Feb 19, 2010, 09:01AM

Improvised Materials

Music that is by, for, and of the moment.

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Noel Feans


The following audio was included in this article:

Free jazz and free improvisation, usually thought to be the stuff of academics and atonal fanatics or 12-tone purists, are beasts unto themselves in the musical world. They are genres of music where the creative path can avoid (or attempt to avoid) all presupposed melodies, chords and rhythms; it can venture into the utterly abstract, using sound as texture; or it can be none of those things. It is the performance, the spontaneity of collaboration without filters, which defines these kinds of experiences. It’s difficult to replicate in the studio.

I’ve known Gary Prince for about six years. We met at an open mic at my dorm in Ann Arbor, a meeting that subsequently led to the creation of a blues band. We were sloppy, loud and had an inordinate amount of fun playing shows of all persuasions for several years running. The experience opened me up to an understanding of music I had taken for granted—that is, the nuances of tone, negative spaces and rhythm that make for an unforgettable solo, lyric or set. We didn’t muster a lot of subtlety, but it was ultimately a transformative experience for me.

As the band slowly lost steam, Gary tumbled further down the rabbit hole of his jazz and contemplative studies major at the school of music. I found myself at show after show, listening to musicians attempt to free themselves of familiar association—leaving behind all that is comfortable, reassembling music’s architecture. The irony—if that is the right word—is that free jazz and free improvisation sometimes creates music that feels premeditated. As much as a poet wants to free words from the page, the end result inevitably resembles Something That Has Come Before. It’s a circular situation; but it’s the performance, the live act of spontaneity, where free jazz and free improvisation lives, as well as the act, the attempt, that is beautiful at times.

I’m hardly qualified to delve into the differences between free jazz and free improvisation—indeed, although I've seen and heard many free jazz/improv shows and records, my descriptions and observations above should really be taken with a grain of salt—but through the blunt force of Gary’s enthusiasm I can enthusiastically endorse the genres as experiences that remind you of music’s infinite malleability. Gary is now a resident fellow at the non-profit community arts and music space BloomBars in Washington, DC. He runs such programs as Guitars Not Guns and a meditation class, as well as innumerable side gigs and performances. He recently cut a free improv record, Improvised Duets, in Ann Arbor with saxophonist Kathryn Olson. From their MySpace page:

An improvisation cannot be defined purely in terms of time passed musically between two episodes of silence. If music is to be created within the moment, of the moment, of by and for the people who are its instigators and who are in turn within and of the greater experience and consciousness of humanity, the sound we hear is more than a frozen reflection of life: it is life, alive and taking shape, manifested now as sound and now as silence, now as people and their experiences and choices.

There’s that duality again—the performance as a linear and non-linear experience, the recorded product a necessary yet incomplete rendering of the moment.

Improvised Duets (you can buy it here) is a patient, enduring experience. There is no sense of urgency; both musicians are quite accomplished, and their chops, their expressiveness, are evidence of a maturation of sound and delivery rarely felt in the younger half of aspiring musicians. Technically, the record is masterful; recorded in a lofty and raftered church, the natural reverb picks up—and envelopes, sustains—such small details as the click of Olson’s saxophone keys and the creak of a chair. The sound is as “big” as you could want. “I Forgive You” is a gentle arc that bends toward the soul—Gary was repeating the phrase in his mind the whole time, and his pulsing rhythm playing is more meditative chant than anything else; Olson’s horn drifts in and around Gary, the latter pushing the former through a heady and emotional reckoning.

“Day One” begins with syncopation as careful as written music, and its progression is measured by Gary’s guitar work, enunciated by bass hits. The interplay of guitar and saxophone is cerebral—indeed, much of this music connotes a meditative state—and it ultimately sets the record’s lush, conservative dynamic.


Gary took some time to sit down with me and answer some bare bones questions about this record, the recording process and what’s next on the agenda. This Sunday, at BloomBars in DC, you can catch Gary and Olson's album release show.

Splice Today: I played in a blues band with you, the whole nitty-gritty sweaty stuff, but full of structures and tradition and the like. How, if at all, is the blues relevant to your understanding of free improvisation?

Gary Prince: Ultimately, I believe the spirit of good improvisation, that is, the sense of freedom, of communication, of the “open sky” of musical possibility, is the undercurrent to all powerful music. Whether through-composed since hundreds of years ago, completely improvised in the present moment, or somewhere in between like blues and jazz any good performance reaches to the same kind of emotional, human, unrestrained experience of the moment. Playing in blues bands, past and present, represents for me another way of developing and experiencing this kind of freedom in my playing. I was very lucky that in our blues band we played in a way that was open, improvisational, unabashedly emotive, and musically restricted only by our own abilities. Playing in The Midnight Special opened the door for me to this kind of musical experience of ecstasy in the moment and synchronicity with a group of people, these experiences carry directly into my free playing even as the musical language and colors I use tend to be very different. One can aspire to play free whether playing Bach, the blues, or flailing at the strings like Derek Bailey.

ST: Your recording sessions consisted of several days of camping out in an acoustically splendid church. You then selected the best parts for the album. Does that take something away from the improvisational spirit, being able to determine which sections are more listenable?

GP: We recorded for three days, and nothing on the final album is from the third day.  The first and second days are about an even split. Arguably, recording an improvisation at all, let alone making an album like we did, is somewhat untrue the improvisational spirit. If the experience of the music is about playing it in the moment, that exact moment, then the music is over when the moment is passed, and can never quite be recaptured; and the point—unlike in other forms of music perhaps—is that this is the case, that the music exists only in that instant. A good metaphor might be a sand mandala—does it defeat the purpose of destroying it if you take a picture?  In our case, selecting the best tracks for the album, mixing them, putting them in order, creating the packaging, were all a form of composition. I don't think it detracts from the nature of the music, because our intention throughout the process was to make an album. And yet, mixing and editing on the music itself was very minimal. All the tracks on the album are complete performances, nothing was spliced together—the music is essentially as it was when we played it. Our goal was to represent our playing at its best and see what would happen given three days to just play. I think we succeeded, and the music represents where we were at during that time and place, like a snapshot into our lives and playing. The final product is really a composition made up of improvised materials.

ST: What are the biggest constraints—mental, physical—involved in this kind of recording? Do you find yourself referencing a safety net of sounds/rhythms/etc at all?

GP: Definitely the biggest constraint is mental. Kate and I typically played for nobody, at a place like Canterbury House (a small room in Ann Arbor), late at night, with a small recorder, taking breaks to talk or drink or whatever. We'd play for as long as we felt like it. We always record ourselves to try to get good stuff, but it was very different to be trying intentionally to make an album, to be in this huge church, to have mics set up, and to know that we had limited time in which to play. We worked very hard to make it less of an artificial atmosphere, that is, to try not to depart from the vibe of playing for no purpose in Canterbury House. I think we mostly succeeded—the key element being playing without thinking about being recorded, or how it would sound on record in the end, or if we had enough good tracks. We had enough time in the space that I think we were able to sink in and forget what we were doing. It is very challenging as well to play with the same person for such a concentrated amount of time and keep it fresh, in any style—this was part of the beauty of doing the album this way though, we played and played and started strong, got boring and tired and repetitive, and then finally broke through into regions we don't usually explore.

ST: Straight up, what's the difference between free jazz and free improvisation? Is there one?

GP: Free jazz references a specific movement in the jazz community, a particular group of people and time in history, as well as a certain aesthetic. There is an Ornette Coleman album by the same name. Free improvisation is a general term meaning music making without pre-determined musical or stylistic qualities; unlike the term “free jazz” it does not imply coming from a specific tradition. We call what we do free improvisation because we play without pre-determined musical or stylistic qualities—the goal is to transcend the traditions in which we were trained, to create a new language and dynamic through improvisation. Also, from a practical standpoint, we don't sound like or come from the same background as many of the artists traditionally associated with “free jazz”—it would be a misrepresentation to refer to us as such.

ST: How did you name the tracks on the album?

GP: We named the songs mostly from phrases or ideas floating around the time of recording as well as the moods they evoked. "Day One" was actually the very first thing we played on the very first day of recording. With "Circumambulation," we would take breaks from recording to circumambulate (walk around, with spiritual connotations) the church, so the mood of the song fit that title to us. "I Don't Know and You Don't Either” came from a Dave Schall (the recording engineer) bumper sticker that read, "Militant Agnostic: I Don't Know and You Don't Either.” The words "I Forgive You" were repeating in my head as we played that song. Then others, like "Spiral" and "Deconstruct" were words that we felt evoked the feeling of the piece. Some names were very easy to come up with, others very, very hard and down to the wire.

ST: What's next on the agenda?

The next step, now that the record is out, is to try to raise awareness of it, and to find more opportunities to play together. We'll do some shows in Michigan this spring (Kate still lives in Ann Arbor, I live in DC). Most of all I'd like to expose people to this music—for both Kate and me, this project aside, this is how we play as individuals. We think it has worth, and both plan on exploring our styles as they are on this disc further alone or together in future recordings and performances. The purpose of the record is to hopefully find other people, musicians and non-musicians, who care for this kind of playing, to create a supportive community. We will of course continue to do what we do audience or no audience, but if we can share the experience, share the music, share ideas and appreciation in a larger community, we think our art and the world are better for it.

  • I do some free improv stuff myself, and I often find myself struggling to make my work different from Something That Has Come Before. it's very frustrating to do something alive and cathartic and then to realize that the same thing has been done a million times before and you're merely late to the party. but I think if anything makes you feel fulfilled as an artist, and lets you experience that catharsis, it's worthwhile.

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  • That's a great reading, and close to my own, of the difficulties in free improv. I mean, I don't even come close to the level of sophistication as seen in Gary's music, but at least in the folk-roots-blues stuff I meddle with I do try to explore the genre(s) with as much a blank slate as I can manage. Sometimes it's a question of chop -- I simply don't have the technical dexterity to play anything I want; ultimately, as you say, fulfillment is the honest product an artist looks for, though a little commercial success is nothing at which to scoff.

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  • It'd be funny if instead of calling technically ability "chops" we called it "chop." "That dude has some ill chop," etc ... Maybe I should re-title this piece "A Question of Chop" and start a trend. Who's with me?

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  • haha no one is with you. i did always like the term "woodshedding" instead of "practicing."

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