April 9th, 2011 | Published in Articles
For the last four years the Another Timbre label has released a stream of consistently excellent discs exploring the increasingly blurred boundaries between improvisation and composition. Bang the Bore caught up with label owner and professional sound recordist Simon Reynell to talk about developments and innovation in improvisation and the peculiar position one finds oneself in when running a record label.
BtB: How would you describe the aesthetic of Another Timbre?
The header on the website says: “Another Timbre is a label for improvised and cutting edge contemporary music”, which is pretty vague, and misleading insofar as there are lots of genres of cutting edge music that I personally don’t like. As far as I’m concerned, there isn’t a satisfactory word or phrase that describes the music the label covers, though some people try things like ‘EAI’ (electro-acoustic improvisation) or ‘post-reductionism’ (which I occasionally use myself, though it’s fraught with difficulty).
I think the best way to describe the area that the label focuses on is to say that it’s somewhere on the increasingly fuzzy boundary between improvisation and contemporary classical music. So most of the discs are improvised, but I’m not really interested in jazz-based improvisation, or anything that derives from rock music. And most of the music I like best is pretty quiet, and combines acoustic instruments with electronics in some form. Does that give any clues?
BtB: Composition has been intersecting with improvisation more and more lately. Within free improvisation and EAI there’s a major influence from composers like Michael Pisaro, Antoine Beuger, and the whole Wandelweiser crew. Do you see that as just a short-lived occurrence or indicative of a new direction for a lot of these musicians?
I am personally delighted that over the last few years a lot of improvising musicians have turned towards composed music, and especially towards ‘open’ scores which allow the players a degree of freedom in their interpretation. For me – although he died 20 years ago and did his most radical thinking about 50 years ago – John Cage is a key figure in this. I think the ideas he developed opened horizons that are still being explored. The Wandelweiser group of composers are affected by his work (and have released realisations of several Cage pieces on their label), but so increasingly is contemporary improvisation, or at least the improv that I like best. This is rather ironic, given that Cage himself said negative things about improvisation. He saw it as people expressing their egos through their music, and he said he wanted to liberate music from human egos. But over the past 10 years or so there has been an attitude shift amongst a lot of improvisers which brings them much closer to Cage’s ideal than the old stereotype of a saxophonist expressing himself by blowing fast and loud in that free jazz style. Speaking in gross generalisations, the music has slowed down, become quieter, and become increasingly understated / ‘lower case’ / conceptual.
But though I welcome most of these developments, it’d be foolish to try to predict where the music will go in the future. I’ve followed improvised music for over 35 years and it has an inbuilt restlessness whereby people are constantly looking for something ‘new’. Almost as soon as one style becomes dominant, there is a counter-movement and something else arises as an alternative. So perhaps the current rapprochement with contemporary classical music will seem terribly old-fashioned in just a few years as a new generation of improvisers emerges. I personally would be sad about this, but it’s quite possible that it will be a short-lived phenomenon. We can’t know.
BtB: How do you feel about your role as a label owner… in a sense being an arbiter of taste for many people who can’t get out to shows due to location, time or funds? Do you feel as though you have a role in shaping the direction that the music is taking?
When I set up Another Timbre four years ago I didn’t think about becoming ‘an arbiter of taste’ at all. As a long-term fan of improvised music, I felt that there was lots of music being made that I felt deserved greater exposure, and all I wanted to do with the label was make some of this music available. Perhaps this was rather naïve, but that was my perspective.
I’m very liberal / anti-elitist with regard to questions of musical taste. I don’t think anyone has ‘better’ taste than anyone else and as far as I’m concerned everyone should be able to enjoy whatever music they like, and not feel that they have to take their cue from other people’s opinions (critics, label-owners, the general public or whoever). All my adult life I’ve loved music that most people find bizarre or even unpleasant, and I don’t feel I should have to alter my taste to fit in with the majority, any more than anyone else should adjust their taste to fit in with what I like.
Since setting up Another Timbre it’s become evident that there are just enough other people out there with tastes which partially overlap with mine for the label to break even (I wasn’t ever silly enough to imagine that the label would make money, and have always aimed only not to make a big loss). However, I have become aware that some people do look to me or the label to ‘lead’ in terms of defining what is or isn’t ‘good’ and what direction the music is or should be going in. This unsettles me, because while I’m knowledgeable about improvised music, I really don’t think this should make my opinion an authoritative touchstone for other people. I’d rather they stayed true to what they really feel when they listen to a piece of music than follow my taste or judgement.
Sometimes this weighs heavily on me. Beyond hoping that there will continue to be some people out there who will genuinely like the music that I love, I really don’t want to be an arbiter of taste. For decades before setting up the label I listened to music almost entirely alone, in the privacy of my bedroom. I knew very few people whose taste overlapped with mine, and very rarely discussed it with anyone else or read much about it; I simply liked what I liked and didn’t pay attention to other people’s opinions. Unfortunately running a label means that when I listen to music that is sent to me I have to think not just ‘do I like this?’, but also ‘are there likely to be enough other people who will like it enough to buy it? And what will certain critics think?’ This sometimes leads to repeated and rather stressful listens as I worry over these questions. Frankly I often long for the innocence of my listening situation in the days before I ran the label, and if I ever close the label, I’m sure this will be a major reason why. I don’t want to be an arbiter of other people’s taste, or some kind of judge of the latest twists and turns in the way the music is developing. I’d like to simply listen to and enjoy the music I love without all the expectations and politics that seem to come with running a label.
BtB: So would you describe the ideal scenario as a balance between being just present enough to provide the infrastructure for recording and releasing music, but not so much that your presence holds too much of an influence over the music itself or the manner in which people listen?
Yes, kind of. Obviously I’m not going to spend time, energy and money releasing anything that I don’t really like myself, so my taste comes into it that much. But I don’t want Another Timbre to have an agenda in relation to the way improvised music develops. I can think of other labels (or label owners) that certainly do have an agenda in this respect, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s not the way I want to work.
BtB: Do you see any overlap in attitude or approach between running Another Timbre and your day-to-day work recording sound for television and documentaries? In the sense that there are documentary filmmakers who want to be as invisible as possible so that they stand a higher chance of capturing something unforced, surprising and unique.
Again kind of ‘yes’. There’s certainly a sense of the original meaning of ‘documentary’ in that I want the label to document some of the music currently being made that I think is great but might otherwise be neglected. Some of the CDs on Another Timbre have come from ideas that I’ve had for collaborations or projects I think might work, so in those cases I’m being a bit more proactive as a producer. But in general yes, I want my role as both recordist and producer to be pretty much invisible. And about half the releases on the label are simply things that musicians have sent in that are already complete. In those cases I’ve obviously had nothing to do with the music at all, but if I like it enough and it fits in with other projects that are coming to fruition, then I’ll take it for release.
BtB: Which of the CDs on Another Timbre have come from your ideas for collaborations or projects?
Some of the collaborations that I suggested – and were groupings that had never worked together in this form before – were: Lee Patterson & Lucio Capece’s duo ‘Empty Matter’ (at22); Max Eastley & Rhodri Davies on ‘Dark Architecture’ (at-b02); Axel Dörner and Angharad Davies’s duo ‘AD’ (at31); Roberto Fabbriciani and Robin Hayward’s ‘Nella Basilica’ (at30); the ‘Midhopestones’ quintet (Rhodri Davies, Michel Doneda, Louisa Martin, Phil Minton & Lee Patterson – at19); and the group with Mac Eastley, Evan Parker, Graham Halliwell & Mark Wastell (‘A Life Saved…’ – at06). I’m very happy that several of these combinations have gone on from making their disc for Another Timbre and have played together in other contexts, which I feel validates my suggestions somehow.
And there’s a couple of projects that I initiated: the ‘For Hugh Davies’ disc (at11), which was a tribute to one of my favourite musicians who had died shortly before I decided to start the label. I had the idea of using some old unpublished solos of his, and to get three current musicians (Adam Bohman, Lee Patterson & Mark Wastell) who admired his work to ‘accompany’ Hugh’s recordings as they were played back live. The musicians were pleased to take on the idea, but it was my proposal originally just because I liked Hugh’s music so much and would have loved to have done a disc or two with him.
Similarly with the recent recording of John Cage’s percussion piece ‘Four4’ (at34), it was my idea to do a new recording of this piece with the parts being interpreted by musicians who were primarily from an improvising background. Again I think it worked well, and is interestingly different from the other available recordings of the same piece.
BtB: How much work, if any, goes into post production with the albums on Another Timbre? The boundary between improvisation and composition is becoming ever more permeable; how about the boundary between the accurate representation of a performance and studio manipulation?
The answer is very varied. At one time I think a significant percentage of improvisers would have argued that you shouldn’t edit or interfere with an improvised performance at all. If it was to go on disc, it should be presented complete and as it was created. But this is now very much a minority position, I think for two reasons:
(1) Post-production audio editing technologies are much cheaper and much more available than they were ten to fifteen years ago. You don’t have to go into a special studio, but can edit on a laptop, and so the musicians are able to do it themselves and so keep control of their material much more easily than before. And this has perhaps led a lot of musicians to be much more interested in exploiting the possibilities of such technologies and changing or even constructing their music in post-production.
(2) Producing a disc is also considerably cheaper than it used to be, so that even though there is a general decline in CD sales, there are a lot more discs of improvised music than there used to be. Therefore in order to stick out from the crowd and make your disc stronger, it’s perhaps a good idea to spend some time editing your improvisations and making them tighter.
Add to this the growing interest amongst improvisers in (partially) scored music, and music that is ‘composed’ in post-production, and yes, there are an increasing number of discs which use post-production technologies a lot and further blur the old distinction between composition and improvisation.
I personally am very happy with these developments, and don’t have any problems if musicians want to spend a long time editing and manipulating their original playing. But similarly if a group of musicians I’ve recorded insist that they want the disc to reflect the sound of the music as it was heard in the location as faithfully as possible, I’m happy to go along with that.
I often do the editing and mastering of the discs that I record, and I will sometimes suggest a particular mix that I feel sounds right, or edits that I think would improve the music, but I always offer options and will give the musicians the ultimate choice on all creative decisions.
From a technical recording point of view, I think that it’s really important with improvised music to choose a good location. I tend to use churches or other ‘real’ buildings that have some character as opposed to recording studios, which may sound clean, but are often grungy, depressing or rather sterile places. And if you get the location right, and the unedited recording sounds good, then there’s usually not much point in adding lots of effects in post production; you’ll just spoil the atmosphere. So while I think it’s important to select and edit to make the music as tight and strong as possible, I personally use very few plug-ins or effects when I’m mastering. But again, if the musicians really want to do this sort of thing, then I’m happy to try whatever they want.
BtB: Did you initiate the Piano and Guitar Series, or was it a fortuitous coincidence that you happened to be sent a number of discs that naturally suggested those themes? Can we expect more themed/grouped releases in future?
After running the label for a year or so, I realised that it might make sense to release discs in batches rather than just as one-offs because with so many improv discs around, it’s all too easy for a one-off disc to pass under everyone’s radar and simply disappear. Moreover, I’ve always had a thing about wanting to resist the star system that operates unofficially within improvised music (as I’m sure it does in every genre). There are certain ‘big name’ improvisers who will get far more attention and sell far more CDs than lesser-known musicians, even when the latter have produced something that I think is exceptionally good. So I’ve always been looking for ways of giving a higher profile to lesser-known musicians whose music I rate. Early on I tried several discs where established improvisers played alongside lesser-known musicians, and some of these CDs worked well. But it struck me that another way of linking lesser-known players with ‘stars’ would be to release discs by them both as part of a themed series, which would hopefully create a larger audience for the unknown musicians than if their music appeared as a one-off.
It happened that around 18 months ago I had several discs under consideration that involved either piano or guitar. It was a mixture of things that had been sent to me and things that I’d initiated but which had taken a while to develop. So I decided to use these as the basis of two themed series of discs that came out about a year ago. The Piano Series included a disc by John Tilbury (one of the biggest ‘stars’ of the improv world) alongside Sebastian Lexer (who is much less well-known, but was beginning to emerge) performing pieces by the little-known composer Terry Jennings, and the very well-known John Cage. This disc – ‘Lost Daylight’ (at10) – became a huge success. It got some fantastic reviews, but several of these reviewed it as part of a long article covering all four of the piano series CDs. The result was that the discs by lesser-known artistes such as Magda Mayas and Stephen Cornford & Samuel Rodgers (who were hardly known at all) also received a lot of publicity and sold far more copies than I’d have predicted (although still less than half as many as ‘Lost Daylight’).
So the piano series was very successful in the way I’d hoped. But the other series haven’t worked quite as well (the Guitar Series, the Duos with Brass, and most recently the Silence and After series). They’ve sold enough to break even as a whole, but none of them has taken off in the way the Piano Series did. I think this is partly because it helps massively to have one disc in each series like ‘Lost Daylight’ that has a huge star appeal and immediately gets favourable reviews – from The Wire in particular. This hasn’t happened with the other series, although in my opinion some of the discs in them have been just as good as ‘Lost Daylight’. In the Silence and After series that came out at the end of last year, the John Cage and Michael Pisaro discs have done well, but a couple of the improvised CDs haven’t sold nearly as well as I’d hoped. I think this is partly because they fitted only awkwardly or tangentially within the theme of the series. Though I’d argue that there are substantive connections between all of the discs in the series, perhaps other people felt it was a bit forced to combine purely improvised discs with the Cage and Pisaro. And as the improv discs weren’t by absolute beginners, they would perhaps have been better off and received more attention if I’d issued them separately.
So I’m currently re-thinking the idea of releasing discs in series, and the next batch of releases isn’t going to be themed; they are simply four discs of excellent improvisation that will be released at the same time. It’ll be interesting to see how much critical attention they get, especially as none of them contains a ‘superstar’. They mostly feature a combination of reasonably well-known improvisers working with musicians who very few people will know. I think the music on them is great, but I know that this is no guarantee at all that they’ll do well in terms of either reviews or sales. Perhaps this batch will bankrupt the label and I’ll be able to go back to just listening to music in the privacy of my own bedroom…
I’m certain that I will do other themed series in the future, but I’ll be careful how I set them up. I think it was fortuitous that the Piano Series was so successful, and this made me think I’d cracked it, when really I’ve still got a lot to learn.
BtB: David Keenan’s review of the Another Timbre Guitar Series – in which he characterised the releases as sexless and disembodied in contrast to the use of the guitar in rock music – provoked quite a heated debate on Wire’s letters page, as well as several message boards and blogs. What do you see as the purpose of this kind of critique? Is there anything positive that can be drawn from it, or do you think it ultimately just serves to entrench existing positions?
I don’t have a grievance against David Keenan; he’s entitled to his opinion, but if I was asked to review a bunch of avant rock CDs for The Wire I’d say “these aren’t my thing at all, so I can’t judge them or make an intelligent analysis of them; you’d be better giving them to someone else to review.” I just wish he’d done that. I was more annoyed with The Wire itself than him. They have lots of other reviewers who could have written much more interestingly about the discs, whether they’d been positive or negative. Bad reviews are fine, but a wholesale trashing is something else, and it certainly did the label damage in terms of both reputation and sales. With musicians like Keith Rowe, Toshi Nakamura and John Russell in that series, it should have sold well, but it struggled to break even. And the ensuing discussions didn’t – as far as I saw – include any consideration of the merits or otherwise of the four discs themselves, which is a shame because I think a couple of them were particularly interesting. (‘Corgroc’ by Ferran Fages and Dimitra Lazaridou Chatzigoga was the boldest in terms of not using established stars, and I think it’s brilliant, but sadly it remains a largely undiscovered gem thanks to that review).
As a side point, for me it was ironic that he trashed the discs for being sexless, because more than a lot of improv fans, I think I look to music for sensual pleasure. There are people I know who love the more conceptual end of contemporary music. For me such things are fine and interesting enough, but only so long as the music also offers something at an emotional or sensual level. I really don’t have much time for conceptual stuff that doesn’t offer this. And I find most of the music I like best profoundly sensual, including those guitar discs. I listen to a lot of music lying in bed in the dark, and treat it as a kind of aural massage – though this perhaps suggests something soppy and new age, whereas for me good music has to have an edge or a sense of risk (as indeed does good sex in my opinion). But perhaps I just get my sensual pleasure in different ways from David Keenan…
Are such debates useful, or do they just reinforce entrenched positions? In my experience sadly they tend towards the latter. I think it’s good to take music seriously and be able to discuss it, but unfortunately internet forums quickly become dominated by people with loud voices and strong opinions, so a lot of ‘debates’ become tiresome recapitulations of fixed positions. There are some interesting views aired and good points made about improvised music on-line, but more in blogs than discussion forums in my opinion. Before I started the label I never got involved in online debates. Unfortunately since then I have sometimes allowed myself to get drawn into futile arguments, and I always regret it. So now I’ve actually stopped reading ‘I Hate Music’, which was the only discussion forum I followed.
As to The Wire, I think it’s in an awkward position. In order to maximise its readership, it tries to cover a huge range of different experimental musics. As my taste is confined to just a couple of those areas, most of the magazine is about people or music I don’t know, which obviously holds limited interest for me. And when they do feature articles about musicians who I know and like, I usually find them frustratingly superficial. So while I’m not anti-Wire, I don’t feel that it’s a great centre of informed and intelligent debate for the music I like.
BtB: Increasingly the music of people like John Butcher and Charlemagne Palestine (to mention two noteworthy names to appear at last December’s All Tomorrows Parties festival) is finding a receptive audience amongst those who make music in spheres such as psychedelia, avant rock, noise, free folk and ecstatic jazz, areas which readily incorporate elements of improvisation alongside composition and studio manipulation. While I appreciate that you might not have much familiarity with the musicians that are now turning to labels like yours for inspiration, what kind of influences do you hope they might be taking?
It’s great that growing numbers of musicians are experimenting with new forms and methods, and that improvisation is increasingly widespread in a variety of contexts. The influx of new, and especially younger, musicians is always what has given improvised music its energy and dynamism, and what has prevented it from stultifying. But beyond that I can say little, simply because of my ignorance of most of the neighbouring areas of experimental music. I’m cursed with very particular tastes, and even within improvised music my position has usually been a minority one. When I first discovered improv in the mid-70’s, most of the music was jazz-based – a kind of outgrowth from the free jazz of the late 60’s – and as I’ve never liked jazz, the musicians that interested me most were very much on the fringes. As improv has grown and diversified, the particular segment that I’m passionate about has grown too – and for the last decade or so has actually become quite trendy within the overall development of the music. I’d love to think that there were lots of new people coming to improvisation who take the music on Another Timbre seriously and are inspired by it, but I suspect it will always be a minority thing.
One of my early heroes was Franco Evangelisti, the founder of the Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza, which was probably the first group to commit itself solely to improvisation in the early 1960’s. He drew up a set of rules for the group, the first two of which were basically ‘no repeating rhythms’ and ‘no melodies’. The music I like best will probably always fit within the horizon opened up by those two fundamental prohibitions, and – whilst the audience for experimental music overall is larger than ever – I think most people at All Tomorrow’s Parties are still looking for something in terms of rhythm and melody… perhaps not all the time, but sometimes. There’s nothing at all wrong with that, but the people who are most likely to enjoy the music on Another Timbre will probably be the few who are able to cut themselves adrift entirely from those massive markers.
BtB: In addition to ‘no repeating rhythms’ and ‘no melodies’ could you also say that a respect for the influence of the performing/recording environment, a keen ear for timbral detail and a resistance to turning up the volume for its own sake are also factors that characterise a lot of your releases?
Yes, very nicely put. I wouldn’t disagree with that at all. And it’s good to express these things (as you do) as characteristic tendencies rather than hard and fast ‘rules’.
BtB: How do you feel that UK improvisation fits in with the rest of the world these days? Is there any kind of defined UK sound (like the free improv of the 1960s – 1980s, with SME, Evan Parker and Derek Bailey), or are people’s styles less dictated by geography these days?
The first thing to say is that there are now a huge number of improvising musicians within the UK – hundreds, not just dozens. The ‘scene’ is very diverse, and in fact comprises several different ‘scenes’. Virtually every ‘playing style’ that you can think of within improvised music is now represented here. So I think it’s impossible to identify a single ‘UK sound’ these days – especially as many of the musicians here who I know (and there are plenty that I don’t) have in fact come from abroad.
I think music generally is increasingly global in lots of ways. Just one example: within improv it is now quite common for people to collaborate on a piece by sending each other files electronically, sometimes half way round the world. And digital technology makes it possible for people to hear performances from Japan, Malaysia, Korea, Berlin, California or wherever within hours of – or even in real time with – the physical performance of that music. Inevitably in the context of such technology, the improvised music sector takes on the features of a global village, and innovations and influences can transcend geographical separations within minutes. So playing styles that can be identified with particular nationalities are less and less likely to occur.
However, some geographically-based communities do still exist within the larger global network, and to some extent I think people within these communities do sometimes develop shared characteristics. Think on the one hand of the small group of electronics-based improvisers in Seoul, South Korea. They feel marginalised and unappreciated within their own society, and are hungry for contacts with musicians from other countries. However, the tightness of their community – just because it is so marginal, and they have to rely on each other personally to a high degree for support – means that to an extent they have developed a particular approach to electronics that can be identified.
Similarly – though under very different conditions – tight-knit groups like the young players at Eddie Prevost’s workshop in South London can emerge who share not so much a playing style as an approach and attitude towards music – and society in general. They’re not at all insular, and happily play with people from outside the Workshop, but when you see them regularly it is quite easy to pick up on a shared set of assumptions and approaches to music-making amongst them.
So while in general improvised music has become much more international, and I don’t think it’s possible to identify a ‘UK sound’, there are still particular groups within that global scene that can be identified.
BtB: You’ve mentioned a few areas in which improvisers are still innovating. Are there any areas or approaches that seem to you to have stagnated or come to a creative dead end?
In any objective sense, I simply don’t know. I spend over 90% of my listening time with music in the couple of small areas that I like best, so I’m not the person to come to for an informed opinion about the current state of other areas.
On the other hand there certainly is a lot of improvised music that doesn’t excite me. When I look at the Café Oto programme, I’m tempted by less than half of what’s on offer (for example, free jazz-derived improv, which has always been a major strand within improvised music, is one that has never appealed to me). And there are certainly some musicians who I used to follow avidly, but who I’m now not very interested in. But just because I don’t get much from most other areas of experimental music doesn’t mean that I can therefore dismiss them as being stagnant or creatively dead. To make such a pseudo-objective statement, I would need to be much more familiar with them than I am.
I think that – almost by definition – musicians into experimental music value innovation; it’s a quality that’s afforded an extremely high importance in the sector as a whole. So I’d expect that virtually any improviser or experimental musician is looking to develop their music in new directions. It’s likely that most of these innovations are not moving in directions that I personally would enjoy; as the sector as a whole becomes broader, I will probably like a smaller and smaller percentage of the music within it. But that is no bad thing; why should everyone be trying to please me? And I suspect that this greater diversity within experimental and improvised musics is more a sign of the overall health of the sector than its stagnation.
But again, having said that, I think that there is a general tendency in all art forms for people to innovate less (and less quickly) as they get older, and this is probably true of many improvising musicians of my age or over. So if innovation is what you’re after, you’re probably best looking to the work of younger musicians. But (a) there are exceptions to this generalisation, and (b) it would be ridiculously arrogant for me as a non-musician to dismiss any improviser as being ‘creatively dead’ when I don’t create anything at all.
Evan Parker is sometimes cited as an example of an older musician whose work has stagnated, and who is basically doing the same as what he did 20 or 30 years ago. But I think that stereotype is problematic. If you actually take the trouble to listen to, for example, his recent recordings with his Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, they are different from anything he was doing in 1990. And when asked, he is actually very open to playing with challenging young musicians in unfamiliar contexts; you may not like what he does, but his music is still evolving.
This whole debate about improvised music being stagnant has come from one particular sector within improv generally – an area that is sometimes called EAI (or post-reductionism or lower-case improv or whatever). Much – though not all – of the music I like best happens to fall within this area. Certain people in this sector see themselves as the revolutionary vanguard of improvised music, or perhaps as the keepers of the true faith. They tend to be very sectarian and dismissive of any improvised music that they deem not to fall within their particular area. But recently some of these self-appointed arbiters of taste have begun to say that even EAI has become tired creatively and has run its course. To support their argument, they point to two factors:
(1) Musicians within this sector are increasingly producing CDs that are constructed in post-production through editing rather than simply being recordings of real-time improvisations.
(2) Some of these musicians are also increasingly turning to composed rather than improvised music.
Now, I think both of these points have an element of truth, and indeed they are both welcome developments from my point of view as they fit in with my particular tastes. But to leap from them to a grand declaration that improvisation as a whole is dying, is in my opinion quite unjustified.
I think point (1) is simply a reflection of the fact that post-production technologies have recently become much more cheaply and readily available – and improvising musicians have always looked to new technologies for ways of evolving and reinvigorating their music (remember the way that laptops and digital electronics were widely taken up by improvisers when they became affordable about twelve to fifteen years ago).
And point (2) is an oversimplification that ignores the fact that very few improvisers are playing tightly scored works by the likes of Brian Ferneyhough or Iannis Xenakis. In the vast majority of cases we’re talking about improvising musicians using their skills to create realisations of open scores, which still leave the players plenty of freedom in their interpretation. OK, a musician isn’t strictly speaking ‘improvising’ when he or she realises an open score by Michael Pisaro or John Cage, but nor I think are they leaving their improvisatory skills at the door and playing composed music in a conventional sense.
So for me both these tendencies are real enough, but they are simply new examples of the ways in which ‘improvised music’ as a whole continues to find ever more ways of diversifying and evolving. I think they’re more a sign of the music’s growth than its stagnation or creative death. I’ve been at a number of events recently where musicians have switched freely and readily between ‘pure improvisation’ and realisations of contemporary scores. In the way they are being practised, the two complement each other and aren’t in contradiction at all. It certainly didn’t feel that one was creatively alive and the other dead.
Cultural revolutionaries always love to draw lines in the sand, marking out their new passions from anything that has gone before. It makes them feel important, part of a privileged elite that is riding the wave of history. But I think the reality is much more complex and messy, less dramatic and more mundane. Improvised music is now remarkably diverse and protean, and it doesn’t move forward in only one direction, as the vanguardists imagine (a single direction that always happens to coincide with their particular tastes). And from the music I’ve heard so far this year in both concerts and recording sessions from the particular areas I’m interested in, it simply doesn’t ring true to claim that improvised music is dying. While I very much welcome many improvisers’ forays into the world of open scores, this doesn’t contradict what they do in ‘pure improvisation’, and I’ve heard some improvised music in the past months that has thrilled me creatively. Of course this is subjective, but I’m still hearing musicians improvising in ways that open up glimpses of new soundworlds and unexplored timbres. If you’re wanting specifics, then listen to the trio discs by Stephen Cornford, Patrick Farmer and Sarah Hughes and by the group Tierce that will both come out later this year on Another Timbre.
BtB: You talk about the music that inspires you as a small subset of the whole area of composed and improvised music. As long as the music resists rhythmic repetition, melody, volume for volume’s sake and maintains its respect for location and timbre, would you have an interest in expanding Another Timbre’s frame of reference beyond what’s conventionally understood as improvisation or composition? I’m talking about field recordings or music created through generative processes as potential examples…
I would happily expand Another Timbre’s frame of reference to any form of contemporary music that really excited me. And I certainly don’t want the label to stand still or start repeating itself in terms of its output. But if I start moving into areas that I think are interesting or worthwhile, but which don’t absolutely grab me, then I will do the job badly. John Butcher told me early on that the label would only work if I was 100% behind every disc that was released, and I’m sure he’s right.
Field recordings are very much a case in point. I’ve nothing against them, and I own several discs by the likes of Chris Watson, Eric la Casa and BJ Nilsen, but… I’m just not passionate about them in the way that I am about the CD’s I own by, for example, Helmut Lachenmann, Luigi Nono, Thomas Lehn or Angharad Davies. I like the field recording discs when I play them, but somehow only get round to them quite rarely. I think I much prefer field recordings when they’re used as part of a compositional or improvisatory process – as for instance by Lee Patterson or Michael Pisaro. So it’s not that I’m against any area of music on principle; I just follow my nose and focus the label’s output on the music that I like best.
BtB: Which less well known players do you hope to work with in future, and what is it about their music that excites you?
Well, I’ll talk mainly about the UK, not because I think it’s the only interesting place for experimental music, but because inevitably it’s easier for me to be aware of young emerging players here than abroad. When I started the label I felt that there was a group of young musicians around the improvisation workshops that Eddie Prevost organises in South London who were under-represented on disc, and they were the focus of a lot of the label’s early releases (people like Seymour Wright, Sebastian Lexer, Paul Abbott, Bechir Saade, Ute Kanngiesser etc). I’m still interested in this group but in the meantime they’ve become much better known, so they’re perhaps slightly less of a focus for me now.
The musicians who seem to be taking up a lot of my time at the moment are a group of very young players most of whom have for some reason ended up in Oxford: Patrick Farmer, Sarah Hughes, Daniel Jones, Dom Lash & Stephen Cornford. I find them quite an inspiring bunch with a very open attitude. Like me, they’re increasingly interested in the grey area between improvisation and loosely composed music, and I seem to be recording them quite often.
As for composed music, the Wandelweiser group (who write very quiet and sparse music) have interested me for a long time. They’ve recently become much better known and a lot of discs have appeared over the last couple of years. Most of the key figures in the group are no longer young, but there is a younger generation of composers growing up around them, some of whom I find very interesting – and many of whom are also using a degree of improvisation in their pieces. Names here include James Saunders, Tim Parkinson, Mark So, Sam Sfirri, Cat Lamb, Jason Brogan and Taylan Susam, and I certainly hope to produce discs with a few of these.
BtB: Do you think you’ve got a recognisable sound when it comes to the way in which you record?
Again it’s down to the nature of the music the label focuses on. As you observed, a close attention to timbre is key to most of the music I love, whether it’s composed or improvised. And you can only really capture that with close mics. It’s no use putting the mics in the position you would if you were recording conventional classical music (i.e. high up and a few metres from the instruments). That is right for conventional classical music, where you don’t want to hear the detail of, say, the violin bow scraping on the string. It’s the full sound coming from the soundbox that matters in a Beethoven sonata. But if you’re recording Angharad Davies playing violin, then she has a whole vocabulary of sounds which centre on the semi-accidental scrapes and squeaks that a conventional classical violinist is desperate to minimise. And to hear these unconventional sounds properly, you have to mic closely.
But it’s also true that with improvised music, it’s important to record the sounds in the context of the room acoustic in which they are being created. Any improvisation is unique to the location where it was created, and the room or environment will often shape the choices the musician’s make in their playing. So as well as getting mikes close for the details of the instrumental sounds, it’s important also to use quite wide room mics that hear the music as it sounds in the room where it was created. Assuming you have access to a multitrack recording set-up (ideally at least 8 tracks) it should be possible to capture both the close timbral details and the room sound, and then you can decide on the exact mix later on.
I’m lucky enough to have both good microphones (DPA’s) and a good portable 8-channel recorder (Sound Devices 788), so I can usually manage to capture both elements – but I’m far from unique in doing this, so I’m not sure that my recordings have a particular sound that is distinguishable from other recordists’ work.
But as I say, while my recording strategy (unusually close mikes coupled with wide room mikes) is appropriate for the kind of music I release on Another Timbre, other kinds of music will demand different techniques; there’s no absolute rules that apply to all situations.
BtB: Are there many people in the field of recording who you can recognise from the way they approach documenting sound events?
No. I can obviously tell when something’s well recorded, but I can’t claim to recognise particular engineers’ work. Having said that, I have been really impressed with a number of recordings I’ve heard by Eric La Casa. He does a lot of work with field recordings, but separate from that as a sound engineer he has also done some fantastic location recordings – sometimes in very striking and unusual locations, where he has managed to capture the detail of the instruments as well as the details of the environment in ways that make me quite jealous.
BtB: There are a few people on the Bang the Bore forum who experiment with recording, often on a tight (or practically non-existent) budget. From your experience in recording, do you have any tips or observations regarding how to achieve good results?
Well, as I say, I’m lucky enough to already have quite expensive equipment that makes the job a lot easier, and I would struggle in contexts where – for instance – I’ve only got one or two mics, and don’t have a recorder with decent pre-amps. Fortunately it’s not something I’ve had to do, so I take my hat off to anyone who manages to get good results with cheap or simple equipment. But it can be done. Microphone positioning is key – all the more so when you’re only using a couple of mics. A mediocre microphone in a good position is better than a good mike in a poor position.
And for any music that’s acoustic or partly acoustic, it’s worth thinking hard about location. I often record in churches, but churches that have only a slight resonance without bouncing the sound around in multiple long echoes. If the space gives the musicians just a little back acoustically, I think it helps. And churches are usually so much nicer spaces to work in than studios (and are often cheaper to hire). Though obviously if – as I tend to – you’re recording music that is quiet, make sure there isn’t a busy road outside, or an airport nearby.
BtB: Do you have any advice for those who run their own labels, general principles that might apply outside even your particular sphere of musical interest?
I don’t consider myself an expert; I’ve only been running Another Timbre for four years. But my main advice would be: love every disc deeply, but also be realistic! We’re now living in age when most people under 30 expect to be able to access recorded music without paying for it. CD sales are declining all the time, so ask yourself first: is the music I love best served by being released on CD, or vinyl, or CDR, or cassette, or as downloads from a netlabel? CD is obviously the most expensive route, and may well not be the most appropriate.
Unless you’re expecting to sell thousands of units, keep costs as low as possible at every stage. I scrimp on packaging because it’s not very important to me, but if you do want to put a lot of emphasis on the look and design of the product, then be careful because this can be very expensive relative to the cost of producing the audio. It’s very easy to lose money, and very difficult to break even.
And the job hasn’t finished when the CD, LP or whatever is finally available. I’m pretty hopeless with distribution just because I find it so boring, but try to keep on top of who are the right distributors for your area of music – and don’t let distributors build up too large a debt or you’ll never get your money from them (they will be under constant financial pressure too, and while a few distributors are good and prompt payers, many are not).
And finally, try to create a splash with each release; make its launch a bit of an event so that people might hear of it. My strategy of releasing CD’s in themed batches is part of this idea, but there are lots of ways of doing it. Better producers than me are really good at creating a hype around their releases so that people in that area of music feel that they must own the disc and have an opinion on it even if they may not like it too much. There’s nothing worse than producing a CD of what you feel is great music, and then just see the copies sitting in boxes in your bedroom because the people who might buy and enjoy it don’t know the disc is out there. There’s so much music available these days that you have to actively go out and make your discs sound as special for other people as you feel they are.
BtB: Are there any Another Timbre releases that you feel exemplify the aesthetic of the label, particularly for a newcomer who’s interested in exposing themselves to the music for the first time?
I shouldn’t have favourites, but two discs that I’m particularly fond of – and both of which were recorded in churches – are ‘Midhopestones’ and ‘Nella Basilica’. ‘Midhopestones’ was recorded in a tiny old stone church in a village on the edge of Sheffield where I live, and features a quintet of improvisers (Rhodri Davies, Michel Doneda, Phil Minton, Louisa Martin and Lee Patterson) using a mixture of acoustic instruments and electronics. And ‘Nella Basilica’ – as the name suggests – was recorded in a far grander church in Italy, and features purely acoustic duets for very low wind instruments that produce some extraordinary sounds: microtonal tuba (played by Robin Hayward) and bass, contrabass and hyperbass flutes (played by Roberto Fabbriciani).
If you want to try some composed (or loosely composed) music, you can try John Cage’s ‘Four4’ (as realised by four improvising percussionists) or Michael Pisaro’s ‘Fields Have Ears’, which contains 3 beautiful works for piano, piano & tape/field recordings, and an ensemble of 14 musicians playing the quietest music I’ve ever had to record!
BtB: What are the next releases coming up on Another Timbre?
The next batch is not themed as a series in any way; it’s simply 4 discs of improvised music that I really like. They happen to all be by musicians from Continental Europe, but that’s a geographical coincidence, not a theme.
Continuing the emphasis on providing openings for lesser-known musicians, two of the discs introduce players who will be new names to even most cognoscenti in the improv world: Tiziana Bertoncini and Jonas Kocher. But some of the other musicians are long-established players with substantial and well-known histories, including Thomas Lehn, Andrea Neumann, Lucio Capece & Michel Doneda.
There’s an ongoing debate about whether improvised music should always be innovative, or whether it also needs to have moments or periods of consolidating yesterday’s innovations. I think that in a broad sense it’s certainly important that people are looking to innovate, and that labels are looking to support innovative work. However, that’s only one side of things, and I also think it’s important that musicians should be given space to work through and assimilate recent trends and developments. I certainly don’t think it’s helpful if improvising musicians are constantly faced with pressure for every performance or disc to be radically new or totally different from anything they’ve done before. Unfortunately the technology of the ‘global village’ means that anything ‘new’ gets picked up, digested and exhausted remarkably quickly. In the old days it would take months or even years for new techniques, new players or new styles to disseminate around the globe, and that gave players plenty of time to consolidate their skills as well as innovating.
Perhaps the new batch of Another Timbre discs is in a way a riposte to this hungry demand for permanent innovation. All of the new discs are closer to what I’d call ‘quiet evolution’ than noisy revolution. What matters for me is that they are all very beautiful and touch me at an emotional or sensual level. The batch after this in June will focus more on the cutting edge(s), but these four discs are a matter of seeing how people are continuing to develop their music in a ‘post-reductionist’ context. Perhaps significantly, all four CDs feature one German musician, as it was that country that first gave us the term ‘reductionism.’
Having said all that, there are some interestingly novel or different features in the music of the current batch. For instance – and ironically in the light of our previous comments about the ‘no melodies’ rule – the Spiral Inputs disc (by Sophie Agnel, Bertrand Gauguet and Andrea Neumann) at times plays with melody in a way that is unusual in contemporary improv. There aren’t actual tunes, but Sophie’s playing in particular is undoubtedly using melodic elements alongside the more ‘abstract’ sounds you expect from an Another Timbre disc.
And Horsky Park (by Tiziana Bertoncini and Thomas Lehn) is an extraordinary meeting of two instruments with totally different histories – the violin and the Synthi-A analogue synthesiser (which dates from the 1970’s, but has been Thomas Lehn’s instrument of choice for the last fifteen years). The disc is like a clash between the soundworlds of the Darmstadt classical avant garde and early electronica. It’s bizarre, and certainly unlike anything I’ve heard before, but they are both such great instrumentalists – and great ‘listeners’ – that it works beautifully in my opinion.
Anyway, everyone reading this should buy all four of the new discs and see for themselves – then this batch might even break even!
Interview conducted by Seth Cooke and Tanner Servoss of Aphidhair.