Extemporising on Improvisation

SMDThere is something about Joshua Tree that just engenders creativity in individuals. During my trip through the National Park, it became obvious why this is the case. The stark vastness of the dessert and solitude that only such a remote and isolated environment can bring makes it a perfect place for contemplation. And with contemplation creativity is bound to gestate. It is no surprise then that artists of all disciplines have been inspired by Joshua Tree and the latest to join the menagerie are Simian Mobile Disco. The duo will be recording their fifth studio album, Whorl, within the borders of the National Park, but what is even                                                                                                 more interesting is the way they intend to go about it. It will be recorded as a live session, with both James Ford and Jass Shaw limiting themselves to a sequencer and synthesiser each. Shaw stated that; “(w)hen we record with it, this is the system, and there can be no turning back.” This is a bold move, and there seems to be somewhat of a trend happening in this respect. More electronic music artists are exploring free form improvisational techniques in their recording environments. A few weeks back I mentioned how Untold captured Black Light Spiral in its entirety in a exactly that manner and I have found hints of it in another release from this past week. Danilo Plessow’s (Motor City Drum Ensemble) new Vermont project used free form improvisatory techniques in their self-titled debut, but in this is case it is unclear to what extend. The spatial awareness that synths occupy shows a reserved approach – something that’s not often found in music of this nature – while the melodic manifestations are a bit more scattered than pre-determined loops.


The idea of improvisation in electronic music is not new and since the heady days of the 60’s artists like Can and Cabaret Voltaire frequently experimented with electronic equipment in a free form manner. The practise has even continued in the marginalised electronic music of artists like Mika Vainio, but there seems to be an emphasis on this practise in the left-to-centre field of late, which was never before made so abundantly apparent in the past. Unless, the composer finds him/herself working within the boundaries of a strict compositional method, composing from improvisation is as old as music itself. A musician will use this device for that most primitive method in creation, playing or sequencing a few notes, before developing the idea further in a fully formed song. With free form however any development will only be possible through extraneous improvisation. Everything happens in the spur of the moment and as a process free-form composition denies any prolonged reflection. In visual terms it is comparative to abstract expressionism and since non-lyrical music is the most abstract form of art, musicians have used this device to express their identity in its most naked manifestation for some time. It became particularly popular with Jazz musicians in the 50’s and it was only natural for this concept to find its way into more conceptual forms of electronic music. The keys and valves were replaced with circuits and knobs and, like its acoustic relative the results have been mixed ever since.


Here is why. For a truly great musician, whose musical knowledge and range is such that at any moment he could manipulate his instrument to any desired effect, improvisation will not limit him to premature ideas. A lifetime of extensive knowledge, and a library of devices as old as music itself, spares this artist from the mundane and overused processes in music. That is where Chopin and Miles Davis come into the picture. Your you-tube virtuosos don’t even get a space on the wall here. Transpose this concept to electronic music, and the requirements for the musician extend to include a technical (in terms of equipment, not technique) of understanding on top of the musical. This requires a discipline, confidence and proficiency in their instrument that even some seasoned professionals are not always able to muster. And here is where the first problem lies for electronic music created in a totally improvised manner. Imagine if you will, a musician’s consciousness is an iPod Nano. It only has 1G (250 songs) available for music, but if you are an average human being, you’ll have at least 7160 songs on your computer. Which ones do you choose to put on the iPod Nano? Most of the time it is your latest acquisitions along with some old favourites, right? Well your conscious stream works in a similar manner and if you do only pick out those tried and trusted methods along with the first thing that pops into your head how does the music ever develop from that most banal idea that first spawned it? I am always left to wonder what the result would be after further thought and reflection went into that particular part. Even Mr. Chopin was known to revise and revisit his improvised works on occasion.


The improvising musician will elucidate that he/she does exactly that as a self-referential form of expression, in order to capture that moment and their emotive state in its purest form. It is a completely autonomous moment that reflects their musical identity as a self-contained individual. And this is where the second problem lies in wholly free-formed musical works. If it negates a universal language in favour of its author’s voice, will the music be able to communicate to its listening audience at all? In this case the free-form ideal acts like a wall, that avoids its audience in favour of its architect. The process, even when not fully realised makes the music impenetrable for those listening in from a foreign state of mind, time and place. It becomes nothing more than a self-indulgent “geek-out” session over a synthesiser or instrument and the results will show this as such


These were the results of Black Light Spiral. Vermont did not quite fall into this trap as their exploits envelopes the listener in an unobtrusive listening atmosphere rather than a soliloquy of their current situation. We’ll have to wait for the results of Simian Mobile Disco’s release, but the results look promising all ready. The press release states that SMD will “not slavishly [be] limiting ourselves just to this performance, we’ll be recording numerous takes beforehand in the studio, and when we come to mixdown the album, we might well end up using portions of studio takes as well as those recorded in the desert.” And this will set them vastly apart from Untold. Jackson Pollock would always place the results of his automatic works on an easel for further reflection and refinement and it is exactly through this process that the works became works of art. Fortunately Simian Mobile Disco will be going through the same practise and the results of their free form performance will become more than just a self-referential indulgence on their part. It will be developed from those original desert sessions into more than what only that moment had to offer.