Thursday, February 25, 2010

Practise as practice

No apologies for having let the blog slide so much recently, I'll just get on with rectifying the situation somewhat, with a thought that's been bubbling around my head for the last couple of days as a result of having spent time at the wonderful Modern Times: Responding to Chaos exhibition of drawings (and some films) at Kettle's Yard in Cambridge, as well as having begun Seth Kim-Cohen's recent book In The Blink of an Ear: Toward a Non-Cochlear Sonic Art, and which I shall attempt to express, in what I am afraid may appear at this stage a somewhat gnomic fashion.

What occurred to me is whether drawing and improvisation (specifically of the mode employed by musicians such as Derek Bailey) might be seen as practices which involve - indeed require - skill, but do not reify it and which may leave traces (& may involve an audience) but which do not rely either on the production of a finished object or the performance situation for their meaning. They can thus provide a means of avoiding the fetishism of the "artwork" to which modernism is prone, as well as incorporating some of conceptual art's valuable critiques of modernism (such as of its formalism) without conceptualism's didacticism, indifference to material, or parasitic relation to the forms of artistic practice. That is, the banality and traditionalism of drawing and instrumental practise could be seen to provide a way out of conceptualism's cerebral cul-de-sac. Sustained engagement with a material on a daily basis - without always keeping an eye on the production of "works" - replaces the need to trademark every advance. (Though in practice of course certain territory will be staked out: few visual artists only engage in informal drawing, and few improvisers make no public performances or recordings.) In fact, does conceptualism not subscribe fully to a modernist conception of progress, for all that it claims to undermine modernist illusions of originality?

So I am wondering whether one can respond to the crisis of "the work" not by questioning the form of the work, its reception and so forth, but by engaging with material in such a way that the production of "work" qua work is a secondary, and at times even incidental result of an artist's or musician's activity. It also seems possible that other art forms could have comparable versions of practice: photography and field recording might be two examples.


Dominic Lash said...

Perhaps poetry (specifically lyric poetry) could also be part of this - John Wilkinson wrote the following in the Chicago Review in 2007:

"Poems are provisional condensations rather than runways. I do not hear a continual song nor feel a necessity to attune my writing to the music of the spheres or to the Psalms. No horizon beckons; like a painter I work in a mess, daily glancing at work both “complete” and “incomplete,” tweaking, vandalizing, diving in again until things seem to me to hold together, any-old-how. Rather than any pot of gold, the best result might be a warmer darkness, perhaps shareable. ... Pre-eminently, lyric poetry can act as a specific against dissipation. It can effect a condensation, a new alloy, a new hybrid. This is not the same as a new self, whether for reader or writer, for selfhood always entails a rent in the provisional fabric of poetry. If the alchemy is spiritual, it engenders a new spirit every time, a coming-into-being which never arrives. This happens incidentally to the striving for it. What is produced cannot be vaunted as a totality because it is short-lived and soon to be dispelled."

Dominic Lash said...

And perhaps this is also related:

"Mein Prozess im Jetzt sind dieser Bilder"

("These paintings are my method of working in the now")

Ida Maibach, quoted in the booklet to Radu Malfatti, EW 9801 CD

david_grundy said...

Belated reply to this, which I think raises some really fascinating points. I wonder if the notion of free improvisation as avoiding the creation of fixed 'artworks' tends to work better in theory than in practice (just as conceptual art's 'subversion' tends to take place in an environment which ensures it subverts very little of consequence (i.e. the art gallery)). I suppose I'm thinking mainly of the vast amounts of free improv CDs, LPs, cassettes, etc, that proliferate year on year (online documentation, on blogs, youtube etc, has something more ephemeral about it - the data seems less secure, more liable to be taken down (and is not a physical object like a CD is)). While I might not suscribe to the argument that recordings of improvisation are useless (they may lose something of the music's 'in-the-momentness', but that doesn't prevent many of them from being very good to listen to), I wonder if the production of albums falls close to the creation of 'works' (even if the albums can't be reproduced note for note as a composition could). Even the simple presence of music criticism, whether it be in a print publication like The Wire or the various informal and more formal online fora (Bagatellen, Point of Departure, etc), tends to give the impression of some THING, some 'work' being criticised: a report on experience that freezes it, in some sense. This may be less the case with live concert reviews (which may even contain the qualification, "you had to be there").

But perhaps this is unfair, overstating the case of what is more a danger than a real threat. Perhaps it would be more convincing to see improvised gigs/ recordings as taking place within a distribution/reception network/community in which they form part of a continuing discourse, the next sentence in the conversation, if you like, rather than separate entities or 'works' in some sort of closed-off, gallery-like isolation (whee they might, for instance, be reduced to an irrecoverable past moment rather than valued for the methodological presentness of their creation).

Incidentally, I wonder if there ARE any free improvisers who've never given a public performance or made a recording?

Dominic Lash said...

Thanks for these thoughts, David. I entirely agree with you about recordings, I think - recordings of improvisation are very often fetishised, and often in terms which pretend to prioritise the unrepeatable: these documents are so valuable precisely because what they contain cannot be repeated in its original form. The consequences of the way that recording makes them endlessly repeatable are usually unexamined. (Not that I think that recording is in any sense a "bad thing" - it just has little to do with improvisation per se, as Derek Bailey argued and certainly, as you say, ties in with the "industrial" - that is, professional - elements of the improvising scene: festivals, for example.)
And I would imagine there are certainly free improvisers who have never performed in public nor made a recording: I suspect most of them would either be people who would not classify themselves as musicians, or musicians active in other areas who occasionally like to explore in an "unfettered" way. But I'd be very surprised if they don't exist.

david_grundy said...

No, nothing wrong with recordings! (And I'm not sure there's a way out of the quandry where an improvised performance becomes a repeatable, titled artefact). It would also be unrealistic to avoid that 'industrial' scene you mention- free improvisation couldn't really have developed in the way that it did without this element. I wonder to what extent having an audience present, however small, automatically creates 'work' when what might have existed before was 'just playing', or even 'practising'? It does create a kind of formal structure (applause/ announcements), despite the (relative) informality of the jazz/improv 'gig'. That said, and though there might indeed be something to be said for the 'private' improviser, 'professionalism' itself could also mitigate against creating an 'enduring artwork': in jazz, playing standards night after night, one is not trying to create a definitive version of the standard, but revisiting basic pre-existent material in a constant state of (re)creation. The same with a long-running improv group (the Schlippenbach Trio, for example).

Dominic Lash said...

I also don't think the two approaches we're sketching have to be mutually exclusive. That's part of what interested me in these ideas in the first place. Just as the fact that an artist has a drawing practice which produces artifacts but is not primarily concerned with their production does not prevent them producing highly planned large-scale oil paintings (say), one could I think have a private improvisational practice that informs one's "public" practice - how could it not? - but not necessarily in a direct or consistent way. That is to say, practice does not only have to be seen as "research and development".

Anonymous said...

interesting. i think for me recordings exist as wondrous other objects connected spuriously but distinct from the experience/process of the sounds as they are being made first time.i think i listen and consume recordings totally differantly to being in the music as it happens. in many ways i prefer recordiings. whether these be of me or of performances by others or by myself. it's more relaxing to listen back to something and more possble to anyalyse and listen to the whole or whichever bits i choose to listen to [the violin this time.the voice next time.] when i'm in it either as listener or soundmaker i am immersed and i am less in control more swept along. things can easily slip past. i can think i sound a certain way but i'm so wrapped up in being in it i have no way of really being sure. with a recording i can listen over and over again. and be somewhat though not completely sure. i am an improvisor who prefers not to make sound in front of an audience, i find their presence, along with the too often concommitant stage and soundmess created by auditoriums other bodies and pa's very detrimental. and i dont feel in anyway that a silent sea of bodes clapping everytime we leave the minutest gap in sound to be some kind of energy one can feel and tap into. and i worry a lot that a great number of improvisors never make sound off of the stage between the hours of 730 and midnight in an environment where they cant really hear each other at all. so yes for me practise and making group improvisation happen just as a matter of course within life in all kinds of places is vital to the life of improvised soundmaking and art per se. it feels so important to make improvisation ensue away from consumerism. and i feel its vital that we persist in doing this thing for absolutely no reason or even no ONE and with no meaning at all.