What’s New? is an email roundtable that draws together persons of diverse backgrounds to discuss the issues shaping jazz and constituent experimental musics in the early 21st Century.
The panelists for this roundtable include:
John Coxon, a London-based multi-instrumentalist and producer. Coxon is best known for his work with Spring Heel Jack, an electronic music duo with Ashley Wales. Prior to its formation in 1993, Coxon was a remixer and producer for pop groups like Betty Boo. Spring Heel Jack’s early recordings focused on drum and bass and jungle; they also co-wrote and produced “Walking Wounded,” a major ’95 UK hit for Everything But The Girl. Coxon and Wales began collaborating with jazz artists in 2000 with Disappeared (Thirsty Ear Blue Series), which featured John Surman; Subsequent SHJ recordings include performances by, among others, Han Bennink, Evan Parker and Matthew Shipp. In 2006, Coxon and Wales founded the Treader label; one of the label’s latest releases – Abbey Road Quartet, led by Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith and featuring Coxon, Mark Sanders and Pat Thomes – is reviewed in this issue’s Moment’s Notice. For more information, go to: www.treader.org.
John Oswald, a Toronto-based saxophonist, media artist and dancer. Oswald first gained notoriety as a saxophonist in the 1970s, improvising with Henry Kaiser, Kondo Toshinori and others. Oswald founded the Mystery Tapes Laboratory in 1980, dedicated to creating unnamed, unattributed works on cassette. His best known project is Plunderphonics, the practice of making new music out of previously existing recordings. The releases of the first Plunderphonics records in the late ‘80s embroiled Oswald in a dispute with the Canadian Recording Industry Association, despite the fact that Oswald distributed them free of charge. Subsequent Plunderphonics recordings include Plexure.(’93) and Grayfolded (’96), the latter voted international recording of the decade by The Toronto Sun. Oswald has reissued these works and other on his fony label. In 2004, the Canada Council for the Arts gave Oswald the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts. For more information about Oswald, consult: www.plunderphonics.com and www.pfony.com.
Andrea Parkins, a New York City-based composer, sound installation artist and electro-acoustic musician. Her work has been presented in New York City at the Whitney Museum of American Art (“Bitstreams” exhibition), Roulette, The Kitchen (“New Sound/New York”), Diapason Gallery, and Experimental Intermedia; and at contemporary music, sound, and intermedia festivals/venues throughout the Americas, Europe and Asia. Parkins appears on numerous recordings on labels including Atavistic and hatology; and she performs internationally as a solo artist and with colleagues such as Ellery Eskelin, Miya Masaoka and Otomo Yoshihide. In 2008, she received a New Technology grant from New York State Council on the Arts to develop her installation-in-progress, Ob-jest, the Jettisoned Object, based on a text by Julia Kristeva. Andrea’s work has also received support from Meet the Composer, American Composers Forum, and Harvestworks Digital Arts Center in the US; and the Frei und Hanseastadt Hamburg Kulturbehoerde in Germany. Throughout 2010, Parkins will tour in Europe and the US in support of her new CD on Important Records, Faulty (Broken Orbit) (Important Records)– a through-composed work for amplified objects, accordion feedback, and processed instruments. During the spring, she will tour with Portuguese choreographer Vera Mantero, who commissioned Parkins’ sound design and a live dance score for We Are Going to Miss Everything We Don’t Need; the work premiered at the MontpellierDanse, festival in July 2009. Other projects include a ensemble collaboration with Nels Cline that has released two CDs to date, and The Skein, an electro-acoustic duo with vocalist/composer Jessica Constable. For more information, visit: www.myspace.com/andreaparkins.
Bill Shoemaker: I was recently asked to distinguish between experimental music and improvised music, and it proved to be somewhat difficult for me to answer beyond the glib remark that one tends to experiment in private and improvise in public. Improvisations can be likened to experiments, even though there is a degree of control in the process and a partial foreknowledge of results when you improvise that tends to be absent in a truly experimental setting. You experiment and improvise to test a hypothesis, or just to see what happens; the reliability of the results is confirmed and maybe reinforced by doing the same thing over and over, which is the indictment some level at a lot of jazz artists. On the other hand, some phenomena can’t be replicated no matter how hard you try. Do you make a distinction between experimenting and improvising? Where do you draw the line between the two? And how does your work with samples, synthesizers and sundry signal processing devices aid you in drawing or not drawing a line?
John Coxon: when you conduct a scientific experiment you cannot dictate the outcome in your practices.
when your experiment results in the support of your hypothesis, the outcome is precisely repeatable-you only need to think of the famous experiments by galileo, newton and einstein regarding gravity and gravitation to remind yourself of this.
“experimental” practitioners in music are usually composers of some description[as opposed to improvisers in the strict sense] dictating that musicians respond to their ideas-whether they be represented as terry riley, stockhausen or cornelius cardew type graphic scores or yoko ono or cage type instructions.
this dictation is antithetical to true experiment.
in addition the “see what happens” elements in these compositions leads to the pieces sounding very different each time they are played-they do not have repeatable outcomes.
the word experimental in its scientific sense is not appropriate to music.
music is not a language although it contains communicatory elements like language.
eddie prevost says that “experimental” as applied to music means that it is not teleological, but developmental...
if we have to use the word 'experimental' as appled to music, this is a good way of thinking about it-in its very nature, experimental music should contain self revolutionary or self evolutionary structure.
it may be said to be akin to experimentation in the strict sense in that you continue to investigate your practices and their relationship to the world [and the universe, if you are getting metaphysical]
real improvising [as opposed to repeating pre arranged patterns in any way] is experimental in this sense and happens in public and private.
jazz and freely improvised music contain more or less experimental elements depending on the examples one uses.
it is interesting to me how little the sound of much improv has changed in the past 40 or so years despite its experimental pretensions.
for myself, use of samples and electro acoustic/electronic sounds such as recently in (the treader cd) abbey road quartet with wadada leo smith et al is simply a method of partial composition.
these are prepared at home and played to the other musicians to see if they are interested in responding to them. in this case we used most of these prepared pieces. some we played with from their beginnings, continuing to improvise long after they had finished. others we asked the engineer to introduce to our playing at a point of his choosing.
in one instance we overlaid 2 separate pieces and played with both of them together.
theorizing can be harmful to music.
John Oswald: On occasions when someone seems to think that it is extraordinary that i play improvised music i will point out that we all spend most of our lives improvising, similarly and mutually improvising, with eating, talking, thinking, transporting ourselves to and through situations which are inevitably unpredictable. So we all improvise most of the time and improvising music is not such a special circumstance.
Andrea Parkins: Well, it’s true that I compose in private and improvise in public. And for me, anything that might be described (by someone) as an “experimental” process only can occur when I have the time and space to propose several unique arrangements of structures and materials, and then set up ways of examining each in comparison with the others: that’s one type of compositional strategy, and if I enact it as a process, of course I want it to be rigorous. I can imagine that this kind of comparison between compositional options could be considered “experimental,” in quasi scientific-methodological terms, but I don’t think of it that way.
I see improvisation as a series of decisions made through real time, with as much awareness as possible. There isn’t much experimentation involved there – there isn’t time for that – certainly no time to apply scientific methodology, if we think about experimentation in that sense.
Of course, when I improvise using electronics with live processing, I often don’t know what will be thrown back at me, and to what I’ll have to respond sonically: but in a certain way that isn’t much different from having to respond as an improviser to another musician with whom you’ve played once or twice already: one has some sense of probability about what may happen, but certainly no surety. In this case, replication is not something I am thinking about, though the decision to reiterate something certainly might be.
I do think that the use of the term “experimental” in music is a bit of a misnomer, only in that it seems (as a term) to mostly have been utilized as a way to historically differentiate a set of approaches from those that immediately preceded them. What is experimental music? What is an experimental music setting? At this point, it seems a romantic term, or something coming from 19th century enlightenment. Maybe it relates to the romance and progressive possibility of science and technology beginning from the early 20th century, with a later transformation to a kind of nostalgia.
So for me there is no possibility of a discussion about the line between improvising and experimentation because I see no possibility of the two overlapping, in any case. Additionally, I am not so interested in drawing a line, if there is one to be drawn. Articulating meaning is one thing and differentiating meaning is another.
Shoemaker: How has your work with samples, found materials et al altered your ideas about compositional form and structure? What aspects of your sensibility were crystallized through this work? How is your aesthetic as an instrumentalist shaped by this aspect of your work?
Oswald: Plunderphonics is the area of my compositional activity that is most often associated with the term 'sampling', but my early endeavors predate the introduction of that term by more than a decade, and plunderphonics has most often attempted to transform whole pieces of 'electroquoted' familiar music, rather than little samples of it. My improvising, through the saxophone (or dance), perhaps similarly attempts to acknowledge the whole of something, particularly in never trying to restrict or reduce my playing to anything less than trying to employ everything I'm capable of for any particular occasion.
Coxon: well, personally work with sampled elements hasn't altered my ideas about composition because i started composing using the sampler.[ashley wales with whom i started to compose had already been using conventional notation.] use of samples and other pre recorded elements is different from notating for musicians-something which i personally have rarely done- because the piece [or at least the prepared element of it] is finished in the composition-it doesn't require playing.
what i have been interested in is the combination of sampled and fixed elements with improvised ones. the sampled parts provide a tonal and harmonic and/or textural setting within which to improvise. i find this combination of predictability with non-teleological process[i.e. improvisation] interesting musically. i suppose there are parallels with jazz changes and improvisation over them.
these settings can be more dictatorial [such as in 'lit' from the album 'amassed' and 'lata' from the album 'the sweetness of the water'] or more open [such as in the track 'masses' from the album of the same name] but they are always tonally and harmonically very simple. if they are too musically complex then they don't allow enough space for meaningful improvisation. also they don't have to be learnt so the improvised element can be immediate….
i'm not sure what my “aeshtetic as an instrumentalist” is, but i the way i play the guitar has been influenced more by the experience of playing [and talking]with other musicians[particularly jason pierce, eddie prevost, mark sanders, han bennink, evan parker and wadada leo smith] than with my/our own sample based compositions.
i agree with andrea re experimental music. the term 'experimental' has become more to do with the way a piece of music sounds – the product as opposed to the process. the true experimentalism of early stockhausen, xenakis etc has been replaced by a kind of academic conservatism. there was a time when composers were really changing the way we thought about music-the extension of total serialism to xenakis' ideas prefiguring sequencing etc. cage and stockhausen's work predating sampling etc. now we hear composers breathlessly talking about 'artificial reverberation', sampling and the use of studio techniques which have been used to make pop music for decades as though they were somehow radical or revolutionary.
a lot of product orientated music has been more experimental in process than institutionalized “experimental” practitioners would like to admit. les paul and mary ford; the beatles; jimi hendrix; lee scratch perry; king tubby; can …
Parkins: My first compositions – like John Coxon’s - were made with samples. They were spliced and layered multi-track 1/4-inch audiotape pieces combining sources that included appropriated recorded fragments (samples) and snippets from recordings I made of manipulated objects, environments, and my prepared piano and analog synth performances. I usually attempted to disguise or transform sound sources, using a more or less “concrete” approach. I think once I realized that found sounds were materials that I really wanted to investigate as a composer, I felt released (somewhat) from having to represent Western harmony and counterpoint in my pieces, and began to be much more interested in working with blocks of sound that explore subtly shifting frequencies, and in learning how to emphasize or de-emphasize these frequencies.
When samplers became available in the 1980s, the notion that sounds one had previously recorded/collected could be played live on an instrument was an intriguing prospect for me. (I had always dreamed of composing with a sort of Mellotron-like machine, but using my own found sounds.) As an instrumentalist, I was first a pianist with a classical pianist’s technique: “playing” a keyboard controller with a sampler meant I could quickly and fluidly access my collected sounds in performance, and explore options for changing these sounds with such simple means as pitch shifting, cutting off the sounds’ sustain, or focusing on specificity in articulation. I was stimulated by the ready ability one had to sculpt, juxtapose and layer found sounds, and the rapidity with which one could call them up in live performance; and access to this technology changed the way that I formed my pieces for a while. Earlier on, they had been more slowly gradual and additive in amassing density. Working with a sampler, my pieces became more infused with quickly moving/changing compositional elements, including many jump cuts: lots of “channel changing.” Of course, working with samplers had a big effect on the way I improvised, though, of course, I was greatly influenced by other musicians with whom I was working at the time.
While samples/found materials, etc., have been obvious elements in my pieces, their structures have been impacted more by the shifts I’ve made in the making of my work, as I’ve moved from one form of technology to the next, as each technology became available. From 1/4-inch tape to cassette machines to Ensoniq samplers to various sampling software programs to (most recently) customized live Max-based processing of my sound sources (including found sounds/samples), I have investigated each technology’s potential to aid in the development of new compositional and improvisational process. In the end, evolution of my compositions’ structure has had less to do with my sonic materials and more to do with how they are enacted through systems of making sense (or non-sense). And I would say, if anything, that my electro-acoustic multi - instrumentalist “aesthetic,” employing accordion, piano, and software instruments (accessing found sounds/samples), has influenced the structure of my pieces and my compositional approach, as much as the other way around. I have become aware that there is the implication of awkwardness in my simultaneous multi-instrumental approach: the sense that my instruments may literally exceed my physical grasp, and for me this is interesting. Likewise, as a composer, I find pleasure and engagement in systems and structures, but also in their mis-firing, and, the sense that a system easily can – but doesn’t quite - collapse. I think that my recent installation/recording, Faulty (broken orbit), processes/spatializes sampled sounds in a manner that especially explores this direction.