Accompanied by bird song, traffic, the conversation of roofers two doors away and a piece of heavy duty garden equipment from beyond the fence I sat in the shade at the end of our garden yesterday afternoon and finished reading ‘Into the Maelstrom; Music, Improvisation and the Dream of Freedom’, David Toop’s new book. The book sets out an incredible network of associations and connections and has alerted me to a good deal of music that I will explore in the weeks and months to come. This is the first volume of two and covers the evolution of a set of ideas ‘before 1970’. But it is not a linear history and the narrative swoops and dives in time (up to the present day) and genre. Amongst its many strands the one that preoccupies me on finishing is ‘listening’. The importance of listening and the balance between listening and playing to the improvising musician is central to Toop’s exploration.
As a determined audience member I have been trying to sort out the relationship and/or the differences between the way musicians listen and the way that an audience listens. In these (mostly) small spaces the symmetry of performers and audience can suggest a yin and yang of activity and passivity. But this is simplistic and I am always brought back to Duchamp’s statement: ‘The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.’ In the case of the Large Glass this happened most obviously through reflection on the material of the work itself…with the viewer’s image literally transposed onto the surface of the glass. Something similar happens in that communal space of listening in relation to improvised music.
Then last night, five minutes walk away down that road that generates so much traffic noise, was the launch of ‘Into the Maelstrom’ at Cafe Oto. Some months ago David Toop asked if he could use one of my drawings next to a section he was writing about a performance by Angharad Davies and Lina Lapelyte. I realise that I have come to insert myself into the space of the performance (and the performance itself?) through making these quick, ‘blind’ drawings…last night Toop talked about my drawing (and those of the others in the book by Geoff Winston and Ross Lambert) as a parallel act of improvisation. The performances that formed the central part of the launch at Oto exemplified three distinct approaches to improvisation: long exploratory group work with five musicians, short concise duets with Toop reading and each musician playing in turn and then an unplanned hybrid of reading and four musicians playing. The juxtaposition of the structured (the text) and the wholly improvised (the music) highlighted the dichotomy that lies between control and freedom that is at the heart of ‘Into the Maelstrom’ and its rich netherworld.
Performing with David Toop at Cafe Oto were (from left to right) Steve Beresford, Sylvia Hallett, Evan Parker and Elaine Mitchener.