Name: Rachel Musson
Occupation: Saxophonist, composer, improviser
Current release: Rachel Musson's Dreamsing is out now on 577.
If these thoughts by Rachel Musson piqued your interest, visit her website for more information and music.
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 main instrument is a tenor saxophone, a Conn 10M. I’ve not actually had it that long, perhaps two or three years now, but I’ve fallen in love with it more than a little. It took some getting used to, but now its wildness is an attraction rather than a problem to overcome. It offers a lot of tonal options, and has a big range in terms of pitch - it spits out harmonics with (relative) ease. I am still awed by its flexibility when I play it - I feel I am able to try things out while performing and it will usually oblige!
What do improvisation and composition mean to you and what, to you, are their respective merits?
Improvisation to me means playing in the moment, of the moment. I try as much as possible not to rely on material that’s pre-rehearsed. It’s inevitable that familiar gestures and patterns and sounds find their way out, but I think it’s a bit like having a conversation when I feel really engaged and immersed - I am able to manipulate my language in order to fully communicate with the person I am talking to. For me improvising feels a bit like that.
I appreciate that this interview is relating to a solo record, and I have to say I find improvising solo a complicated affair! When I was approaching this solo record I hadn’t prepared anything, but prior to each piece I had a sense of where I might want to start, which in my mind is slightly less improvsatiory than responding to a group of musicians in the moment.
I tend to view composition as something that allows me to return to material and craft it. And I guess in an ensemble sense it allows me to guide the musicians a bit more. When writing for improvisors I like to write to create space and sections that I think will suit the particular voice of the musician that will be playing the piece, so it still feels like a collaboration, but one in which I have a bit more control of the overall shape.
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?
I think I find sound or sonority particularly engaging. As a saxophone player it takes a bit of a leap of faith to know whether this is communicating to the listener, as we hear through our mouths and jaws, so it’s only clear how this projects to a listener when listening back to a recording (itself an approximation).
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?
John Stevens had such an important influence on the improvised scene. I think these rules make good points. Musicians should be aware of volume, and intensity and how much space they are leaving or giving or taking. And of course playing material that relates to what is going on is generally helpful.
I don’t necessarily think the quietest voice or instrument should wield control, though. Playing to the quietest voice is a nice inversion of the usual status quo, but I think I prefer a bit more flexibility and less of an overt power dynamic. Perhaps there’s a way of playing with density and intensity that allows for all the voices in an ensemble to be heard? And who is to say what relates to what the other people in the group are playing?
Personally, I love juxtaposition and opposition, which may or may not be heard as relating, depending on who is listening.
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 for your improvisations and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I think when practising it can be any state, and developing focus and the ability to hold attention whatever my mental state is really useful. When performing/playing with others I think it’s perhaps what often gets referred to as a ‘flow’ state, when I am able to let go of a more conscious awareness and step into a more intuitive state. Probably the hardest state is when my internal critical voice is turned right up and giving me a hard time throughout!
Saying that, on listening back, it’s sometimes hard to discern the difference. Discovering meditation, in particular insight meditation practices, had quite a profound effect on how quickly I am able to access a flow state when improvising.
Can you talk about how your decision process works in a live setting?
My experience of the decision making process in a live setting is that it’s usually too quick for me to be fully aware of what’s going on. For me it tends to be based on an embodied, felt sense of what feels like the best way to go or way to respond at the time. I think that this process is informed by hours/years of practice and listening, and also of listening back to recordings of performances where I pause and slow down, and interrogate how I made decisions in the moment.
How do you see the relationship between sound, space and performance and what are some of your strategies and approaches of working with them?
I feel that I would like to play more with the physical spaces I perform in more. All too often it’s on a stage with an audience positioned in a set way, and it’s easiest to stick with the arrangements in place. Your question has reminded me to think of this a bit more, social distancing covid-secure rules allowing!
How is playing live in front of an audience and in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally?
I see them as essentially the same process. When I record in the studio it is usually with the same approach as live. I usually find, however, the studio process much more difficult as it doesn’t have the immediacy of a live performance, and also because the acoustics are usually very different.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
I don’t really have a sense of a breakthrough work. I do remember a breakthrough period of several months or a year or so, approximately ten years ago. It was when I made a conscious decision to stop playing pieces and improvise only for a while. I spent my practice time exploring more extended possibilities of the saxophone, and used to meet with people to improvise on a weekly basis, particularly with Javier Carmona, Olie Brice and Julie Kjaer. This felt like a really rich period when everything seemed to shift really quickly for me in terms of playing style/voice.
In a way, improvisations remind us of the transitory nature of life. What, do you feel, can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
I think listening to the tradition of the music - remembering who has come before and hearing new players carrying the tradition on - connects us to a sense of time much greater than the one inhabited by ourselves. And yes, there’s something inherently transient about improvisation that resembles life passing.
I also feel that music and improvisation has allowed me to express myself in a way that words don’t. It’s allowed me to bypass language, to connect with other musicians in a very spontaneous and genuine way. I value this immensely.