TLQ#4 - James Bradbury

The same questions, asked to different improvisers in Perth. Credit for the idea, and some of the questions, goes to the amazing Addlimb archive.

1. What led you to improvised music?

When I was young I found it hard to get involved with improvised music as it seemed reserved for people with impeccable aural skills and jazz training. I learned music predominantly through orchestral viola where improvisation was neither taught nor encouraged and this created a divide between what I thought were two very distinct practices. I also never had those particular jazz skills, so for a long time I was steered away from improvising. It was only when I started my undergraduate that I started to improvise with others more freely. I have a pretty fond memory of doing some ‘improvised operas’ with Drew Woolley and Agamous Betty, which were total nonsense, but at the same time there would always be a brief moment where we might listen back and go ‘Is this good?’. Long answer short, it wasn’t, but finding the right people to develop confidence with was essential in breaking down any stigmas that I had been wrongfully forming. I think that in composition we’re always improvising with ideas mentally and physically, and this is something that I had been doing anyway, so all the cognition was there just no feeling that it was worthwhile for other people to be involved with my limited skill set. Now, the idea of play and exploration is essential in my own music and improvisation to me isn’t polarised against formalised ideas with strict representations in musical performance. Conceptually, the two intertwine in how they elicit performers to behave and often fixed material is full of improvised behaviours anyway, so the divide has become much closer.

2. What instrument or equipment do you use to improvise, and what is your relationship with this equipment?

I’ve sometimes used my viola to improvise but after years of not practicing my technique is pretty bad. Since becoming more involved with electronics I’ve turned to the computer as my main improvisatory tool, instrument or whatever you want to call it. I have a lot of problems though with electronics in the way that they present themselves amongst other acoustic instruments. It’s not that they are so different in their origination, materials and behaviour but that collectively, musicians have often approached electronics as prosthesis for the user. This approach really disinterests me, and I’m more inclined to explore the idiosyncratic behaviours that machines, devices and electronics have baked into their synthetic bodies. As a result, I want to see what I take from the machine and what it takes from me, rather than controlling one like a physical instrument.

3. What keeps you improvising? What do you think makes this music important, either personally, socially, politically, etc.

I honestly don’t improvise that much right now but I would like to do more once I’ve completed my masters. What keeps me improvising though? I would say it’s those moments when it all seems to click either in the moment or reflectively. I recently spent some time with a composer Felipe Waller, who was in possession of some hand made analog circuits similar to the STEIM cracklebox. Even he had no idea what they were fully capable of, so using them cultivated a sense of exploration together and it was great for those moments to emerge where our tinkering coalesced. I don’t think it needs to be said either, but improvisation provides opportunities to form genuine bonds with people and I really enjoy that aspect too. Creating these bonds with other people is incredibly important to me, particularly in today’s cultural climate and obsession with consumption of material goods. It irks me that people are happy to see the amount of waste we’re creating in order to satisfy an economic system that inevitably makes us unhappier. It’s so important now to find how you can cut through all that bullshit and start doing things that matter. So for me, music/art/improvisation and creating genuine connections to others is paramount in this endeavour to live a deliberate life.

4. What are your feelings on the relationship between planning and spontaneity in improvisation?

Planning can produce spontaneous but spontaneity can’t be planned. I think that in many great fixed instrumental works the scored instructions are less of a command and more an elicitation. Even something simple like a violin glissando can be improvisatory when you compound that instruction with for example, vibrato or sul ponticello. Performers immediately internalise these instructions and imprint microscopic features onto them that are usually unconscious and untraceable. Each person will take a different approach to an instruction and this reflects the kind of player and musician they are. So planning and spontaneity aren’t extremes to me, rather, spontaneity can emerge at any point in a musical experience, especially when someone's sensibility is juxtaposed and foregrounded against other’s. Planning sometimes just helps to structure an event or perhaps to give a dialogue some boundaries in which these unexpected moments can occur.

5. How do you evaluate or reflect upon improvisations you’ve played? How does the evaluation of a recording differ from the evaluation of a performance?

I always find listening back to recordings of improvisations really interesting. Often, you hear things that you weren’t totally aware of either because you weren’t listening or perceptually it just wasn’t available to you at the time. A friend and I recently decided to impromptu improvise and record one day. I wasn’t all that chuffed with it at the time, but reflecting on the recording of that improvisation revealed to me some really interesting facets of my own musicality. It was as if I was listening to someone I would like to hear improvise which was incredibly satisfying. That entire process can be reversed too and a great improvisation can be really dissatisfying at the reflection stage. I guess it just highlights the ephemeral and shifting nature of these things.

6. Do you think there is room for discursive (as opposed to non-discursive) thought in improvisation? Can discursive thoughts whilst playing be productive rather than distracting, and if so, do you have an idea as to when this might be the case?

I think that both kinds of thinking are fine. Why wouldn’t they be? There are plenty of different types of improvisors: discursive/non-discursive, quiet/loud, fast/slow, erratic/controlled and I don’t think that any specific combination of these is productive or unproductive. I think it's interesting that improvisation now has specific delineations about the types of improvisors and behaviours and even more so how certain ones are disallowed. I’d be keen to be exposed to an improvisation that is entirely based on being non-discursive but still holds some sort of coherency in its underlying material or structure.

7. Can you name three albums/pieces/experiences that inspired you to start improvising, and three that are currently inspiring you?

Dan O’Connor - IN/EX
St epreo - autechre
Je ne vois qu’infini par toutes les fenetres - Marielle Groven
s/d - Kerry Hagan
He died in St Petersburg - Agamous Betty
Mooncoin - Jeff Lang

8. What do you feel should happen next to see further growth in exploratory music practice in Western Australia?

I’d love to see more experimental music being decentralised from ‘significant’ performance spaces. It’s great that on some nights each week now you can go into bars and see interesting people playing interesting music, rather than waiting for the token experimental music concert once a year from the most well funded organisations. Something I’d personally love to see more of is small performances in people’s homes or in community spaces. Perth has lots of great spaces like this and one venue I particularly like is Satchmo Cafe. I’m not trying to be a shill or anything but any place that can provide me experimental music and food is going to get my approval. More importantly though, there is such a lacking in depth of educational experience provided at the primary and secondary level. I was never exposed to many of the important composers of the 20th century, or exposed to so many musical fields out there that aren’t well represented. I wish I knew about it earlier, and reflecting on it now, I see that the becoming a music teacher is often considered something you do when you don’t make it as a performer/composer. This really toxic attitude curbs the potential for fostering a generally accepted approach to experimental and improvised music as some of the most intelligent and mindful musicians are steered away from sharing their practice to knowledge hungry students.
James Bradbury - 'Biomimicry'