Part 1

Name: N.O. Moore
Occupation: Guitarist, improviser
Nationality: British
Current release: N.O. Moore teams up with John Edwards, Eddie Prévost, and Alan Wilkinson for EMPoWered via 577.

[Read our Eddie Prévost interview]

If you enjoyed this interview with N.O. Moore, visit his official homepage and discogs entry for an overview of his available recordings. He also has a profile page on the iklectikoffsite, as well as a bandcamp store.

Tell me about your instrument and/or tools, please. How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results and your own performance?

My primary tool is electric guitar, usually with effects. Recently, I also got into electronic instruments quite heavily – drum machines and synthesisers. In essence, I love sound and rhythm.

Electric guitar is an obstacle to the body. By this, I mean that my experience of the instrument is as a set of resistances that I have to engage with and struggle against. Engagement with the physical entity is the process, but this does not mean that what results always sounds like a struggle. It is a bit like a combat, which can sometimes be very beautiful and other times a bit messy. Like certain martial artists who move gracefully with speed and who also know how to harness stillness and inertia.

This emphasis might sound like a matter of ‘mere’ craft. I am fine with that, and always prefer the artisan to the artist. Any seeming difference between physicality and the ‘idea’ of music is, for me, in error. There is no difference between music and dance in this sense. Some years back, I had the chance to work a little with a dancer, and I enjoyed that very much. Having an idea about music is not a problem, because the most simple things can be effective, and I am very happy when complexity emerges from a few simple gestures. Physicality is always more complicated than any mental process, and for this reason the most important thing in music is sensuality, followed by thinking.

To this end, synthesisers allow for a different approach, where the physicality of playing is reduced to almost zero and, instead, there is a focus on control. However, control is only interesting to the extent that it too is a struggle, an encounter with what is out of control. The point where the system is differing from itself. Struggle is perhaps not such a good word to the extent that it indicates something intense, something hot. But performance is not always like this, and sometimes the most calm and still can also be the most intense.

Practising guitar is like a meditative process, for me at least. I can practice very easily for hours and it is like no time has passed. I would like to do that every day but, unfortunately, I don’t always have hours and hours! With the synthesisers, I find it is the listening that becomes more meditative. This is good training, and can be applied over to guitar playing too. Not that I had not been listening with the guitar, but that controlling a synth opens up a new approach to listening. Perhaps a more compositional listening. Using effects with guitar can also open up this dimension, where it becomes less a problem of harmony and melody and one of density, balance, and texture.

When improvising, I never have a result in mind. My aim is always to play something good; yet, having this intention is no guarantee that I will play something good. Something happens between me and the outcome, something inserts itself there. I dance with it, and around it, sometimes falling flat on my face. This is the enigma of playing.

What do improvisation and composition mean to you and what, to you, are their respective merits?

This is a difficult question for me, because I am not a trained musician. One of the most beautiful recordings is by AMM called ‘Industria’. Of course, this music is completely improvised but really, because Prévost and Tilbury are such masters, that doesn’t really matter. Certainly, they could not have composed it, it could only have been improvised; yet, it is such a perfect performance it transcends the means of its production. Probably Mr Prévost would not be so happy with this assessment!

[Read our John Tilbury interview]

In the end, music, for performer and listener, is an issue of affect and sensibility. This is what I call ‘style’, and there are styles of listening as well as of playing, and they both take a long time to develop. They never finish being developed. Of course, there are technical differences between improvisation and composition, but this becomes secondary to the production of a style, an affect, a sense. In other words, a life. The beating heart is necessary, but it cannot be equated to the life that is lived.

Recently I co-composed a piece with Emmanuelle Waeckerlé, called ‘La Notte’. Emmanuelle often works by creating situations for a specific number of people to improvise in, and this was also the nature of our work together. Here, the composition can only be realised in and as variations, from performance to performance. Therefore, it is different from ‘pure’ improvisation, which is not the varied interpretation of a score but the varied investigation of the players’ capacities, or style.

However, it is not then true that improvisers only play what they know; rather, they play outside of what they know, by actualising their capacity in a way that they could not have predicted beforehand. The art of the improviser is to play what the improviser doesn’t know, but in a sophisticated and meaningful way. An improviser plays spontaneously, but not immediately. There is always mediation, whether it’s a group or solo, and I would describe this mediation thus: using technique to avoid playing what you already know.

Derek Bailey defined improvising as the search for material which is endlessly transformable. Regardless of whether or not you agree with his perspective, what kind of materials have turned to be particularly transformable and stimulating for you?

The goal is to reach a point of constant variation, such that there is no original theme or material that could be said to be the reference for the variation. In other words, each variation is the original and not a variation of the original. Each variation becomes a sort of event. Following from my previous answer, perhaps this is a difference from composed music generally?

At the same time, variation, or the transformable, should not be reduced to the ‘new’. I follow Henry Flynt in thinking that the ‘new’ is a poor standard by which to evaluate things. The new in itself is not so interesting. What is interesting is a difference that makes a difference. There is plenty that is ‘new’ but it doesn’t make any difference.

Certainly, to hear the new in improvisation requires an appropriate listening style, but is the requirement to listen actually anything new? Rather than the new, I prefer obsession - being seized by something and then having to follow it to an end, to exhaustion. This can happen very quickly – maybe in seconds – or it can take forever, a lifetime. Just the way a finger makes contact with a string, or how a plectrum is held, seems capable of infinite transformation.

I also wonder about this in the context of electronic music. In the 1950s and 60s, one can read of people speaking of new sounds and timbres as justifying electronic music. Maybe … but this is unlikely to bring anything durable or of lasting interest for electronic music. So, why is this music interesting? Perhaps because, like anything of interest, it has a deep capacity to diverge from itself. This is more interesting than mere novelty, because it involves consistency and development. Or take rhythm. What is new about rhythms? One often reads electronic music being described as having new rhythms, but I am not convinced – I have not heard any new rhythm specific to electronic music (well, maybe with the exception of Autechre!), but this does not mean that such music lacks interest – quite the contrary.

To valorise music as simply being ‘new’ is, perhaps lazy. But, given that there is something inherently mysterious about music, perhaps this laziness is understandable.

Purportedly, John Stevens of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble had two basic rules to playing in his ensemble: (1) If you can’t hear another musician, you’re playing too loud, and (2) if the music you’re producing doesn’t regularly relate to what you’re hearing others create, why be in the group. What’s your perspective on this statement and how, more generally, does playing in a group compare to a solo situation?

These are good teaching techniques but are not so relevant to actual performance. Performance means to produce a shared style, hopefully one that includes the audience. In that case, anything is possible but only so long as this possibility achieves a specific and singular event of performance. In other words, that a performance cannot be chaos (although chaos might sometimes put in an appearance!). This is probably the difference between those who can and can’t improvise – those that can, manage chaos; those that can’t, can only manage chaos. Of course, learning means to transition, gradually, from one to the other.

There is a deeper issue here as well: what is a relation? This is another mysterious aspect: what does it mean to relate to a situation? At the least, we can be connected, disconnected, or in disjunction. Disconnection is, perhaps, best avoided in most cases. Connected can be nice but can quickly become trite; disjunction is best – a sort of oblique connectivity.

For me, group and solo is not so different. There is always the struggle. Certainly, different personalities can be more of a struggle than others!

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