Derek Bailey Interview, 16 August 1996

Interview copyright Jean Martin

Q: How important is the visual element of a live-performance? Is listening to a CD as good as attending a live performance?

DB: I assume for most people it is better because more people buy CDs than turn up at live performances. In fact, to some people it might be the only way they have ever encountered this music. You can still go to places and meet people who say that kind of thing: this is the first time they have actually been to a concert. Aficionados claim there is no substitute for listening to a live performance. As for playing - I don't know - I mean, the two are quite different things, making a recording and doing a live performance, but then in the way that I have worked in the past, very often they are in fact the same thing. Most records I have ever made are of live performances and haven't been made specifically as recordings.

But making a recording as a separate thing I like. I wouldn't say it is better than a live performance, it's just a different thing and the playing is affected quite a bit - the process of making the music is affected radically I find.

Q: In which way?

DB: I have never tried to analyse it much, but I think it is about the fact that the audience is removed by 6 months or so.

Q: Is it like listening to your own music on a multitrack machine?

DB: No.No. The differences I mean arise when you go into a studio and just play with somebody as if it were a live performance, except that there is no audience and the performance restrictions, restrictions imposed by time and place, are changed, so that it doesn't have to be in the evening, it doesn't have to be between this hour and that. You don't have to stop in the middle while they sell sandwiches and beer and those kinds of things. And it is different - quite different, the environment...

They don't use the term now, but the 'vibes' are quite different.

Q: You have said all about this subject in your book. You talk about free music. Free from what?

DB: Although it has diminished over the years there is still a somewhat anarchic element to this activity. It has now become much more regularised - in certain areas almost to the point of being staid, I think, - but there are still some anarchic characteristics to it. And one of the main ones is that, if you were to ask that question of anybody who plays this kind of music, you would get a different answer in every case. For me the answer is: it is free from ... Most of those things that I found to be accumulating as I got older as a musician. I worked as a musician for many years in what used to be called the 'band' business before I played this kind of music. As my career 'progressed' in that business I found the opportunities to pursue music in the way and for the reasons that I first started to pursue music, were diminishing, were getting less. I associate certain times working in night clubs as being quite free musically. At least, before the 60s. Even in dance halls it could be quite free, or anyway it felt free. But I found as my career ascended to what was considered to be fairly successful as a working musician - doing studio work and so on - it no longer felt as though I was doing what I thought I'd started out to do. There was more pay and less play. Then I bumped into this kind of thing and it felt somehow that I was pursuing what I had first started out to do.... This stuff is just about playing ,you see. For me it is all about this somewhat ill defined thing playing. .

You can play certain kinds of music and you really don't play at all. You are functional and you do things, but you don't play. I find a lot of jazz became like that for instance. So I find in free playing there is more playing - and this is something I have said many times, but its a useful phrase for me - there is more playing per cubic unit in free playing than there is in any other kind of music. So the freedom is just to play more. I can play more in this music than in other kinds of music.

Q: More than e.g. an orchestral musician?

DB: In the way that I mean, I doubt whether orchestral musicians play at all. I suppose it boils down to: I can play more of what I want to play in freely improvised music. Now for me that's not a kind of music, its more to do with an instrumental approach or an attitude: a method of making music.

I think the word free is meaningless. It is just one of those handy 4-letter words - like rock, or jazz. Somewhere down the line it has a derivation but nobody cares about that because now it has become a name.. I rather like it. But I play it because it suits me.

Q: And by thinking that you feel comfortable in playing this free music, the audience will sense the same?

DB: I have no idea about the audience.

Q: You don't care about the audience?

DB: No. Its not that I don't care. I don't know. I've thought about the audience intermittently for years and I know less about audiences now than I did when I first started thinking about it. Anyway, they are different to what they used to be but, really, I am ignorant about audiences.

Q: So whenever you play in a concert you are surprised about the reactions of the audience.

DB: I am surprised that they are there. I mean, one obvious thing is that audiences, people generally, don't like freely improvised music, otherwise the audiences would be larger of course. .. It attracts very small audiences.

Q: Why is that?

DB: They don't like it.

Q: Does it take too much effort for them? This music is not nicely prepared in little well structured portions. They have basically to create their own structure in listening to the music.?

DB: These are difficult questions for me. I don't know. To me it is my favourite listening. There are certain musics which are not improvised that I enjoy listening to, but actually I find music which is freely improvised provides me with the most listening satisfaction even if I am not playing it. So I don't know really. Audiences usually get to hear their music in such a formalised, highly structured, way, that when it is unformalised, it sounds incoherent to them. Most music organisational devices are about taming what seems to me to be the natural unruliness of music. I mean it is not just about packaging, it is about taming. ... And this might be how music becomes acceptable. But if you work outside those structures, then I suppose it makes sense that people who rely on those structures, can't tell what the hell is going on.

Q: 90 percent of all musics in the world are improvised. Only our western music culture has this strange system of notating music. Maybe this was the reason, why tonality and harmony developed.

If we listen e.g. to African drum music or South American, they certainly have certain patterns which they use and vary. When I listen to your music, it sounds to me rather abstract of all these recognisable patterns. It is basically abstract.

DB: Using a term like abstract implies - would make me think of all music. All music I think is abstract to some degree. But I understand the point you are trying to make... I don't claim that, because most music is improvised, it is the same as freely improvised music. Freely improvised music is different to musics that include improvisation. When I put the book 'Improvisation' together, I found it useful to consider these things in terms developed in the study of language. And the main difference I think between freely improvised music and the musics you quoted is, that they are idiomatic and freely improvised music isn't. They are formed by an idiom, they are not formed by improvisation. They are formed the same way that speech vernacular, a verbal accent, is formed. They are the product of a locality and society, by characteristics shared by that society . Improvisation exists in their music in order to serve this central identity , reflecting a particular region and people. And improvisation is a tool - it might be the main tool in the music, but it is a tool.

In freely improvised music, its roots are in occasion rather than place. Maybe improvisation takes the place of the idiom. But it doesn't have the grounding, the roots if you like, of those other musics. Its strengths lie elsewhere. There are plenty of styles - group styles and individual styles - found in free playing but they don't coalesce into an idiom . They just don't have that kind of social or regional purchase or allegiance. They are idiosyncratic. In fact you can see freely improvised music as being made up of an apparently endless variety of idiosyncratic players and groups. So many in fact, that its simpler to think of the whole thing as non-idiomatic.

But should musicians be talking about this sort of thing? Doesn't it damage our anti-intellectual credentials? Noch ein grosses. Grunt.

Q: Some people argue, that when you construct something written, you have much more time to think about balance and the relation of the parts to each other, while when you improvise it is just a permanent flow of time. You have to think very quickly and sometimes you miss it and sometimes there might happen something very interesting, but you can't guarantee it. So how do you see the relationship between well constructed structure and sound and what is on the surface, what reaches the ear of the listener?

DB: Well, you pick your preference. If you want the other, you can have the other. If you want this stuff, you can have this... Its the Busoni - Schönberg dichotomy. Andy Hamilton wrote an interesting piece about this subject and he based it on the two different approaches to composition held by Busoni and Schönberg. So, for Busoni the immediate conception of a composition - usually at the piano I think - was the composition and from then on everything he did to it - so called refinement - diminished it; it reduced it's quality. For Schönberg , the opposite is the case. The initial idea is simply something to work on which, given sufficient diligence, can be turned into a wonderful work of art. So that's a kind of basic difference, even amongst composers. But I think for an improvisor, certainly from my personal point of view, that omits all kinds of things which I am quite attracted to, things like the accidental, the coincidental, the occasion ... Well. Whenever this comparison between composers and improvisors is made, it nearly always kind of grinds down to a comparison between a composer and a solo improvisor. And the really important part of improvisation, certainly as far as I am concerned, happens between people, between the players. It is also largely outside of individual calculation.And this is something that is beyond composition. And you can even have of course, as everybody has experienced, the absolute ad hoc experience, the first time you play with somebody, which is occasionally really magical. But the thing is, it happens between people. The best moments that I've found in improvisation often happen fairly early in a relationship with another person or another group of people. Later other kinds of things develop and the assumption is that this is an improvement. I'm not so sure. But, whatever.... None of this is about somebody sitting down and thinking up great ideas. All kinds of things can be brought to these unique situations beyond any single person's efforts. This is stepping outside the usual comparisons with composition. It is also stepping outside normal attitudes towards art. It is perhaps a supra-art activity or a non-art activity. I don't know, but it certainly has nothing to do with what normally passes as musical analysis.

Q: Is group improvisation an attempt to bring life and art together? It has a strong social or sociological aspect.

DB: You look slightly embarrassed using those terms.

Q: I have the feeling that more and more the social aspects of music making are excluded. If you look at electronic music: more and more people sit at home in front of their computers and samplers. You can do it all on your own. Where is the communication?

DB: Music's funny. Opera, for instance, appears to exist in a kind of balloon of fantasy having no detectable contact with any kind of reality. And the money it needs... Its the ultimate commodity; hugely expensive and totally useless. Freely improvised music for all it's faults, and its not short of those , is at least vulnerable to outside influences. One of it's attractions, I think.

Q: Personally I find improvisations with small ensembles or solo improvisations more interesting than large ensemble improvisations ( like Company ). They are too complex, it can fall apart into anarchy.

DB: They are often not coherent. But I think most of the time small group improvisation is just better. But when large group improvisation is good, it is quite amazing , something incomparable. In Company the great majority of the groups are small but I used to try always during the Company events to work towards at least one larger group, but without stopping anything else; letting other things, smaller groups, develop. But I agree with you. Some large group improvisation is garbage. It is a high risk activity and its not just difficult, its kind of impossible.But it still does happen that now and then, its really successful. And then its extraordinary.

Q: An example is Lawrence Butch Morris. He creates clear sections.

DB: It introduces coherence; whether you actually want it in that form is another matter. I mean lots of people do like to try and turn large group improvisation into something else a bit more tidy; they usually do it by imposing structures of one kind or another, don't they, like Butch with his conductions, Alexander von Schlippenbach with his scores and so on. Its OK. I just find that that is - I don't want to use the term easier, but I'll use it anyway - its kind of easier. And it sort of misses the point. I think I'd rather have the failures of the other thing, personally.

Q: Whatever you do you will have a memory and there are some musical thoughts in your brain, what you did before ... I am sure you will use these things deliberately, e.g. elements of jazz, of classical music, chance operations, whatever. Could you describe which things influenced you?

DB: I could describe some, but most of the things I am consciously influenced by are unhelpful. Mostly I try and find a way of getting past the direct influences. Now this is just speculative and I don't know how it will sound, but it could be that the real influences are subconscious, so you don't... I mean the New Orleans jazz idea of the mad playing fool, you know, who just goes out of his head and does it - there is something in that. There is a point which you can either reach for or just hope to get into by various methods like concentration or abandon, lack of concentration, technical facility. I don't know. To calculate about this is a bit difficult. But for instance, one of the most useful things I find is that - if I can arrange it and it is difficult to arrange - before I play, particularly if I am playing solo, I like to sleep, to sleep almost up to the time of playing, just for half an hour or even ten minutes. I find the older I get of course the more adept I am at doing this. If I can get into a situation where I can actually sleep just before I play, ... that is pretty near the perfect preparation as far as I am concerned. And I take that to be something to do with the fact that afterwards you are in a semi subconscious state and, while that might interfere with technical things,its better. Conscious influences I find not helpful.

Q: I agree. Our normal everyday mind is rather small and limited in it's stupid rationality.

DB: The longer you play the worse it gets; you have more 'reliable' devices and they become more offensive in some way. That is the great thing about playing with other people, particularly other people you are not familiar with. Sometimes, of course, its a mistake, I mean this is a high risk business. But given somebody whose playing you like then you've got their playing to go on, not just your own. I find I need as much help as I can get.

You know, I sometimes work, on and off, with dancer, a Butoh dancer called Min Tanaka and he has changed quite a lot as a dancer over the years. And I don't work with him continuously. I might go a couple of years without seeing him and playing with him and I usually find, when I come back to playing with him, that he's changed quite a bit. Although he has, let's say, a fairly constant vocabulary ,his use of it and his approach to using it shifts all the time, it seems to me. And I realise I am quite influenced by him. Now he makes no sound at all of course or very little. , When I've read musicians interviews they will often talk about their influences (when I say read it is because musicians don't talk about their influences, except, it seems, when talking to journalists) and they usually quote names of famous musicians from the past. And when I read these things I often feel a certain envy because I have never been able to do that. I have been influenced by all kinds of people, but none of them seemed to be famous 'historical' musicians. ...And most of the people I am influenced by are people I've played with, some are well known, some aren't, but one is definitely the dancer Min Tanaka. I think I'm impressed by his courage, too. He really will have a go at anything.

Q: Music can be on lots of things, not just in music itself.

DB: One of the similarities between improvising and talking, which is also a kind of improvising of course, is that the same subjects recur and so the temptation is to respond in the same way. And even if this is the best, the 'true' response, it might no longer sound or feel right - simply because you've said the thing so many times before. I mean I am aware, when I am saying to you, 'I play free music because it provides more playing per cubic unit', that that is something I have said, what feels like, 100s of times. Its true enough, but the effect of endless repetitions is stultifying, I hardly know what I'm talking about anymore.So in order to keep the thing feeling fresh you look for different ways to say the same thing or try to find things that you haven't previously talked about. So talking about Min - as far as I am aware I have never actually spoken about Min as an influence before - is an attempt to make it more interesting to me, and so make it feel fresher. And playing, you see, is like that for me.

Q: I think what you described is a very good example how musical improvisation could proceed. You quite often mention the phrase 'high risk activity'. I have the impression, fewer and fewer people want to take risks in the true sense.

DB: That is true of everything, isn't it?

Q: In this way your activity in free improvisation is political activity. It shows a certain way of activity which hardly exists anymore.

DB: Yes. Like many fringe activities the main thing about it's political aspect is that it can be completely ignored, but it's political implications, I would have thought, are for most people quite frightening, quite drastic. I guess, for that reason they will always be ignored.

Q: You have been for quite a long time in this area. Have you seen big changes on the audience side, in perception, the climate of these kind of things...

DB: Oh yes, there have been many changes.

Q: Were there better times?

DB: I think the current time is very good, but you can never be sure how much your opinion is reflecting only your own situation. But it is a curious time at the moment, really curious... Somebody said - we just put out a video of a Company event in Japan and it is a very concentrated thing: two concerts and the video only lasts 26 minutes. So they are very tiny snippets - and somebody described it as being hard-core improvisation. Now it seems to me that there is no hard-core anything at this time. Everything is kind of soft-core. The focus is gone. The focus is diffused, widened ... I mean, in this particular musical activity there is nobody that I know of that works strictly on one kind of subgenre of the music, something that used to be quite common.

There are a small number of people still playing in long established groups and they keep that going as a kind of commitment. And the economics of playing encourage that kind of thing, of course; the longer you play something the more work you are likely to get for it. But even those people, they still also branch out in all kinds of directions, which years ago would never have happened. Personally, I rather like this situation. I mean, I am quite attracted by this business of poking around in unfamiliar areas with unfamiliar people. And it seems to me to be a perfectly appropriate use of free improvisation.

You know, its nice to find yourself caught up in some kind of musical tide, or at least wave, the feeling that somehow you are doing something with other musicians in your field which somehow feels significant. You are not sure where it is going but its going somewhere and you go with it. That is great. But most times that doesn't happen... and I think this is one of those times, when there are no tides or waves happening ; for anybody. But, of course......you never really know. These things are usually unanticipated and arrive unannounced. I have great faith in things happening that I don't know about.

But what is happening now is more like some kind of stew, all kinds of things mixed up together. How far they affect each other, I'm not sure.

Q: It is almost a contradiction in itself: improvised music always wants to find new ways. At the same time it wants to establish certain levels of what you can call 'good improvisation', criteria for good improvisation.

DB: Interesting contradiction.

Q: As soon as you can pin it down and codify it, it is no more improvised music any more.

DB: I think it becomes a different version of improvised music. There are people who have done that. Once it - a style, a group - has a strong identity which is practised, pursued and polished by the people who are associated with it, then maybe it becomes something else. But very often the only appropriate name for it is free improvisation.

Q: How much of your style is influenced by your guitar playing?

DB: I don't know how much, but it is a large part. I think if I was forced to identify myself as something it would be as a guitar player. The instrument's importance has shifted around over the years , but it has always been somewhere in the forefront. You know, in the dim and distant, I worked for some years as an arranger, yes, it even involved some composing too; in particularly economically stringent times, also pre-historic, I have worked as a bass player. I've done some teaching. In more recent times I've organised concerts, run a record company , presented radio programmes, written a book, made a series of television films, done the dishes, but all these activities have been, for me, supplementary to playing the guitar, adjuncts to the guitar playing. But, I have never thought of myself as a musician who in some general way works in music. I am a guitar player. And as regards the way I play it - some of it comes out of these activities and some of it reflects the musics I've been involved in but I think all of it is also about playing the guitar.

Q: Looking at your CV you were attracted to what I call second hand music in clubs, standards...

DB: I was just trying to work as a musician. Well, that was the only music I knew. I don't come from an academic background, I come from a working class background. So the alternative to being a professional musician was not being a teacher, a lawyer, a nuclear physicist or whatever, it was delivering bread or milk, or working in a factory, all of which I did at various times, because the most common experience early in the career of a working musician is being out of work. And I didn't think of it as second-hand music. I thought it was wonderful.

As a matter of fact I did study classical music, as we call it, at school, but I never thought of it as music. It was just something taught at school. Music was something I became aware of through the radio and through certain members of my family who were musicians and that was always jazz and popular music, although in those days the two were often indistinguishable. That was music.

It might be of some interest to your listeners that I was at school during the 1939-45 war and German music was more or less not allowed. So we were taught that the major composer at that time was Sibelius and we got wall-to- wall Sibelius which is an experience I've never fully recovered from. Whenever I hear a note of Sibelius I dive for cover and take to the nearest air raid shelter. But I never associated that with music. It was something else. It was school. And it was only really when I left school, which was quite early, that I ever thought of being a musician, even though I played an instrument and I sang. And then I didn't want to be anything else...

There used to be two kinds of musicians: orchestral musicians and band musicians. And orchestral musicians came out of music schools and band musicians didn't. So, naturally I became a band musician. Which I did for many years, nearly 15 years I suppose: dance bands, club bands, circus bands, pit bands, whatever. Some I preferred to others, but I didn't care too much as long as I was working; playing some kind of music. Originally there was a wish to play jazz, although for me that probably meant wanting to get Oscar Moore's job with the Nat Cole Trio. But there was plenty of evidence around me to indicate that if I wanted to play jazz, I was in the wrong place in the wrong time and maybe the wrong race. So it then became a question of working. As much as possible.

Q: Do you ever play with very young musicians coming up now?

DB: Yes. For instance, I just made a recording with, I suppose, two of the youngest musicians on the British scene, Alex Ward and Ben Hervey, who calls himself Dr. Switch. Together they form the group: '13 Ghosts'. They are an interesting pair. But Alex I have known for many years, 9 years or so ; he is now about 21, I guess, a clarinet player.

Young musicians are just young musicians. There are certain advantages and certain disadvantages. Usually, the attitude refreshing. And naivete is much underrated. Maturity, on the other hand, seems to be a totally bogus concept; some kind of front for careerism, cynicism and delusions of grandeur....... A fresh attitude is like a life support system for somebody as old and clapped out as I am. When I see somebody brimming with enthusiasm, I think, wow, I could use some of that.

Q: Does Company Week still go on?

DB: No, unless somebody asks me to do one. I used to organise one here every year , more recently with Karen Brookman, but I did it for 17 years, which seemed to me enough. In fact I would have preferred to have done it less... But I have done them in other places, e.g. in New York, in Japan, various places in Europe.

...They are not an easy thing for a promoter to get enthusiastic about.

Q: You can't make money.

DB: If you say: well, I want to come with 8-9 musicians, I want to have at least 3 nights otherwise the thing won't work, there is no program and everybody plays every night - that is no good for a promoter.

But, one of the main reasons I stopped doing them was there seemed to be an increasing number of things on the back burner. I always seemed to have to put other things aside, because we used to spend 6 months of the year putting this together from raising the money to finishing the thing. They were great occasions, I used to love it but they seemed to take more and more time.

Q: How about your guitar book project?

DB: It seems to be turning into an illusion; getting bigger and bigger, notes piling up , no end in sight...

Q: In which country are the most interesting things going on concerning improvisation and free music?

DB: Japan. There might be better things happening in Doncaster that I know nothing about, but within my experience it is New York and Japan and at the moment the two are very intermingled. Its not all to everybody's taste. But its certainly lively. New York is usually good, things work better in N.Y. People go out and listen. They live in such terrible places, they really have no alternative. So you can usually get to do something there.