What led you to improvised music?
I was in the extremely fortunate position of finding myself in a band (Pahlemik) with some older and more established musicians when I was 17. At that point I was already into some experimental /noise stuff, but all those guys helped me take things to a new level. They introduced me to a bunch of new music and totally supported me in developing a personal relationship with improvisation, noise etc. that went beyond grindcore and other more structured forms of noise-making. I was also briefly drafted into one of the early lineups for Cat Hope’s Abe Sada project, and from that point onwards found myself engaged with experimental and improvised music, in a fairly peripheral but nonetheless consistent way.
What instrument or equipment do you use to improvise, and what is your relationship with this equipment?
It varies widely. Although I am a bass player by background, that instrument has not played a large role in my improvisation work. I would say that the last two years have been my most consistent in terms of engagement with the improvised music scene, and this has been as a direct result of my decision to learn bass clarinet and force myself to create outside the usual punk/hardcore/metal circles in which I’ve done most of my work for the previous decade or so. Having said that, I have also erratically produced recordings and performances heavily leaning into power electronics territory, and that material relies primarily on my trusty Trogotronic 666, which I’ve more recently paired with its baby sister the 555 (as well as my rotating roster of effects pedals). I’m about to start working on a release which will hopefully delineate a nice balance between the two modes of play/mindsets*.
* I did put some bass clarinet on my sole noise release as Tsvoim, but that was hardly improvised or particularly fantastic.
What keeps you improvising? What do you think makes this music important, either personally, socially, politically, etc.
I find it difficult to view improvisation as a type of music in and of itself; I think it’s one of the pillars of most if not all creative practices, especially in terms of visceral/immersive/engaging performances. I think music-making that is audibly, and maybe more importantly visibly, responsive to the space, audience, and collaborators which are involved makes for a bonding experience that could have lasting effect. I always joke that I improvise because I’m too terrible a player to actually play other people’s music, and while there’s definitely truth in that due to the fact that I’m mostly self-taught, I also actually do feel that improvisation brings with it a particular spirit.
I would say that, from a personal standpoint, I take a Ground Theory approach to my playing; I’m not completely familiar with my instrument, I have at most some shadowy understanding of what various things do and how it all works. I’m using 20 pieces to try and complete a 1000-piece puzzle, so sometimes it’s an abject failure and sometimes it’s Picasso (and often it’s both). I would argue that witnessing this process take place has as much importance as watching someone blaze through classical passages or perform traditional folk tunes precisely how they were originally intended to be played.
In some ways this is classic alchemy: trying to turn shit into gold. It’s just another manifestation of everything I learned coming up through punk. That is to say, that remaining untrained, deinstitutionalised, scummy, sloppy, visibly struggling, and all-around unprofessional has a certain level of power and presence. It shows that creativity does not equal some lofty notion of capacity, and vise versa. My instrument of choice is one that is normally reserved for the institutions and the orchestras, and the mere sight of someone like me (working class, modified, transgender, queer) touching it is probably enough to send a shiver down most classical career musicians’ spines. I’m using my body, my history, and my musicality to explore that gap between humanity, tradition, and the stratified expectations our society has developed of who has a right to what music.
What are your feelings on the relationship between planning and spontaneity in improvisation?
I think that there is no such thing as pure improvisation, particularly for people who have undergone institutional training. We all have schemas we draw from throughout our lives, whether it’s in terms of what we think politically or how we treat our loved ones, and music is no different. We have fondness for particular sounds, styles, keys… Those things are bound to come to the top. It’s a musical Brazil Nut Effect, the biggest and most salient things are always most likely to end up at the surface. I guess for me, all improvisation is planning, on some level. You have set yourself up; you’ve either learned scales or you haven’t, cleaned your instrument or not, brought the “right” equipment or neglected to do so. How conscious that process was is another matter, and that’s where I believe that remaining somewhat ignorant to the ins-and-outs of your instrument has some major benefits.
I feel like my equal-parts favourite and most frustrating moments in improvisation are ones where whatever it is I did back there, no one will ever hear again, myself included. That to me is the closest a person can get to true improvisation; utilising whatever pre-existing knowledge (or absence thereof) to create something so ephemeral that it is completely untraceable outside the moment. I love this, because I think that fleeting memories which embed themselves in the body can be so powerful. But I’m also human, and I therefore find it infinitely exasperating to have done something incredible which I am incapable of replicating. It’s one of those moments, like your parents looking away during the one handstand you’ll ever do in your life, that’s going to sting forever. But it’s also so beautiful, and if it’s something that happens around other people, it will live in their minds on some subatomic level.
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 mainly reflect depending on what state I managed to enter during a performance. Feedback from other people is good, and part of my practice is about trying to induce particular moods or states in my audience, so knowing whether I had an effect or not can be satisfying. But ultimately if a performance puts me in a negative state, or even worse moves me none, then that will be my take-home message. I feel my music very viscerally, and as a result different projects put me in different headspaces. I am consistently inconsolable, sometimes for hours, after performing under BILES. In contrast, when I perform with my bass clarinet, I often enter very sublime and meditative states, where I lose time and find myself intensely focused on touch and timbre. These variations impact my evaluations, and at this point I have resigned myself to accepting that the margin for movement within each mindset is minimal.
When it comes to recordings, I am an obsessive. I will listen back to tracks for hours, even after the record has been released. I always want to find moments that surprise me, and I often do. Most recently, I found myself listening to my upcoming bass clarinet release very loudly with headphones for the first time, and realised I could hear birdsong consistently throughout the recording. It was this beautiful thing, it added space, it created a more complex mood, it eked out the room the recording was made in as part of a bigger world. I suppose that is a significant part of recordings that doesn’t always get discussed as something improvisational; all the coughs, power noise, terrible finger placements, shuffles, traffic sounds… You can either try to block them out, or you assimilate them into your perspective on the record, for better or worse (there is definitely a little too much Baby Talking in one of my live recordings).
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 ultimately all thoughts are discursive; even someone improvising and just thinking “I am shredding so hard” carries a discursive slant, and a particular perspective on music, performance, audience etc. I think there is a major difference between music which relates to a discourse or a set of discourses and music that works solely towards portraying one discursive narrative or other. One way to tell them apart would be to ask whether whatever it is that you are creating has an Intention or a Goal. This might be semantics, but I feel like intending to do something still leaves room for movement, creativity, spontaneity, and most importantly revision. Whereas having a very specific goal can really only go one of two ways: success or failure; providing the audience with a well-constructed revelation or a boring, obvious piece of propaganda.
I would view my bass clarinet practice as having some intentions, namely to create meditative states of quietude within myself and the audience. I have a desire to create this, for a variety of reasons, however I also recognise that for each person whatever response they have to my performance carries unique, and often hard to describe, narratives. I don’t think meditation is a tool to yield a particular outcome, in the same way that I don’t view other pleasurable and arguably creative practices (i.e. sex, cooking, telling jokes) as being rigidly outcomes-based. If I tell you a joke and my intention is to make you laugh, making you cry isn’t necessarily a failure, just an unexpected but equally important result. It might even benefit you more than had I just got a laugh out of you; there’s deep truths in atypical responses.
Can you name three albums/pieces/experiences that inspired you to start improvising, and three that are currently inspiring you?
If I’m going all the way back to my teenage years, I would say first and foremost that John Zorn, and in particular Torture Garden and other Naked City output, was absolutely pivotal for me in terms of thinking beyond traditional song structures and understandings of what makes a song or what constitutes as music at all (“Gob of Spit” is a perfect track). Cat Hope wrangling me in early on in the piece was also crucial to my development as an improviser, and I would say my time with her continues to shape me as a musician today. And finally, I have to mention that Anal Cunt, and practically everything else Seth Putnam put out in his short and relatively horrible life, played a significant role in shifting my love for heaviness away from predictability, catchiness, melody etc. and towards just plain unpleasant noise. Rest in piss Seth.
These days, the people who keep me moving, thinking and diving deep are a little less abrasive. My Alice Coltrane collection continues to expand, and with every release I absorb I become a little more connected to truths beyond our material plane. Her musicality is matched-and-then-some by her spirituality, and I find her connection between melody and Creation utterly immersive. A close second is Rahsaan Roland Kirk; his approach to freedom within time, melody and musical interaction is amazing, you can feel his band move around with him, but also in his solo work you can literally feel how everything he does is not uniform, and every limb has a mind of its own. Finally, as far as trying to fit instruments like mine into heavier contexts, I’ve really enjoyed Wolves in the Throne Room’s “Celestite”, and all the incredibly deep horn work on it. There’s a level of majesty that I would really love to explore further; bass frequencies as the chariot of fire, and the clarinet’s mournful tones like Gabriel’s empathetic trumpet.
What do you feel should happen next to see further growth in exploratory music practice in Western Australia?
I would have to say that Tura is definitely going down the right track, particularly with its intentional inclusion of women, trans folx, queers and people who would not normally have access to New Music, which mostly remains nestled within the academy. As far as what should happen next, I would argue that finding more venues which are willing to not only host these events, but become champions of experimental music, would be a step in the right direction. This is all idealism though, I did my time as a promoter and I know that ultimately venues these days want revenue, not character. In which case, the only thing left is to further galvanise the place of experimental music, in all its iterations. As has been the case in the past, reaching out and mixing with other scenes, and making intentional connections between musics which most people may consider oil and water, would be a fantastic way for WA to continue evolving. Having said all this, I also have to state that WA is arguably one of the healthiest and most diverse experimental scenes in the country, and its come a long way in the last two years, particularly in terms of the level of support provided for novice and emerging musicians to be seen, heard and understood. Amplifying previously-unheard voices, whether they are quiet by nature or systematically silenced, allows us all to privilege the beauties and strengths they carry, and to cement their language in the growing lexicon of experimental music.