Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately in regards to my own playing is the role of control. I recently listened to an episode of the New Yorker: Fiction podcast in which Salvatore Scibona was discussing the fiction of Denis Johnson (I confess to not being at all familiar with either of these authors before hearing the podcast) and, in describing the flowing, free way Johnson’s prose comes off--coming off so well that it seems to be extremely well planned--Scibona quoted a writing teacher of his as saying “Control is what produces the illusion of freedom.”
For musicians, it is often a goal to play in a manner that seems effortless, free, uninhibited. To appear as though we play with ease. There are certain pieces for which this is not a goal--Andriessen’s Workers Union and Rzewski’s Coming Together come to mind. (An aspect that I really love about both of these pieces is that they’re designed to make the musicians struggle, and for my tastes, an effective performance of either requires the players to be beating themselves to shit.)
This is why performances of the Bach cello suites on double bass are never truly effective--because they require so much struggle (excess shifting, awkward double-stop positions), even the best players can’t help but sound like they’re working hard. That’s not to say they should stop trying--I sure won’t--but I’m waiting for someone to prove me wrong.
Playing in an effortless, free style ironically requires an extreme amount of grueling practice to be done successfully.
This is a concept that I can’t help but apply generally to the notion of “free improvisation.” Of course, effective free improvisations require an extreme amount of control on the part of the performers, especially since often they will utilize a great deal of extended techniques, and need to use a great deal of ear power if playing with other musicians.
Partially in exploration of this, I’ve done a guided improvisation, very creatively titled ‘Open A,’ wherein I play with the notion of control. By creating a set of guidelines, and using techniques that I’ve been working on for some time (I like to think that they’re hard, at least) I’ve tried to create a piece that sounds flowing and loose, while at the same time, working fairly hard for it. I’m not going to say if I’ve succeeded or not, but I will provide two different takes of this, that will hopefully work to illustrate these ideas.
I’ve uploaded the first take as a video, and the second take as audio. This, I think, will help to separate them in terms of judgement, creating two different sorts of experience so that they can’t be as directly compared to each other. Here’s the first take, as a video:
Open A from Ben Willis on Vimeo.
I’ve also described my guidelines in greater detail on the Vimeo site.
Here’s the second take, audio only:
You may notice, if you’ve read the rules, I break more of my own rules in the second take. I’m not sure if this makes the performance more or less effective.
Many thanks to Anna Weisling for her help in making the recordings and the video.
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