Names: Tim Feeney, Vic Rawlings
Occupations: Improviser, composer, interpreter (Tim Feeney), Musician, teacher, performer (Vic Rawlings)
Current release: Tim Feeney and Vic Rawlings' Conway Library is out via Full Spectrum.
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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?
TF / VR: Any one of these questions could produce a book. This particular question has been the subject of hours of show-and-tell. In short, we made them for the purpose of making the sorts of sounds we make.
VR: I have two distinct instruments- an amplified/prepared cello and an electronic instrument. They use differing types of feedback and there’s an element of volatility that is built into them. Cutting to silence is the most crucial part of both of them, so those switches are easily accessed.
The cello is an acoustic box with a transducer mic on it- an actual cello turned out to be a good starting place. The many preparations and extended techniques (those terms are so formal!) are necessary to access the sounds I want to make. I tend to make nanoscopic friction-generated sounds that need amplification to be heard, so it’s very much an electronic instrument also. The cello signal goes through a preamp and then an Electro-Harmonix Memory Man, but the unit is only intentionally audible in feedback mode- it makes drone tones when overloaded, and that tone often blends with feedback between the mic and the speaker (a powered 15” JBL EON).
The signal generated by the electronic instrument is heard through a set of 5 speakers- I take nominal care of them, allowing them to tear and rattle in transport- their extended death generates unique sounds. The electronic signal originates in the circuitry of misused and inverted signal processors; I put metal objects directly on their circuit boards, sometimes with the input connected to them to create feedback. I do not pre-wire any of this; I prefer the live experience.
There are multiple units that feed into a tiny passive mixer, then that mono signal runs through an EQ, an amplifier, and is then fed to a speaker mixer that I built. I probably spend most of my time blending speakers and working with the EQ. I pontificated on how cool that EQ is for a few paragraphs in this Leonardo Music Journal article. The fast version is that the instrument is unruly and often makes sounds I wouldn’t have chosen- it’s truly unpredictable.
TF: In 1989 I received an 18” floor tom suitable for a hair metal band as a twelfth birthday present. I have been touring with this drum for nineteen years, and last changed its top head, which is treated with beeswax, bass rosin, and skateboard tape, in 2010.
For countless shows I have scraped this drum with cymbals, cut it with files, smacked it with rocks, and scratched my fingernails to powder finding ways to get it to shriek, stammer, and roar. It contains a patina of my memories and skin cells, and every now and again shows me something new it suggests I need to say.
What do improvisation and composition mean to you and what, to you, are their respective merits?
VR: Often, if improvisation and composition emulate each other, that’s something nice to say about a piece, in either direction. Improvisation seeks form and unity, which is an assumed strength of composition. For me, improvisation is often more fun simply because it is live, but I also enjoy playing composed pieces.
In improvisation, once a performance begins there is a sense of the piece that gets more defined as the set progresses in real time; it begins to become evident what sort of piece it will be as it becomes that piece. At a certain point it is helpful to imagine what the ending section might be- this thought moment is a lot like composition, or skeet shooting.
When improvising, I sometimes think of what the recording will be like to listen back to- will it sound composed? Did I move too fast? Were ideas allowed to develop? The best thing about recording is learning from them what works and what doesn’t. Witnessing your own failure is a great teacher.
The bar for composition as a discipline to remain relevant is becoming impossibly high; there are so many excellent improvisers now who simply do not need to use compositions to make good music. I think this is one reason there is so much interest in text pieces and graphic scores- for some reason we don’t want to leave that paradigm. These documents can be excellent teaching tools and compelling historical artifacts, but they really are not needed by an increasingly large group of self-defined improvising musicians.
TF: I have spent separate lives using both of these methods creatively, and working with composers as their interpreter. A composition is any approach that allows a way to see and hear inside someone’s imagination if they cannot be with you in the present, and allows a way to steer an evolving idea towards a potentially beneficial outcome. If I’m a sincere person in my half of this dialogue, I have to do my best to help deliver their script as well as I can, so as to respect their half of the conversation. An improvisation allows a way to find that outcome spontaneously, without pre-judging the experiment, and a way to discuss a topic, sincerely and in real time, with someone we trust.
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?
TF / VR: He has a point about improvisors recombining essential materials, and that’s a decent description of what happens in many zones of creating things. After a lot of years of seeing a lot of shows and playing a lot of shows, it seems to come down to the development of a few approaches to the use of time. Of course, a few sounds that the gear produces have been compelling, so they also reappear.
The time and sounds share the quality of not recalling a particular genre or a known musical space, other than their own. It’s not a reference to jazz or ‘new music’ or something like that. There’s something compelling about that lack of a reference- it demands a more fresh approach to listening even after having heard and played a lot of this stuff.
Time itself is the transformable element: what we say can be less a function of a quality of sound, but one of when we decide to speak; how often; with whom; and when we decide to listen.
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?
VR: The number of people involved in solo and group playing are different, but the essential activity is the same- listening to what is going on and creating something compelling in sound. So you still need to be thinking about the whole of the sound the band is making.
That said, there’s a trust that is needed in a band. Dynamics included, we allow that either of us can do anything that is needed- either by staying on a sound, or by introducing a new sound, or by going silent. There’s a polite improvisation style that I’m not a fan of; rules like this can become a prescription for that.
Stevens’ rules are useful for a teaching situation like a workshop or an open door sort of thing that truly needs top-down discipline. One of the things that’s good about working in a band is that those sorts of concerns are handled by good choices in partners.
TF: As a teacher I’ve thought many times that these are good and useful instructions for getting a group sound off the ground, and I steal from Search and Reflect on a regular basis in a classroom. I also make certain to let my students know that I am lying to them whenever I make a suggestion that comes close to sounding like a rule. If I trust my playing partners as sincere people I accept that their contributions must advance our conversation, however loud, awkward, quiet, or tentative to my ears. I am also lying about this sentiment.
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?
VR: Sometimes a long car ride produces this, and sometimes not. I mostly need to feel present in the moment- that can grow in calm and in chaos. It’s tough to distill- if I could I would! There’s a heightened experience of focus on time and sound that happens in performance- it’s one of the things that makes performing worthwhile. I tend to like to be a little bit hungry and just a little bit physically uncomfortable.
TF: Playing this music allows me to be present in a way that most of the rest of my life seems built to distract me. It seems to be the only way I can engage this flow state of creativity - otherwise I am too preoccupied, too interrupt-able, or too flat-out scared to concentrate.
Can you talk about how your decision process works in a live setting?
TF / VR: It generally involves the attempt to hold a thought/action/sound for a period of time that will be good for the music. Making that judgement in real time can be tricky, so we sometimes force ourselves to wait before making changes. Impulsive moves can also make good results too, so good luck - there’s no easy answer!
How do you see the relationship between sound, space and performance and what are some of your strategies and approaches of working with them?
TF / VR: Vibrations are physical properties of a room’s characteristics as much as they are facts of our instruments’ capabilities. Each space suggests something different, whether providing pitched support and blurring details via a lot of reverberation, or calling our attention to these details by placing them directly in front of our faces. An audience’s concentration, energy, and support or hostility are equal elements of this atmosphere.
We also create the situation as performers. We are given the site and we have to work within it. We did a gig for a ‘first night’ performance on New Year’s Eve in Boston one year (thanks for the gig Mr. Howard Stelzer!) - that was a serious challenge, playing on a generic proper raised proscenium-style stage with over-stimulated families wandering in and out of the room- it was a lot like busking. We had to totally disregard (or radically include?) the other people in the room- tough gig, but fun.
How is playing live in front of an audience and in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally?
VR: Playing live is infinitely easier than the studio- there’s something immediately at stake, because it is in real time and interpersonal. In the studio I have to convince myself that it matters- that someone will experience it. That’s already evident in the live setting. Recording a live event well is the best case-scenario for me; I like the experience of attending live music events and I’m less interested in studio recordings of this sort of music.
TF: For me it is disconnected. There is both focus and communal support that comes from an audience, provided they don’t pull a fire alarm or flash a camera into my face. I find no analogue in a microphone diaphragm. This is clearly hypocrisy, since I like to document my work, and maybe a live recording, though a headache to mix and master, is a reasonable compromise.
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?
TF / VR: In 2010, in the midst of a true blizzard, we played a show in a marble chapel at Oberlin College with a concentrated group of listeners. The stillness and close-quiet feeling from walking through the open air in the snowstorm landed that night, and it was the purest and clearest moment of presence we recall as improvisers. Everything was working, the atmosphere felt right, our slowness felt right, and we needed not play anything or nothing. It was a profound lesson that we work through over and over.
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?
TF / VR: The most profound element of the performance ritual is that it sets aside a shared space and time. This time is filled by experience no matter what a performer does.
The choice to leave an interval of time void of entertainment or distraction presents a potential for elevating the experience of that empty time. Getting away from conventional activities allows space for escaping routine, and once that happens there is an opening.