Friday, September 18, 2015

Derek Bailey: Syntactics

this article was originally posted in 2006 on the sadly now defunct website dispatx
many thanks to David Stent for encouraging its composition (and, if I remember rightly, coming up with its title)


One of the most common (one might reasonably say overused) metaphors employed in discussing improvised music is the analogy with language. To talk of an improvising 'language', or of a particular improviser's 'vocabulary' is so commonplace among those involved with the music as to have come to seem almost transparent. Other terms such as 'syntax' or 'grammar' are less common but still used frequently. The great improvising guitarist Derek Bailey, who very sadly died on Christmas Day 2005, frequently employed this analogy. This essay aims to investigate and interrogate it, through an investigation of Bailey's music and writing. My enquiries have been greatly assisted by a conversation with the poet Peter Riley, held on the 17th of May 2006. Riley had a long involvement with Bailey's music as an audience member, record reviewer and writer, and provides a highly informed view on the subject from the perspective of one whose business is actually - not analogically or metaphorically - to work with language. The pun present in the title is probably too obvious to need much explanation. What I would like to emphasise, however, is how the technical resources of Bailey's guitar playing are directly linked to, or perhaps better, constitute the methods he employed to engage with other musicians. In other words, the way Bailey improvised, and the way he developed the material with which he improvised shared a common goal. His syntax was developed with his tactics in mind and vice versa.

Bailey's own statements about the development of his improvising language fall into two main categories. On the one hand he emphasises the process of improvising itself, and how his interactions with other musicians have themselves determined the nature and development of his guitar playing. In an interview in the Wire in September 2004, for example, he commented 'I have a style, yeah, but that has come out of the music'. On the other hand, he has also emphasised how when he began improvising freely he wished, quite consciously, to develop an appropriate range of devices. In an interview with Nick Cain from 2000 (published in the magazine Opprobrium) he stated 'I never thought that playing free was satisfying enough if I used conventional techniques and material. If I was using conventional techniques and material, I would sooner play conventional music'. A longer statement to similar effect can be found a statement of Bailey's from 1972, included as a note to his CD Domestic and Public Pieces: 'I don't use a lot of conventional techniques on the guitar. But then, I'm not interested to play in the areas those techniques were developed to serve. It wouldn't be any good for my purposes to do a sort of imitation of Charlie Christian or something. People can refer to that, say, as conventional guitar playing. But it isn't. It's conventional jazz guitar playing of a certain period. To certain people, the only way to play a guitar is in a flamenco style, which I think is quite beautiful, incidentally. These are taken to be sort of standard conventional techniques - but, actually, they're techniques that serve certain purposes.'
Free improvisation for Bailey was not a philosophical experiment, a plunge into a simplistic idea of 'freedom', in keeping perhaps with a generally permissive late sixties atmosphere. Rather, his first attempts to improvise freely occurred in the rather non-swinging surroundings of early-Sixties Sheffield, with the bass player Gavin Bryars and drummer Tony Oxley. Their attempt to find a new way to improvise was cool and deliberate, and involved much work with compositional devices. The only widely available extant recording of the group is a ten-minute improvisation on John Coltrane's piece 'Miles Mode', released by Incus records in 1999. This was recorded in 1965, and illustrates the first of the two quotations from Bailey above. At the beginning and end of the piece the guitar playing can be heard to come very clearly from the jazz tradition, though with the willful introduction of elements that the jazz mainstream would have found hard to understand, such as seemingly motiveless pauses. In the middle of the track, however, Bailey can be heard exploring areas that have more in common with his later work - muted sounds, scratches and scrabblings that are driven not by a compositional agenda but by the desire to improvise with his colleagues using timing and timbre more than harmony and rhythm.
Bailey could have remained in this area but it did not satisfy him. His next activity illustrates the second of my two quotations. In 1966 and 1967 he recorded some of his solo playing for his personal study, which were released by John Zorn's Tzadik label in 2002 under the title Pieces for Guitar. Here we can see Bailey exploring the resources of the guitar so as to enable him to occupy the kind of territory he discovers in the middle of 'Miles Mode' without having to begin from a jazz platform. He was, one could say, consciously attempting to develop a new language for the guitar. So, for example, 'Three Pieces for Guitar' are brief compositions using serial pitch organisation, inspired by Webern and an attempt to develop resources for playing intervallically rather than harmonically, as is usual in jazz. (The fact that Coltrane and Webern are the two musicians other than Bailey I have mentioned so far would, I suppose, support to some extent the slightly too neat, but commonly expressed, view that freely improvised music had its roots in a combination of free jazz and serial and post-serial Western composition.) He can actually be heard improvising on two of these pieces at the end of the CD. Using a method in some ways strikingly reminiscent of his return to jazz material on the 2002 CD Ballads, Bailey plays the compositions, when he reaches them, in a straightforward way, and does not attempt to improvise 'on' each section of them, but rather to use their general atmosphere to inform the way he improvises, particularly when he is directly approaching the composition. Elsewhere on the CD one can hear small motifs ('Bits') that Bailey would actually write down for himself. He continued this practice throughout his life, the aim being to develop a range a improvisational resources, but not to combine them into compositions - their use was intended to be entirely in improvisational contexts. This approach might be seen to closely parallel the writing down of vocabulary lists when learning a new language - one does not actually intend to reel off the lists in conversation, but rather to gain instant command of ones resources so that when the conversation seems to require a certain item of vocabulary it can be called upon immediately. Finally, Bailey can be heard on 'Practising: Wow and Stereo' to explore timbral aspects of the guitar using its amplification not merely to increase volume but as a musical resource. He employed both a wah-wah pedal and a stereo set-up using two amplifiers.
Bailey's work over the next few years seems to me to work its way though the implications of his discoveries in the mid-60s. Having come to be interested in the possibilities of freely improvised music making, and then become dissatisfied with the jazz based resources at his disposal, the conscious attempt to develop a more appropriate vocabulary was put to the test in a number of improvising ensembles. He found this an essential part of the process. Peter Riley told me how Bailey told him about some younger musicians who were 'now trying to do it without vocabulary', but that he 'didn't think you could do that'. [1] By the mid 1970s Bailey had arrived at his mature style, I would argue - though of course his playing continued to vary and develop over the next thirty years. (For example, he was at this time still using stereo amplification and sometimes a second guitar with additional strings, both of which he later abandoned; Riley told me that there was even a period later on where he 'worked out a scale that he was using for this improvisation, and stuck to it through the improvisation'!) It was also at this point that he stopped playing in regular groups and focused heavily on solo playing, intending to avoid what he saw as the ossifying process that begins to take place in groups that improvise together regularly. Indeed, in his book Improvisation: Its Nature and Practise in Music, Bailey introduces the idea of language by saying that 'the analogy with language, often used by improvising musicians in discussing their work, has a certain usefulness in illustrating the development of a common stock of material - a vocabulary - which takes place when a group of musicians improvise together regularly'. [Bailey, Improvisation, 2nd edn, p. 106] Though this process was exactly what had happened with Joseph Holbrooke, he came to see it as a limitation. He even argued in an interview with Jean Martin in 1996 that 'in freely improvised music its roots are in occasion rather than place'. This was in a sense not true about Joseph Holbroke. As Gavin Bryars told Bailey, 'I think the fact that we were isolated, musically, helped us. . . . Had we been playing in London, say, some area with a large musical community, most of the developments would have been nipped in the bud.' [Improvisation, 2nd edn, p. 92] But as Riley points out, 'more and more as free improvised music did seem to be sort of spreading through the world', he could begin to feel that occasion superceded place in importance.
On the Spontaneous Music Ensemble's 1968 recording Karyobin, Bailey seems to focus mainly on denaturing the guitar by using his volume pedal either to swell the sounds in (removing the attack - often using minor seconds or other close intervals to obtain a distinctive shimmering sound) or to remove any sustain, also muting the strings, so as to negate the pitch content of the sound. In this way he subverts the basic nature of the guitar - that it is plucked string with a firm attack and fairly rapid decay. The way he does this is of course also dependent on the musical context - drummer John Stevens' SME was predicated on a fast interweaving of independent but mutually acknowledging and not soloistic playing, and this way of articulating the guitar fitted in perfectly. Later, on the Incus record Solo Guitar Vol One, or with Barry Guy (bass) and Paul Rutherford (trombone) in Iskra 1903, Bailey can be heard moving even further from conventional guitar sound, using all parts of the strings (such as behind the bridge or beyond the nut), and employing his amplification to produce shrieks, metallic scratches and controlled feedback - which enabled him to sustain sounds indefinitely, something else a conventional guitar is incapable of. By the mid-seventies, however, some more identifiable guitar string sound made its way back into Bailey's playing, and it is this that I identify as the beginning of his mature period.
Bailey explained this in the first edition of his book, published in 1980. The differences between this and the second edition, published in 1992, are for the most part small, but where Bailey discusses his own playing, they are marked. They shed fascinating light on his changing attitudes to his own improvisational resources and the linguistic analogy. As I have said, it was in the mid-Seventies that Bailey turned to solo improvisation as his main focus, having for the previous decade been almost exclusively involved in group improvisation. He explained this in the first edition of his book as a very conscious attempt to examine his improvising language, analogous I take it to that he undertook in the mid-Sixties, as documented on Pieces for Guitar. I quote at some length because the original edition of Improvisation is not of course widely available any more:
'It was having to deal alone with this type of situation - the blank areas, the creative deserts, which in a group improvisation are covered by the collective impetus and dialogue character of the music - which I hoped would demand a strengthened and extended vocabulary. I looked to the enormous reduction in outside information and the increased responsibility for overall continuity to demand and 'force' the development of a more comprehensive and complete improvising language. As described earlier, for me, as for many improvisers, the tonal organisation of pitch seemed of little use in free playing. Gradually it became clear that any system which depended on systematic pitch organisation removed too much of the explorative aspect of the activity. One could approach the unknown with a method and a compass but to take a map made it pointless to go there at all. So it became necessary to reject all tonal, modal and atonal organisation in order to leave the way free to organise only through the powers of improvisation. And to facilitate this the vocabulary had to be built up from what I can only describe as non-tonal materials. Earlier I had almost discarded pitch except as a means of creating atonal effects. [I would identify this particularly with the Solo Guitar Vol. One/Iskra 1903 period discussed above.] But I found that playing solo - having to assemble a vocabulary that was complete - I needed all the help I could get. So pitch had to take a greater part in the language, for without it I didn't have sufficient resources. [One of the ways he 'forced' this was by more acoustic playing, denying himself the additional resources his creative use of amplification afforded him - such as on the beautiful 1980 album Aida.] And I had by this time realised that to deliberately eschew the use of pitch, one of the the most manipulative of musical elements, would be, for an improvisor, perverse. But all my previous uses of pitch - tonal, modal or atonal - had been too specific and unhelpful. So pitch had to be utilised but its grammatical constituent had to be neutralised. It had to be non-tonal.'
[Improvisation, 1st Edn, p. 127]

Bailey here uses the analogy with language as vocabulary extensively. But he is aware of its limitation. Language also implies grammar - sequential argument, even - and this is too deterministic for his purposes. Hence his desire for non-tonal, rather than atonal, use of pitch (a fascinating distinction and one that, for all its apparent simplicity, does not appear to have entered much into the range of analytical tools for contemporary music). Bailey has spoken of the same issue elsewhere. In Ben Watson's biography, Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation, Bailey is quoted as saying in 1987, 'Tonality is like an argument, and the answers to the questions are always the same. Play Gmin7, C13, and the next chord has to be one of three or four things. . . . Atonality is a way of moving from one point to another without answering questions - almost a series of isolated events. Atonality has a non-grammatical quality, a non-causal sequence to it.' [p. 213] (Bailey seems to have forgotten his own excellent distinction here!) Saxophonist Evan Parker made a similar point on a tribute to Bailey broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 20th January 2006, saying that Derek's avoidance of open strings (cf. Improvisation, 2nd edn. p. 94, 'the sort of electric guitar open string sound I was at pains to avoid' - this again, I think, refers more to the earlier period of Bailey's career, as they became quite prevalent later on) was partly due to the prevalence of the 5th in their overtone structure, which perhaps begins to imply tonality.
Bailey went on in a footnote in the original edition of Improvisation to actually list some of the ways he attempted to develop non-tonal pitch manipulation:
'A list of the types of measures which proved successful would include:- combining pitch with non-pitch ('preparing' it but not using a fixed preparation), constructing intervals from mixed timbres, a greater use of ambiguous pitch (e.g. the less 'pure' harmonics - 7th onwards), compound intervals, moving pitch (which includes glisses and microtonal adjustments), coupling single notes with a 'distant' harmonic, horizontally an attempt to play an even mix of timbres, unison pitches with mixed timbres - elements of this kind, and many others, proved useful. But the appearance of these elements in a list is misleading. A vocabulary only achieves whatever significance it might have through its use as part of a language.'
[Improvisation, 1st Edn, p. 128]

Most, if not all, of these devices could still be heard in Bailey's playing right up until his death. With the last sentence of the footnote, however, Bailey again highlights his sensitivity to the nature of the linguistic metaphor.

The Implications of the Vocabulary

The section in Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music marked 'language' (a subsection of the chapter on solo improvising, which he admits he bases almost entirely on his own practice), begins, as we have seen, 'The analogy with language, often used by improvising musicians in discussing their work, is useful to illustrate the building up of a common pool of material - a vocabulary - which takes place when a group of musicians improvise together regularly.' [Improvisation, 2nd Edn., p 106 - 1st Edn. p. 126] This leads us to the most contentious area of Bailey's use of a linguistic metaphor, the idea of non-idiomatic improvisation. This idea was proposed by Bailey many times throughout his career, and was just as often dismissed or ridiculed. Percussionist Eddie Prevost, in his book Minute Particulars, writes: 'The general consensus [is] that once a form of music making becomes recognisable as such (for example Derek's own guitar playing) then it has developed its own idiomatic framework and references.' More pointedly, in a paper entitled "De Motu" for Buschi Niebergall, Evan Parker delivered the opinion that 'Certainly by the time a theoretical position is arrived at in which it is thought the term "non-idiomatic improvisation" is the best description of something as instantly recognisable as Derek Bailey's guitar playing we have reached what E.P. Thompson called in another context "the terminus of the absurd".'
There is clearly a commonsense truth in these observations, but what is notable is that they both refer only to Bailey's guitar playing, not to the music he made with other musicians. Originally, of course, part of Bailey's meaning was that he wished to develop a music that did not refer to existing, established genres. As Peter Riley said to me, 'he was doing something which didn't have an antecedent, so he was quite entitled to call it that. It doesn't prevent it becoming idiomatic to later generations, I suppose, does it?' Bailey was indeed conscious of developing his own 'language', or 'style', or perhaps even 'idiom', as we have seen. However, his intention in doing so was to be able to engage with musicians from whatever background that wished to improvise with him. So there is a sense in which Bailey's own playing is clearly idiomatic, even if that idiom is characterised by 'the concepts of unpredictability and discontinuity, of perpetual renewal and perpetual variation first introduced into European composition at the beginning of the 20th century.' [Improvisation 2nd Edn. p. 107; 1st Edn. p. 128] He was interested in playing appropriately for a freely improvised, malleable context. And so he was not interested in referring to other styles of music. (Going back to the earlier quote about tonality being like an argument, it is not of course quite true that Gmin7, C13 can only be followed by three or four things - one can deliberately follow them by something inappropriate, as improvisers who might loosely at times be characterisable as 'post-modern', such as John Zorn, Steve Beresford or Eugene Chadbourne might be prone to do. However, such playing relies on reference to known genres - a supplementary semantic layer to the music if you like, of the sort that Bailey had no, or very little, interest in dealing with in his own music.) But he also lost interest in improvising with the same people for a long period of time - Iskra 1903, which came to an end in the mid 1970s, was the last group of a set line-up in which Derek played for any considerable length of time. (As he said about his group Limescale in the 2004 interview: 'it's at a very interesting stage because nobody knows the music yet. I mean the people in the group don't know what the fuck it should sound like. So they're working on their ears all the time, they're reacting. That's the way it should be.') And so by using the concept of non-idiomatic improvising he was really concerned to point out features of group improvisation where the goal is not to establish an predetermined 'idiomatic' sound (as it is in most jazz, for example, or perhaps in some long-running improvising ensembles).
When interviewed by Jean Martin in 1996, Bailey commented that '[African drum music or South American music (these were the examples offered by the interviewer)] are formed by an idiom, they are not formed by improvisation. They are formed in the same way that speech vernacular, a verbal accent, is formed. They are the product of a locality and society, by characteristics shared by that society. . . .In freely improvised music, its roots are in occasion rather than place. . . . There are plenty of styles - group styles and individual styles - found in free playing but they don't coalesce into an idiom. They just don't have that kind of social or regional purchase or allegiance. They are idiosyncratic. In fact you can see freely improvised music as being made up of an apparently endless variety of idiosyncratic players and groups. So many in fact, that it's simpler to think of the whole thing as non-idiomatic.'
So Bailey acknowledges the presence of many, if you will, micro idioms, but questions whether the word is useful when it does not refer to any real shared, geographically based, musical language. 'Non-idiomatic', for all its limitations, highlights the malleable, fluid nature of the musical exchanges Bailey became most interested in. Indeed, he stated in a number of interviews that he lost interest in solo playing (he told John Eyles in September 2001 that 'Solo concerts are murder, I find; I don't like doing them'), although economic and logistical constraints meant that he continued to play solo frequently throughout his career. The reason he established Company, and the Company Week, was so that musicians who did not play together regularly - or perhaps had never even met - could improvise together and work through the process of developing something shared. He admitted in a forum on improvisation published in Perspectives of New Music that 'even those [participants in Company] who are interested primarily, in fact entirely, in working with improvisation, they'd want to be working with people who had things like language or material in common with them. So I suppose the only person for whom it's their first choice of working situation is me, and I get the others to indulge my inclinations.' Bailey had a radical drive to avoid stagnation - he even stopped arranging Company events in the last decade of his life because he felt they had become too predictable. His practice was open, but never indiscriminately so. For all his claims to wanting a clash of languages, he did wish for a certain understanding between himself and his playing partners. Peter Riley related an anecdote to me: 'Probably about 1980 or so I remember one person, I don't know who it was, came who played the vibes and wanted to play with Derek because he played free, like he thought. But Derek couldn't play with him. I mean they did, but Derek didn't enjoy it, and one time stopped and said 'Do you think you could groove a bit less?' (laughter) Which is part of vocabulary really, because groove is idiom. And though this man was playing free there was obviously something very jazz-related about what he was doing, a bit too much for Derek.' I see two main implications of this story. One is that he saw 'non-idiomatic' playing as being to some extent defined as a negative (the absence of recognisable generic forms or material) but also that he was interested in having some rhythmic language, at least, in common with his collaborators. Of course later in his life he did work in some highly rhythmic contexts (in the conventional sense), such as with drum'n'bass DJs or with Ornette Coleman's electric rhythm section of Jamaladeen Tacuma and Calvin Weston. Riley wondered whether 'his attitude towards that changed. Or perhaps it became more acceptable if it was a bit more aggressive, and more of a machine-like rhythm.' This may well be true to an extent, but another factor must surely have been the continuing desire to avoid stagnation, to prevent an over-familiarity with the rules of the game. As he said in a postscript to an Invisible Jukebox in the Wire 'The musical end product is where interest starts to flag. It's a bit like jigsaw puzzles. Emptied out of the box, there's a heap of pieces, all shapes, sizes and colours, in themselves attractive and could add up to anything - intriguing. Figuring out how to put them together can be interesting, but what you finish up with as often as not is a picture of unsurpassed banality. Music's like that.' [reprinted in Watson, p. 440]
So it seems that non-idiomatic improvisation was almost a goal of Bailey's own working practice. Having taken great care to develop an improvising language with the qualities he himself desired from his music, he then became interested to work with it. The vocabulary itself was not the focus, it was the process of improvising with others. Hence he replaced the technical information about his guitar playing in the first edition of his book, as it no longer seemed to him to get to the heart of the matter (evidence of the dialectical nature of his practice, perhaps). In the same place in the second edition, Bailey wrote:
'But this 'improvising language' was, of course, superimposed upon another musical language; one learned, also empirically, over many years as a working musician. Working musicians, those found earning a living in night clubs, recording studios, dance halls and any other place where music has a functional role, spend very little time, as I remember it, discussing 'improvising language', but anyone lacking the ability to invent something, to add something, to improve something would quickly prove to be in the wrong business. In that world, improvisation is a fact of musical life. And it seems to me that this bedrock of experience, culled in a variety of situations, occasionally bubbles up in one way of another, particularly playing solo. Not affecting specifics like pitch or timbre or rhythmic formulations (I've yet to find any advantage in quoting directly any of the kinds of music I used to play) but influencing decisions that affect overall balance and pace - judging what will work. The unexpected, not to say the unnerving, can also occasionally appear. Recently, it seems to me, some reflection of the earliest guitar music I ever heard occasionally surfaces in my solo playing; music I have had no connection with, either as listener or player, since childhood.'
[Improvisation, 2nd Edn., p. 108]

While in 1980 Bailey might have felt too close to his work as a commercial guitarist to have seen any value in it, an additional decade's perspective enabled him to see the underlying reliance on improvisation as a more important link between his activities than the difference in vocabulary was a point of contrast.

When I began this project, I intended to pursue the limitations of the linguistic analogy further than I have ended up doing. As I investigated the subject the limitations began to seem rather obvious and not so illuminating as I had imagined. A linguistic vocabulary clearly has semantic content while a musical vocabulary does not, as such. But the fundamental idea of a range of possibilities that can be chosen from is clearly conveyed. All language when applied to a subject such as music has an analogical or metaphorical aspect. What word could replace 'vocabulary', anyway? One possibility would be 'repertoire'. John Corbett has written that an improviser improvises 'by developing and employing a repertoire or possibilities in order to risk the unknown.' ['Ephemera Underscored: Writing Around Free Improvisation' in Jazz Among the Discourses] This sounds like an excellent description of Bailey's work, except that of course 'repertoire' brings a host of unhelpful associations of its own - plus it implies a longer fixed sequence than vocabulary does. Riley told me that 'a repertoire feels as if it represents a smaller number of options, whereas vocabulary represents a very large number. . . . It's certainly not like putting bricks together, the object itself is more fluid.' We have seen how Bailey deliberately developed his vocabulary at the microlevel so that it could be combined in as many ways as possible at the macrolevel. This raises the interesting question of, as Riley put it, 'what constitutes a piece in improvisation'. He wondered whether 'there can be particular technical sound production things which will characterise - largely characterise - even a quite long improvisation.' On the other hand Mark Wastell and Brian Marley, in the introduction to the book they recently edited, Blocks of Consciousness and the Unbroken Continuum, explain the origin of their title. The first part refers to Morton Feldman, but the second 'arises from something Derek Bailey said in, if memory serves, the latter half of the 1970s, during a Melody Maker interview. He described how a record producer had taken tapes of some long improvisations of his and then subjected them to radical pruning. The producer started at the beginning of each piece, and as soon as he'd heard enough of Bailey's music he cut the tape at that point. Bailey seemed remarkably unfazed by the way his improvisations were being chopped into smaller pieces. He also said, perhaps in a different interview, that he felt his improvising was continuous, broken only by the moments when he set down his guitar.' [p. 6] Bailey said he was not interested in 'instant composition' - the overall architecture of his improvisations could be left to take care of themselves. More like a conversation than an improvised soliloquy, perhaps - hence support for the linguistic analogy!
Mention of conversation turns our attention to something I have previously neglected, by considering language more in the abstract - the spoken language, the voice. This takes us straight into the realm of sound and so in immediate relationship to music. The word 'tone' becomes interesting here. There is the idea of 'tone of voice', but it is also a musical term, meaning either 'note' or the particular timbral or acoustic qualities of a sound or instrument. This is crucial to improvised music. In jazz, players aim for a personal sound (at least in theory!) - the instrumental sound as direct self-expression. Bailey had a highly recognisable sound, but not within the same framework of the subjective voice. Riley has thought deeply about this: 'there's something about space which is difficult to describe. A kind of realism, it's to do with the tone of Derek's playing. Apart from the actual notes, which could even have a sort of melodic function, sometimes, there's often a sound area, which he did with electronics or just with reverberation behind it which often has a sort of bleak feeling about it. There's a somewhat dehumanised sense of space there. You know he was very keen on Beckett? . . . Because it was often a discordant . . . and at the same time rather empty sounding aura which he could create. . . . He'd be happy to produce a motif, say, or a fragment or something and then forget it, really. And yet in the best improvisations, in the longer ones it's, I don't know, perhaps it's taken up - something about it is taken up, if not the actual chord group, but something about the tone of it or the way it was produced would be there again.' He also thought that speech might have influenced the rhythmic structure of Bailey's playing: 'I always thought his rhythms were closely related to the rhythms of the spoken language. . . And it's not as though he's got a regular pulse in his head, which he's diverging from - syncopation - in fact. Well, I mean sometimes it is but sometimes it's just not that, it's not dependent on that sense of a regular pulse at all, for a long time sometimes. My theory is that it's bound to be, that if it's not metricated, it's going to be related to the spoken language. It's naturally what you'll fall back on, I suppose.' The way Bailey uses but subverts or plays with this idea can be heard on a number of tracks (including the entirety of the Incus CDR Chats) where Bailey speaks while improvising on the guitar. His musical 'voice' is heard simultaneously with his actual voice, and the rhythmic interplay between the two is fascinating (and often very funny).
One point remains - that of grammar. I quoted Bailey earlier as arguing that atonality had a 'non-grammatical' quality. Perhaps it would be better if he had referred to a 'non-syntactical' quality. Syntax refers to the rules for sequential sentence construction; it was tonality's musical analogues to these rules that Bailey felt constrained an improviser unacceptably. Grammar, however, is a much larger linguistic concept, covering morphology as well as syntax - even phonology. To say that the improviser's material is his vocabulary and the grammatical content is solely provided by interaction with other musicians will not do - clearly there are 'grammatical' connections between different items of vocabulary; the goal of having all elements equally available at all times must remain something of an aspiration rather than a reality. While of course ones previously accumulated habits (combined with a conscious desire to escape, or at least interrogate, them) provide part of the answer, I would like to suggest that another comes in the form of the physical construction of the guitar itself.
Bailey indeed observed that this could be an important feature in idiomatic musics as well. In a 1998 interview with Richard Leigh (published in Opprobrium) he observed: 'And of course there are umpteen musics where it forms an integral part of the music - blues, flamenco, much of rock - musics where the guitar is a kind of structural part of the music'. Opposed to the idea of music as conceived by the musician, then executed on the instrument, Bailey points out that the reality is much more entangled. Much of the harmony in flamenco, for example, stems directly from the physical construction of the guitar - chords that would seem bizarre or nonsensical on the piano are straightforward on the guitar. In his freely improvised music, Bailey pushed this materialist conception of music making (what he termed 'instrumental improvisation' - using particular gestures to play a particular instrument at a particular time) much further. As he says in the 2004 Wire interview, 'I might play the guitar in a way which nobody else plays but I play guitar, I wouldn't do what I do on any other instrument. It's very specific. I like the construction of it and the basic tuning, like fourths and a major third. That plays a significant part in what I play, harmonics, open strings, fourths.' He was not alone in this focus - Steve Lacy is quoted in Improvisation as saying 'the instrument - that's the matter - the stuff - your subject'. [p. 99] Indeed in a literal way the instrument is the improviser's material, rather than the sound - one can only manipulate sound by manipulating the instrument. Peter Riley highlighted how Bailey's investigation of this physicality could contribute to the sense of the music, for a listener present at a concert (or, perhaps, watching on DVD or video): 'I mean, there's a sound produced down there which couldn't come at a different place because of the time it takes him to get down there. And that sort of thing. And it's done in a different way and from a different angle, and all these things have got to change.' The physical construction of the instrument plays a fundamental part in determining the very sequence of sounds that constitute the music. Perhaps, reductively, one could say that Derek Bailey played improvised music using a personal vocabulary he developed though an investigation of the grammar of the guitar.

[1] Riley desribed the music Bailey was referring to as follows: 'It was tending towards silence, in certain areas. And there were these people in Bristol, they were a nice crowd. Will Menter is one of the names I can remember. And they had a little scene there, they put on quite big concerts sometimes, used the Arnolfini gallery occasionally for things. And there was a percussionist, a guitar, another sax, and various others, and they travelled round, they played in London and things. It reached the stage with them sometimes that somebody would walk on to the stage carrying a trumpet and put it down on the floor next to him and not touch it for the whole evening. And sit there and occasionally like drop a sponge on the floor or wind up a little toy, and let it scuttle across the stage, you know all that kind of thing was going on. And I suppose they did other things but they could spend quite a lot of time doing that, and at some point there'd be something a bit louder and more massive going on. I can't remember that but I suppose they must have done. They can't have actually spent the whole evening sitting on a chair winding up toys.'


Bailey, Derek - Interview with Nick Cain, Opprobrium, August 2000
Bailey, Derek - Interview with John Eyles, September 2001
Bailey, Derek - Interview with Jean Martin, 16 August 1996
Bailey, Derek - Improvisation, Its Nature and Practise in Music, First Edition, 1980 Second Edition, The British Library, 1992
Corbett, John - Ephemera Underscored: Writing Around Free Improvisation in Jazz Among the Discourses, ed. Krin Gabbard, Duke University Press 1995
Keenan, David, 'The Holy Goof' in The Wire, issue 247 (September 2004), pp. 42 - 49
Marley, Brian and Wastell, Mark, eds., Blocks of Consciousness and The Unbroken Continuum, Sound 323 2005
Parker, Evan - "De Motu" for Buschi Niebergall
Prevost, Eddie - Minute Particulars, Copula 2004
Forum: Improvisation in Perspectives of New Music, Fall-Winter 1982, Spring-Summer 1983 double issue
Watson, Ben - Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation, Verso 2004

Joseph Holbrooke '65, Incus CD single 01
Derek Bailey - Pieces for Guitar, Tzadik TZ 7080
Derek Bailey - Ballads, Tzadik TZ 7607
Spontaneous Music Ensemble - Karyobin, Chronoscope CPE 2001-2
Derek Bailey - Solo Guitar Vol One, Incus Records CD10
Iskra 1903 - Chapter One, Emanem Records 4301
Derek Bailey - Aida, Dexters Cigar dex5
Derek Bailey - Domestic and Public Pieces, EMANEM CD 4001
Derek Bailey - Chats, Incus CDR
Derek Bailey/DJ Ninj - Guitar, Drums'n'Bass, Avant CD 060
Derek Bailey/Jamaladeen Tacuma/Calvin Weston - Mirakle, Tzadik CD 7603
Limescale - Incus CD56
Derek Bailey - Playing for Friends on 5th Street, DVD

No comments: