My introduction to the music of Transcendprovisation, an improvising group from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, was in the form of two tapes – Trans 2: Group Music and Figure II. Group Music didn’t affect me particularly – it consists of as many as seven musicians playing many different instruments in many combinations, every track featuring a different configuration of players and instruments. I’ve never understood the utility of playing more than one instrument, it seems to me to consist fundamentally of an unnecessary division of energy, and Group Music tends to sound like just another of those groups of players who wander about picking up instruments and tooting or manipulating them for brief intervals before moving on.
Figure II, however, impressed me very much. It consists of five short duets between Davey Williams on electric guitar and percussion and La Donna Smith on electric violin, viola, piano, and electronics (marimba). Smith continues instrument-hopping, but Williams exhibits a refreshingly cohesive approach consisting of elements of reliance on the electronics of the guitar’s amplification system as an independent sound generator as well as the scratchings and other “noise” elements that are the standard appurtenances of avant-garde guitar. The fundamental dynamic of these duos seems to be the clash between the basic eclecticism, both conceptual and instrumental, of Smith as opposed to the relative single-mindedness, or style (lately a beleaguered concept), of Williams. This inherent conflict seems to strongly affect the structures of the pieces themselves, which seem to build mightily when the raucously assertive Williams is dominating the proceedings, and to lose energy when the more contemplative Smith is ascendant, or the two try to integrate with each other. The integration is most successful on “Violin Concerto # 2,” when Williams bows his guitar in tandem with Smith’s playing of bowed instruments, but there is still a wide range of divergent elements presented, from the relative sonic conventionality of Smith to the unheard of explorations of Williams.
My next encounter with Transcendprovisation was their record, Trans Museq 1. This time five members are variously employed, with multi-instrumentalism ruling the day (Williams doubles on alto sax, and Smith adds ARP 2600, drums and organ), each piece seemingly created to illustrate the instrumental combination rather than out of the inherent necessity of the music. Trans Museq is stronger and more satisfying than Group Music, but I find myself most drawn to the Smith-Williams duet “Deck Chance Lament” and particularly to the Williams solo piece “The Howl of Fame,” which begins softly, mildly, and grows in an arched crescendo that increases in intensity, complexity, and timbral excitement.
My latest experience with the Tuscaloosa denizens is two solo tapes by Williams, Figure I and Figure VI. Figure I is electric, and presents a fully integrated amalgam of virtuoso picking, electronics, and “process events,” i.e. music generated by idle exploitation of “noise” elements. My favorite piece on the tape is “home–the razor’s edge,” which explores the amplification system so thoroughly that it seems to serve as a surrogate respiratory system as well as a synthesizer.
Figure VI is solo acoustic guitar, recorded 27 August 1977. With the amplification system removed from the body of the guitar, Williams resorts to more picking and noise elements, some pieces emphasizing one or the other, some integrating the two. On “string orchestra music,” he uses his bow again, and the effect is still hair-raising. And even on the most process-oriented pieces, there is still a primary emphasis on playing, and musical pieces are being created, their aleatory nature notwithstanding.
The strength and singlemindedness, this assertion of style on Williams’ part, raises questions of gravity regarding the nature of “free improvisation” and its approaches. Derek Bailey, who seems to me to represent some sort of absolute in terms of non-preconceived improvised playing without idiom, makes music that sounds rather significantly different from Williams in that his pieces seem to eschew the concept of structure, to possess only duration as a distinguishing characteristic. I was introduced to Bailey’s playing by the English percussionist-altoist Roy Ashbury, and I’m still much taken by his description, in a letter of March 1974, of what Bailey and the other English players (including Ashbury) are up to:
“the method of total improvisation (perhaps akin to the surrealists’ use of automatism in writing and painting) is a kind of phenomological épochè, that is, a suspension of belief, a desire to create a new beginning if that describes it better – questioning all our basic assumptions about what an instrument is, & what it should do (it seems to me that this method is inevitably based in the actual playing of an instrument rather than at the compositional stage – it depends on a speed unobtainable thru’ other methods – that is, the use of any kind of notation, conventional or graphic, based on ‘rows’ or dice-throws, can’t produce the same effect – immediacy is the key)… “derek bailey is an example of what i mean – he too played jazz – it undoubtedly influenced him – as have the sonorities of the europeans – but he has now found his own voice & is rapidly influencing a lot of musicians here… he just sits and plays & the effect is one of making you wonder whether you’d ever heard a guitar played…”
A polar opposite to the approach described above, at least in terms of conception, is the work of another guitarist, Eugene Chadbourne, which isn’t “free” improvisation at all, since the improvisation is always within the context of preconceived and notated compositions. Yet, strangely enough, Chadbourne’s albums, especially the second and third, sound less like preconceived structures than does the material issued by Williams or any of the Tuscaloosans. The trend in Chadbourne’s recordings is away from picking, toward longer forms and series of events of process instead of structures.
His third album, Guitar Trios (Parachute P-003), is a curiosity among albums featuring improvisation in that four widely divergent guitarists, Richard “Duck” Baker and Randy Hutton (acoustics) and Henry Kaiser and Owen Maereks (electrics) all play compositions and improvise precisely in the style of their leader, Chadbourne. This total obliteration of the concept of style is maintained consistently with the exception of Baker’s solo at the end of the acoustic side, which is in his avant-garde style (he also plays swing style and has recorded ragtime). Baker’s playing eschews structures but maintains the classic sound of the nylon-string guitar, which is the opposite of Williams’ style, which redefines the character of the instrument within the context of structures. For all of this preconception, Chadbourne rejects both structures and conventional instrumental sounds, and his end result has much in common with Bailey’s.
Williams’ remarks on his conception of improvisation, from a letter of 4 October 1977 are germane. Speaking of Bailey: “Sometimes I feel a similarity between his work and Webern or Chopin, not because of the method obviously, but neither because of any similarity in the subject matter, but more in the effect of it on the listener. “I can’t even say that I don’t hear climaxes or melody or articulation/virtuosity in his stuff; I can’t think of it in terms of what is not there because it is complete music anyway. With Bailey…it is the music that gives us these impressions and not the method… “The point to me (emphasis added) is how the music composes itself. The only function of me the musician is to bring it out as faithfully and clearly as possible, which is at least partly why I am what some would call ‘hung up” (overconcerned) on technique, technical execution, ability, finesse, etc….; it’s just that to me ‘technique,’ ‘ability,’ is not just a matter of having tricks under your fingers. Perhaps more important is the practice of being in tune with the music itself as it comes out, being right in the middle of it (faithful transposition of thought to sound, unconscious) at the same time being at a distance from it, being able to follow the changes in direction, sensing the endings when they appear, etc…. We appreciate the phenomena, and invite them subconsciously…”
Williams’ reference to the music as “composing itself” while the musicians involved play an “unconscious” or “subconscious” role is reminiscent of abstract-expressionist film painter Ron Morrissey’s 1967 statement (in Quagmire 1): “I am not the artist. I will go very corny on you and tell you that God is the artist using me as a brush in His hand; I am His instrument.” Unfortunately, this kind of formulation is compromised by the act of issuing a product such as a record, tape or film; since there is nearly always more material on hand than is released to the public, the artist is always making decisions after the fact of creation regarding which of these gifts from the unconscious (or God) are most worthy, entailing the kind of value judgements that I suspect are also going on, albeit on a subconscious level, at the time of creation. Since the works produced in even the most aleatory fashion are still to some extent the work of an artist’s hand (if only by virtue of the fact that they were produced by that artist and not any other), it’s incumbent on that artist to take responsibility for that work, as the expression of a philosophical/esthetic position.
It seems obvious, at least from the standpoint of pure logic (or perhaps a kind of plane geometry) that if Bailey and Williams start with the same conception (that the music creates itself) and arrive at musics that sound radically divergent, while Bailey and Chadbourne start at divergent conceptions and arrive at similar sounds, then the relationship between conception and sound is more complex than we tend to assume. It seems to me that no matter how hard an artist tries to stand out of the way and let the materials interact with each other toward “self-creating art,” the product of this process (or at least that product which the artist sees) will reflect the biases and esthetic position of the artist. In fact, what is expressed in this way is probably truer, more fundamental to the artist than that which is expressed when the artist exercises more “conscious control.” The important concept here is the interaction between the artist, at the most intuitive level, and the consciousness inherent in the materials.
Loren Means, 1977
selected Davey Williams recordings: