Saturday, September 19, 2015

Syntactics PS: Interview with Peter Riley on Derek Bailey

And as a postscript to yesterday's post, here is the interview I did with poet Peter Riley about Derek Bailey (and also touching on Riley's own work) that I conducted as research for the Syntactics piece, which was also previously available at dispatx.

A Conversation With Peter Riley
conducted by Dominic Lash
The following conversation took place at Peter Riley's house in Cambridge during the morning of Wednesday 17th May 2006. I began by raising the issue of Derek Bailey's much-contested concept of 'non-idiomatic improvisation'.
PETER RILEY (PR): I thought that was a quite simple concept of Derek's about non-idiomatic improvisation because it was a question of where the music came from. It came from jazz, and you know he studied Webern for some time, and he wasn't trying to continue jazz, and he wasn't trying to continue the Webern developments. 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?
DOMINIC LASH (DL): No, when it's set . . . I mean that's what interested me in the earlier edition [of Bailey's book Improvisation] is how you get this sense of how obviously a lot of things were coming out of playing with people, but also how carefully he thought about what types of musical language he wanted to include.
PR: Yes, I don't know to what extent he did that alone or by working with others, because that was before I knew him, all the goings on in Sheffield with Tony Oxley and Gavin Bryars, of which there's a CD with a lot of chat in it, about that. I think even that was to quite a large extent to do with playing with others, to do with playing with those two. It says in there how that trio realised they were doing something unique, and how difficult it was to have guests playing with them. You remember that?
DL: Yes, I do. I mean I only know it from those recordings, but it is fascinating. On that - what do they play, Miles' Mode don't they? It does start off . . . and then in the middle more what might be recognisable Derek from later on starts to emerge in the middle of this - as you say, from playing with . . . But then there is that CD that Zorn released, where you hear the solo pieces which Derek . . .
PR: Oh the pieces, the actual pieces?
DL: Yeah, the Pieces for Guitar which is slightly after that, and you get this sense of him actually writing the pieces, but he says in the notes he was only concerned with freely improvising.
PR: It was part of his study.
DL: And he also used to write things down for himself, didn't he?
PR: I first heard Derek I suppose about 1972 or 1973, probably. I was living in Denmark before that. There's a poet called Anthony Barnett - he was a poet-musician (rather more of a poet than a musician, but he thought he was a musician - he hit drums and things) and he played with John Tchicai. I wasn't in Copenhagen so I didn't see much of this scene, but it was quite lively scene involving Tchicai and Don Cherry and people like that. Dollar Brand turned up from South Africa, and so on. It wasn't too far to go and travel for a special concert. I didn't really know any of these people, but I was asking what about the UK, what's going on there, and Tchicai reported, 'Well, you ought to listen to Derek Bailey.' And that was all Tchicai had to say about UK.
DL: He was the one.
PR: Yes. So I looked this up, and I think the first concert I ever heard him must have been about that time in Kensington Oval, and that was when I wrote that first piece about Derek, which was published in a magazine called Great Works.
DL: There's extracts from that in the Ben Watson?
PR: Yes. And probably my position on Derek hasn't shifted much!
DL: It seems to me as a piece of writing which gets to what Derek's doing, I haven't read much else that seems to . . .
PR: I don't know, I suppose I didn't get any further in understanding the music by ten years association with all these musicians! I mean, as Derek says, most of them are very unwilling to talk about music. He wasn't, hence that great interview, whatever he said in it. But most of them weren't, especially younger ones didn't seem to want to very much actually, because they were still . . . They weren't all that sure what they were doing, a lot of them. And they were very aware that they were a bit late on the scene, and that certain things had been established that they were following through, I think, or taking to somewhat other places.
DL: I suppose there was a very rapid development, was there?
PR: In London, yes. And it started to spread to other places. It's funny, I was living in Derbyshire, well North Staffordshire, through most of that, and managed to keep totally in touch with the scene I think. I couldn't afford to travel to London very often, but I was doing record reviewing for Musics, that magazine, occasional little articles and things, and knew Derek. I'd go down there and used to stay at Derek's flat, Derek and Janice in those days, when there was a concert on, and I'd stay for the whole of a Company Week, so I think I fairly kept up with what was going on. And chatted to Derek in bits and pieces, I mean there wasn't any concentrated theoretical discussion. Topics would come and . . . it would depend on who was around, and what was going on. But I remember when he was talking about the younger musicians, and what they were doing, especially people like Steve Beresford, and the Bristol group - they suddenly stopped - but he was talking about people are 'now trying to do it without vocabulary', he said, which was interesting. And he said, 'I don't think you can do that.'
DL: That's fascinating.
PR: 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 the! y must have done. They can't have actually spent the whole evening sitting on a chair winding up toys.
DL: I don't know!
PR: I've got some old cassette recordings of them, I'll have to listen to them sometime and check what they were up to. And Beresford was a bit like that, in that his piano vocabulary wasn't . . . Ahhh . . . Well, as Derek said it hardly really existed as a vocabulary, it was bits of memories, I mean he'd suddenly play a bit of 'Any Old Iron' or something like that.
DL: So it was just a confrontation with the instrument, with whatever it was that was there in the . . .
PR: Yes, though he listened. He played listening. I don't think Derek ever attempted seriously to play with people like the Bristol crowd, or others, but he did play with Steve, and David Toop, who was into another thing entirely. Derek was interested in more and more, later on, playing with different kinds of musicians.
DL: And I suppose there was the sort of AMM thing which carried on in parallel.
PR: Never came across that much, actually. It didn't seem to cross over. I know he liked Keith Rowe's playing very much. But apart from that, I mean he talks about it in the book a bit, doesn't he? It's a little section. I hardly ever saw them, except on tours and things like that.
DL: It is interesting, 'playing without vocabulary', because Keith has now, in the last few years, become enormously influential. There's this whole sort of scene with a lot of electronics and things, and after I think not playing much for quite a while he's become the sort of godfather of . . . Lots of people take things, there are quite a few people who play the guitar in the same kind of way he does. I don't really know them very well, but I played with some of them last week, and that's interesting because the metaphor they constantly use is 'material'. I don't know if that's more of a visual art . . . But they always talk about material all the time . . .
PR: Not 'instrument'?
DL: No. And I don't think 'vocabulary'. Whereas other people do use that.
PR: I think there was a language analogy running all the time with Derek. When he spoke of it in that way it was. And also, I always thought his rhythms were closely related to the rhythms of the spoken language. I don't think I ever said that anywhere, I don't remember anyone else saying it, but I always thought that. And I played some of him recently, and I thought 'those are spoken language rhythms, quite a lot of them'. 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.
DL: The other thing I suppose is the actual, the physical construction of the instrument itself. I just wonder if there's a sense that there's a kind of grammar of the guitar.
PR: Oh yeah, I'm sure he's terribly interested in that.
DL: In terms of how far your hand can move, you know.
PR: Oh yes. Which is why I prefer videos of him, more than CDs actually.
DL: Shame there aren't more.
PR: No, I've only ever seen one, I've seen a DVD of him that's fairly recently produced, from the States.
DL: From New York, yes I've got that.
PR: I think it's pretty well the only one I know. Well I've got an old DVD of him with Min Tanaka. I don't think you see him much.
DL: I've seen little bits. There are clips on the internet, from various things, but they're all short.
PR: It does make a difference when you actually see what his hand's doing. Otherwise it's just - this sound comes out and you don't really know what it is. I don't know how much that matters, but I find it a great help. It helps you to concentrate, and to get a visual equivalent of the music as it's going along.
DL: Is that in terms of how it might make sense, whatever that might mean?
PR: Umm, I suppose to some extent it is yes. 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.
DL: There's a quote from him, some interview, where he says that atonality has this non-grammatical quality to it, so you can have a sequence which doesn't have that directed sense, which it does if you're using tonal material. And non-tonal - that's very interesting, he says that in the earlier version of the book 'my previous uses of pitch, tonal modal or atonal had been too specific and unhelpful, so pitch had to be utilised' - he's talking about when he started playing solo a lot and he felt he hadn't been using pitch before because it had seemed to be to tied to something, but then he felt that not to use pitch was to cut yourself off from a . . . 'So pitch had to be utilised but it's grammatical constituent had to be neutralised. It had to be non-tonal.' And that's still using the linguistic metaphor.
PR: When I first heard him, I couldn't hear any jazz at all, and that was 1972 or 3. And I didn't - I never realised that he was looked upon by some as a jazz musician. It just didn't seem to be there at all. Except when he was being parodic, of course. But then he wasn't in those days, very rarely anyway. There wasn't much of that jokey stuff. Which quite surprised me when I found he was looked upon as a jazz musician, or that he fell between the stools of jazz musician and classical musician, actually, in many ways. And that's because of the rhythm - it's because of that thing, it's not a syncopated rhythm, as I said before. That was I think one of the things that drew me to him, and drew me to him as a poet too, I think, because all my previous serious experience in poetry tended to be rather academic. Most of the people I was associated with as poets were in universities or getting teaching jobs in universities and that sort of thing and were working up a l! ot of theory behind what they did, so it was a kind of classical world, and I heard this which was every bit as contemporary as any other music, and you did think of Webern immediately, because there were all these sevenths and ninths going around absolutely all over the place. And yet it didn't belong in that world at all. It was somebody, I mean not an uneducated person at all, but somebody who came from a different world altogether, and that was a great help because I wasn't doing very well with my sort of poetry 'scene', really. I felt a bit of a misfit in this . . . I was aiming for an academic career myself originally, but that sort of fell through. And I realised I was obviously going to drift round for the rest of my life without ever having a proper job! This became obvious very early on, actually. And here was somebody else who was doing that really. I mean. Derek had to eke a living in various ways, which became easier for him later on when he got Incus really off! the ground, and could live off that, and had the advantage of global sales of CDs and things, because however minority an interest it is in music, you have got the world, whereas in poetry you haven't, you've got the English language zone.
DL: You said something somewhere about the craft, the sense of poetry as a craft that you . . .
PR: Yes, well that was there all along, really.
DL: This is from you, in this interview in Nate Dorward's thing: "I like to think in terms of a craft fervently pursued but within the obtaining conditions. Knowing working musicians such as Derek Bailey ... "
PR: Yes, I knew there was somewhere I'd mentioned Derek Bailey, so it was there. It's to do with . . . and also working alone, I think. Which seems odd to say of Derek, who spent so much time in company, and at one time said that he valued playing with others more than playing solo
DL: There's a quote somewhere where he says that he hates playing solo.
PR: I think it was a phase, actually. I remember him saying to me, "It's so much more rewarding when you play with somebody else." Perhaps it was a time when he'd kind of established his vocabulary, and when he played solo he didn't feel challenged in any way, so he really needed a . . . I not sure about that or how long it might have lasted, but he always wanted to play with others, didn't he? I'm not sure about latterly, in his last...
DL: Well actually, it's extraordinary, all sorts of people that you would never have thought. Again the international thing, but you know putting him together with people like Pat Metheny or Japanese DJs, all these kind of things.
PR: But nevertheless, in spite of that, I felt that he was a marvellous example of somebody working alone, independently, just not influenced by what anybody anywhere thought he might, or should be doing. No mentors to him at all really. And just working it all out for himself. And playing with other people was part of that. That was a good example, even the lifestyle was a good example of how you didn't have to depend on these preexisting structures or associations. I mean naturally when you start off, when you're young you seek like minds, you seek people that are doing something similar that you can associate with. But you don't have to depend on them. I mean the whole influence of him, whatever I've said about that, I was thinking about this recently. I can only think about it now in very general terms, of things like lifestyle and the general cultural position he was in, rather than details like rhythm and that. Though there are possible exceptions. I tried to make some! notes, but I've said most of that already. Being a working musician, that affected my whole view of music, seeing what it was like being a working musician. Not only with Derek but also subsequently when I've known working musicians in places like Romania, who are absolutely dependent on what they do for their livelihood, and wouldn't be able to eat if they didn't, cause there's nothing to fall back on in a place like that. And it makes you a bit less precious about notions of betraying cultural causes. If one of these bands is offered a quite good sum of money to play on the television as the backing to a bingo contest, they'll do it! Because you'd be daft not to. And it doesn't compromise the music, actually, because the musical area they're playing on is rich enough to incorporate that. That relates only tangentially to Derek because he would not have been asked to play . . .
DL: But it does relate to what he used to do.
PR: Oh yes. Yes I suppose so.
DL: But he managed to eke out an area of music where he could do something like that, but on his own terms.
PR: And it's interesting, the idea of having a vocabulary when you can't exactly say what the vocabulary is. Not like a language vocabulary. It was like his vocabulary. It was a personal vocabulary, and then he found others that he could talk to in it.
DL: This is what I'm interested in, how far the analogy goes and how far it doesn't. Because there's something else from him where he's talking about Company, and the way he would invite people he knew well but also wild cards.
PR: I didn't hear all of those. They seemed to get wilder as the thing went on, those casts, didn't they?
DL: Right, cause he felt it had got too cosy. There was some interview I think in the early eighties, and he says that even those people in Company who are primarily interested in working with improvisation, those type of musicians normally do like working with people who have language or material or vocabulary in common with them, whereas he had this interest in having a vocabulary and working with people who didn't share a vocabulary with him. So quite how the analogy works . . .
PR: It's not simple, is it, because there were a lot of guests around in those days. It was a very active scene in London and musicians would turn up from all over the world almost, and they didn't necessarily always appear in public. They tried to but sometimes they'd just contact Derek and they'd get together and play together. 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 cause 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.
DL: So in actual fact he did . . . Although I don't know if you've heard these things but there are more recent things where he plays over groove-type things, which is fascinating because I don't think he would have done that earlier.
PR: I don't know, is it just the steady rhythm or is it actually an idiomatic groove?
DL: Well it's sort of idiomatic, I mean there's a couple I'm thinking of . . . There's one with drum'n'bass kind of things which I think he wasn't so happy with - I think he used to like to play along with pirate radio in Hackney. It's incredibly complex and it's quick but it has got a definite rhythm. He plays with Ornette Coleman's electric rhythm section at one point; it keeps shifting but they pretty much do play funk rhythms, they do keep changing but nonetheless there's a very steady rhythm and Derek sort of on top!
PR: Perhaps 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.
DL: I mean to my ears I'm not sure that those things are as successful - sometimes his playing sounds more like effects on top, but he was open . . . I mean I don't think he toured with those people, he was happy to go into a recording studio for an afternoon.
PR: And did he do some strange things at public events with a DJ? Doing discs and things, in London.
DL: Yes, that's right.
PR: Which he talked about to me once, and he said the whole thing was deafeningly loud, he couldn't relate to the other player at all, if it was indeed a player exactly, I don't know, but he just sat there and did his thing, and the man seemed to think it was fine! There were no complaints, whatever went on, and he went away and everybody seemed happy about it. Which was curiously like the time he reminisced to me about playing in the Tower Ballroom in Blackpool, actually. You went there and you did your thing. And you didn't relate very strongly to the audience who were a big ballroom full of people dancing shoulder to shoulder, with sometimes a metal grille that came between you and them to protect the band from flying bottles.
DL: So perhaps in actual fact, perhaps he overstated the case slightly, there is a certain element of vocabulary, at least in terms of rhythm . . .
PR: But he certainly always preferred a sort of chamber music type setting where you could hear exactly what everybody else was doing. And I think Company Week was as much to do with listening as playing, in many ways, wasn't it? He got people who he thought could listen, even if they were Lee Konitz. Actually he reckoned that Lee Konitz could listen and he was probably right. Was I at that one? I was at least at one of them, I haven't got the recording of it, but that seemed to be successful, Lee Konitz being there, making these noises. Or Gavin Bryars for that matter, latterly. Gavin Bryars' later bass playing.
DL: But that's interesting because they are very much people with a strong vocabulary, extremely strong, but then prepared to enter that situation.
PR: Well Konitz has always got a listening element in what he does. But I don't know cause [Bryars] moved into composition and sort of stayed there and didn't play as a bassist for many many years. He seemed to be able to come back, and play in a fairly limited way but successfully with Company Week.
DL: He seems to have suddenly rediscovered, after Derek's death almost, he seems to have rediscovered his interest in free improvisation. They've just released some recordings of the Joseph Holbrooke Trio but from only a few years ago, when they got together again, and he's written all these extensive notes about what they did in the sixties.
I was thinking about this thing about improvisation as the exploration of occasion - that was a phrase of yours, wasn't it?
PR: Was it? There's a phrase Derek seemed to like very much which he repeated twice in his book, I think, to do with place.
DL: Well this is what I'm interested in, place and occasion, poetry and music.
PR: Well as regards music and place that was just an echo of what Derek was saying to me, really. Because he was talking about how different it was playing in different places. And how he knew no music where the audience could so strongly influence the playing, as free improvisation. And things like that. And he was talking about, not just the acoustics of the room, though that was relevant. Especially the kind of career he had, he had to play in very weird places, I mean there were kitchen noises through a hatch at one place, constantly, and whether he played to them I don't know. I don't think he would have done - later, the younger musicians, they would have played to things like that, cash registers at the bar and kitchen noises and traffic or whatever invaded the room. But I don't think he would, he'd sort of persevere but he'd be aware of it. It would make a difference. And of course also antagonism in the audience; not necessarily strong antagonism, but just a shifty s! ort of dull bewilderment or lack of interest, and people creeping off to the bar and things like that. He would sometimes stop playing and make an announcement about what a very good bar they have here, and if you're not interested why don't you . . . "I do recommend the bar! It's a very good bar. And those who are interested in this stuff . . . " This is like when he was guest at a - I think it was some town in the northwest, which was otherwise the local modern jazz band, and then they got Derek Bailey as a sort of interlude in this. He didn't play with them, at all, he couldn't have done. So the audience just suddenly [got] confronted with this . . . this thing . . . Blackburn I think that was.
DL: But he did say something about musics that get their identity from a particular place and from a people being rooted in a particular place, like obviously folk musics, but also other types of music, "formed in the same way that a verbal accent or a speech vernacular is formed", so that's the language thing coming in, but that "in freely improvised music its roots are in occasion rather than place." So that sense of a place at a particular time.
PR: Well I suppose he would think that more and more as free improvised music did seem to be sort of spreading through the world. This was evident in the records which were suddenly turning up, sent to Musics for review. They'd start coming from places where you didn't think there was anything like this going on. And sometimes they were sort of mitigated - they weren't very free improvisation! They were freeish improvisations, sometimes. But they did seem to be getting around the place, I mean they'd start coming from Latin America, I remember, eventually. Brazil I think. Italy, of course, Greece, a lot from Scandinavia, always has been. And possibly from Asia, I can't remember. There might have been the odd thing from somewhere like that. Whereas nothing ever came from Ireland. It's quite bizarre, Ireland has always been - poetry too - sort of intensely aware of itself as a place. And that things come from that comparatively small place. Although I don't know if it's like that now. I shouldn't think there's a sense of a global free music enterprise anymore. I doubt it.
DL: Lots of musicians who fly all over the place and play all over the world - I'm not sure if that's quite the same thing.
PR: Japan of course, I'd forgotten Japan. Japan was one of the early major sources of this sense of things beginning to sprout up all over the globe, but I don't know anything about how they started in those places. Probably from jazz. I'm pretty sure, certainly in Japan's case, wasn't it? So it was to do with jazz having got there first in a lot of these places, and then leading into free improvisation.
DL: And I suppose in some cases actually hearing albums of [improvised music]. There must have been . . . which is interesting because in some ways it's more like jazz, in the sense that there might be a particular sound even if you're not necessarily trying to imitate that sound as such, hearing it as a . . . We were talking earlier about being able to see Derek playing, but there would be people who wouldn't have been able to do that.
PR: As you know, Derek was always, in spite of everything a bit sceptical about recording. And felt that recordings actually did something to the music, changed it to something different. Not just theoretically , but exponentially it did. As if it sort of pulled it back in some way or pushed it down in some way. The repeatability, for one thing. And that's it's separated from the place in which it took place. There's places in two sense actually, there's places in the sense of the actual physical location where the thing happens, and the cultural place. Whether you call that the west or whatever. I don't know if anybody's talked about this, David Toop would have been the person to talk about this, but whether the spread of free improvisation was a sort of part of the globalisation process, I don't know. I don't see that you would have to because jazz was there a long long time before it, and nobody was talking about globalisation then; much more about participation, really. ! So I think that would be fair enough to . . . I mean this is very old fashioned of me now but to talk about it in those terms still would seem quite valid to me. If somebody in Tonga, or Siberia suddenly started sounding like Derek Bailey, I wouldn't look upon that as cultural influence, or Westernisation, because there's something about the music which cuts itself off from that sort of consideration. How does it do that? By not being idiomatic. I mean there is a sense in which you're just going to start making sounds. And if you're going to have a vocabulary you'll make it from them. So it could be seen as a realisation that . . . of going back to sound, rather than note patterns, rather than scales and schemes . . .
DL: Pre-imposed ideas.
PR: Yes. Derek held back of course from that, because he would have seen that as working without a vocabulary, or with a minimal vocabulary. At one point he started doing scalar improvisation as I recall.
DL: Gosh.
PR: I don't know how that lasted; there was one point where he decided, or worked out a scale that he was using for this improvisation, and stuck to it through the improvisation. It's on one of the LPs, but I'm afraid I can't tell you which. I reviewed it at the time. I wouldn't have noticed it, I'm actually not a musician, and I don't hear things technically as well as musicians do. But he told me that was what it was before I reviewed it. He was very helpful with things like that!
DL: That is fascinating. I mean I guess it's constantly moving.
PR: John Russell did that as well, independently or something like that. No, what John Russell did was - I don't know if he still does - was an improvisation in which he would completely repeat something he'd just done. He improvised it and had instantly memorised it, and would do it again. I don't know anybody else who did that, exactly.
DL: You certainly hear certain motifs. Odd places in Derek - in fact I think one of those very last solo recordings, the first couple of pieces start from exactly the same place. [Actually tracks two and three on Carpal Tunnel, Tzadik CD TZ 7612] It's a very short little motif but they start from exactly the same thing. I don't know how much that was a specific choice to start from and then head somewhere else or whether it was just . . .
PR: One of the things I never really sorted out is what constitutes a piece in improvisation. I mean, I haven't tried much but I'd have to listen to a lot of recordings now and note what's happening to find that the piece has something about it which makes it uniquely that piece. I mean, motifs would be one, obviously, but I don't know how much he ever did that. And perhaps he wasn't interested in it being a piece. Or not very interested, lots of other people were . . .
DL: I didn't hear him live very often, but I liked that sense that he would come on stage and just start playing, without saying "Right, now we come on and sit and everyone's quiet and the music starts."
PR: That was one of the finest things in a way, especially when you realised that there was nothing unusual about it. If you listen to Indian music, they will stop and tune in the middle of a piece very very happily, you know, and then carry on, and you'd hardly notice they were doing it sometimes. You'd notice the hands on the peg suddenly instead of on the fingerboard, or whatever. And of course he did that very freely all the time.
DL: Some of that harmonic vocabulary actually comes from tuning, doesn't it?
PR: I daresay, yes. And I reckon it's even what used to go on in sixteenth century instrumental music, which got tabulated as preludes, like French harpsichord music, unmeasured preludes, but they come from people just . . . It was the custom to arrive and sit down and sort of diddle around for a bit, and present the scale, the note, in which you were going to play, and just do arpeggios on it and run up and down the scale and then a few other chords and then settle down firmly on where you were going to . . . And this just became a genre, it became a musical piece. I'm sure that's what actually happened, was that it was largely improvised. I'm thinking of things like lute players.
DL: But that, improvisation becoming settled down into a genre I suppose was what he wanted to fight against to some extent. To allow that to begin and then to shake things up.
PR: But then some of his improvisations, especially the long ones, do have a definite character, don't they? I mean that long one on the LP Aida.
DL: That's a beautiful record, I love that record.
PR: There are technical things going on there which seem to be unique to that improvisation, or almost, as far as I know. To do with the pedal, isn't it? And how the note emerges a bit after you've struck it, surging from the pedal, there's a lot of that.
DL: But that album's all acoustic, isn't it? That particular record.
PR: Is it? Ah, I don't mean that. Forget that. But things like that. There can be particular technical sound production things which will characterise - largely characterise - even a quite long improvisation.
DL: Well I suppose place and occasion - that sense of time. You're always occupying the moment but of course in terms of a given piece you have the memory of what has happened, and the sense of what might happen, and that's always there.
PR: I never knew him to talk about that actually. Perhaps because I never asked him!
DL: There is something in here [Improvisation: Its Nature and Practise in Music] about how at any time the past and the future can both act upon a given moment. The memory of what has happened and the anticipation of what might happen.
PR: Which is a bit complicated if you're playing with other people I suppose. You'll have different ideas what's going to happen.
DL: I guess that's where the fun starts!
Place is something that's been very important to you in your poetry - has it?
PR: Well, as a word, it had a sort of iconic value at one time in the kind of poetry I was involved in. There was an emphasis on the physical and geographical reality of where you were. I don't think this had much to do with the place in music thing really. It involved having a vocabulary which would include geological terms and sociological and historical knowledge. It rather came and went. I mean I was thinking about whether there was anything in Derek's actual playing which was important for the poetry and still it's in rather general terms, but one thing was progression. Like, actually not stopping! I think I learnt quite a lot from that example, which is that he didn't know how long a piece was going to be. He had a rough idea, actually, but . . . if he was given a twenty minute first half it could be two ten minutes, or one twenty minutes, or anything, it could be fifteen minutes and five minutes and so on. And how he would determinedly not sometimes carry on and progress. He'd do something which could have been an ending. You never knew when the ending . . . It would perhaps go very quiet and slow and just fade, a quite cadence-like thing as if it's got to stop now, and he would suddenly break that and introduce something completely new. That was quite interesting, and I could relate that to the process of writing in a way. Of course you're dealing with concepts all the time in writing, so it's different, but you could feel that you'd finished with a concept or an image group or something and then stop and think something more is possible, perhaps something interruptive. Something contrary, from elsewhere, could suddenly come into it. You know this selected poems [Passing Measures, Carcanet]? I was looking at the pre- and post-Derek thing in this - it's on page 96. Page 96 is about 1970, and page 97 is about 1977. And I can't see any difference! It's the same kind of writing. So there wasn't that kind of . . . there was nothing like that, it's something much slower and much more general. I did write a note saying '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 - not 'oblique', but 'a bleak'! - feeling about it. There's a somewhat dehumanised sense of space there. You know he was very keen on Beckett?
DL: I was just about to say.
PR: Yes, this ties in with that. Because it was often a discordant - like a discordant chord but not exactly, it was a discordant . . . and at the same time rather empty sounding aura which he could create.
DL: Hollow.
PR: Hollow, yes. Probably - I don't know if he did it more with the electric than with the other. It was easier with the electric, because with the acoustic he had to strike again to keep it going, though he had ways of getting round that. I think that was important. That was interesting and that probably influenced in some way a sort of general emotional attitude to what you're saying and how it's going out, what it's carrying into the world. If that's true then I think the writing of mine which was most influenced by Derek Bailey was probably the book called Excavations. Cause that's not only got that, it's got this sort of courage - things are chopped up a lot in it. You write half a sentence and the rest of the sentence either doesn't appear at all or will appear twenty pages later, or things will be taken up much later, so there's no immediate continuity, as there isn't necessarily with Derek, I think. 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. Though I'd have to study . . . The whole listening thing is difficult with improvisation because if you study it, it's got to be repeated - studying rather than listening. It's the same with poetry. You either study it or you read it. They're two different things. A lot of poets write for studying these days.
DL: For their poems to be studied?
PR: Yes - rather than read. And I try not to. It seems to me that if you just read it or just listen to it you get those things, but you don't necessarily know you're getting them. And if you don't know you're getting them it's difficult to talk about them, of course, because you don't know they're there!
DL: I was wondering if there was anything early in the book [Passing Measures] . . .
PR: It's not actually chronological.
DL: No, I know, I mean early in the book, not actually early - for example pages 18, 19, 'Driving Down the Wye and Stopping', things about light and looking at a landscape - 'to see one thing clearly we distort / the entire landscape'. I was wondering whether there was anything - not an influence, but a relationship - between that what it is the audience (of course that's crucially important in The Musicians The Instruments, the relationship of the audience to improvised music), but the thing about the audient, an individual audience member for an improvisation - you have to do some kind of synthesising activity to make sense of the music, which seems to me to be different to listening to other kinds of music.
PR: It's more demanding.
DL: But in terms of the sense hasn't been . . . It's not a score that's interpreted, like we were talking about different musicians having a different idea about where the piece might go. They're all up there, and then the audience is there, especially if you're actually listening to it live, not on . . .
PR: There has to be some sort of identification. You almost see yourself as a musician when it's being improvised, because everything hinges on the next tiny little move, and you can't sit back and think 'oh there's a score and he'll do whatever the score tells him to do', however much personality and whatnot he puts into it. [Phone rings. After brief interruption conversation continues.] I mean it's not easy listening to improvised music. I mean it's easy on a record, but live it's not. I don't think I've ever got through a concert without completely losing my attention at some point.
DL: I don't think I have either!
PR: It just doesn't happen really. I've certainly got through whole quite extended pieces. But you have to work, you have to really concentrate. I think I made my definitive statement about that in that thing [Company Week]. That's a strange thing. There it is, actually . . . [shows book]
DL: [reading from book] 'Not planning ahead'. That's interesting, 'reading' as listening to the music.
PR: That's rather idealistic, but that is what it demands in a way. And it shouldn't be a difficult thing, it's just what we're used to, and this is what recording has done to us in a way. I think Buddy Bolden, in some wooden dancehall by the lake in New Orleans, nobody would have listened any other way, because . . . Well, it's complicated because it was for dancing as well, so there's a sort of non-listening, a participatory thing in it. That's it, yes, it's a participatory thing which you have to force yourself to produce as a listener. Whereas of course if it's a dance music even if you're just listening you've got that automatic, you've got it in the idiom, I suppose. But the music, for example, I go to Transylvania to listen to, that's quite a complex music but it's got a simple basis, it's got a simple rhythmic dance basis. But the stuff going on at the top can be immensely complicated, all over the violin sometimes. And you get that but you get it in a different way,! you participate because there's a kind of norm, and he's departing from it and he's doing exciting things which we haven't heard him do before. Or just little things, just sliding up to a note which we're not used to. It can be played to a particular person, like a particular dancer, and they can feed each other. Or a singer sometimes. A singer and the instrumentalist can feed each other, and collaborate in way in what they're doing, and a dancer can as well. That's different. So without all that, because it's very much a non-dance music and rejects all the dance rhythms, which linger in some of the most contemporary jazz. Not Min Tanaka, Min Tanaka's a different thing. I mean the audience is not going to start doing that.
DL: That would be great wouldn't it?
PR: It would be interesting. I've seen a number of modern dance combinations with improvised music and Min was the only one I thought was really successful, actually. I don't quite know why, because I don't know much about modern dance. The others seem to be perhaps idiomatic in some way.
DL: Butoh, yes. There's a little clip of Min and Derek on the top of some mountain, from that same film, a wooden platform, on the internet which is extraordinary.
PR: Of course there was that tap dancer.
DL: Will Gaines. There were a couple of tribute concerts for Derek at the Klinker in January which I went down for, and he was there. He's showbiz.
PR: I guess that's like the drum'n'bass idea.
DL: Is there something, listening to the music and looking at a landscape, the sense of the subjective person?
PR: I don't know. For one thing it's so long since I saw any of this stuff live. mean can be if you want it, I mean there can . . . I don't think I ever have visual images while listening. There isn't time for that. Sometimes I've had very interesting ideas while listening which I look upon the music as responsible for and when that happens I'm interested to follow them through which means detaching yourself from the music, possibly, for a while. That's full of that. [Gestures to Company Week book] Because that's a commentary on Company Week as it happened, though it's partly retrospective. Sometimes when that happens I begin to feel this is to some extent the value of the music, is making you think something, rather that just making you experience something. So it means something more for the future, how you work things out in the future, rather than just ending up at the end saying 'I enjoyed that'.
DL: 'Didn't they play it well'!
PR: Yes. I've rather abandoned that work, The Musicians The Instruments. I've just prepared a book of all the uncollected pieces that have been in little pamphlets and magazines since the sixties, and when I came to that I cut it down to six pieces, which are the six most straightforward ones. I think it's got an awful lot of involuted imagery. It's just self-indulgent and I've rather abandoned it. I kept the Derek and the Tristan Honsinger and the Lacy, simplified. The Derek one is pretty much the same. And that's just the sense of him as an example in the various ways I've been saying. Plus this sense, what I said about him creating a space there, it's like he's creating a light, as if it's a dark space and he's spreading a light in it. It's to do with that aura round his . . .
DL: In this this first section there do seem to be a lot of images, a lot of tropes, of spaces and boundaries between spaces, and facing towards or away from particular. Towards and away from, and then the Lol one, 'the skin on the heart and the skin on the cavities inside the heart' . . .
PR: That one went.
DL: The walls of the city. And rooms. The Leo Smith one, 'the walls', 'inside out becoming outside in'
PR: I don't know to what extent those came from the music or were introduced to it. With the black musicians there was a lot of thought at the time about separate places, separate communities, and how these related to each other when they came together in the music. With Braxton particularly. He had a kind of . . . there was something a bit African about Braxton's improvising. There was also the mathematics which was always a total mystery - to everybody, I think! George Lewis was the same.
DL: They're both very good chess players apparently, which is interesting. Looking at the language thing, it seems that's something you use in the second part, getting on to the instruments - 'consonants', 'phonemes' . . .
PR: Those are more divorced from the actual occasion, the actual improvisation, I mean the actual musicians. Though the kind of thing involved is still to do with free improvisation, it's to do with that kind of playing. Because the instrumentality seems to come out much more in free improvisation, especially of course at that time people were very willfully exploring all the different sounds you could make with an instrument . . .
DL: 'Extended technique'.
PR: Extended technique - like pick up your trumpet and hit it with a spoon! But also, especially wind instruments, all the different, some quite way out embouchures you could use, dreadful noises you could get to come out of a trombone.
DL: Which continues! I guess the voice . . . I hadn't really thought that through. You were speaking about the rhythms being influenced by speech rhythms, and this sense of tone. Of course tone is an accepted musical term, but of course tone of voice . . .
PR: Well it has two meanings, doesn't it, and it means note. And it means the feel in a way, which is the particular harmonic or acoustic aura round a musical production.
DL: So that mixture of engaging with the physicality of the instrument but also . . . I mean that's something that Gavin Bryars says in Derek's book when he's talking about some of the problems he had with improvising, which I guess are some of the things I appreciate in it, but that sense that you can't . . . because you can't get away from the musician actually playing it at the time, he says it's like looking at a painting but having the artist standing in front of it.
PR: I suppose in these the idea is to remove the artist from in front of the painting to some extent, though it's still his painting. There seems to be a lot that's whimsical in there that I just stuck in, actually. Like that sentence ['I once had one (a cello) which imploded in the middle of an overture by Mendelssohn.'] It doesn't take us anywhere really, although it's true.
DL: But isn't that what happens in the music? You might have a moment that doesn't take us anywhere, and it can be abandoned, or . . .
PR: Yes, I don't know whether you'd rejoice in that moment or not.
DL: No, you might not, but then you wouldn't be able to do anything about it.
PR: But then the art of free improvisation was to transcend those moments. Those moments would happen and then you'd do something with it. Which is to do with what I was just saying about progression, about continuing. There are bound to be dreadful things happening. Dreadful things happen, and then you move it into somewhere else.
DL: I think Fred Frith said somewhere that you get a sense listening to free improvisations that they tend to consist of bits that work and then bits that don't work, but that if it's been recorded and you try and get all the good bits it doesn't work like that.
What I'm trying to work out for myself is in what ways in which this whole linguistic metaphor thing is unhelpful. It has limits. It just seems that to talk about an improviser having a vocabulary is a very transparent thing to say. But I'm wondering if it's not quite.
PR: It's also what you do with your vocabulary. It doesn't become a fixed think like something in a dictionary, to improvisers. Otherwise they wouldn't be capable of surprising themselves. But obviously there's a technical sense to it; Derek had a very clear vocabulary of different methods of sound production with a guitar, quite a lot of them actually. I shouldn't think latterly at any rate he would actually discover any more of those actually during improvisation, because he'd covered the field in a way, I don't think he could possibly produce anything worth producing from a guitar.
DL: Though I think I've read things where he would talk about finding things which he might have used but then had abandoned somewhat, so that keeps the feeling of freshness.
PR: Yes, but there must be an edge to it. There can't be such clearly defined items in the improvising musician's vocabulary. But it seemed to be very clear to him when there was no vocabulary.
DL: But vocabulary in linguistic terms has always . . . Words mean specific things, whereas vocabulary in a musical sense . . .
PR: I don't know if repertoire would be a better word.
DL: Although there's also a sense that free improvised music is a music that doesn't have a repertoire.
PR: Yes, not in the large sense. No, a repertoire of pieces.
DL: Which almost every other music has to.
PR: But a repertoire feels as if it represents a smaller number of options, whereas vocabulary represents a very large number.
DL: I suppose vocabulary implies more possibilities in terms of syntax or grammar, you can combine the words, whereas a repertoire implies a longer . . .
PR: More of set items, like bricks! It's certainly not like putting bricks together, the object itself is more fluid.
DL: Part of the goal is to keep that fluidity.

The conversation concluded with a discussion of the presence of improvised music in other parts of the UK besides London.
Many thanks to Peter Riley for his time and thoughts.

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