The Workshop Series — a monthly concert of experimental improvised music.

The Cafe Oto has afforded the participants from the weekly workshop that I convene a monthly performance opportunity. In a democratic way one of our number selects a programme of musicians drawn from the ranks of the workshop, past and present, to create an evening of music. The only provision is that the programmer cannot themselves be part of the particular programme that they formulate. The nature of each monthly concert will be varied and difficult to describe or define. Hence, this brief and historical introduction to the origins and aims of our workshop.

Ten years ago, at the suggestion of improvising violinist LaDonna Smith, I returned home from appearing in a the Guelph Jazz Festival in Canada and decided to convene a weekly improvisation workshop in London.

At a percussion exposition (these things are inexplicably called ‘clinics’) at Guelph, I deviated from a presentation and began to interact with the audience. They, rightly, wanted answers to various questions: ‘how do you do that?’ was superseded by ‘why do you do that?’ In engaging with the audience and attempting to answer their questions, I found that I was formulating (or at least edging my way towards a formulation) that went some way to explain (at least to my own partial satisfaction) — what were the moving moments in the practice of improvisation.

I had, of course, already had some long previous experience of improvisation and experimental music mostly through my participation in the ensemble AMM.  And I had begun to formulate a working hypothesis in my book ‘No Sound is Innocent.’ But there is always more to discover. On the long flight across the Atlantic, I think that I intuited that more could be found out — not through rational thought (although one must not abhor ‘thinking’) — but through rational discovery or experimentation — praxis. It is not enough simply to have an idea. And, it can be very discomforting to watch a proposition die in practice. No theory is worth its salt unless it is fully tested. The best ideas — this experience suggests — emerge ‘through’ practice. Hence, the working premise of the improvisation workshop was to be based upon an emergent set of criteria that had to be constantly tested within the cauldron of experience.

Thus, the model for our improvisation workshop, is based upon a small number of operating suggestions. In brief — and workshop participants will attest to their brevity — they are the recommendation, and the encouragement, that each musician should look at the materials they use for making music, as an infinite resource for sound production. The active proposition is that the relationship between musician and instrument (sound source) is fluid and capable of far more responses that can be imagined. Imagination itself is stimulated — ignited— only by practice. The musician is urged to try and search without specific objectives and even without hope or expectation of finding anything. Paradoxically this can lead to undreamt of results. These findings become part of the musician. They are part of self-invention. [I note that it takes longer to write down this recommendation that it usually does to explain the procedure to new participants]. Alongside this recommendation (i.e. the heurism) is couched the suggestion that as well as working towards an open and expansive attitude of investigation, that the musician refers to and extends the openness of enquiry, to the other participating musicians and what they are doing. For here, I contend, there is an infinitude greater than that encountered in our relationship with mere static material. The human being has many more moving parts — so to speak.

Each week, for the best of ten years now, a group — varying in size and personnel from six to twenty people — have practiced in the manner set out above. The results, as you would expect, are at turns startling, prosaic and variable. There have also been moments of sublimity. And enough to suggest that given a positive context  anyone can transcend the ordinary — or make the ordinary extraordinary. Certainly I am persuaded of this. However, there is no certainty of success. There is no notion of what success might actually be like. There is no point in anticipating progress. The concept of ‘progress’  is perhaps too insidious to allow us to escape a nagging desire to pin things down. Having a concept of ‘cognitive fluidity’ does not secure its occurance. It might even negate or dissuade its presence. Nevertheless, I suggest that we must not recommend or promote a culture of  innocence.

At the heart of these (deceptively) simple and flexible recommendations is a culture of focus and endeavour. We work in our workshop. Some of the participants in this field of fluid personalities (which has now reached somewhere near to three hundred people) have shown remarkable tenacity, focus and perseverance. One such is guitarist Ross Lambert, who was one of the first participants and so remains. Some attend even more regularly than I am able to do. And, attending our Friday night sessions is a priority for me.  Maybe we just like the work — certainly the company is good. And work we do. But how does all this ‘noble’ endeavour affect our music making?  A famous old golfer was once chided by a jealous rival for ‘being lucky.’ The champion golfer thought about this for a while and then said that he agreed. Adding, that he noticed that that the more he practiced then the luckier he became. I have come to think of my own music-making in this way. There is no musical ideal to which I aspire. I am not looking for particular sounds. There is no pattern whose outline I am trying to realise. At best though the exploratory method I may find a sonic outcome that not only supersedes musical expectations but supersedes the heavily laden ideology of music itself. Playing then, becomes a way of experiencing and accessing constantly renewable energy — that is consequently free of expectation and formula.  It is full flowing cognition.

The above thoughts are some of the moving moments and considerations that the musicians in our workshop embrace, share and develop.

Eddie Prévost — February 2009


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