AN EXPLORATION OF IMPROVISATION – PART 1.
Words: James Frostick
Massimo Magee introduces me to the improvised music movement, and tells me about how it is taking shape in Brisbane.
I guess I should start this with a little bit of a story.
I was invited to an event a few months back that took me completely by surprise. It was located at the old substation on Enogerra Terrace in Paddington – an art space that had been cleared for a performance of live music. The other attendees were roughly my age, some people were considerably older. An eclectic crowd, with the only commonality being the same location at which we were all gathered. I dragged my girlfriend along to help assuage my anxiousness regarding strange new experiences.
The night was dedicated to two live performances of improvised jazz and I was told that both acts would be wildly different. The headline act were an established Norwegian trio who were in the midst of an extensive tour, the second group were a locally based five piece who were also organisers of the event.
It was BYO drinks, $10 entry – leave all expectations at the door.
What I saw that night was a display of composition and performance that was both confusing and alarming and utterly enthralling and addictive at the same time. This divisive nature of the music I witnessed is what stuck with me long after. While the headline trio performed closer to what I expected free-form improvised jazz to sound like, the opening acts material resembled something closer to ambient noise than ‘jazz’ or what I thought ‘jazz’ should sound like. The group was called MTJAM (EM TEE JAM) and consisted of saxophones, drums, two guitars and various electronic components.
The magical thing about both acts was the way the audience responded to each – which was almost exactly the same. Minus a few frenetic freak outs during the up-tempo moments of the Norwegian set, the (mostly seated) audience responded with what I could only imagine was bliss. Apparently lost in the static-laced drone and the twitchy squawks of woodwind instruments of MTJAM, the assembled kids and adults were singularly transfixed by the sounds emanating from the mysterious 5-piece. My girlfriend and I were obvious newcomers and, as such, much of the appeal was lost on us – but the effect this music had on others, their fixation, had me interested in finding out more. What exactly had we just witnessed? Why hadn’t we heard of its existence before?
I was invited to the substation event by an old acquaintance from high-school, Massimo Magee. After reaching out to me and commending me on the nature and success of this blog so far, we began discussing some of the music he was involved in himself. Through the usual social-media channels I already knew that Massimo was a keen saxophone player although I didn’t know the extent of his involvement within the Brisbane scene. After our conversation he invited me to the afore-described party to check out what it was that he and his friends were involved in.
Massimo was one of the members of MTJAM performing that night. Seated at a computer with a saxophone, he was responsible for a considerable amount of noise that night on his own. Further research reveals that he has released numerous solo recordings that have been blogged about in their own right by enthusiasts around the world. Some recordings have even been released internationally. I was blown away.
After that night I got in touch with Massimo to see if he would be interested in discussing this improvised music scene and how he came to be involved in it. He was more than happy to but gave me fair warning that he couldn’t speak for the other members of MTJAM, as each member performs for different reasons and seeks something different from improvised composition. I said fair enough.
When we met up a week later, we spoke for nearly an hour on all things improvised. His encyclopaedic knowledge on free-form composition and the evolution of jazz to this state astounded me and it was one of the most enlightening interviews I have conducted to date. The talk went beyond the jazz aesthetic and more towards the core nature of improvisation. At first it was hard for me to separate free-jazz and improvisation simply because of my introduction. Improvised music, if I could describe it, is music performed using any instrument, in any way, to make music that resonates with how you are feeling at any given time. There aren’t any boundaries aside from the self-imposed variety.
What follows is Massimo’s ideas and thoughts on improvisation – not explicitly jazz related. Forgive me if the following piece is quote-heavy; the only way to accurately describe this sort of thing is to just let the man speak for himself.
Massimo’s introduction to instruments occurred in high school, when he first met the woodwind teacher, Elliott Dalgleish, who would become a mentor of sorts and the person who would introduce Massimo to improvisation.
“He’d make it his business to play the weirdest recordings he could from his room just to scare the kids,” says Massimo. “I was getting lessons from him and we were doing classical stuff but advanced, sort of advanced classical stuff, sort of atonal things and that was interesting. He left and I decided to take up the saxophone, so I went to him for private lessons. From there I started to learn more about this kind of thing – because he didn’t teach it at school. We’d spend a couple of hours playing, listening to records, talking – he had an interesting approach, he was pretty tough.”
“He showed me all the kinds of things that are possible with a saxophone that I never imagined. You could play chords; you could play it like a flute, like a trumpet – all of these kinds of things. I listened to a lot of records that I would have never heard otherwise.”
Like many high school aged kids getting into music, the formative phase of musical consumption is quite rapid and the hunger immense. While someone like myself was investing a lot of hours into stoner-rock and prog, Massimo was gorging himself on Coltrane and sixties-era European free-improvisation. The exploration led Massimo towards some niche sounds that would all influence the music that he composed – fully improvised, organic in process if not in instrumentation.
“That (early stuff) opened my mind, and then I went on to electronic improvisation, electro-acoustic improvisation that is more like what you heard at the show,” says Massimo. “That is more modern, but the process is basically the same. That’s the point – it’s not really about whether it sounds good because if you look back into the history of contemporary classical most of the sounds were already done, the process is what is different. The fact of doing this completely improvised performance is challenging.”
The challenge and radical elements of improvised performing seem to be what attracted Massimo to this kind of music. The instantaneous nature of live performances, the singular nature of each composition and the challenge of coming up with something new all the time held an appeal that couldn’t be found in the rigorous nature of classical composition or even regular jazz for that matter. The formative experiences of the early teachings and sonic exploration of each new record seemingly solidified Massimo’s alignment with free-jazz and his affinity with the term ‘improviser’.
“I’m an improviser, that’s what I am. Whenever I play it is almost always completely improvised – that’s the main point. That’s kind of what radical about it in a way. It’s not about the sound; it is more about the process for me. But I know a lot of people, even in my band, would disagree. That is one of the great things about improvisation, that we can all have completely different ideas about what we are doing, and do it for completely different reasons and still play together.”
After high-school, Massimo found it difficult to find like-minded musicians within Brisbane who he could communicate and perform with. A plus side of this was his discovery of a global online community dedicated to improvised jazz which helped him narrow the search for others within Brisbane.
“I didn’t know anything about (the Brisbane scene),” says Massimo. “I stopped getting lessons with my teacher and he was the only other person that I knew who was interested in this so I thought I must be the only other one. So I went on the internet. And the internet being great at bringing together freaks had all these communities of people interested in this stuff – that was great!”
“One day I was walking in South Bank and I bumped into my old teacher, Elliott. He was a lawyer by then – completely different. He said ‘I’ve started a club, you should come. It’s in West End’. So I went, and there were a lot of people there. That was completely improvised, everyone playing whatever they wanted. There were about 4 different rooms in this club, no seats, everyone just walked around and watched what they wanted and anyone could join in. It was a really special environment. There were recordings; they had a website for them. They had to move venue and then it turned more into a workshop for concerts and it was much more restricted so I stopped going, but by that time I had met other people. There is a small scene now.”
The talk alternated between discussing the Brisbane improvisation scene and discussing its appeal to its participants – musicians and audiences. Both halves have a participatory role in each performance, even though only one side has instruments.
“I think of it as a very honest music,” says Massimo. “There is no artifice. You don’t sit back and think about what you are going to do, what image you are going to present, none of it. You’re just in the moment – you have what you have, you have to react to each other straightaway. The audience is a huge part of improvised music, they don’t do anything but the feeling in the room changes the music completely. The audience is sort of in a dialogue with musicians in a way. You feel like you’re a part of something then.”
The members of the improvised scene and those that attend the shows aren’t different from most people. Their preferred choice of music may be a little abrasive compared to others, perhaps it is the unusualness of this sort of music that puts others off but, like Massimo, many of these enthusiasts could be looking for something more than what you hear.
“They are all interested in exploring improvised music in some way,” says Massimo. “They differ to the extent to which they want to do that. They are all looking for that risk because when you are in the moment, playing like that, there is nothing you can hide behind. It is a risky, immediate activity. It is unique.”
The path of many musicians to improvised music has no set start point, or even a set finish point for that matter, as the depths people go into this kind of music is limited only by the imagination of the participant. For Massimo, jazz was the starting point, and although there are elements of jazz in the instrumentation, his work in a group leans closer to ambient noise. His solo work is equally as varied, but I’ll touch on that later.
“I came to improvised music from jazz, but it is important to note that other people come to improvised music from other things,” says Massimo. “They come to it from contemporary classical to rock or post rock, from electronica and for them it has nothing to do with jazz. I guess this improvised music exists outside of jazz but for some people it kind of developed from it. For me I went from listening to the fringes of normal jazz, when it was breaking apart in the early sixties to free jazz where they did away with chord progressions and that kind of thing. Then it went into completely improvised music but still coming from a jazz aesthetic. The process isn’t jazz, but the aesthetic is. The experiences and the aesthetic preferences that you bring to it come from different genres, but the actual music itself isn’t part of any one.”
MTJAM is the tenuous title for the group of musicians that I saw play together at the substation. It was their third performance as a group but not all members have been present each time. The group that I saw consisted of Massimo, Tim Green on percussion, John Porter on saxophone, organiser of the event Adam Sussman on guitar and Matt Earle, who may be familiar to some through his label Breakdance The Dawn and bands such as Girls Girls Girls and xNoBBQx, on guitar. Each member puts a certain spin on their instrument to give it a twist, transforming it from its original purpose and turning it into an abstract item.
“The first time I played with them I played VCR,” says Massimo. “I open up the case and I play the tape with magnets and leads, I plug it into an amp or a laptop. The saxophone is my primary instrument, but I am interested in trying to extend the saxophone further than what people normally think of doing. With my MTJM set up, there is a saxophone there, but what it is doing is the body of the instrument is a resonating chamber for feedback, which is processed through a laptop and a synthesiser pedal. Changing the finger position on the saxophone changes the feedback. The saxophone becomes an object rather than an instrument.”
“Tim is a drummer; he also augments his percussion with electronics and processing, feedback things like that. Adam and Matt do the same with their guitars and John plays acoustic saxophone but he plays it in a way that sound like electronics. We all come from something basic and then expand that into more nebulous instruments.”
For Massimo, performing solo has pros and cons. His blog, Array Music, catalogues his solo releases (of which there are approximately 17), while other releases have found their way to labels in Paris and Texas.
“At this point, there are the 17 releases on Array, 1 CD on Appel, 2 releases on KSE, 1 on Homophoni, 1 on Idealstate, 1 on Audiotong and 1 solo thing I self-released back in 2007, so that’s 24 so far, but one of those Array releases is 26 discs,” estimates Massimo of his recorded output, not including various compilations.
Solo improvisation is perhaps his forte and credible recognition from the global community has followed. Although he doesn’t record these in a group setting, his recordings still sound textured in different ways. The use of electronics opens the scope for diversity, and his early jazz leanings shine through more often.
“Solo improvisation, in some way, can be easier than group playing because no one else is going to know if you’re faking it,” says Massimo. “You can come in with a completely prepared plan of what you are going to do. The audience wouldn’t know, but if you are actually going to engage with it and do it honestly, it is harder to do it solo because you have no one else prodding you, suggesting other things. It’s just you.”
On a global scale, the appreciation of improvised music mirrors the nature it takes within Brisbane somewhat. A small community of dedicated fans, sharing the music to one another in what seems to be a rather welcoming, if a bit abstract group. As far as niche markets go, this one is pretty small but very open to newcomers.
“There is a worldwide community of people who are dedicated to this music, furiously dedicated to this stuff,” says Massimo. “They are all really supportive of each other. If you get in touch with these people and as long as what you are producing is good, they will accept you – make you part of the community. The internet is huge for that. My first CD was released in Paris, for instance.”
The marketability of such music is miniscule, thanks solely to the relatively small fan base for this sort of sound – but this in turn creates one of the most harmonious collectives in the sphere of worldwide music. Most musicians in this scene aren’t in it for the money, as there is very little to be made. Most internationally renowned performers tour for the majority of the year to make a living, but are okay with it simply because the community is so passionate. It makes for an interesting juxtaposition of ideals between what a music scene should be, and what it actually is. Many within the group treat the scene like any other, one where internal criticism should be welcomed, and other members claim that the nature of the music prevents usual conventions from being effective. This is what makes improvised music such a curiosity on a large scale.
“It has to be welcoming,” says Massimo. “You can’t be elitist when you have such a small amount of people into it. Criticism is one of the biggest problems this music has. There are critics who, believe it or not, dedicate time to listening to these records and reviewing them. It is completely subjective, there is a need for criticism because we operate in a market where we are issuing material as commodities, there is a purchasing decision, there is money involved people have to know if it’s worth buying this record. You’re going to need criticism, but criticism doesn’t fit with this music very well, because it is completely subjective.”
So how does on build upon such a community? There is an appeal here for a wide variety of people. Although initial experiences may bewilder and confuse, the sheer scope of possibilities should hold some points of interest for many musically oriented people. From my own personal experience, both bands I witnessed at the substation had something to offer – something to say, but different ways to say it. That is what music is about usually. I asked Massimo if he sees a way for the scene to grow in Brisbane. Is everyone that cares for it already a part of it? Is there even room for growth?
“I think there could be a lot more people into it if they discovered what it is about and had an opportunity to see it,” says Massimo. “There aren’t a lot of venues and that’s the problem. Most of them are really hard to find out about. If there was a more visible, more regular venue, a weekly night, then I think more people would come. I think more people would be interested if more people knew about it, it is weird, but it’s fun.”
What would he say to someone, like me, who is heading into a performance with no idea of what to expect?
“Don’t try and expect what is going to happen, because that won’t happen and it would kind of defeat the purpose. Just enter into it as an experience that is happening right now, that you are a part of, and know that the performers know about as much about what is going to happen as you do. We are all sharing he experience together, no matter how chaotic and discordant it sounds; they are all listening to each other – it’s all about communication.”
Hopefully next time there will be a sign saying: leave expectations at the door. That way, like me, you might be pleasantly surprised.