was endowed, Zen-like, with equal significance. Devising a new musical notation demanded the same care, the same attention to detail, the same concern and respect for human relations, as bathing the baby or preparing a picnic. I aspire to this condition but fall way short.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
I have been listening to an AMM CD, to the first 4 minutes of track 4, which ‘features’ the piano. I have chosen this particular track because I want to try and verbalise what it means, at least for me, to be an improvising musician, and the questions and doubts it gives rise to. The title of the CD is Fine and it was released by Matchless Recordings in 2001. In this particular event, the Musique Action festival in Nancy, France, we were accompanying a dancer, Fine Kwiatkowski, with whom we shared the performance space.
Generally speaking, in performance the piano sound can be effectively subsumed into the context; different degrees of presence, from the soloistic, the palpable, as in the following example, to a situation where its contribution is barely perceived, but none the less telling - overheard rather than heard, working in the nooks and crannies, fleetingly emerging from time to time.
So, in this extract, Phase 1 begins with a high-pitched continuo against which there are brief piano interjections: consonant, benign, including perfect intervals. Suddenly a dissonant, augmented interval is sounded, immediately leavened by a quiet repetition.
Phase 2: the indeterminate continuo changes subtly, accompanied by an expressive sequence of piano semi-tones which stops for about 20 seconds.
Phase 3: restarts; adjacent notes are added to the semitones, creating clusters; a slight feeling of urgency, louder, quicker, insistent. A plateau is reached, then two steps descent. Stop.
There is no score, no blueprint, no ideal by which to stand or fall; the music is completely self-contained. It feels, to me at any rate, ‘right’. It does not feel in any way ‘contrived’. It is as if the music were autonomous, as if I were simply tracking it, letting it happen, letting it unfold. Yet these are all split-second, ‘spontaneous’ decisions/choices. So to what extent is what I play, and what I hear and see, influenced by my fellow musicians (and dancer), not to mention the audience? My wish, my preference, is that the influence is subliminal, the relationships subtle and unfathomable. And chance? Not every sound has the same measure of intentionality. Accidentalness also plays a role, when intention is thwarted. Here is Cardew’s take: The only criterion for a sound is: ‘was the player expecting (intending) to make it? If not, it was a mistake, and makes a different sort of claim to beauty. As a mistake, it comes under criteria for action: mistakes are the only truly spontaneous actions we are capable of.’
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
In an interview with me a few years ago a music journalist posed the following questions:
"You're sitting at the piano bench readying yourself to play. The audience is hushed; there's an air of anticipation. Your fingers are poised over the keyboard. At that critical moment, do the mental processes you go through differ according to whether you're about to play a composition or an improvisation? If so, in what ways are they different?" I answered as follows:
“There are no hard and fast contrasts. Both modes are subject to constraints, imposed from without, which determine what and how one plays. Playing the score. . . .of course, the notation prescribes the broad limits: whereabouts on the keyboard, a relative pitch, a relative duration, a relative dynamic (sometimes). But contingencies such as tuning and timbre, for example, depend upon the instrument, the tuner, the room temperature, etc.”
So, with regards to a composition, if the hands are poised and the muscles tensed, this state of bodily affairs is only partially determined by information gleaned by the player from the score. Incidentally, playing solo (from the score), one should not underestimate the leeway enjoyed by the performer: deciding the actual moment of execution from the moment of sitting down at the instrument. Compare this with playing under the control of a conductor’s baton, which is, perhaps, why a number of reputable solo pianists are indifferent concerto players.
The leeway in free improvisation is greater; one can wait until the music is already underway, has established itself, thanks to the initiative of the other players. But here, too, the first sounds of a set may come as a response to an external provocation - perhaps, though not necessarily, less specific than a musical notation. But what if you are playing solo? Your audience are strangers (initially) and the stage is a lonely place. Either the ambience assumes greater responsibility or, conversely, you retreat into your own private world, relying on recourse to subectivity to provide reasons for breaking the silence.
In free improvisation the player revels in a whirlpool of uncertain potentiality. Each musical moment, however fleeting, presents a situation, a ‘problem’, to negotiate spontaneously. The decision to stop a note, or continue it, for example, is not determined by an external constraint - by compositional structure, by the score. There may be a physical reason for doing one thing or the other, like a wind player running out of breath, for example, but a spontaneous musical reason, is an ever-present option for the improvising musician. When I improvise, and when the music has ‘taken off’, there is a strong feeling of identification with the sounds I make and hear; I am the sounds. Or, to quote Cardew again: ‘the search is conducted in the medium of sound and the musician himself is at the heart of the experiment.’
In the improvisation we can identify a real, as opposed to a prescribed, tentativeness; the musicians’ hesitations reflect this idea of ‘feeling a way into the music’. There is a fragility, a vulnerability, about the music. Compare this with the prescription ‘zögernd’ (‘hesitating’) in Schönberg’s op.19 no.1. Here the pianist may not perform the phrase in question ‘hesitatingly’(as the improvisers do); rather he should create, for the listener, the appropriate artistic expression of the concept of ‘hesitation’. There is a significant difference.
Similarly, at the beginning of Debussy’s piano piece Jimbo’s Lullaby from the Children’s Corner Suite, the composer prescribes the performance instruction ‘gauche’. Of course, the pianist should not perform in a ‘gauche’ manner; rather he must express a certain awkwardness in the passage concerned - through a subtle rhythmicisation, through an idiosynchratic accentuation, and so forth. Through, paradoxically, control.
In improvisation there can be moments of real musical ‘awkwardness’; you are feeling your way; you are not sure whether you are making the right decisions, especially in the early stages. You are neither ‘convinced’ nor ‘convincing’. But this lack of conviction, too, can be contextualised and turned to musical, artistic advantage.
Sometimes, when I play a larger aggregate of notes, I can anticipate the qualities of sound and the nature of the harmony that I'm playing, but not exactly. I don't exactly hear the actual chord in my head, except to the extent that it’s a cluster-type chord or a whole-tone type of chord. But once I've played it, then immediately I'm reacting and adjusting, trying various transpositions, for example. I like to do that, playing around in that way; I like the economy of that way of working; I enjoy the experimental part of it, working on the material, making split-second choices, ironing out the imperfections, or the perfections; retrospectively ‘correcting’ mistakes; using the piano as a sound source to be explored rather than an instrument to be performed on. It’s like pottery: you are dealing with a piece of clay, kneading with your fingers and hands, moving it around, making shapes, not dissimilar to that of sculpting in stone, the only art form that creates by reducing its material. It is the physicality of playing the piano that I enjoy so much.
Of course, in performing a composition, the composer/score, must always prevail; in the last analysis the reader/performer does as he/she is told, although the need or desirability for compromise is something the composer/interpreter relationship often has to come to terms with. (In parenthesis I would argue that performer conviction is absolutely essential, a sine qua non, even overriding, within reason, the composer’s initial prescription. And I know that most composers would bow to this.)
And yet, more and more, I do question the authenticity, the prestige of the written score and its traditional eminence. ‘Tradition’ - a relation with the past that is used to excuse all manner of gross and bestial acts, from pushing a head into a birthday cake, to stoning an adultress.
Some years ago, training my limbs to accommodate the exaggerated and often unreasonable demands of contemporary music, I would experience a monumental indifference which would occasionally metamorphose into pain. Composition would occasionally elicit feelings of deep dissatisfaction and even resentment: the constraints it imposed, the formal authority it embodied, and above all its insistence on governing, through bar-line and baton, my relationship with my colleagues. Too often what the performance of a composition required was expertise, know-how and an indifference to the end product; I made the sound but I was not required to identify with it.
Of course, what I am describing here is professionalism, and professionalism necessitates the jettisoning of integrity and virtue (and I am aware of the seriousness of my accusation): from the point of view of the professional it's not what I do but if I'm paid to do it: hence, for example, the term the 'professional foul' in sport. In music it seems to me that there are too many such fouls, too many musicians carrying out orders, too many violations of the art of music. In short my dissatisfaction is with the system of cultural values which, in many cases, composition exemplifies and I believe it is up to our composers to take stock of the situation in their chosen sphere of activity. Some are doing so.