Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker

Regardless of one’s field of interest or study, there are texts that are occasionally, if not regularly revisited, either to refresh the conviction that they are important, or extract a potentially phosphorescent quote. When it comes to improvised music, Derek Bailey’s Improvisation: its nature and practice in music is central. The iconic guitarist’s exacting perspective set the bar for discourse about improvised music, while his softly prodding approach as an interviewer yielded gem-like statements from improvisers of disparate stripes. Having read the book several times since the early 1980s, there are phrases and passages from it that come to mind, at times vaguely, when listening or writing; yet, they never fail to ring true when reread. The most recent instance involves an intriguing quote from Wadada Leo Smith about what he called the independent center of an improvisation, which Bailey referenced in regards to the limited lifespan of most improvising groups. Here is the relevant passage as printed in the first version of Bailey’s book, published by Moorland in 1980:

“[T]he played-out improvising group suffers a loss of what Leo Smith describes as the ‘independent centre’ of the improvisation; that part of the music which exists independently of the performers, intentions and seems to be created by a sort of second-degree or sub-conscious relationship between the players. The undefinables get defined or disappear.” [Page 145]

What stood out, grammatically, was a disruptive, even ill-placed comma between “performers” and “intentions.” Graphically, it suggested a fallen apostrophe, which would have sharpened the sentence. Perhaps a correction in the second version would allow the passage to be quoted without a bracketed phrase masking the comma, or the more stinging option of leaving the blemish and injecting [sic]. Surprisingly, the chapter from which the passage concluded its lead paragraph – Limits and Freedom I – was not listed as such in the second version’s table of contents; apparently, the two Limits and Freedom chapters from the first version were compressed into one for the second version of the book. Certainly, this critical passage had been retained, for it supported one of Bailey’s core positions – that ad hoc ensembles were indicated for improvised music.

However, the passage was gone. Because the second version of Improvisation included a name index – the absence of one in the first version being a recurring frustration – a quick check was possible to see if the passage centered on Smith’s phrase had simply been moved elsewhere in the book. It hadn’t – it had been expunged from this vital text. This spurred the curiosity to discern what else had been cut. A comparably important passage beginning on the very next page had also been removed, the implications of which were more far reaching.

The passage pivots on Bailey’s articulation of the “semi-ad-hoc” ensemble, “[a] situation in which the players, although familiar with each other’s playing, manage to avoid permanent commitments ... This, it seems to me, might be the ideal approach to free improvisation ... [allowing groups] to avoid the usual two or three years life and have found a way of apparently endless survival. Evan Parker gave me his account of why his duo with Paul Lytton, formed in 1969, has survived.

“One of the reasons could be that the actual playing we do is intermittent. There are periods when we play very often but there have always been periods of not playing. And neither of us limit our activities to the group. We play in other situations with other people. The thing is to maintain some sort of balance between the positive aspects of the relationship and the possible repetitive ones. Also, there’s a good common bond of friendship between Paul and I which perhaps enables us to overlook periods of non-productive effort in the interest of sustaining the social side of the relationship.

“I put it to Evan Parker that the changes that come over long-lasting groups [results] in the improvisation more and more resembling idiomatic improvisation. Certain elements become fixed: – identities, relationships, vocabulary often, and the improvisation of other elements is carried out in relation to these fixed points. He thought this development useful: – [sic; another strange use of punctuation presumably in the service of clarity]

Things that are established as known between yourselves probably form as useful a context for the evolution of something new as anything. But the inter-personal relationships should only form the basis of working, they shouldn’t actually define the music too clearly, which they often do.

“Evan Parker also said:

In practice the closest I would get to a laboratory situation is working with the people I know best. It can make a useful change to be dropped into a slightly shocking situation that you’ve never been in before. It can produce a different kind of response, a different kind of reaction. But the people I’ve played with longest actually offer me the freest situation to work in.

“I like to think that even in the most broad analysis the duo have changed direction radically at least once since we started. Initially very thick-textured, static passages seemed to form the core of any improvisation. So that for a period all the rhythmic interest would come only as a side effect from the vertical interaction in the music – the motion of difference tones, this kind of thing – there would be no silence in the music at all. Although I still find that kind of thing attractive and the group still gets into it they are not quite the cornerstone of the group’s identity that they used to be. There’s a kind of neo-classical element in the music now. You can see a return to fixed rhythm patterns – sound in silence – the use of rhythmic structures defined by silence than inferred by timbre changes. Quite often the center point of a piece can be the definition of rhythm in silence. And it’s neo-classical in the sense that it refers back to some of the early work with [Spontaneous Music Ensemble] and so on.” [Pages 146-7]

It is noteworthy that Parker’s remarks have been validated by the passage of time – 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the Parker-Lytton duo.

Like the Smith passage, Parker’s remarks were not relocated to another part of the second version of the book (published in 1992 by The British Library National Sound Archive). Set aside any speculation as to why. The take-away should be this: Definitive texts are no longer carved in stone; they are always subject to change.

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