THE MUSIC IMPROVISATION COMPANY 1968-71 Incus 17
Derek Bailey / guitar, Hugh Davies / live electronics and organ, Jamie Muir / percussion, Evan Parker / soprano saxophone and amplified autoharp. Recorded: July 4, 1969; June 18, 1970.
DUO Incus 20
Derek Bailey / electric guitar, 19 string (approx.) guitar, Waiswich crackle box, Tristan Honsinger /cello, voice. Recorded: February 7, 1976 in concert & two tracks February 6, 1976.
COMPANY 1 Incus 21
Maarten van Regteren Altena / bass, Tristan Honsinger / cello, Evan Parker / soprano and tenor saxophones, Derek Bailey / acoustic and electric guitars. Recorded: May 9, 1976.
The Music Improvisation Company 1968-71 is a further documentation of the group (minus vocalist Christine Jeffrey) that first appeared on ECM 1005 under the same name, and it promises to be the first volume of two or more of previously unreleased material. For the most part, there’s not too much new to be learned about the group from this record – though it does serve, like the ECM album, to bring the origins and growth of this music, that based on spontaneous free improvisation, into some perspective.
It is at once a complete music, covering important new ground, yet tentative. The language is one of inter-action – of phrases, sounds, clusters of sounds – the trying out of new textures, timbres, linear and rhythmic possibilities, and their combinations. Yet what makes the music tentative is the underlying assumption that the whole is more important than the parts. So the musicians largely only respond to each other – the established context suggesting the manner of response – rather than they develop truly independent intersecting lines. This is not to say that this approach doesn’t work, for in fact – here, as on the ECM album – it works superbly well. It’s only to say that, except for the high energy passages, there’s a feeling of deliberateness about the proceedings, a cautious looking around at the possibilities – as if to be positive that everything would actually work – and an attempt at avoiding the cliches of the times.
The reason for this, of course, is that at this time, this was still mainly a new way of making music – that is, to improvise totally with no guidelines, compositional imperatives, or conceptualizations whatsoever, and to work towards developing the practical (musical) implications of such an approach. One obvious implication was that the music would have to be open enough to accept anything, yet be beyond idiom; which implies in turn a continual openness to expansion and growth, for the moment that ceases, all that has been created is a new idiom. But some kind of new language/manner of working did have to be found.
The first attempt at this was made by John Stevens’ Spontaneous Music Ensemble, the earliest free recording of which was Karyobin (Island ILPS 9079, recorded 1967).* It is from here that much of the aesthetic feel of Music Improvisation Company apparently comes, for the ideal of the SME was to create a total “group music” as opposed to one simply showcasing soloists. It was, in a sense, a movement from one extreme to the other. There was a close interaction of fragmented line, but it was a closeness based on an (at least implied) regularity of feeling or pulse and which, while requiring a basic openness to new textural/timbral/rhythmic possibilities, also – in its strong contextual awareness – placed a certain limit on these and on an outwardly expressive individual virtuosity. So the formal openness achieved here (and it is an achievement) – and fairly much continued, extended, and refined by the SME over the years on recordings such as “So What Do You Think?,” Face to Face, and SME plus equals SMO – was in part a circumscribed one that needed to really open up in order to re-find itself at another level – the level of independent awareness, of intuitive knowledge and flow.
The work of the Music Improvisation Company marks a first movement in this direction, though it is still very much influenced by that awareness. There’s a greater and greater acceptance of sound in its own right and a feeling of genuine experimentation going on in the music. Just to bring Hugh Davies into it must have been an experiment of some kind: first, in that electronic music is virtually never performed “live” and, secondly, in that the whole surface/flow of sound would be considerably less predictable. It further suggests – importantly for the development of this kind of music – the full determination to be free once and for all of any harmonic necessity.
Also, one hears Derek Bailey’s work beginning to really open up for the first time, embracing more and more electronic sound possibilities and textures. And Evan Parker’s playing, though still fairly rooted in the Karyobin period, has become harder, more percussive, and much more sound-conscious. Jamie Muir provides a sensitive, often only suggestive, rhythmic interaction, rolling disjointedly from top to bottom of his trap set and occasionally hiding his contributions in the sonic maze generated by Hugh Davies.
As regards the development of language, the importance of a record such as Topography of the Lungs (Parker-Bailey-Bennink, Incus 1, recorded 1970) can now be heard as an intuitive first leap in the direction of independent expression, of the players stepping forward and taking a fully assertive role in the making of the music rather than one of mainly responding to/interacting with the environment around them. Apparently, if the Music Improvisation Company recordings are any indication, it was a leap still in need of further practice for its aesthetic justification – this in spite of the fact that the MIC records present a definitely wider, more open sound span (and, as a result of that, are often more complex rhythmically), which is likely their most important contribution.
On Duo can be heard the extent to which the language of free improvisation has evolved in the ensuing six years – and it stands out all the more blatantly due to the contrasting approaches of Bailey and Honsinger. The cellist’s work is fast, fluid, and propulsive, whereas Bailey’s seems to only want to be in any given moment, with each new sound being an extension of that. Both men utilize a wide range of sound, though Bailey is more interested in timbre and in sound in itself. Also, he more easily sets whole areas of sound apart, whereas Honsinger swoops gracefully, though at great speed, in and out of them. And compared to Bailey, Honsinger’s technical approach is almost traditional. His work, in fact (in its own high-pitched way), seems to nearly sing at times – though it is a quick paced, rhythmically inflected song, covering more ground in a moment’s time than all but the most gifted vocalists could even hope to.
Virtuosity, then, is never sacrificed for some greater ensemble good – that pretty much takes care of itself – and, for the most part, either player’s work can stand entirely on its own. To be sure, there’s an awareness by each player of what is happening with the other, but that acts not as a (limiting) determinant of action, only as an ongoing acknowledgement of possibility, the implicit assumption being that there are many such possibilities. So Bailey and Honsinger play as much around each other as with each other, though that is also a way of “being there,” and it is a highly substantive, beautiful, and moving collaboration.
Much the same could be said about the music on Company 1. Company is not actually a group in the sense that Music Improvisation Company was a group, but is a loosely connected pool of players (including Anthony Braxton and Leo Smith from this country) who play together regularly, though not continuously, in various groupings to pursue free improvisation.
The first Company album features Bailey, Honsinger, Evan Parker, and Maarten van Regteren Altena playing in each of the four possible trio combinations. The most remarkable trio is the one featuring the three string instruments – and this must also be considered the most important from any historic standpoint, as there is virtually no precedent for improvisation involving only string instruments, and none whatsoever for this particular combination of cello, bass, and guitar.
The piece opens with a near Leroy Jenkins-sounding melodic line by Honsinger; then Bailey introduces some altogether contrary harmonic/timbral/ percussive elements, changing its sense entirely. Altena comes thumping in after Bailey, striking up a fantastic interaction between them; then he takes up the challenge set by Honsinger, though from a quite removed harmonic/timbral space. Bailey (on acoustic guitar) is all over the place throughout the piece, astonishing in the breadth and depth of sound he commands. He alters the piece’s fluidity, its way of moving, so that it opens onto a stubborn, rough-edged, and craggy expanse as well as onto one more fleet, ethereal, and floating. Some of this effect is also suggested by Altena, whose work is by far his most wide ranging and flexible on the record.
On the track with Parker, Altena, and Honsinger, Parker charges in headfirst, winging his way between the strings as if in flight. At times the whole trio seems about to take off, so intense is the exchange. Parker and Bailey with Honsinger suggest a harder, more open, and less definite sound area, with Honsinger’s work taking a somewhat more percussive turn than elsewhere. The remaining track – with Parker, Bailey, and Altena – is slower in tempo and more space-conscious, though it becomes denser and, by virtue of that, more disjointed as it proceeds.
Throughout the record, the level of virtuosity is outstanding. The pieces/improvisations are less a blend of ideas than their coming together simultaneously in the same space – the establishment of independent co-procedures that more closely resembles the type of genuine interaction that occurs in “real” life. They are a dance of sound, the moving together/coming together of energy (ways of being(one)) rather than of individual subordination to an idea of same. Moreover, they are some of the most far reaching trio improvisations yet to appear on record.
Henry Kuntz, 1977
* Note: One earlier SME record was made, the long-deleted Challenge on the Eyemark label (recorded 1966), which reflects Coleman’s innovations as handed down through the New York Art Quartet and combined with something of the orchestral sense of Archie Shepp – as on Four For Trane (Impulse A-71). The music is good, the stylings original, but the language derivative.
Tristan Honsinger biography:
Tristan Honsinger is a cello player active in free jazz and free improvisation. He is perhaps best known for his long-running collaboration with free jazz pianist Cecil Taylor and guitarist Derek Bailey. Honsinger’s energetic style of playing leads to the necessity to change bows every few minutes.
Born in Vermont in 1949, Honsinger was given music lessons from a very early age on, as his mother had hopes of creating a chamber orchestra together with his brother and sister. At the age of 12, Tristan would give concerts on a nearly weekly basis. He studied classical cello at the prestigious New England Conservatory in Boston before moving to Montreal in 1969 to avoid the draft. While in Canada, he became interested in improvisational music. Honsinger moved to Europe in 1978 and was active throughout the continent. He currently operates from Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Honsinger has a striking appearance, with body language reminiscent of that of a slapstick actor. His theatrical side surfaces in every combo he has played with.
He has experimented with a combo of three string-players (violin, cello and double bass) and drums in 1991, under the name Fields in Miniature, and has worked in other musical fields, including collaboarations with U.K. post punk band The Pop Group in 1979, and The Ex during the early 1990s. More recently, his group This, That and The Other’s influences from Italian folk music are ever present. According to Dutch Volkskrant journalist Erik van de Berg, “Honsinger is someone who hasn’t lost his childhood fantasy entirely. His compositions are like a child’s drawing, or even more like a story from Winnie The Pooh: awkward and touchingly simple, yet full of deeper meanings for those who want to see them.” In the same article, Honsinger commented: “Simple things fascinate me, simple stories and simple characters. It’s not that I write for children in particular, but I think they would understand it very well. I usually get the best reactions from an audience with a good mix of children and adults. I don’t like to play for one particular age group. It is almost a necessity for me to compose in the form of stories and texts. It gives me ideas and it does help the musicians in their improvisation if they can think: this story is about a little man who takes a walk and experiences this, that and the other. It also helps the audience, it gives them something to hold on to.”