Saturday, July 27, 2013

An Interview with John Russell

File:JohnRussell(musician) April2010.jpg

Interviewer – David Grundy

To start off with, maybe you could tell us how you became involved with free music. A lot of first-generation British free improvisers arrived from jazz; given that you came on the scene slightly later, was your route any different?

I was brought up by my paternal grandparents in a very rural setting so when I went to the local grammar school I noticed that another kid in my class was playing guitar and hanging out with older kids. I badgered my grandparents to get me a guitar and a tutorial book and a after a while set up a little group playing a kind of mix of pieces I’d written and blues/rock music. Not very good but it helped me try things out. I had a friend who bought records I’d heard of, in the days when you could go to the local record shop and order stuff, and checked out the early SME and Tony Oxley recordings. I left home to move to London when I was seventeen and played at the Little Theatre club, became a member of the original Musicians’ Co-Op and started organising concerts.

I wondered if you thought there was a great difference in approach between the music being made now and that being made in those earlier days, in terms of the performative aspects of the work and the variety of textures produced. Looking back at some of the discographies, I’m struck by the way in which Evan Parker would employ additional instruments other than tenor or soprano – in some cases he’s credited on ‘amplified auto-harp’, for instance – and you also had Hugh Davies with his live electronics and invented instruments, and Jamie Muir with his garbage  percussion. Whereas today when you and Evan play you stick to your instruments and play in a fairly matter of fact way– you just get on with it.

In a way you’re talking about the ‘kind of noise it makes’ and there seem to be a lot of people who are beginning to be captivated by that aspect of things and who also seem to have a different approach to the whole thing. I think for us earlier on, the search for new sounds was part of it, but the nub was to find material that could prove useful to improvising. If you like: to find an essence or core to a way of playing music. I did try various things with the electric guitar (preparations, feedback etc. and always trying to avoid the ‘ I’ve got a new device’ mentality) but I quite consciously moved to the acoustic instrument to get closer to what being a guitarist meant. I’m still trying to do that. Incidentally I loved playing with Hugh Davies and still miss him. His understanding of the details and bigger musical picture was huge and he was very aware of the inherent properties of an instrument, i.e. not just its sonic possibilities but how to play it and hence make music.

Focussing in a bit, I thought we could talk about your approach to the guitar. Given his importance in free guitar playing – and free music in general – was Derek Bailey a significant influence? And if so, how did you go about negotiating between that nfluence and your own personal style?

Well, just before I moved to London I had weekly lessons from him for about a year. It was all about conventional playing and was very useful. In improvisation I’d been doing almost aleotoric things and using gestures a lot on the instrument, and I learnt how to map out the territory of what was being thrown up. I like very much the idea of ‘the whole instrument’ so I found his use of harmonics, ignoring or placing different emphases on the octave, the controlled ambiguity and particular colour of note clusters were all useful to me. Years later he used to come over to my place each week and I’d cook some food and we’d improvise duos. After that I thought I’d kind of drop out from his circle for a while as I wanted to work on my own. A few years after that I heard him playing some of my ‘licks’. I’m not saying he was influenced by what I was doing, just that if you are in the same area and on the same instrument there is always going to be a parallel development. In other musics, most people can’t tell the difference between Barney Kessell and Joe Pass, John Williams and Julian Bream or Ritchie Blackmore and Jimmy Page. I don’t think Derek set out to ‘redefine the instrument’ he was just doing what we all do. Trying to find something to play.

One thing which particularly strikes me about your playing is the use of repetition and riff-based material – not in quite the same way as the near-minimalism of Evan Parker’s solo saxophone improvisations, nor in as obviously a referential manner as the wording of the question suggests, but marked nonetheless. Is this something that you’re particularly conscious of?

 I’m quite aware of the use of repetition and of setting up fields of material within an improvisation. I also refer back to things that have happened before but this is all a consequence of following a musical imperative. Another point is that the instrument has very little sustain and the timbral range is also fairly limited so whereas someone on a different instrument might employ sustain and a shifting texture I have to work that much harder. The, if you like, ‘melodic’ or ‘lead’ part is in there, but I often disguise this by changing reference points, so it can seem like it’s just a bunch of notes to some people.


Maybe we could now talk about some specific recordings. Your second appearance on vinyl was a split-album with Richard Coldman, released on Incus Records in 1978.  (John Russell – ‘Home Cooking’/ Richard Coldman – ‘Guitar Solos’ (Incus 31)). Perhaps you could tell us a bit about your own recordings from this release (which it appears were made in your bedroom, given the track titles), and also enlighten us a little on Richard Coldman, who seems to have kept a fairly low profile since.

Well that was recorded when I think I was closest to what Derek was doing and had fairly recently switched to acoustic guitar. The engineer Bob Woolford went down to my grandmother’s place in the sticks and he set up a Stellavox reel to reel machine, I sat in front of the microphone and he recorded it.
It was originally supposed to be a duo recording with Roger Smith but he said he didn’t want to play with me any more and wanted to play with Steve Beresford. We all tried to get him to do a solo; hence the design with two independent sides. Incus (at the time Evan and Derek) said they wanted a guitar record, so they asked Richard who is now a film maker and living in Poland.

At some point in the late 70s/early 80s, there seems to have been a little bit of a confluence between the work of the British free improvisers and players from the Japanese scene: I’m thinking of the album ‘Aida’s Call’, featuring Derek Bailey with Kaoru Abe, Motoharu Yoshiwaza, and trumpeter Toshinori Kondo, and the album ‘Artless Sky’, recorded in 1979 and featuring yourself and Roger Turner alongside Kondo, once more.  Perhaps you could talk about the experience of playing with Kondo, and, in more general terms, about this British/Japanese exchange of ideas.

Most of these players were on Company weeks; either playing or in the audience. Certainly that’s how I met and ended up playing with them. I played with Akio Suzuki, Motoharu Yoshizawa and Kondo through that route and played with Takehisha Kosugi later when he came over to work with Merce Cunningham and David Tudor. Roger Turner and I had been playing together a lot and we thought to add Kondo, make the record and get some gigs. Kondo was also working with Eugene Chadbourne and I knew him through Eugene as well. I’ve been to Japan a few times thanks to Sabu Toyozumi who was in from the start and a great musician. He has introduced me to a lot of players not known outside Japan and I’ve found many points of contact with what I do and there is a genuine interest in playing music together. I am on one CD called ‘Sangeraku’ and have played with the group (including a dancer and calligrapher) a couple of times, which was a real pleasure. I’d love to play with them outside Japan and did try to get something in Canada but it fell through. Maybe if someone is reading this and wants to help me bring them over they could get in touch?

The foundation of Quaqua in 1981 seems to have some parallels with what Derek Bailey was doing with Company. What was the impetus behind this – do you think it was similar to that which motivated Bailey?

 Derek told me he got the idea for Company from the way the musicians on ‘Teatime’ were working, in that we used to change the permutations each time. I’ve always done that as I think that there are at least four areas that influence how the music works. Playing solo, regular long term groups, groups that are together for a specific time for a particular project and one off meetings. In fact the first ever Company concert was Derek with Garry Todd and Steve Beresford and Dave Solomon and I joined them for the last set.

In 1989 you appeared on the album ‘News from the Shed’ with John Butcher, Phil Durrant, Paul Lovens and Radu Malfatti, and, a couple of years before, you’d set up Acta Records with Butcher and Durrant. I wonder if you could talk about your relation to this quieter, more texturally-based improv, which seems to have marked out a new direction of some sort in comparison to what had gone before: coming less from free jazz and more from avant-garde classical, perhaps.

By then I was playing acoustic guitar and with no amplification, as I hadn’t found a way of satisfactorily amplifying the instrument, so it was naturally quiet. Phil Durrant and I had spent a couple of years playing each week with Mark Pickworth on saxophone (part of my philosophy of seeing what happens in a regular long term group) and when Mark left we asked John Butcher to join us. I’d been doing some things with Gunter Christmann’s Vario groups and was very impressed (I still am!) with the way he directed things. For instance at the end of the concert he would ask the group to play four or five short pieces with no real development of the material and to try and make each piece contrasting. We later used this with Chris Burn’s Ensemble. I’d also suggest things in terms of material. We then made ‘Conceits’ and set up Acta to release it. Anyway we thought we’d extend the personnel and I wanted Paul Lovens and to have a different colour a brass player so that was Radu. We made the record and did a short tour under the name ‘Quaqua’ rather than have yet another list of names and the album title ‘News from the Shed’ (which came from Lovens) became the group’s name by default. There was never a conscious decision to take a different musical direction or start a school. It just came about from letting the music come first. I think that if people want to turn things into movements, directions etc. that comes later and is for them. I personally don’t find that productive.

I’d like to move on now to consider the role of ‘form’ and ‘structure’ in free improvisation. In a free improvising context, as you suggest in your article ‘Somewhere there’s Music’, these develop spontaneously from the situation in which the improviser finds themselves (you use the term ‘filters’ rather than ‘form’ or ‘structure’).

[John Russell, ‘Somewhere there’s Music’, in Rubberneck magazine, 1993 – available online at]

I wondered what your thoughts on this improvisational process were; though, as you say, improvisation perhaps uniquely offers moments in which “the whole architecture crumbles, leaving nothing at all as a reference point”, the rest of the time, something different might be going on. I’m not sure it’s a question that’s addressed that much, and it seems to me to have something to do with the way the brain organizes information and the way in which structures assert themselves – not rigidly, killing development or spontaneous growth – but organically and irresistibly. Has this been your experience in playing the music?

Well, I guess, there’s a number of things going on here. The nature of particular instruments, the immediate and broader cultural surroundings and the musicians themselves, all have a bearing on what happens to form and structure. There has been some research using MRI scans to suggest that some areas of the brain switch off and others, that deal with strategy, turn on and are more developed in improvisers. I think perception shapes concepts and in turn our concepts shape our perceptions, so for me the important thing is to try to ‘open up’ to what is going on. An athlete might call this ‘getting in the zone’. I do have moments of abstract thought away from the instrument and the general day to day mundanities, that I believe are a necessary part of being a musician. This might sound a little strange but I’m sure daydreaming is good for you (Ha Ha) have a look at GK Chesterton’s essay on idleness which I remember as being quite fun.

Returning to the question of lineage, there would appear to be quite a difference between guitarists coming to this music from experimental rock – let’s say, Henry Kaiser or Thurston Moores – and those who had concentrated on free playing from earlier on. I wondered about your own encounters with such players, what particular approaches you think they bring that might differ from your own, what particular tensions might be created by this, and also what sort of common ground you’ve found.

The guitar is a great instrument and one of the things that makes it a great instrument is it’s mongrel ancestry. It has travelled all over the world and is employed in so many musical styles that to definitively take an overview on how the guitar is played is practically impossible. I can only talk about my own approach and I would say that I’ve looked at it from Nick Lucas through Eddie Lang up to the present day and, although there are far more resources available to the student, many of them aren’t comprehensive enough, preferring to concentrate on specific areas at the expense of others. It’s again an, ‘I like that sound. How do I play it?’ kind of thing, and while not un-useful, as an improviser I feel one needs to find a bigger view than that. For instance George van Eps book on guitar harmony works on all the possible sets of string combinations and although it deals with diatonic harmony can be adapted for any other system of tonal organisation. I don’t know Thurston’s music which is a sad gap in my knowledge but I do know Henry and in fact I’m hoping to have a duo recording I did with him released, on a compilation of me playing in duos with other string players, later this year. Doing it was great fun, Henry is a real guitar enthusiast and a fine player. It was the first time we had played together in about thirty years!

One of your principal areas of activity since the early 1990s has been Mopomoso, the live concert series you founded with Chris Burn. Perhaps you could talk about the importance of this for you.

Since about 1973, when I started organising concerts, it has always been an important part of my musical life. There have been times when there were very few opportunities to play and the only way possible to perform was to put something together yourself. When I started Mopomoso it was not such a good time so I approached Chris and asked him if he’d like to help. Since then there have been an unbroken chain of monthly concerts plus a number of special events and workshops. Thanks to Tim Fletcher we have an audio archive going back at least ten years and with Helen Petts, a video collection going back over a year.

Other people like Chris Cooper, Martin Davidson and Paul Martin have also recorded concerts for us and I hope one day we can make this available. It is a big job. Of these records there are about 11 CDs released that were all or part recorded live at Mopomoso concerts & Helen Petts has uploaded a whole heap of films onto Youtube.

In terms of programming I try to use a broad brush and not be stylistic, with the only stipulation being that the music is, or has a bearing on, free improvisation. I also try to take into consideration what is happening locally, regionally, nationally and internationally, and also to give lesser established musicians a spot alongside the established players. I get a lot of help for this and apart from the above George Coote who runs the box office, and Will Connors who does the sound, deserve honourable mentions.

Oh…And I get to play once a month!

You perform in a number of regular improvising groupings, such as your duo with Henry Lowther, and your trio with Evan Parker and John Edwards. By contrast, Mopomoso pits you in with lots of new combinations and ad-hoc groupings, it seems; perhaps you could talk a bit about the advantages and disadvantages of playing in a regular group, and in first-time encounters.

I said earlier that I find both things valuable as they present different challenges. It is interesting to see how a particular group’s language develops and to take part in that and, playing in new permutations, means that you have no preconceptions. To some extent it is really the same thing though. I’m just trying to find something to play that is appropriate and I try to bring my complete abilities with me and keep an open mind.

And, similarly, what do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of playing solo, as opposed to in a group?

Every musician plays solo but not all of them do it in public. I feel it is an important thing to do not least because of the nakedness of the experience and the directness with an audience. It also allows me to approach the material differently in that if something takes my fancy I can work with that without having to worry about the music going in another direction. In answer to this and the previous question I don’t find any disadvantages really. I love improvising in all the different possibilities. It is what it is and I haven’t found a better way to get close to music and playing the guitar.

Elsewhere, you’ve mentioned your interest in cross-disciplinary work: collaborations with poets, theatre and performance art. Sometimes it seems to me that this side of things gets rather neglected. Why do you think this might be, and what do you find particular exciting about this sort of work?

I think other disciplines have other priorities. I was doing a guitar concerto for the Dutch composer Gilius van Bergeijk and he told me of an actor who said he really liked the way Gilius brushed some sweat off his forehead while playing the piano. For him it was something that arose from playing but the actor saw it as a theatrical gesture! Working with words is interesting because it’s another part of the brain and the counterpoint with music can create a different stimulus. Some areas of Performance art emphasise the physical, behavioural and visceral and in the visual arts a whole new juxtaposition arises. It’s about how we are in the world and where the boundaries are with music. I feel it’s good to look at and experience these things but it is always important to understand the differences between disciplines.

Finally, what are some of your current/ future plans?

Well…I’ve got the Mopomoso going on each month. In August (16/17/18) there is Fete Quaqua which I am really looking forward to. (Here’s the line up)
·  Satoko Fukuda (UK) – violin
·  Pat Thomas (UK) – keyboards
·  John Butcher (UK) – saxophones
·  Sabu Toyozumi (Japan) – percussion
·  Jean Bordé (France) – bass
·  Lui Chao yun (Taiwan) – pipa
·  Ute Voelker (Germany) – accordion
·  Angelika Sheridan (Germany) – flutes
·  Lol Coxhill (UK) – saxophone
·  John Russell (UK) – guitar
·  Shabaka Hutchings (UK) – reeds
·  Henry Lowther (UK) – trumpet
·  Hannah Marshall (UK) –  cello

A couple of concerts in France and a solo in Austria (Ulrichsberg) in December at a festival to mark Paul Loven’s sixtieth. I’m also going to Japan. On the recording front we are working on mastering a CD for the trio with Michel Doneda and Roger Turner. I have just completed recording a solo CD for Psi , and a recording with Evan and John for John Zorn’s label. There’s a duo CD with cellist Martine Altenberger, which was recorded from a live concert in France last year, and is coming out in the Autumn for Another Timbre; the duos CD with various string players for Emanem and a Winter release on Amirani of a quintet, title undecided, for Gianni Mimmo. Oh…And I’m trying to move house!

 Information about Mopomoso is at 
A short film by Helen Petts called ‘Guitarist: John Russell’ can be seen at: Photographs (see also magazine cover photo): John Russell live at the Festival R. De Choc, Paris, and stills from the film ‘Guitarist’. © Helen Petts.