Photo Carme Fernandez
The guitarist Derek Bailey's career has spanned nearly half a century, during which time both the working conditions and the repertoire of the professional musician in Britain have radically altered.
Bailey has worked in most commercial musical contexts over the last forty years, ranging from dancehalls, radio and restaurants to pop studios and, in the last fifteen years, the annual 'Company' week of improvised music, which he organises himself. Nowadays widely known as a uniquely gifted and versatile performer, Bailey is also one of freely improvised music's most eloquent spokesmen.
A revised edition of his book, 'Improvisation: its nature and practice in music', has recently been published by the British Library and a complementary television series, 'On The Edge', screened in Britain by Channel 4. Bailey has made some 90 records, including several for the Incus Records label (which he co-founded and runs). Perhaps the most influential of all contemporary improvisers, he is also one of the best-documented; nevertheless he remains doggedly committed to live performance - which is still the best way to hear him.
He talked to Ed Baxter about his work.
EB: Although you occupy the position of being one of the foremost theorists of improvisation, you're equally well-known as a practitioner of freely improvised music; furthermore, you go to great pains to assert that the subject somehow resists rigid definition or academic models.
Theory, documentation and by implication the structural mechanisms of recording seem to fall on one side - appearing as distractions, even - and live music and the physiological transmission of information, in terms of intuitive comprehension of music, on the other.
Obviously it's not that simple, but would you comment on that apparent opposition of theory and practice?
Derek Bailey: I have the impression that at the moment writing about improvisation is one of the few growth industries you can find in this country. Of course I've been guilty of that myself - and I don't really have any excuses, except to say that writing about improvisation and, more recently, making a television series, has never particularly meant anything to me as an improviser except as a kind of research. For me it's always been the case that the main thing which writing about improvisation (or looking at it in some other way) has offered, has been an opportunity to see what other people do about it. Particularly other people with whom one has no musical contact.
Ordinarily it's virtually impossible to talk to a lot of musicians who improvise about improvisation - and that side of it interests me very much. Even the word itselt is totally suspect. I'm not talking about free improvisers here, they're a different kettle of fish altogether, highly self-conscious - either they'll talk about it a lot or they'll refuse to talk about it at all.
But in the context of my research most of the people 1 think of as totally practical musicians, which is to say people who work in the music business, who are known as players (and that's the beginning and end of it) - people like that all seem very eager to talk about improvisation to me.
Once you open the subject up and you get past the usual interview subjects, which are to do with career matters mostly, self-advertisements, to the point when you can have a conversation - then they seem very eager to say something about this thing that they know is central to what they do,
but which in normal circumstances they don't get to talk about.
And then there's always a huge struggle as to what to say: I have some fantastic recordings of people trying to say something about improvisation, great improvisers often, trying to say something that they want to say - they're not reluctant, but there's this turmoil going on to get this stuff out. And it seems to me that this is part of the same thing that makes me suspicious about the whole documentary side of viewing improvisation.
Eventually you never say anything about it.
A very common phenomenon occurs when people talk about improvisation - and it happens also when people talk about their activities anyway, certainly in the case of artistic activities. The people who are good at talking about it produce this beautiful construct, it's clear and complete and it eans something in comprehensible terms. In many cases if you know the person very well you realise it has virtually nothing to do with what he does. I could cite quite a number of people like this and maybe I'm one of them, I couldn't say. Revising the book was very easy generally because I didn't find much that wanted changing - except for the pieces I'd written about myself. The 'Solo* chapter has changed quite a lot: when it came to looking over this stuff I had tried to say about what I do, fifteen years later, I didn't recognise it as having much relation to what I think I do now.
I tried to make sense out of the fact that the description which I had given was no longer useful, and it couldn't be explained entirely by changes in the music. Maybe you get closer to being able to talk about it when you can practice making these constructs, but the struggle for many musicians - as I found when talking to them - is to make the construct fit what you know is the experience, the ising as Braxton likes to say, the thing itself.
There's the thing itself, then there is the presentation - and I don't know that anybody gets the two to match. Maybe they do, maybe they just think they do. One of my suspicians is that the people who think they do aren't in the best place to tell whether the two are really matching. I think that behind the difficulties that musicians of all kinds have in talking about this subject is the wish to say something, but the inability to say the important thing.
So, yes, the whole documentary side of it is suspect. But that's not the end of the story - it's not just that you get these beautiful fairy tales on one and and the music on the other.
In fact the fairy tales have a greater solidity and attraction than the music. Consequently, the music eventually becomes the fairy tale. That is, somebody says he does this, but does that - but then, reflecting on what he's said, he thinks, 'Wow, great!' - and he starts doing this: so they do match eventually, but the matching comes about through shifting what you do to what you've said you do. This I think covers nearly all kinds of documentation - history, for instance ... It doesn't just apply to musicians talking about music or improvisers talking about improvisation. The well-honed, presentable description is generally irresitible - particularly when what is supposedly being described is not so apparent and is maybe a little bit contentious, in the sense that different people think different things about it.
If you get your argument out first and it sounds pretty good, then you might finish up with the whole game, set and match. That's been proved over and over again, particularly in the writing of cultural history. We're struggling with all that at the moment. People are trying to get their toe in the door
who've had their feet trampled on for years. You can tell by the attempts to readjust popular culture into a more general, equable appreciation of culture - the violent resistance that that's provoked in elitists, as they are quite happy to call themselves, tells the story itself. They've got and they're not going to let go of it. They've got the high ground - and the reason for that is of course nothing to do with music or the arts or anything, but with the wholesale buttressing, the scientific and academic reinforcement of these activities, over the centuries.
So to come back from the ridiculous to the sublime, and to talk about improvisation, a particualry ill-defined and amorphous activity ... well, one of the attractions for me of this area - freely improvised music - was that it was a wide open range. There's been a lot of home steading going on since, but it is still pretty ill-defined and messy. And that's fine as far as I am concerned. If someone comes along and tidies it up, well... I've got a lot of faith in its ability not to be tidied up - otherwise I'd not be doing something as stupid as writing a book about the subject. In the book a lot of people have a chance to say something and I have my two cents worth - but if that in itself were a bit of homesteading, I wouldn't be happy about it. But I don't believe it is, because I'm absolutely sure that the hard and fast opinions which are to be found in the book are as much likely to be disagreed with as agreed with. That seems to be part of improvisation's general nature.
The television series is different. I don't feel close to television, which as a medium is far removed from anything that I might be interested in - the whole medium is only ever about 'television*. With television you can either buy the adverts or you can make a programme about something - they both fulfil the same purpose. The On The Edge series is basically an advert - for improvisation.
E: How does self-criticism fit into this scenario of people either wary or incapable of describing the whole process of improvisation? Do those circumstances place improvisation in a central area at the core of creativity? Or are musicians typically largely unself-conscious when it comes to improvisation?
D: If you mean by self-criticism placing a value on the activity, I'm not sure; but speaking personally, it doesn't come into it, because I never found any shortage of criticism coming from other people about what I do - so I don't feel a need for any extra provided by myself. But generally speaking improvisation is not something that has a 'quality'. There's not good improvisation or bad improvisation. It might produce good or bad music, so in that way it may reflect on people being good or bad improvisers, but I don't actually think that that is the case. There might be all kinds of reasons for their producing bad music. And certainly I think it might be possible for people who are not practised improvisers to produce very good music through improvisation. I don't feel that the idea of whether improvisation is 'good' or not would be very useful.
The headline on the label would say something like 'the most bask human artistic creative force there is ...'so as a source of making music, it's got a lot going for it.
Improvisation anyway is a very basic instinct. Nothing survives without improvisation. So really there's no question about it being good or bad. I don't weigh it up qualitively. I just find it extraordinary that it's not recognised as the most productive single element in music-making of all kinds, with one or two glaring exceptions.
E: How and why has your own playing developed over the last ten or fifteen years?
The mandarins of high culture are very protective of what D: The changes are not stylistic so much as to do with the nuts and bolts of doing it. As to the reasons for playing solo - now I am making a qualitative statement about improvisation - it is not a very high grade of improvisation. It seems to
me that improvisation is at its best when people play together.
Solo improvisation is little more than a novelty, but there are still certain things that it can offer. In my case what it offers is a way of looking at the stuff you're using, seeing how it changes and then deciding whether it is material that is musical: for me this is perhaps the most important element
of solo playing. One reason for playing solo is that it provides a continuity, a continuity that doesn't rely on structured occasions, on gigs, or on reputation, outside of the performance situation - and you are in control of when you do it. The other reason is that, if you're doing what I've always tried to do, which is to construct something that lends itself to malleabiliy, and to keep it in a state of flux, unfixed, it seems to be the best way of examining what you do. Things become fixed, so solo playing provides this continuous working through - you can dump the elements that have become fixed. I find that with playing there's a kind of implosion that operates.
I start playing a thing faster and faster till 1 can't play it anymore - the death throes of something I felt was useful at one time. The thing that has changed, then, is the superstructure of the two purposes provided by solo performance.
E: Playing with others is of paramount importance, then, and implies the creation or probing of some social structure. How does the audience figure in the strucure which arises - particularly in terms of the productive forces that comprise a performance? Is an audience strictly necessary?
D: In music it's customary to the point where it almost seems a necessity to make some kind of golden god out of the audience. You have to be very careul about saying, 'Well fuck the audience! I can get on without the audience!' I don't know how a painter would feel about having to do his work in front of two hundred people. All kinds of considerations would arise - variety, for instance. The boredom threshold of a group of people gets
lower the larger the group. Having painted a certain amount of red, then noticing that another forty-five people have drifted in, he'd better get over to doing a bit of blue! Things like this are not conscious decisions of anyone playing in front of an audience, but I don't know anyone not affected by them either. And it seems that in the freely improvised music area the people who've played it longest are more conscious of audiences than people who've not played it for a long time. Of course, the economic viability is totally dependent on this body of witnesses - and it's not the witnesses, it's the body that counts, because nobody's happy, it seems, with, say, a three-piece audience. Virtually every music seems to be judged on the basis of its ability to draw in hundreds, thousands - even tens ot thousands.
So there's a lot to say about the audience and I'll do my lip-service too: I like audiences. No, I'll change that. I don't have to go so far as that - but groups of listeners provide a really incalculable asset to the music. I'm in the process of putting a recording out, with Louis Moholo, Thebe Lipere
and myself, a completely unedited live recording (within the time restrictions of the compact disc). There's people ordering drinks and so on - it's recorded by someone who had a table near the band. And I like it very much. Part of what I like is the music and part is the social feeling of it - which is not something that you can construct, but it does happen.
And it is down to people having a group of listeners, people who are interested in what you are doing.
This leads to this thing that seems to irritate people when I've said it before: as a listener to improvised music, I almost don't care what the style is, or who the people are, I just like to hear a bunch of people improvising together; and what I like is the sound of them making music - and that's something which is more naked with freely improvised music than other forms. The whole thing is totally naked - and maybe it is at its most revealed when it's not working very well. If you're interested in it, in music-making, then how good or had the music is, is a bonus. Of course if what you're interested in is some bimbos shaking their arses and singing some pretty little song, then leave improvised music alone. It doesn't offer many of
the things people come to music for; but then many of the people who come to music are not interested in the music.
Further, most of the people who listen to music in the world now don't go out to live music: they listen to their furniture instead. There are people who think of themselves as 'music lovers' who never go to live music - which seems to be one of the tests for me.
E: When playing, does the resistance (if any) of the audience constitute a productive factor? Is resistance constructive? You seem to work
in an area where you resist documentation, knee-jerk expectations, academic structures and so on.
D: You're accusing me of a kind of puritanism. Well ... I don't know. I don't think about these matters except in interview situations like this. To put it at its most basic, I'm a 62 year old guitar player pursuing a somewhat unorthodox career in a militantly orthodox society. But apart from my age, it's never seemed different, even when I played conventional music. I worked in the band business, so-called, largely in the pre-rock & roll era, where for a working musician - as long as you provided what was essentially musical wall paper, in a dance hall or in a nightclub - there was actually a comparatively large amount of freedom. The music was functional and it could provide this function without having to supply particular details. For instance, if you played in a dance hall in 1955 you could play virtually anything as long as these characters, the dancers, could swan around. Within that there were certain other refinements. There were usually two bands, and if you played in the little band - well, nobody danced to the little band anyway: they were all up in the balcony, transacting various alcoholic and sexual agreements behind the pillars. At that point you were just functional -
they hadn't thought of tapes - and nobody was bothered about what you played. This was actually a better situation, much freer than now when one is confined by all sorts of things, like reputation. Going back, I was not interested in treely improvised music at all, but rather in things that were perhaps
unorthodox - but still doing the job - as many people were. That world, which was a large world of largely functional music, encompassed all kinds of musicians - but really it's not possible to give you now a clear idea of what it was. For a working musician it must be totally different nowadays,
I assume. I don't know because I've not thought of myself as a working musician in that sense for 25 years - I mean I used to be a musical labourer or whatever it was: it was fine by me; and if you could freeze frame time, I think 1958 would do for me. I've got nothing against those times: I didn't
leave them, they left me.
After all this rigmarole, what I really wanted to say was that if you were playing in a pub or club or dancehall in the mid-'50s, in many circumstances you could get away with whatever you wanted to play - or whatever you were likely to want to play. Ten years later, virtually every note you played would have to fulfil quite strict requirements, in almost every detail.
By that time people who listened to popular music wanted reproductions of recorded examples. So the whole freedom had gone out of that business. Anyway, I found that when I was first a musician - at the beginning of the 1950s - it was okay for me. But I was always looking to do within
that freedom things that wouldn't be expected. They weren't unacceptable, but they were perhaps unexpected. So this
business of pursuing an unorthodox career in a militantly orthodox society has always been the same.
To start to be a musician is rather an odd thing, at least for somebody with my background. There were musicians in my family actually, but most males in my family worked in the Works: the upper reaches of the family worked in shops. cobblers* shops and things, the rest were in the Steel Works. I don't know whether all that has been a training - a looking for resistance to push against, if that's what you're suggesting.
Maybe - but I've always been pretty much the same.
E: About your early career - you've implied that the apparent change in direction that you took was actually a fairly logical step.
D: With somebody my age you have to be more specific than 'early career'. You know, there's a lot of it.
E: Well, was there a period which constituted the cusp between the days of functional music and free improvisation?
D: In the band business, as I say, 1 could do virtually most things that I wanted to do - and in those days it wasn't unusual to meet musicians playing something which is best described as 'free music*, as a matter of fact. It was never of any attraction to me at that time. There were many other attractions to it, though. I used to love to live in the provinces, to change cities every so often - which was an integral part of that kind of work. You had to do it, but I used to like it. But it gradually became a trade you couldn't pursue: you became redundant - not as a musician, but the jobs changed and you turned to other things. So I finished up in the studios.
At that point 1 realised that this was not what I'd become a musician to do. I didn't like the studios at all. So the freedoms had disappeared virtually entirely. That would be in the early 1960s, and about '63- '65 I was very fortunate to meet a couple of younger musicians - Gavin Bryars and Tony Oxley - who were connected to certain things that were happening around then, specifically indeterminate composition and free jazz.
And I was lucky enough to work with these guys for approaching three years, starting in 1963. During that time, I moved from being whatever I was in 1963 to being somebody who was pursuing freely improvised music. We didn't start by playing improvisations: it was, I suppose, 'contemporary jazz' at that time. (Incidentally, it still seems to be contemporary jazz 30 years later. In fact, it seems to be 'avant garde jazz' now.) Around 1965, when we started playing freely improvised pieces, we found that that was the way we could best work together to combine our different appetites and curiosities and searches.
1 was looking for somewhere to go, I think, and I met two people who were definitely going somewhere - and I thought I'd tag along with them. So that's how that happened.
Then I was fortunate enough to meet a whole host of musicians who came to this music as their first music, in a way. They were very special players and they still are. People like John Stevens, Evan Parker, Han Bennink, Peter Brotzmann ... all those people. Whatever it was that they had in common,
they had certain characteristics as musicians that I hadn't met before, and this was a revelation to me. It was great to have the chance to work with these characters ... So, I'm accepting no blame for anything! I was fortunate to bump into these people who were doing this thing in the '60s - but I am of course essentially from the '40s!
E: Was Incus Records, a company with some historical importance as the first independent musician-run label in Britain', established consciously to document material you thought might otherwise be lost?
Photo: Co Broerse
D: I suppose so. The idea for Incus Records came from Tony Oxley. He came to me with a suggestion that we should start a record company; not only that, he'd actually got a guy who would put up the money for the first record. It wasn't something I found immediately attractive. At that time we were making quite a lot of records as a matter of fact, sometimes for major companies: but there were certain things not satisfactory about that situation. Starting a record company was not something that I found particularly attactivc, but Evan Parker, I knew, would like to do that. So the three of us started it - but again I have to say that I was kind of more or less dragged along by the other two. Subsequently they both left, at different
times: Tony left first, then Evan. In both cases there were all kinds of reasons for it. One of the central reasons, I believe, is that it no longer fitted in with, let's say, the way they wanted to pursue their careers. They didn't want this business of carrying boxes up and down stairs, writing labels and so
Strangely enough, I went from a position of not being attracted to it at all to the point where now - well, to say you love your record company is putting it a bit strong! But the whole idea I really like. I like even to organise, if possible, my own concerts. And while that's a necessity in this country at least, I've also come to like it. And I like the whole business of this cottage industry thing - I've come to like it more. Maybe it's the changes outside more than the changes in me. And there is an element again of Fuck 'em. So I'm quite happy to carry on, as long as I can, carrying boxes up and down
stairs. But I think in the cases of the other two - they no longer had time for that in some respects. There are lots of other reasons, but I'll leave them to give those other reasons.
Now Incus Records has become something that I'd never expected. But you see the situation now is different - the way the record company works and the way the recording industry works. Incus started in 1970 - and 1992 is probably more like 1892 than it is like 1970. I think that running your own record company at this time is, as the Americans say, a real neat thing to be doing. I like it very much.
E: Do you have any interest in the structures provided by tape, the concrete or rock aesthetics that it enables?
D: Recording as an aesthetic adjunct to music? Yes, I think it's okay. It's not something that I pursue particularly, except that I'm a glutton for recording these days. I'm trying to get four CDs out at the moment - I'd like to do eight. I don't use recording techniques as part of what I do so much nowadays - I used to in solo performances but I don't now.
This question allows me to make a point that I want to make actually concerning an assumption about this book that I wrote. It's largely a collection of other people's words and opinions. When it comes to the subject of recording, I rehearse all the usual arguments against recording and then I state those for. But I've been accused over this very thing: this guy was interviewing me on the radio in New York and he said, 'You're some kind of hypocrite'. Anyway, they dragged me off him ... He said that I'd said in the book that recordng made no sense with improvisation. But I was just presenting the arguments. This happens with the book all the time - I'm accused of things, particularly by people who haven't read it or who had a copy once that somebody has since stolen or something - of saying things that I haven't, in fact, said.
Recording is just part of music. The whole debate about whether you should record improvisation seems irrelevant - and a bit parochial in that it carries on in all kinds of music anyway. What you lose when you record improvised music is everything - but you're putting out a record, you're not
putting out improvised music. As for as the debate around improvised music versus recording - well, my attention span gets very short. Recording is just an adjunct of being a musician as far as I'm concerned. It makes enough sense to continue doing it. If people stop buying the records, I'll stop making them.
E: How do you approach your main tool for improvising, the guitar, which constitutes a precise and historically-loaded structure?
D: It's a remarkable instrument, isn't it? I've never understood particularly the necessity to literally deconstruct the guitar, as many free players do. I've done that in the past at times, but I've never found it very useful, in that it then seems to me to become the music. That is, if you turn it into a sound-
producing object - which it lends itself to - then very often it does produce a particular sound, variable though it might be; whereas the guitar itself is a central instrument in all kinds of music - from the highest to the lowest, as they say. It's amazing: a really instrumental instrument. You can do what
you like with it.
As for myself, I didn't find any of the standard ways of playing - in the styles provided by jazz, classical or rock - very useful when it came to playing freely improvised music. But this is to do with the people I have played with, what they play establishes the context in which I play. Whatever technical
abilities or knowledge I had on the instrument were useless - it was simply incongruous to play a bit of be-bop or Bach when playing with two people whose music had stemmed from a combination of Messiaen and Albert Ayler.
1 had to find some way which seemed to make sense and which was acceptable to the other people. And that's the whole story really, because after I played with those people, then playing with others set up other requirements - and again I'd look for ways of playing that would meet the requirements of the new situation. I still feel it's the same now. And I still find that attractive - to go in there and try and sort out what the fuck to do.
Bibliography /Select Discography:
Improvisation: its nature and practice in music (London British Library 1992 ISBN 0-7123-0506-8)
Village Life: Derek Bailey. Louis Moholo, Thebe Lipere (Incus CD 09).
Derek Bailey Solo (2 CDs: volume 1 recorded 1971, volume 2 recorded 1991). Available from Incus Records. 1 4 DownsRoad. London E5,
Variant Issue 11 Spring 1992
More Derek Bailey in Prepared Guitar Blog