Signals for tea: Steve Beresford; an article by Jon Morgan


This article first appeared in Coda, issue 286, July/August 1999 and it appears in EFIP in full text form through the courtesy of Jon Morgan, and Bill Smith of Coda.

"Really, everybody I work with is actually doing lots of different types of music. That's more traditional than to stay in one place and do one thing, to me," offers the multi-faceted British musician Steve Beresford.

Ambiguity and versatility are the operative words for describing Beresford's music, which has over the last thirty years found him maneuvering across genres with relative ease and startling proficiency. In person, Beresford's composed demeanor and dry, but biting, wit seems a complete contrast to the manner in which he carries himself on stage, (where his eccentricities take on the air of twisted non-conformist). This contradiction partially divulges the methods of madness behind the artist who not only refuses to put all his eggs in one basket, but more than likely would scoff at the notion of confining himself to eggs in the first place.

Beresford resists the erroneous tendency to pigeonhole him as a mere improviser who also dabbles in other projects on the side. Instead, he points out that movie scores, popular music, commercial jingles, electronica, and other such experiments have been in his repertoire for some time. "I didn't just start writing film music, I've been doing it for fourteen years. I've always used electronics. I've always played tunes. One of the reasons I moved to London was to play bass guitar in a soul group. So, all of these things that people think that I've just invented for myself, I've always done. It is just like they all have a different public profile, but that doesn't mean I'm not doing them."

To fully comprehend the Shropshire-born musician's disinterest in being conveniently categorized and labeled, it is helpful to look at his formative years as a student at York University. With a background in classical piano and trumpet, a mutual admiration for pop and soul music, and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble's Karyobin, in 1968 Beresford set out to study music. Beresford very quickly realized that not everyone shared his broad-minded outlook.

"The course at York was a kind of general course, a bit of history and a bit practical. I was so unhappy on that course. It really taught me how music education could really screw people up. Hopefully, it didn't screw me up permanently, but it definitely made me very uncomfortable for three years. The first lecture I went to was on Webern and I'd never heard Webern in my life, and I just thought 'this is amazing music, this is my music.' You know, it is like that scene with Steve Martin in The Jerk where he is listening to Laurence Welk and he says 'this is my music.' So it was like me and Webern, I understand this emotionally. I don't know how he did it, but it sounds great. I went up to the lecturer and said 'Oh, I love this music. Tell me what Webern wrote for solo piano that I can play' and he said 'You'll never play that.' He'd never met me in his life. I was a first year student, it's my first lecture, and he is already telling me that I'm a failure. That is how music education works. He didn't know who I was. What a shit! I couldn't believe this. This is the kind of encouragement you get at the Universities."

Fortunately, Beresford did find some like-minded musical comrades and the group Bread And Cheese was formed, which inadvertently lead to his role as a promoter and producer of improvised music concerts at York. "That was my first regular improvised music group," recalls Beresford. "The first gig we did was great, but the more we practiced, the worse it got, so I sort of learned something from that if you know what I mean."

In addition to cutting his teeth in an improvised setting, he also began to network within the improvised music community. After first bringing Derek Bailey to York to play a solo gig, subsequent performances by Evan Parker and Paul Lytton ensued, as well as a second Bailey performance, this time in duo with Han Bennink.

Beresford still laughs about the impression Bennink and Bailey's duo made. "The first note Han played, five people moved. They just left the hall immediately, because, you know, classical percussionists never hit anything properly. If you write four f's on a piece of music, they'll still play mezzoforte, they'll never actually go (motions with hard thud). Han is very strong and is a very physical guy. People were so insulted by his physicality, and that also taught me a lot about the academy music scene, that they could be so upset by the sheer physicality of the music they'd leave."

Despite a strong appreciation for jazz, Beresford had no desire to pursue a career as a jazz musician in the traditional sense. Instead he was more interested in expanding on the aesthetic orchestrated by Bailey, Parker, John Stevens and Paul Rutherford. "I remember my ears were very much into that klangfarben, jig-saw way of playing. I never thought of myself as a jazz musician. There was definitely a very strong feeling partially to do with that we saw other people around us... trying to sound the same as the Americans, and that was stupid. All you could end up doing was to play this certain, very hugely respected, historical figures in British jazz style, that just feels great technically. It certainly wasn't a nationalist thing; it was more of an anti-colonialist thing. I don't want to just go and steal people's expression off them. I also quite liked the tradition of what we called puny music in England. Kind of weedy composers with not terribly good ideas, not terribly good orchestration, and not very good tunes."

While still at York, Beresford was already working in several different areas, from free-rock to lounge, and with theatre groups, all the while trying to figure out his relationship to the music. "I just played the whole range of things and started working on what to do with my left hand, which nobody would tell me by the way. There were these jazz pianists I knew and I kept saying 'What do you do with your left hand, what notes do you play?' and they'd kind of walk away from me and give me that look."

Though no longer attending the University, Beresford hung around York, working on different projects and exchanging ideas with other musicians. "One of the ways that music development is financed in England is from people going on the dole, working on the music when they haven't got a job. In a way, that is as much art subsidy as actually giving us an Arts Council grant. So I was on the dole for a couple of years there, and that is where the music developed and also around the generally non-music students that I met at the University."

During this time, Beresford was also commuting between York and London to be part of the movement taking place at the Little Theatre Club. Finally, tired of the exhausting commute, he relocated to London for good in 1974. In London, Beresford threw himself head first into a variety of projects. One group, The Four Pullovers, with violinist Nigel Coombes, guitarist Roger Smith, and percussionist Terry Day explored the possibilities of subsidiary instrumentation.

"When I moved to London, there was this question that a lot of gigs didn't have a piano at all, so the Four Pullovers were very interested in kind of stridulatory noises and small noises. In that I played toy pianos, tiny percussion things and lots of different tiny things that just fit in a suitcase. Terry played little coke cans and little tiny cymbals that he would lay out on the sofa. Nigel played violin, but also piles of tobacco tins with contact mikes. I think we both had little five watt battery amps as well, so there was a lot of contact mike stuff. Roger just played the Spanish guitar, which is very quiet."

An equally influential endeavor was Beresford's involvement with the Portsmouth Sinfonia, which emerged from the Scratch Orchestra. "All the people you think of as being like the quintessential English experimental people were in the Scratch Orchestra. They were doing a lot of verbal pieces, almost like Fluxus pieces, and out of that grew this thing called the Portsmouth Sinfonia, which was people playing very simplified versions of popular classics. They weren't necessarily skilled musicians at all. So we would play the Nutcracker Suite, a bit of Grieg, and whatever ability you are at, you should play to that ability. It wasn't deliberately playing them wrong, but obviously a lot of people would play them wrong anyway."

A telling document of the Portsmouth Sinfonia's repertoire is captured on Twenty Classic Rock Classics. Beresford expounds on the impetus of this venture, "At this point all the English symphony orchestras were doing these ghastly sort of disco medley records and started taking pompous pomp rock and making it even more pompous than it already was. So we thought this was ripe for parody."

Most of Beresford's projects are marked by a constantly shifting landscape, simultaneously expressing his restless artistic mind and desire to uncover new possibilities. "This is the problem I have with conceptual art, not that it starts with a concept, but that it ends with the same damn concept it started with. It might be nice if it went somewhere, that is what music as a process is about. It is not about hearing these little patterns slowly drift apart over an enormous period of time. It can be interesting, but I think there should be a part where you can just change the direction completely. I think composers are really scared of that idea."

An example of a solution to instituting a fresh approach to large ensemble improvisation is Beresford's musical game piece Fish Of The Week which utilizes a series of deviant cues to deliberately test the strength of the piece. "I've done stuff with Zorn like Cobra, but also I just had other ideas about how people could subvert the structure. Some people clearly like causing trouble and it is usually the person you'd least expect. It was just a way to get people in different psychological spaces. If you've got two people playing a duet and they've both got a cue card that says 'don't play when the other person's playing' you are going to get silence. If you've got cue cards that say 'play something absolutely horrible' and the other person's supposed to imitate them, then you've got two people playing absolutely horrible things at once. An idea of doing stuff that is against your nature, but not by the structure of the piece. Obviously, I can't tell. You're going through a series of thoughts like second guessing your own thoughts, like coming to a certain conclusion and trying to do the opposite of that. I don't mind hearing people trying something and going 'nah' and just dropping it. That's fine. The notes are not sentient beings they are just notes. If they don't work, you can throw them away, they are not going to be hurt."

In his twenty-five years in London, Beresford has kept himself occupied in an amazing variety of settings. From the experimental Alterations to the well-crafted pop song in Cue Sheets, and involvement in a plethora of projects for film and television, as well as production of dub, pop, and improvisational musics, Beresford's interests run the gamut.

Of production, Beresford insists that what he does should be called line-producer, to distinguish himself from the executive producer. "Obviously your movie producer is a fat guy with the cigar and cell phone who shouts at people. That is not what a record producer is. A record producer is more like a director. There have been a few moments where it has become clear where people think of me as the man with the cigar and the checkbook, and I don't smoke, and I do have a checkbook, but there is nothing in the bank. That can be a little embarrassing."

In some cases, Beresford has been present in the studio for moral support and to lend a discriminating ear. An example of which took place during a duo session of Mark Sanders and Axel Dörner. "It was clear that they needed me a) to tell them if it sounded good, but b) just to sit with the engineer and make it clear that we all take this music seriously. Because the first time an engineer who is not versed on that kind of stuff hears it, they are just going to say 'These blokes are wankers. What is this rubbish?' So my role was to make it clear that these guys had complete control over what they were doing and really knew what it was."

A self-proclaimed movie fanatic, Beresford's forays into film music go back to the mid-eighties. This discipline allows for Beresford to develop another dimension in his arsenal. "I play exactly what I want to in improvised music, that is what I do and that's me, and the stuff I do in film has much more to do with the craft of music than the art of music on a certain level. It has to perform a function in the context."

Beresford describes his ideal procedure; "I like to work with a fine cut, because that gives me a rhythm in sync that you won't get with a rough cut. I'm taking more information out of the movie than the filmmaker knows is there in a way. They keep giving me scripts and I keep reading the scripts, but ultimately a script means nothing to me. The feeling in the scene, what is on the screen is much more important to me than words. What comes out a lot is that so many filmmakers that are so incredibly adept at all the other parts of the discipline of filmmaking, that is to say screenwriting, set design, costume design, and acting, haven't the faintest idea about music in anyway except the most vague, abstract terms."

After years of concurrent activity, Beresford offers an important distinction between improvisation and the other forms of music he has worked in. "Maybe the difference ultimately between art music and commercial music is that art music has a very ambiguous social role. Misha Mengelberg can be very funny, but if you don't find him funny, that doesn't mean he's a failure, whereas, if Jack Benny is not funny, then he's a failure. We work in a more ambiguous area where you can try things that fail or they don't come out the way you want them to come out. That's part of the liberating aspects of the music. Of course, it will have an ambiguous role if you are playing in a group with improvisation. You play something that is completely obscured by something somebody played at the same time. Anything that you play is going to have a different role than you expected it to have anyway really because you don't know what anybody else is going to do at the same time."

Of course, Beresford is no stranger to adding a bit of humor on stage. Anyone who has seen his duo performances with Han Bennink knows that he rarely misses an opportunity to partake in a gag or two. "The role of humor in improvisation has to be oblique. It has to be ambiguous. You can't go out there and say I'm going to do the following jokes. Lol Coxhill and I did half a dozen gigs on this sort of cabaret circuit in London and people w e did the shows with did exactly the same show every night. We did a lot of verbal stuff and they were horrified that some of the jokes weren't funny. But we knew that, and we knew some of the jokes weren't going to be funny, because they weren't jokes. It was just like an extension of the music; the way we talked to each other is just like the way we play together. Sometimes I just have to hide behind the piano I'm laughing so much at Lol, and sometimes it's not funny at all. So I like the danger, it can be quite threatening and scary sometimes, but that's fine, I really don't mind."

One is never quite sure which side of Steve Beresford will show up at any given performance. By the same token it is hard to imagine that he knows before hand either. One thing is for certain, however, it will be ambiguous and it will be unlike anything you are likely to have seen before, or no doubt will ever see again. It is difficult to find fault with that.