Part of the problem we have is that we live in a psycho-linguistic world. Ideas, words… like we’re doing here, we’re trying to discuss, to describe a process which, by definition, doesn’t use any of these things. Much of the understanding – and this is where it gets embarrassing sometimes – is quite intuitive. Much of the understanding defies conceptualisation, indeed the reason you’re doing it is because you need to work through it to come to an understanding, which can later conceptualise. But at the same time I’m not very happy with the idea of somehow wanting to keep it kind of simplistic; the idea of being anti-explanation and wholly intuitive. Because I’m not a wholly intuitive being. Intuition is a very important part of my being, but my analytical processes are equally important. Sometimes in us all we get out of balance with one or the other, what we’re looking for is a happy medium between the two where one can engage the other and feed the other. I’m very unhappy with this idea that music somehow shouldn’t be explained, that’s stupid.
So the theory comes out of practice. It isn’t a manifesto. It doesn’t say, ‘this is what we want to achieve and this is perhaps a way of doing it,’ it says, ‘We’ve been doing this X amount of years and this is what it seems to me we’re up to’.
From my own experience the three things, which are most important in improvisation, are, the idea of dialogue, the idea of problem solving and the idea of transience. And transience is something that we can recognise perhaps as being something which reflects the informal way we approach both dialogue and problem solving. You’re not setting up some monolithic edifice because dialogue is something which is essentially mobile. When one has a conversation you don’t have the same conversation every time. You have different conversations but the process is still dialogue. In the same way with problem solving you don’t tackle the same problems every time you come to a problematic situation. Those three things seem to me to be the most fundamental things in improvisation. I’m sure there are other things but without those I don’t think you’ve got anything at all.
The moment you pick up your saxophone you have the problem of, ‘What do I do?’; that, in itself, is a problem. Then somebody next to you starts playing and you know that what is expected of you is to play together. So what is it you do? How do you respond to what he does? You are quite right if you say, ‘Well, the way I respond is intuitive,’ but it’s still a problem – it’s not a problem insofar as having ‘A Problem,’ but one of engaging with the world.
Each time you engage with the world you decide to do one thing or another; that choice is problem solving. You either solve it in a relatively successful way or you choose a way which is unsuccessful. The degree of success is how you ultimately decide whether a performance is good or bad isn’t it? If it is meaningful in some way or other then presumably the problems have been assessed, approached and solved. You come away from a performance which is not successful, and this is as a player, and clearly you haven’t solved the problems then that’s what stimulates you to go on, I think. There are all kinds of problems, they’re psychological, they’re social, they’re certainly musical in terms of manipulative ability to express ideas and sounds. I mean they are manifold, there are all kinds of things really, the whole world is there. That’s what I find so intriguing about music, because it’s like a vehicle, like a ship, you can go to so many places. Music is about the last thing you’re really interested in when you’re involved in music!
Everybody must ultimately ask themselves, ‘Am I being fulfilled by this exercise?’. And that could mean being fulfilled in various ways – intellectually, emotionally, psychologically, do I feel better afterwards? Or worse afterwards? What have I got out of it? Have I learnt something? Am I disturbed by it? Disturbed in a creative way? Does it change my life in any way?
The third thing is dialogue. The practice isn’t fixed. In improvisation you are trying to discover the meaning of sound as if for the first time and you’re refreshing your sound-making capacity. But, in conjunction with that, it is fundamental that dialogue comes into play, because part of the material you are working with is in fact your relationship with other people who are making music. They are part of your environment, your social environment, your musical environment. Your dialogue is a very important ingredient because you have a responsibility not only to take but to give as well. The conversation itself becomes progressive because the problem with monologue is that it doesn’t have anything to bounce off. We have a conversation and my ideas shift because you throw up or push me into a direction I hadn’t thought about going up. It’s a progressive relationship.
The thing that characterises AMM is the stability of its personnel, because that has a pretty definite aesthetic course to follow, which does depend primarily on dialogue. Dialogue of a kind that demands deep understanding of the materials you’re using and the people you’re working with. Whereas there’s a sense that much of improvisation, and the relationships inherent in it, are quite ephemeral. Some people will make a virtue of that, and I can see a case for it, I can see a case for a constant change of personnel. Derek Bailey has built a philosophy on it. He used to say that he was more interested in what happens with musicians before they develop a common language, than what they do afterwards. Where’s AMM has been much more concerned with developing a common language and trying to make it as rich and expressive as possible. We’ve been concerned to build up a vocabulary and with refining it – much more so than merely… no, I don’t mean ‘merely’…much more so than finding constantly new things.
I’m saying that there is a set of rules. It’s no good Derek (Bailey) saying he doesn’t have any rules. Well, he can say that but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s true. The very fact that I can recognise his playing from one occasion to another indicates to me that there is a set of rules. If it’s coherent there must be rules. There are rules; it’s a different set of rules. And a different set of rules relates to a different worldview. What we are proposing, whether we are doing it consciously or not, is a different worldview – and there has to be rules in a worldview. I’m not proposing anarchy, I don’t even believe that anarchy exists, there’s nothing in nature, which is anarchic, it always gravitates towards form eventually. The question is, ‘What form?’ and what we’re proposing, consciously or otherwise is a form, which in essence is completely different in its political and social implications from the form which classical music has perpetuated. And let’s have no illusions about it classical music is not apolitical, it’s very political indeed, and so is pop music. It’s actually proposing a particular kind of a world, whether we like it or not, even whether it denies it or not…
What’s communal about improvisation is the determination to work in this particular fashion together, and that’s the important thing, you know. That’s what people don’t understand communism is about. They see it as regimentation, everybody in line, all marching the same way. It doesn’t mean that at all. It clearly means that you work in an environment, which is supportive, which is engaging in the world in a supportive manner, which in fact liberates you individually, much more than you could possibly have in the fragmented competitive society, which we’re currently being encouraged to adopt. Because there you’re separated, you’re apart; you don’t know where you are in this world. These communal models are a way of finding out that you are. They’re ways of seeing where you fit in the world and they give you much more freedom than they do restrictions.
I think the music has a message about our time and about our life. It isn’t the message that says, ‘Oh, when we reach utopia everything’s gonna be lovely and cosy and comfortable’. It’s never going to be like that and one shouldn’t want it to be like that. There’s always going to be an edge, a kind of raw edge if you like, to experience. I mean, that’s the condition of man isn’t it? There’s always going to be the unknown there, and that’s the edge to creativity, that’s the edge to movement through evolution, whatever that might be.
-Yes, there’s certain idealism there, I can see that because we are talking about a world, which currently clearly doesn’t exist. Some people say that that AMM play the music that should be played all the time in the world they would like to exist. And I know what that means, although it’s a weird formulation. I know why it’s said.
What we’re posing… we’re having to reinvent many of the ideas which have been lost – purposefully lost, pushed into the dustbin – in order to sort of regroup ourselves and find our way back to a kind of human existence we feel is, must be, preferable to what seems to be dominating now. So, it seems to me that it’s a kind of reinvention. Or an attempt to reinvent a culture, which has been destroyed, or to replace a culture that has been destroyed, not harking back to a folk ethic. Folk music reflected a kind of social formulation, which existed for all kinds of reasons. We don’t live in that world anymore. But what we do live in is an impoverished kind of society.
There are certain people within it that feel alienated from it Improvisation, to a large extent, is a means of finding a substitute, to reinvent, to build up again a new culture. It has that power; clearly it does have that power to do that. But it’s having to deal with two very entrenched, powerful monoliths who are concerned, consciously or otherwise, to keep things as they are, to keep people from having a culture which is based on a sense of what Marx called species being; where human beings can express themselves fully, reveal themselves fully. If people do all those things clearly our society as we know it will crumble. Clearly music does have a power, and that can be a power to change, there are so many examples in history right from Plato… Music is so powerful it’s capable of deadening; it has the power to be controlling, to put people to sleep, to discipline. But it also has the power to enervate.
I think I’ve run out of steam! Oh, but I’ll tell you what, You’ll have to fit this in… It’s to do with the contributions of relationships and your own perception of yourself and so on. One of the things that came out of the early period of our music was a common experience we had was that you would very often be playing and be… immersed in these kind of waves of sound. You’d be in the middle of it, consumed by it, and very often the common experience was that suddenly maybe you’d just identify one particular element and you’d wonder for a moment where it came from, ‘I wonder how that’s happening?’ often you would actually stop playing and suddenly realise it was you that was playing this thing you hadn’t recognised. And it was something we began quite consciously to encourage, that kind of… It sounds very trite in a way, but the ultimate was a very selfless kind of playing. You actually transcend your own contribution. It wouldn’t matter in a way if you were fulfilled or not, although in a sense that’s what you’re after, and you could actually get to the point where this happened. It was a very weird experience.
I don’t think it’s a loss of identity; it’s actually a different kind of identity.
(30th October 1987.)