Jean Martin composes music for film, TV, theatre and performance. He is also a writer and lecturer at University of Brighton

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Derek Bailey interview

16.7.1996 in his East London house
by Jean Martin

Q: How important is the visual element of a live-performance? Is listening to a CD as good as attending a live performance?

Bailey: I assume for most people it is better because more people buy CDs than turn up at live performances. To some people it might be the only way they have ever encountered music. Aficionados claim there is no substitute for a live performance. Making a recording and doing a live performance are two quite different things, but then in the way that I have worked in the past very often they are in fact the same thing. Most records I have ever made are of live performances and haven't been specifically made as recordings.
But making a recording as a separate thing I like. I wouldn't say it is better than a live performance, it is just different and it affects the playing quite a bit - the process of making the music is affected radically, for me anyway.

Q: In which way?

Bailey: I have never tried to analyse it much, but I think it is about the fact that the audience is removed by 8-6 months.

Q: Is it also the fact of listening to your own music on a multitrack machine?

Bailey: No.No. I mean going into a studio and just playing with somebody as if it were a live performance, except that there is no audience and the performance restrictions imposed by time and place are changed. So it doesn't have to be in the evening, it doesn't have to be between this hour and that. You don't have to stop in the middle while they sell sandwiches and beer. But then there are no people except the engineer - it is quite a different environment. The vibes are quite different.

Q: In your book you talk about free music. Free from what?

Bailey: Although it has diminished over the years it is still a somewhat anarchic activity. This kind of music has become much more regularised, in certain areas almost to the point of being staid. However, there are still some anarchistic characteristics to it. It is free from all those things that I find accumulating as I got older as a musician, because I worked as a musician for many years before I played this kind of music for more than 10 years. And I had found the opportunities to pursue music in that way and for the reasons that I first started to pursue music were diminishing. I associate certain times working in night clubs as being quite free musically. This is before the 60s. Even in dance halls it could be quite free, anyway it felt free. As my career ascended to what was considered to be fairly successful as a working musician I no longer felt as though I was doing what I thought I'd started out to do. Then I bumped into this kind of playing; I felt that I was still pursuing what I had first started out to do. For me it is this somewhat ill defined thing playing. You can play certain kinds of music and you really don't play at all. You are functional and you do things, but you don't play at all. I find a lot of Jazz became like that for instance. So I find there is more playing per cubic unit in free playing than there is in any other kind. The freedom is just to play more.

Q: More than e.g. an orchestral musician?

Bailey: Or Jazz or anything. I just can play more. I suppose it boils down to: I can play more of what I want to play. Now that might not be a kind of music, that might just be a kind of instrumental approach or an attitude. I feel much more comfortable with so called free playing. I think the word free is meaningless. It is just one of those 4-letter words like - as I mentioned before - Rock or Jazz. It is a very handy word. I rather like it, but the implication, that you are unchained is true, but it is not the significance.

Q: And by thinking that you feel comfortable in playing this free music, the audience will sense the same?

Bailey: I have no idea about the audience.

Q: Do you not care about the audience?

Bailey: No. It is not that I don't care. I don't know. I thought about the audience intermittently for years and I know less about audiences now than I did when I first started thinking about it. They are different to what they used to be, but really I am ignorant about audiences.

Q: So whenever you play in a concert you are surprised about the reactions of the audience.

Bailey: I am surprised that they are there. One obvious thing is that audiences, people generally don't like freely improvised music, otherwise the audiences would be larger of course. .. It attracts very small audiences.

Q: Why is that?

Bailey: They don't like you.

Q: Does it take too much effort for them? This music is not nicely prepared in little well structured portions. They have to create their own structure in listening to the music.

Bailey: To me it is my favourite listening. There are certain musics which are not improvised that I enjoy listening to, but I find music which is freely improvised provides me with the most listening satisfaction even if I am not playing it. The audiences get to hear their music in such a formalised way, that when it is unformalised, it sounds incoherent to them. Music devices are about taming music, it is not just about packaging. If you have a melody, you'd better repeat it a few times too. And it has a so called development, but you don't let that go very far before you repeat it again. Most musical structures are about diminishing it's complexity, e.g. keys keep the music within a certain limited range. And this might be, how music becomes acceptable. But if you work outside those structures, then it makes sense, that people who rely on those structures, can't tell what the hell is going on.

Q: 90 percent of all musics in the world are improvised. Only our western music culture has this strange system of notating music. Maybe this was the reason, why tonality and harmony developed. If we listen e.g. to African drum music or South American music, they have certain patterns which they use and vary. When I listen to your music, it sounds to me rather abstract and free of all those recognisable patterns.

Bailey: Using a term like abstract would make me think of all music. All music I think is abstract to some degree. But I understand the point you are trying to make. I don't claim that because most music is improvised, it is the same as freely improvised music. Freely improvised music is different to musics that include improvisation. And the main difference between freely improvised music and the musics you quoted is, that they are idiomatic. They are formed by an idiom, they are not formed by improvisation. They are formed in the same way that vernacular is formed, a verbal accent is formed. They are formed by locality and society. So improvisation exists in their music in order to serve this central identity of this music, like flamenco or Indian classical music. In freely improvised music improvisation takes the place of the idiom. I think of it as not having an idiom. The improvisation is the idiom, everything else serves the improvisation.
When you come to free playing you got to be interested in improvisation. Of course there are certain individuals and certain groups within free playing, that people follow - I think more for what they sound like than what they are actually doing. The fact that if they did play the same thing with a score maybe they would still like them, although I wonder about that. There are possibly very few people playing free, playing who could not achieve what they do through any other means.

Q: Some people argue, that when you construct something written, you have much more time to think about balance and the relation of the parts to each other, whereas when you improvise it is a permanent flow of time. You have to think very quickly and sometimes you miss it and something there might happen, something. very interesting, but you can't guarantee it. So how do you see the relationship between well constructed structure and the sound, what is on the surface, what reaches the ear of the listener?

Bailey: You pick your preference. It is the Busoni - Schönberg Dichotomy. There is a guy who wrote an interesting piece about this subject and it based it on the two approaches of composition by Busoni and Schönberg. So for Busoni the immediate conception of a composition - usually at the piano I think - was the composition and from then on everything he did to it - the so called refinement - diminished it; it reduced it's quality. For Schönberg the opposite is the case. The initial idea is simply something to work on; then you finish up with the wonderful work of art. So that's a basic difference, even amongst composers. But for an improviser that omits all kinds of things which I am quite attracted to, things like the accidentals.

If you make this comparison between composers and improvisers, it nearly always grinds down to a comparison between a composer and a solo improviser. And the really important part of improvisation happens between people. This is something that is outside of composition. It is also largely outside of calculation. The best moments that I found in improvisation often happen sometimes quite early in a relationship with another person or another group of people. Later other kinds of things can happen and it can get better or worse. You even can have the absolute ad hoc experience the first time you play with somebody. It really can be magical. There is a certain thing that happens in a successful relationship for a group or a duo quite early in the relationship. But it happens between the people. This is not about somebody sitting down and thinking about great ideas. Everybody can bring all kinds of things to it and it is the unique situation that can only exist with these people. These kind of comparisons with composition is stepping outside. It is also stepping outside normal attitudes towards art. It is perhaps a supra art activity or a non-art activity. It brings in all kinds of things which are really difficult to do and which have certainly nothing to do with musical analysis.

Q: Is group improvisation an attempt to bring life and art together? It has a strong social aspect.

Bailey: You look slightly embarrassed using those terms.

Q: I have the feeling that more and more the social aspects of music making are excluded. If you look at electronic music: more and more people sit at home in front of their computers and samplers. You can do it all on your own. Where is the communication?

Bailey: It is funny. There are many kinds. I think opera now exists in a total kind of fantasy balloon of itself. It is supposed to be about life, at least it is about melodrama, but the audiences in the opera and the productions, particularly the way that each production seems to have to be more melodramatic than the last and the prices... It seems to have taken not a life of it's own, but cocoon of it's own, a death of it's own; that has nothing to do with life. It might be about life and death, but they are all in inverted commas, nothing to do with anything, certainly nothing to do with current social things. It seems to me it is a very cocooned activity.
Surely, freely improvised music for all it's faults, and it has many is not capable of resisting outside influences. It is very vulnerable to outside influences, which is one of it's strengths, or one of it's attractions.

Q: Personally I find improvisations with small ensembles or solo improvisations more interesting than large ensemble improvisations ( like Company ). They are too complex, it can fall apart into anarchy.

Bailey: They are not coherent usually. But I think most of the time small group improvisation is just better, it is better than larger groups. But when large group improvisation is good, it is quite amazing and incomparable. I have not often been involved in it. But I agree with you. Some of the large group improvisation is garbage. It is a high risk activity and it is not just difficult, it is kind of impossible, but it still does happen now and then, that it is really successful.

Q: An example is Lawrence Butch Morris. He creates clear sections.

Bailey: It introduces a coherence; whether you actually want it in that form is an other matter. Lots of people do like to try and turn large group improvisations into something a little bit more disciplined; then they usually do it by the kind of structures like Butch with his conductions, Alexander von Schlippenbach with his scores. It is OK. I just find that easier. If you are going to do that, it is missing the point. I think I'd rather have the failures of the other thing, personally.

Q: In your improvisations you try to create this magical moment, which surfaces briefly and then disappears forever, if you don't record it. It reminds me of Cage who reached out for these mystical moments, e.g. in 4'33 Whatever you do you will have a memory and there are some musical thoughts in your brain of what you did before . I am sure you will use these things deliberately, e.g. elements of Jazz, of classical music, chance operations, whatever. Could you describe which things influenced you?

Bailey: Most of the things I am consciously influenced by are unhelpful. It is almost a way of getting past the direct influences. It could be that the real influences are subconscious, I mean the old Jazz idea of the mad playing fool that just got out of his head and do it - there is something in that. There is a point which you can either reach for or just hope to get into by various methods like concentration or lack of concentration. To calculate about this is difficult. One of the most useful things I found is, if I can arrange it and it is so difficult to arrange to, before I play, particularly if I am playing solo, is to sleep before the play, to sleep almost up to the time of playing, if it is possible. It is sometimes possible in a band room or something. like that, just for half an hour or ten minutes. But I find the older I get the more adept I am doing that. If I can get away, if I can get into a situation where I can actually sleep just before I play, that is pretty much near the perfect preparation as far as I am concerned. You are in a semi subconscious state almost and that might even interfere technically a little bit, but even so ... partly you are also a little bit fresher possibly. Conscious influences I find not helpful.

Q: I agree. Our normal everyday mind seems to be rather small and limited in it's narrow rationality.

Bailey: And the longer you play the worse it gets, that you have more devices and they become more offensive in some way. That is the great thing about playing with other people, particularly other people you are not familiar with. Sometimes that is a mistake, this is a high risk business. Somebody you like, given the choice you play with people you like: so you got their playing going on, not just yours, which you are over familiar with. And you can need all that help - at least I need as much help as I can get, but the whole conscious musical apparatus is a mixed blessing. I sometimes work, on and off, with a dancer, a Buto dancer called Min Tanako and he has changed quite a lot as a dancer over the years. I don't work with him continuously, but I am quite influenced by him. Now he makes no sound at all of course or very little.

Often, if I read musicians interviews they talk about their influences and they have nearly always famous musicians from the past; when I say read it is because musicians don't talk about their influences, but it seems they do interviews. So I have never had a musician ever sit down in a conversation and say: I am very interested by, influenced by John Coltrane and Stockhausen. I have never heard anybody talk like that, but they do seem to talk to journalists like that. I often felt a certain envy because I have never been able to do that, because I can't. I have been influenced by all kinds of people, but none of them seemed to be famous musicians. And most of the people I am influenced by are people I played with, some are well known, some aren't, but one definitely in recent times this the dancer Min Tanako. He makes no sound and it is an improviser, but his approach to dancing is quite refreshing and it changes, although he has a fairly constant vocabulary. His use of it and his approach to using it shifts all the time. I find that playing with him is quite exciting, just to see what is going to happen.

Q: You quite often mention the word “high risk activity”. I have the impression, fewer and fewer people want to take risks in the true sense.

Bailey: That is true of society.

Q: In this way your activity in free improvisation is political activity. It shows a certain way of activity which hardly exists anymore.

Bailey: Yes. Like many fringe activities it's political aspect can be completely ignored, but if one were to take into consideration it's political implications for most people it is quite frightening. The implications of free improvisation politically are of course quite drastic and for that reason they will always be ignored I think. Although they have never been in any way effective. I take it to be a musical activity and that is right. But it has political implications.

Q: You have worked for quite a long time in this area. Have you seen big changes on the audience side, in perception, the climate of these kind of things...

Bailey: Oh yes, quite drastic changes.

Q: Were there better times?

Bailey: I think the current time is very good, but you never know how much it is reflecting your own situation. The focus is gone. The focus is diffused, widened. There is nobody that I know that works strictly on one subgenre of the music, so just plays a certain kind of thing with certain people. There are one, two people, who play in long established groups and they keep that going as a kind of commitment, the holy grail. Also economically it works of course: the longer you play something the more people become familiar with it and the more they give you work. But even those people who pursue this single vision, they still branch out in all kinds of directions, which years ago would never have happened. Personally I rather like that. I mean I am quite attracted by this business of poking around in unfamiliar areas with unfamiliar people.

What is happening are these little things going on all over the place and in the absence of this obvious main flow it seems to me that being interested in improvisation, or committed to improvisation it is more productive to go poking around into these various, almost novelty areas that are happening. There are no improvised music festivals per se anymore. But on festivals where you get improvised music you will find people there who have absolutely nothing to do with improvised music, in fact the majority will not. But the thing is that improvised music will fit into this collection of Siberian throat warblers and kind of fringe rockers and eccentric dancers and then you find a few improvisers. It will fit in, much better I have to say than it used to fit into the Jazz situation. Many people thought it was part of Jazz, but has never been accepted in the Jazz world. If there are 1000 Jazz festivals in the world there will be maybe one or two, which feature any Free Jazz, never mind free improvisation or any kind of free music.

Free Jazz has tried for 30 years to become part of Jazz and it seems to me it's still got nowhere. Whereas it used to vilify it, it now takes no notice of it. But this situation now, instead of battering away at that, seems to me to be much better. Most of the long serving improvisers work now more than they have ever done. And even the younger ones get established quicker it seems to me. So there is more work. But I don't know that there are any strong new directions that apply gestural, freely improvised music. There might be, because you never know, because these activities are so often unannounced and ignored, that things could be going anyway. I have great faith in things happening, that I don't know about.

Q: It is almost a contradiction in itself: improvised music always wants to find new ways. At the same time it wants to establish certain levels of what you can call “good improvisation”, criteria for good improvisation.

Bailey: Interesting contradiction.
Q: As soon as you can pin it down and codify it, it is no longer improvised music.

Bailey: I think it becomes a different version of improvised music. There are people who have done that. Once it has this very strong identity which is practised, pursued and polished by the people who are associated with that identity, it becomes something else. But very often the only appropriate name for it is free improvisation because it has got no idiomatic identity outside itself.

Q: How much of your style is influenced by your guitar playing?

Bailey: I don't know how much, but it is a large part. If I was forced to identify myself as something it would be as a guitar player. The instrument's importance has shifted, but it has always been on the forefront of the activity. Some times it has been stronger than others. I have never thought of myself as a musician who just works in music. I am a guitar player who plays the guitar. And as regards the way I play it - much of it is about playing the guitar.

Q: Looking at your CV you were attracted to what I call second hand music in clubs.

Bailey: I was just trying to work as a musician. That was the only music I knew. I don't come from an academic background. I come from a working class background. So the alternative to being a professional musician was being a teacher or something like that, or delivering bread or milk, or even working in the factories, all of which I did at various times, because early in that career as a working musician everybody experiences this. One of the standard features of a working musician is being out of work.

As a matter of fact I did study classical music at school, but I have never thought of it as music. I was aware of music through members of my family who have been or were musicians and that was always popular or popular associated music.
My interest as a child was in what was called Jazz related musics, radio and music I heard my uncle play. That was music. I was at school during the 1939-45 war and it didn't allow German music to be played. And now I was studying classical music. The major composer was Sibelius and I have never got over that. Whenever I hear a note of Sibelius I dive for cover and take to the air raid shelter. But I never associated that with music. It was something else. It was part of school.
And it was only when I left school, which was quite early, that I never thought of being a musician, even though I played an instrument and I sang. And then I didn't want to be something else...
There used to be two different kinds of musicians: there were orchestral musicians and band musicians. And orchestral musicians had gone to a music school and a band musician hadn't that. I just wanted to be a band musician. And then you played in a band and I did that for nearly 15 years, dance bands, club bands, circus bands, pit bands, whatever. If I was fit to work there I did it. I didn't think they were all equal, some I preferred to others, and behind it all originally was a wish to play Jazz. But I very quickly realised I was in the wrong place in the wrong time and maybe the wrong race to be doing that. So it then became a question of working mainly.

Bailey: I have never placed personal relationships above the music. So many of my long running associations I have abandoned then at some point, where possibly the other person or people thought they shouldn't have been abandoned for social reasons. But for me it has never been a social move, it has always been a musical move. I find, if the thing is finished and I don't want to keep it on for either economic or social reasons. But then again: I was 2 or 3 days ago talking to Tony Oxley whom I have known for 33 years and I have played with him intermittently 33 years, that is long enough and we have an amicable relationship. I always thought I was sweetness and light personified.

Q: Do you ever play with very young musicians coming up now?

Bailey: Out of choice. Yes. I recently made a recording with two of the youngest musicians on the British scene, that is Alex Ward and Ben Hervey. He calls himself Dr. Switch (from the group 13 Ghosts). They are an interesting pair. But Alex I have known for many years, 9 years; he is now 21 and a clarinet player.
Young musicians are just young musicians. There are certain advantages and disadvantages. It is like worth putting a bet on now and then. I find the attitude refreshing. This kind of music uses people up I think a lot. ... It is understandable. And they cling to each other.
That fresh attitude is like a life support system for somebody as old and worn as I am to occasionally meet somebody who is still full of life. I think wow, I could use some of that.

Q: Does Company Week still go on?

Bailey: No. They don't, unless somebody asks me to do one. I used to organise one here every year (with Karen), but I did it for 17 years, which seemed to me enough. In fact I wanted to do it less... But I have done them in other places, e.g. in Vancouver. I didn't do it myself. I arranged it and then I was sick. I seem to put things aside, because we used to spend 6 months of the year putting this together from raising money to finishing the thing. They were great occasions, I used to love it.
It seemed to take more and more energy. They are not an easy thing for a promoter to get enthusiastic about.

Q: They can't make money.

Bailey: They probably don't make money out of any kind of this music, but if you had to say: well, I want to come with 8-9 musicians and play at least for 3 nights, otherwise the thing doesn't work. There is no program and everybody plays every night - that is no good for a promoter.

Q: In which country are the most interesting things going on concerning improvisation and free music?

Bailey: Japan. There might be things happening in Doncaster that I know nothing about, but in my experience it is New York and Japan and at the moment the two are very intermingled. It is not everybody's taste. I quite like the liveliness of a lot of things that are going on at the moment. New York is always good, things work better in N.Y. People go out and listen. They live in such terrible places, they have to go out and listen to music just to get warm. So you can always do something there.

Derek Bailey died on December 25, 2005

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