Dave Kane, Alex Neilson, Chris Sharkey & Alex Ward
Live at Contra Pop 2018
On the afternoon of 4 August 2018, Dave Kane (double bass, Leeds), Alex Neilson (drums, Glasgow), Chris Sharkey (electric guitar, Leeds) and Alex Ward (clarinet/electric guitar, London) performed as an improvisational quartet for the first time. Their 45-minute set took place in a marquee on Ramsgate beach in front of a captivated audience of around 250 people.
By way of contextualisation, the musicians themselves sustain distinct, yet interweaving, individual practices in classical music, contemporary composition, folk, free improvisation, jazz and rock, amongst other areas. The vitality of their performance drew on these diverse genres and represented a coming together of ‘free improvisation’ as a distinct discipline in the jazz tradition and improvisation as a universal and fundamental process in music-making.
What follows is a transcription of the group interview conducted immediately after the performance by Adam Coney, an improvisational guitarist and music scholar based in Ramsgate.
Adam Coney: It’s quite wonderful to see kids building sandcastles while listening to that kind of music. When you guys were setting up, what was going through your minds in terms of the space?
Dave Kane: I think that’s maybe just a UK thing [for it to be unusual for live improvisation to take place in public spaces] – I’ve played some times in Europe where it is encouraged to play improv and families are there. It is the first time that I’ve done it in the UK I think, but I’ve played at some other festivals in a few places like Vilnius in Lithuania that had a really open, friendly, afternoon vibe where they bring families and stuff, so I guess it’s not that common here, but today it felt really nice. Me and Sharkey were just chatting, sitting outside the tent seeing people enjoying their day and what have you, just listening to the DJ before us.
Alex Ward: I mean, in a way, it’s sort of strange if improv does get associated with very specific places, because it’s really the kind of music which should be able to be played [anywhere]; I mean it’s the one kind of music where you have no excuse for turning up and thinking ‘god, what I do really doesn’t suit this space’, because what you do is completely open to negotiation in a way it isn’t in any other kind of music.
Chris Sharkey: The space is like ‘the fifth Beatle’ in improv, isn’t it? It’s like what you’re saying, it’s another consideration for how you’re going to make the music. If we’d have done that in a club, I’d imagine it would have been completely different, you know, with the marquee and that dry, amplified sound and the monitors¹? I mean, having monitors for improvisation is quite unusual...
AW: Yeah, that’s pretty rare.
CS: ... but I just thought ‘I’m going to have my monitor really loud and just get into what this is, to try and get into the right headspace and it was really nice, actually.
AC: This is the first time you guys have played together as a quartet, right?
Alex Neilson: Have you guys ever played together at all?
AW: I’ve never played with anyone...
CS: I can’t believe you forgot!
AW: [Laughter] Remind me.
CS: We did four guitars in Newcastle. It was me and you, John Coxon and George Burt.
AW: Oh, right!
CS: And it was a kind of short, half an hour, just four guitars.
AW: I think I can be excused for not remembering – a certain number of guitars all sort of rolled into one(!)
CS: It was one if those nights where there were loads of sets – it was part of a festival.
AW: Yeah, I do remember that now.
CS: We did a little half an hour thing or twenty minutes.
CS: But, no [, to answer Adam’s question], we haven’t [really] played together.
AC: Was there a preconceived toolkit for what you weren’t going to do, or did you decide, ‘let’s go in “full-on” and then break it down’?
DK: Yeah, well, I just met Alex [Neilson] five minutes before the gig. I was chatting to him as he was setting up behind his drum kit and said ‘are we gonna go in, you know, full-on? And he looked at me for a bit and I said ‘no, I’m probably not!’
AN: I was just tricking him, and I went in straight for some kidney punches.
AC: Yeah, work the lower body.
AN: As soon as he turned his back...
AC: It was a really nice mix actually, and level-wise as well – I mean, I don’t know how much the sound engineer was riding levels at the front, but, certainly it sounded pretty produced from what you were doing.
DK: That’s nice to hear – thanks very much. Yeah, I think it’s difficult in that environment, as Chris was saying, whenever it’s amplified, playing music that’s normally pretty acoustic in small venues, so it really does influence how you play as a group. [For example], on the first track we were playing, I couldn’t hear Alex [Ward]’s clarinet at all, but I was sort of in the zone of doing a similar thing.
AW: It sounded really good.
DK: So, for the first couple of minutes, you’re having to trust that you’re in the same region, then it was a case of pointing to the monitor engineer to turn up the clarinet.
CS: Yeah, I mean, when do you ever do that in an improv gig?
AC: It’s funny that [the DJ] played Sonny Sharrock at the end, ’cause, for the first few minutes [of the performance], the drums reminded me of the Sonny Sharrock recording ‘Peanut’ – very relaxed in the mix, then about ten minutes in, all of a sudden the kit was just super-present.
DK: Wow, that sounds good(!)
AC: In a broader picture, I’m thinking about improvisation in relation to streaming and the way our listening habits have changed. There’s a Derek Bailey quote where he talks about improvisation, and he says ‘imagine you were listening to a record just once, imagine the intensity that the listening would require’. Do you think that improv is becoming more potent, maybe, in recent times because of the way that technology is working? I’m thinking about people’s attention spans in this regard.
DK: Do you mean in terms of a live setting, because you’ll never experience it again?
AC: Yeah – I think people are more used to a slightly more schizophrenic listening experience, maybe, because there’s so much choice and so much control over what you’re listening to at any given point. I don’t know if you guys have any thoughts on that.
AN: What was the question? Whether the intensity of the performances is greater now than it has been before?
AC: I think it’s just an observation that improvisation seems to be feeding into people’s listening experience quite a lot at the minute, because, in the past, I guess music was consumed [differently]. For example, CD albums were a bigger format, a bigger listening experience, but now, because we tend to just skip through what we’re listening to and, in the same way, when you’re improvising, maybe, your brain is working quite quickly in that sort of way. I wonder if it’s making a connection with an audience in a slightly more profound way of late.
AN: Can I just ask, do you guys think that musicianship is worse now than it was during the age of the LP? Do you think that people then, in the age of Derek Bailey, were just better, in general; the quality was better, because people were more dedicated and they had fewer distractions like these technologies?
AW: The thing is, I can’t really speak to 40 or 50 years ago, but, to me, just from my personal taste in improvised music, I think it’s going through a really good period at the moment in terms of the players and the general level. To me, it’s much stronger than it was, say, 15 years ago. Now, I know other people, who talk about 15 years ago as a real golden age of improvised music, but, to me, the general calibre of people, and the intensity people bring to performances [, is higher now]. I don’t know why it is, and I sometimes wonder whether it’s just my perception, but...
DK: And is that more of the fact that it’s our peers, do you think, so you’re playing with, maybe, our age group, rather than playing with people who were older than us or the generation above us?
AW: I think I’m actually probably talking about people who are younger than us. There was a period, probably 15-20 years ago, when I felt that there were not that many people my own age who I really wanted to play with – they were mainly either older or younger. And now that’s changed a bit because you do have people getting into it. I mean, it’s a music that people often come to after they’ve developed a dissatisfaction with some other kind of music.
AN: So, I’m thinking, maybe ten years ago, there was a big sort of vogue towards noise music, [where the kind of equipment used in performance,] like analogue tapes, probably didn’t require so much ‘musicianship’ as such.
AW: There may have been that, although I only really ever encountered that outside of London. It sort of seemed like in London that scene and the improv scene didn’t really cross over much at all for some reason, and it happened much more in other places.
CS: OK, I’m going to throw this in and see what happens, see if it starts a fight, right... Is improvisation, in itself, good, or is it just a process to make something?
AN: It depends on the quality of the people doing it, and their ability to listen to each other and respond to each other; their ability to transpose their emotions to their musical capabilities in the moment, their ability to make themselves vulnerable.
CS: I guess what I’m getting at is, is it a method or is it a lifestyle? Is it a method or something deeper than that?
DK: It’s both, I think. For me, personally, without improvisation you wouldn’t be able to make any music. I remember reading an interview with Barry Guy and he talked about how, as a performer, improviser and composer, that he viewed them as [part of] the same thing. You just deliberate more...
CS: But you have to make a choice, right?
DK: Yeah, you have to make something from nothing, so, essentially, it’s still that same thing of being able to create something from a blank page. I’m really grateful for being an improviser for many, many, many years, because now you can take that to whatever it is that you want to do. You’re never stuck for making something.
AW: I’d agree. I mean, it depends whether you’re talking about ‘free improvisation’ or improvisation. Free improvisation with the expectations of how you go about that and its strictures; that’s a method. Improvisation, as you say, is more of a ..., well, I would feel frustrated if the only kind of music I could play was free improvisation, but I would also feel frustrated playing much music where there wasn’t the possibility to improvise if not the obligation. I mean, as much as I like to listen to it, I’ve always struggled with classical music as a performer from that point of view, and even if you’re playing a song which is very set, the ability to bend it, extend the structure, all the kind of things that musicians will do [, is important]. As you say, this [falls] more into a way of looking at music from start to finish.
AN: It’s always the kind of bent notes or the blemishes within the song that make them lovable. It’s the kind of things that aren’t repeatable that make them idiosyncratic and cherishable.
CS: [To Adam Coney] Sorry, I hijacked you there.
AC: No, it’s brilliant. I mean, when Kyle first asked me to do this, I was chatting with my Trestle Records colleague, Ross Downes, about a similar sort of thing and we formulated the following summary: ‘Improvisation: It’s potential and power lies in the temporal generation of a unique listening experience based on chance and collaboration. It is the presence and human aspects that intrigues and excites. It demands of the audience, it can fail, and yet denies a value system. It calls the idea of judgement into a fundamental quandary; how can one judge when one does not understand? It gives equal import to noise, the instrument does not have to dictate the manner in which it makes its sound’.
AN: I think it’s quite similar to sex. I think it’s quite similar to the sex act, which could be attributed to some of the sentiments you just described there; the intensity, the deep human connection, the improvisatory element to it, the moving in the same way at the same time, the power dynamic which is precarious and fluid.
CS: The vulnerability.
AN: Yeah, the ‘making yourself vulnerable’ and daring to be good in the moment.
DK: I think it’s the ‘present moment’ thing and, actually, awareness, which is something that isn’t really taught or practised a lot, like complete and utter awareness and focus on one activity. So, when you’re improvising in a group, all each of us is trying to do is [to enact] complete awareness, to create something together, because you’re not only playing your instrument, but you’re trying to listen to all the other people on stage, and then, as a result, everyone else who’s in the room is on that energy frequency listening to the energy that’s being created in the moment. I, personally, think it’s to do with this complete communal awareness of the present moment, which we rarely get nowadays, because everyone is ‘elsewhere’. We’re all on our phones and doing other stuff, so I think improv can have that heightened sense of ‘oh, wow – this is happening now and I’m engaged in it’ and the audience are as engaged in it as we are.
AN: I think it’s kind of alchemical in that respect. You have these kind of base elements which we’re all just using and you kind of transmute that into something which is ‘higher’ than the elements themselves.
CS: I definitely feel like that’s what I’m looking for. I’m trying not to force it at any point, but, in the back of my mind, I want to find those areas that feel like they’re objects or something, where there’s a fully-formed thing happening and we’re barely touching it but it’s up in the air.
DK: There were definitely moments of that within the set, where it was kind of bubbling and then there were moments when we all felt it. And you feel it, you really feel. It’s like ‘oh, wow’ and it goes somewhere and it’s all to do with that I guess; each of us tapping into something at the same time.
CS: It’s definitely my favourite music to listen to live, free improvisation. The person who played first today, Otherworld, ended their set with a very long drone. It was very, very detailed and I really listened very intently to it and, once you started to listen, it pulls you in with all the many, many things that were happening within that ostensibly simple-sounding note. If you hear it just for a second you think ‘oh, it’s just a long note’, but inside it was all this stuff, and the more you listened, the more these rhythms appeared and harmonics and everything, and I think they’re really enriching listening experiences. With free improvisation it’s so overwhelming, because what’s happening is happening so synaptically quick that you’re just overloaded with this beautiful amount of information that, if you really listen, it just takes you away and off and I feel like the music is very special for that reason; the sheer amount of information in there and the fact that it’s pushing and pulling in unexpected ways.
AN: And I think the acceptance of turbulence and having something that isn’t necessarily very harmonically pleasing can be transcendentally beautiful as well, if you immerse yourself in it.
AC: Yeah, absolutely. When I was at Newcastle [University, studying contemporary composition], we had an improvisation group – we used to meet every Monday in a gallery and it was a lovely way to start the week, because we’d do around two hours of improv, and, at the time, I had these kind of anxiety things going on and I remember a couple of distinct sessions where it would bring on these panic attacks almost, because I was so keen to get in that transcension – I had to get there in order to feel comfortable and it was one of the best learning experiences I had really. Emotionally, I think it developed me in ways that other music wouldn’t have been able to; it got to the root of the anxiety so quickly. Actually, when you guys were setting up today, I felt anxious, but you seemed to go into the transcendence gear pretty damn quickly and it put me at ease and, like you were saying, Alex, that’s not the sort of thing you associate with a turbulent listening experience as such, but, for me, it’s always been something that I’ve...
W: But, it could be – I don’t know if you’d agree – because the turbulence, in a way, is saying ‘anything can happen and anything can happen at the same time, and it’ll be OK’.
CS: I’d be interested to find out from you, Alex, about that question, you know, your feeling about when you first started doing it, because, I think, you started with free improvisation quite early. Did you experience anything like that, you know, like terror or nerves or anxiety about performing?
AW: Not really. I mean, linked to what I was saying before, I’ve always found playing composed music far more nerve-racking than playing improvised music and that’s still the case to this day.
CS: Even if it’s something you’ve written yourself?
AW: Yeah, some of that, but even more if I’m playing other people’s stuff. But, also, I think, when I was very young, any nerves or terror I had were more on the social aspect of it than the musical aspect of it and that continues to this day.
AN: But, aren’t terror and ecstasy the angels and demons on your shoulders when you’re playing this music? Because it contains both, I think, more than any other music, and it’s the marriage of those things that is psychologically and emotionally – talking about emotional development – really crucial to this, and probably, as ‘thinking people’, inquisitive people with musical abilities, that’s why you’re drawn to it.
CS: It’s true, isn’t it? I heard an interview with an actor on the radio the other day where she was talking about how difficult she finds it, you know, every role, and maybe the layman might listen to that and think, ‘well, why do you do it?’, and I think it’s something every musician has where, when you hear them talking about what it is they do, you hear a lot about how difficult it is and the struggles you have, but there’s something about [the notion that] if it wasn’t a struggle, you wouldn’t do it. There’s something about the overcoming, or the confrontation or something that makes it real and worthwhile.
DK: It’s interesting what Alex was saying about going on stage to play a composition or a written thing compared to going on stage and playing [improvised music]. So, you should really be more nervous about going on stage with no predetermined material whatsoever, but I’m lucky that I feel more comfortable in that situation as well. Even like there today, we’d never played as a group [before], but I’m pretty sure all of us felt like it was going to be OK, it was going to work, it was going to be fine.
AN: Again, I feel like that’s why it’s alchemical; you just have the raw material of your own ability and confidence and personality.
DK: And trust in other people and that it’s going to work.
AN: Yeah, you’re forced to make something that transcends the parts.
CS: And, just to talk about the angels and demons, on stage beforehand where we’re all stood there like lemons waiting for the monitor engineer to make his final technical preparations, I was aware that ‘this is awkward’, but ‘I don’t care’. ‘This is the beginning of the performance and I’m going to stand here and it’s OK’ and it had already begun.
AN: I think what was quite good was, because we hadn’t played before and we were right there and had to do it, we didn’t overcompensate with volume or thrashing or just doing something that instantly displays your virility or something, because I think we were all in the same zone pretty quickly, complementary and moving in the same space.
CS: Sometimes, when you get some audience feedback, and they’re like ‘Aw, we just wanted you to go [for it]l’, you know, you get that thing of like ‘Ah, you were just holding back’ or something – you sometimes get that, where you’ve been trying to protect the audience from this onslaught of ‘virility’ and at the end they’re just like ‘We just wanted a bit of virility’, so that can happen sometimes.
CS: But then you want to make sure that you play without inhibition and, in this respect, I felt like we were all feeling that thing of ‘Yes, it’s OK to come up now and do this thing, do the loud thing, do the aggressive thing’. There were nice moments where that happened. Yeah, you’re right – we were on the same wavelength quite quickly and we read it.
AC: Yeah, and also, with the handing of the baton, Chris, your guitar, when it ‘stepped up’ for a second, I could hear the staggered, stuttering thing in connection with what Alex [Neilson] was doing and then you had the kind of fiery part and then Alex [Ward] came back in and, basically, the passing of the baton felt very natural, especially with the time constriction of a performance like that. Personally, in my head, it’s a bit of a nightmare when I’m improvising because you’re ‘out of it’ for a lot if it and to have that awareness of shape and dynamic within the group seemed pretty effortless.
AN: Well, that’s quite pleasing. One thing I find really hard is to think ‘Well, if I stop, the whole world’s going to stop, so I’d better just keep going and going no matter what’, and I think that’s a trust thing, isn’t it?
AW: Well, that can actually happen. One of the things I thought was nice about today was that all of us were able to stop and that didn’t happen. I have, sometimes, been in improvised situations where it does seem like you’re playing and, if you stop, all the other players are like ‘Oh, is he upset?’ and they all shrink back.
DK: Especially with a first combination of players.
AW: And it was nicer today that we could all drop out, come in and just sort of explore the different combinations without feeling that.
CS: I don’t know about you guys, but I’m thinking about the audience a lot normally and I’m trying not to curate anything for them, but I’m just aware sometimes that ‘oh, it would probably be nice now if they just listened to these guys’.
AC: It’s that social empathy, isn’t it?
CS: So, it’s not coming from a pure ‘I don’t have anything to say now’ thing, it’s actually ‘OK, they’ve heard me a bit; now I’m going to stop’. The first time it happened, where there was a lovely trio of clarinet, double bass [and drums]. It’s like ‘come on, look, it’s a great sound; let’s have that for a while’.
AC: Yeah, I completely relate to that.
CS: It’s almost like a production decision rather than a technical thing.
AN: I think it takes more confidence and a lot of foresight, and you only achieve that through doing it for a while.
DK: Yeah, that’s what I was going to say. I think all of us have had quite a lot of years behind us now doing it as well, so there is that element there where you all know it’s fine to stop playing and people will know you’re not annoyed or pissed off – you’re just taking a break from it or making a conscious decision to not play.
AC: Absolutely. Well, I think that ties things up nicely. Thanks for your time, guys, and congratulations on your performance.