"De Motu" for Buschi Niebergall

by Evan Parker.


Coltrane remarked to Zita Carno on seeing one of his improvisations transcribed to music notation, "I think I know what it is but don't ask me to play it".

The only possible explanation for my being asked to contribute to this project with a composition must lie somewhere in the reputation I have made as a solo improvisor over the last eighteen years. I find myself needing to articulate a view that has remained ill-shapen in the back of my mind for some while. There was no need to get it clear until now because I have been perfectly happy with the term "free improvisation" as a description of my "style" and an indicator of my cultural allegiances.

I hope an impartial assessor would agree that "free improvisation" is still poorly served by the cultural support mechanisms throughout the world in comparison with other music forms, especially opera and other branches of "serious" music; "jazz", in particular the various revivalist and "fusion" tendencies which have always had the lion's share of money and promotion; and obviously commercial music along with its research and development department, "art rock". Lately the ethno-rock fusions known as "world music" and the curiously etiolated form called "new age music" have broadened the fields of research undertaken by the commercial music industry. Perhaps the situation for the musician concerning himself with improvisation has been better served by the cultural funding mechanisms in Holland than any other country in the world and that makes, among other things, this commission possible.

Why this should be? The work of Misha Mengelberg, Han Bennink and Willem Breuker played a leading part. (It happens that these three musicians were the first Dutch improvisors to invite me to work in Holland.) In founding the Instant Composers' Pool and later BvHaast and in their role as moving forces in the organisation of the BIM they made a position clear from the outset: that their work was to be included in the cultural planning at the highest levels nationally, and importantly, that no false distinctions were to be made between "serious" music and "improvised" music on the basis of the role notation played in their work. In the very naming of ICP, "instant composing" rather than improvisation was the preferred designation. In this way the false antithesis in which improvisation is talked about as an activity distinct from that of composition was avoided. After all, whether music is played directly on an instrument, read or learnt from notes made on paper beforehand or constructed from algorithms or game rules operating directly on the sound sources or controlling the players, the outcome is music which in any given performance has a fixed form. A form which, inter alia, reflects the procedure used to produce it. But that this is only part of the story is clearly illustrated by the fact that Boulez can title a strictly notated work "Improvisation sur Mallarme", or that Ferneyhough can write such complex notation that he knows the resulting performances will deviate substantially from what's written or that a group improvisation by the SME can be called "Webernesque" or my solo improvisations can be compared with the work of a process composer like Steve Reich.

That this false antithesis has the hold it does may in part be the consequence of a debate held in the early '70s among English improvisors of the equivalent generation to Mengelberg, Bennink and Breuker. I think that in that debate at times sight of the wood was obscured by the trees. Certainly by the time a theoretical position is arrived at in which it is thought the term "non-idiomatic improvisation" is the best description of something as instantly recognisable as Derek Bailey's guitar playing we have reached what E.P.Thompson called in another context "the terminus of the absurd".

The term "instant composing" has some negative connotations (invoking instant coffee and instant finance) which Misha in his inimitable way may have intended but at least has the advantage of avoiding a lot of squabbling about semantic distinctions which are at root irrelevant . After all, improvised music sounds a given way because of choices and decisions made by the players, which are the same kind of decisions made in other compositional disciplines. In any case the sense in which the cumulative development of technique and stylistic devices and all the other distinguishing characteristics which go to make up a recognisable body of work (what might be called creative coherence) actually produces "instant" composition is in most cases far removed from the idea of reinventing everything from scratch which is surely the most radical sense in which the term might be understood. Beyond Vinko Globokar's suggestion that to be true to their intention, records of free improvisation should only be listened to once comes the suggestion from Billy Jenkins that the true free improvisor only plays once. Both of these ideas exemplify the absurd conclusions that follow from too rigid an interpretation of what it means to improvise "freely". What is the role of the learnt instrumental technique in the form of an improvisors work? And what of learnt material where it is possible to separate material from technique. The conservatoire term "mechanical exercise" is possibly meant to designate study material which has yet to be " musicked"? Perhaps the same idea used to apply to all music notation: that it was material that needed life breathing into it from a performer? The gradual emergence of a hierarchic relationship between composer and performer in European Art Music has brought with it the notion of the score as embodying an inspired perfection which the performer must try hard not to damage. Expression marks, specific metronome markings of tempo, dynamic markings from pppp to ffff and beyond have in effect narrowed the scope of legitimate interpretation and, it could be argued, emotional involvement from the instrumentalist/interpreter. This tendency to load the score with instructions many of which may not be followed accurately in any given performance and which may even exceed the limits of playability, opens up the whole discussion of score as "literature", meta-art, graphic art, concept art etc. From the notating composer's point of view the limits of the imagination may take any number of forms in the printed score. Whether these forms correspond precisely to an aural image in many cases is open to question.

On the other hand, the improvisor seems to be working with memories of past improvisations which were themselves, at least in part, imagined at the time they were made but which may also have made use of material that had been learned by rote and techniques which have become automatic, shifting material from one area of consciousness to another, moving back and forth between the known and the unknown. Since I came across the ideas of left and right hemisphere specialisation of brain function in the works of Shah, Ornstein, Edwards and others it has helped to explain in part what happens: in the course of an improvisation the left hemisphere set of functions predominate at the outset and then gradually, if things are working well, a shift to right brain dominance takes place. In this mode things become physically possible which would be impossible "cold". In the "written score" for this piece this fact is acknowledged. Even if it were possible to notate some of these things it would take a better reader than me to play them again. In that sense they would become ironically like the worst excesses of the "very complex" composers. It would be like asking one of Bartok's folk musicians to read back one of his transcriptions or specifically like Coltrane posed the same problem thirty years ago.

The "score" might be better seen as a set of clues to a puzzle which taken in combination might lead to an equivalent solution. A series of germ ideas notated and recorded in their undeveloped form each of which is developed to the point of complexity at which notation becomes overloaded. (The variation form used in the classical tradition of Scottish piping, pibroch, through its systematic accretion of trills and ornaments around an essentially simple basic theme has much in common.) Notated improvisations may have interesting analytical uses and may be interesting study material for instrumental musicians but for me to present a piece based on one specific improvisation or edited and compiled from a number of improvisations would be to negate the essential reasons for my involvement in improvisation as a compositional method. Briefly stated these are connected with the specifics of time, place and people. However carefully I rehearse, practise and otherwise prepare for a concert, the material I bring with me must be open to final "tuning" and adjustment to the specific circumstances of performance. I will talk about this in more detail in the text on improvisation as compositional method.


Sometime in the later 70s, Max Eastley invited me to play at the opening of an exhibition of his work at the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park. This exhibition was concerned with the sound sculpture side of his work and there was a particular set of three monochords with motorised plectra and variable pickups which set up a drone where the precise proportion of overtones in the tone colour was determined by the proportion of output used from the various pickups. The way I was working with overtones at that time had interested Max in hearing me over the complex drone from his sculpture. For me the problem was one of endurance. Not having played with a "machine" before, I had had no reason to test the length of continuous sound I could produce using the circular breathing technique. I started to play with the drone and gradually my attention became more and more absorbed in the sound, working with various fundamentals and finding interesting tuning relationships with the amplified sound from the sculptures. I had been quite lost in the sound for some time when I felt a tap on my arm and opening my eyes saw a distinguished old arts administrator who politely asked me whether it would be possible to listen to the sound sculptures alone for a while. I had been playing for about three-quarters of an hour and while the embouchure was tired I could have gone longer; perhaps there will never be another sensible opportunity to test that particular limit and anyway for the moment I seem to have lost interest in that specific way of playing. An interesting postscript to the story came a couple of years later when John Gosling, the artist/art publisher visited me with unauthorised tapes of LaMonte Young. (At that time Young was notoriously anxious to control access to his music and such tapes were rare. Since that time, WKCR in New York devoted one of their 24-hour programmes to his work and many people now have tapes.) After listening to Sunday Morning Blues and other pieces from that session I was instantly reminded of the sound of the playing with Max's sculptures and realised that I was not the first person to discover the sound field opened up by fingering long tones and breaking the column rhythmically in the left hand while scanning the overtone series. LaMonte Young was still playing sopranino saxophone on those pieces and the work comes chronologically between the Fluxus related text pieces ("Draw a straight line and follow it" etc.) and the later drone work from the Theatre of Eternal Dreams. It seems reasonable to assume that his interest in the overtone series was more pragmatic or investigative at that stage while subsequently it has taken a more mathematical turn especially in the recent quartz-locked frequency generator based work. It also seems clear that his music in that period would have been well served by circular breathing. Nevertheless the correspondences were striking and others have noticed this too, notably Michael Gerzon who referred to the prior inventions of Young in a piece in 1985. I have the feeling that the work Terry Riley did using soprano saxophone and long tape loops should also figure in the list of prior inventions but "Dorian Reeds" was then and remains a very rare record.


All improvisation from an instrumentalist is in a sense "prepared" improvisation since the given knowledge of instrument and instrumental technique inevitably have an influence on the approach to and the course taken by the improvising. Billy Jenkins' remark, however light-heartedly expressed, makes this point. At some time in 1974 I started to think about the whole issue of personal style and whether or not it was compatible with "free" improvisation". Around this time I was beginning to change my mind about solo improvising and was starting to try things involving longer units of fixed material. Up to that point I had been concentrating on collective improvisation in which rapid interaction between the players required smaller and smaller units of musical contribution from any one individual and the procedures of free atonal construction from pure intervallic sequences combined with some equivalent to the idea of klangfarbenmelodie in the resulting music. This approach might be termed "atomistic". In such an approach any individual style was subsumed in the collective or at least was intended to be. The distinction with solo playing has been nicely put by John Butcher in the notes to his recent CD Thirteen friendly numbers: "Despite their special and distinctive qualities, improvisation and composition are not neatly separated activities. For the 'improviser' this becomes clearest with solo-playing, where personal concerns are unmodulated by other musicians' input." Realising that I was interested then in the challenge that solo playing represented I was aware that my approach had become overly concerned with the modulation of other musicians' input! I asked myself what were the longest units of material that could be incorporated into an improvisation? In answering this question I gradually developed the use of additive procedures for building patterns and used repetition/mutation procedures which have characterised much of my subsequent solo improvising. Two qualities have been remarked on consistently in the intervening period: comparisons with electronically synthesized music and references to machines. These qualities have obviously played a part in my being invited to prepare this commission. Back then I responded to Steve Reich's piece about music as a slow moving process, especially as it related to his tape pieces "Come Out" and "It's Gonna Rain". I objected as I recall, to the idea that a process had to be rigidly systematic and definable a priori, feeling then as I do now that a process could be loose and heuristic and yet still function as a developmental procedure for the improvisor and as a guide for the listener. Through the repetition of simple phrases which evolve by slow mutations (a note lost here, a note added there, a shift of accent, dynamic or tone colour) their apparent "polyphonic" character can be manipulated to show the same material in different perspectives. The heard sound is monitored carefully and the small increments of change introduced to maintain or shift interest and the listeners' attention. Recent popularisation of the ideas of chaos theory means that most people are now familiar with fractal patterns and Mandelbrot figures. Without wishing to jump on a band wagon, the process involved in the evolution of a phrase in this way of improvising has something in common with the equations that generate these patterns and figures where the output from one basically simple calculation is used as the input for the next calculation in an iterative process which by many repetitions finally generates a pattern or figure whose complexity is not forseeable from the starting point.

The challenge for me in solo improvising is to fill the acoustic space. Exploiting natural acoustic resonances the illusion of "polyphony" can be enhanced. The activity of maintaining several layers of activity has more in common with the circus arts of juggling and acrobatics than with the soul searching of high art (or whatever it is supposed to be about). I don't question the possibility of music appearing to "mean something" or in fact actually meaning something beyond the manipulation of sound but I am very suspicious of wearing this on the sleeve. (Much rather a cheese-triangle à la Vic Reeves.) On that broader purpose I think of music's strength as it's power to point at a dimension beyond the mundane, beyond the known, to allude to the unknowable, the metaphysical, the mystical, the other, but I am very wary of a programme note explaining precisely how or why this has been attempted. Some of what follows may as a consequence read more like a cookery book than an invitation to inspect my soul.

In testing my limits of duration I worked on two techniques which have given a particular character to what I now feel free to call my style. Using an up/down motion of the tongue, rather than the standard technique of tu-ku using throat attack, I developed a double tonguing which was faster and more flexible and capable of use over a wider dynamic range. This technique made rapid successions of notes of very short durations possible. I think I hear this technique in the music of Charlie Parker, Pharaoh Saunders, Wayne Shorter and Jan Garbarek. To extend durations beyond a breath length I worked on circular breathing technique in which a small reserve of air in the cheeks is pushed through the instrument while the diaphragm is used to breath in through the nose. I had heard Roland Kirk use this technique and recordings of folk music from Africa and the Middle East were an inspiration. I worked on the reed's ability to sustain a lower pitch while articulating selected overtones combining the method for overtone selection which I learnt from the best book ever written on saxophone technique, Sigurd Rascher's "Top Tones for Saxophone", with a sense of possibilities gained by listening to Steve Lacy. I worked on sustaining overtones and interjecting lower notes which is basically the same technique with different timing. I haven't worked much with singing into the instrument because unlike the trombone or dijeridu, I don't like the sound it makes very much, it makes me think of kazoo or comb-and-paper and I only do it unconsciously or in extremis. (Although every so often I'll hear something by Dewey Redman that makes me feel lazy for having that attitude.) As a young man in 1960 I was filled with excitement at the prospect of hearing Coltrane's original Atlantic recording of "My Favorite Things" after reading a review in Downbeat that described part of the solo sounding like two lines at once. Coltrane subsequently developed those ideas further, arguably more on the tenor than on the soprano. Given the extra physical effort needed to fill the tenor with air this was remarkable. I gained confidence in the possibilities of repetition after working with John Tchicai at one of those SWF Baden-Baden meetings organised by Joachim Berendt. Listening to the drum music from various African cultures on records, especially the wonderful work published by Ocora and thinking about polyrhythms I started to work on patterns of fingering in which the left and right hands worked in different superimposed rhythms. To some extent this overlapped with work on broken air columns (so called cross-fingerings) and thoughts on how to apply the fundamentals of Bartolozzi's pioneering work "New Sounds for Woodwind" to the saxophone. At a certain point I had a flash of insight the force of which I still find difficult to communicate: that the saxophone can just as well be seen as a closed tube that can be opened in various ways as an open tube that can be closed in various ways. Although this thought may sound obvious I suspect it has been one of the most important keys to my development. Since Sigurd Rascher showed in 1951 that all the major and minor scales could be played as overtones of the five lowest tones on the instrument the view of the saxophone has been transformed. Speaking of extended technique in general, multiphonics, altissimo register, micro-tonal tunings can all be seen as part of the same study. As Rascher said in 1961, "..the student who realises that mind (concept) and body (embouchure, fingering) must work together, will in due course succeed. We underestimate, too often, the power of the active mind."

All the technical considerations mentioned above are part of a total developing awareness of the instrument as a channel for the imagination but at the same time as a shaper and perhaps limiter of the imagination. In the end the saxophone has been for me a rather specialised bio-feedback instrument for studying and expanding my control over my hearing and the motor mechanics of parts of my skeleto-muscular system and their improved functioning has given me more to think about. Sometimes the body leads the imagination sometimes the imagination (Rascher's "active mind") leads the body.

In attempting to deliver something more than "just another improvisation" (I am aware of the ironies of this way of talking) in response to the generosity of the Rotterdamse Kunststichting's commission I have considered all the options open to me. I even considered attempting the most prosaic task imaginable: to compose a piece by recording, editing, transcribing and learning prior improvisations. In the end it was the aesthetic and philosophical contradictions involved in such a task rather than the practical difficulties (formidable as they were) that put me off that approach. The piece "De Motu (for Buschi Niebergall)" will be an improvisation composed uniquely and expressly during its performance in Zaal de Unie in Rotterdam on Friday May 15th 1992. It will reflect the intense period of preparation that preceded it and was made possible by the commission. Most of this preparation followed lines of enquiry that had been begun years before and which have already been described briefly in terms of their origins and sources of inspiration.


Since music works with the variables sound and time, the idea of creating a piece which has one single set of interpretive possibilities regardless of historical and social context would seem at least partially to negate the existential significance of these fundamentals: the flow of time and the meaning of sound in time seem to require that each piece of music should be unique and should at least in part reflect the particular social and historical context for which it is made. I am sure the appeal of so called "authenticity" in performances of baroque and other classical music derives paradoxically from the freshness it brings to an otherwise overworked repertoire. Even audiences who think they want the familiar actually need music to be about newness too, however circumscribed it may be.


In the period of preparation I made notes of ideas and patterns as they occurred to me in a method that can be seen as analogous to a painter's sketchbook where fragments of what might become the final work are treated in isolation from one another. By way of illuminating this process I later recorded each of these fragments in a new version. The notated outlines are numbered in the "sketch score" in the sequence that they appear on the tape. Where the figure suggested it, I improvised in a rather controlled way in order to illustrate how these fragments may be developed in performance. This may take the form of a gradual accellerando in order to show the changing impact of the phrase at different tempi, or a working of variations in the precise form of the pattern, usually keeping strictly at first to the basic notes of the pattern. In some patterns I add other notes outside the original pattern or superimpose a layer or two of higher partials that can be played without losing some sense of the original pattern. In some cases all of these processes happen in one sketch. In no case are these to be thought of as music or complete improvised pieces. They are purely illustrative. They are not always particularly well played and in the case of example 14 the mess I get into is a good illustration of how things can go wrong. This demonstrates clearly that there can certainly be "wrong notes" in free improvisation! (Apparently an important criterion for some people.) While I have no particular objection to this essay being read prior to the performance I do not want the "sketch score" or the accompanying tape to be available until after the concert. I would like thank Arno van Roosmalen for organising the commission and discussing with me the form in which the piece might best be presented. The final documentation, to be donated to the Rotterdamse Kunststichting, will consist of those sketches, the tape of the sketches, the master tape of the concert and this essay all of which go to make up "De Motu". The piece is dedicated with affection to the memory of the late Buschi Niebergall, a great improvising bassist and philosopher.

Evan Parker May 1992.