At a panel discussion held in Café Oto last week, a number of improvising musicians were invited to answer the question “what do you think you are doing?” One of the recurring motifs in their answers (and I also heard Pauline Oliveros say something similar last week) was the notion that free improvisation is the means of musical expression which best reflects the way we experience life itself, with all its moments of unexpected joy, and all its imperfections. We don’t follow a script, we don’t travel in straight lines. As Steve Noble put it, in his musing on the improvising imperative, even if you want to get across London from west to east, by tube, bus, train or whatever, you are improvising – which is especially true on a May bank holiday weekend, traditional spot in the calendar of the Freedom Of The City festival.
The festival is now into its second decade, and into its second home, moving from Conway Hall to the equally historic residence of the English Folk, Dance and Song Society at Cecil Sharp House. Aside from being a beautiful space, high ceilinged and wonderfully resonant, it struck me that it was perhaps a fitting venue in another sense. Following the analogy above, improvisation shares a kinship with folk music. Both celebrate life, but in a different way: one lives lived, and the other lives being lived, the preservation of history versus the living in a perpetual now.
Judging from the festival’s lineups, over the course of its twelve year history, the improvising community is evolving and expanding (the London Improviser’s Orchestra alone numbered an impressive 39 on stage). Many of the same elder statesmen continue to populate the bill, from organisers Evan Parker and Eddie Prevost, to the guitarist John Russell and vocalist Phil Minton. New entrants have graduated from Prevost’s workshops (Jennifer Allum, Ross Lambert), or developed in incubators overseas (Okkyung Lee, Guillaume Viltard), but the imperative appears so strong that there is only one way to leave. The recent death of the great Tony Marsh left a gap in the bill, and there were to be tributes to the percussionist throughout the weekend. If there was a musician who epitomised the idea of improvising as life, it was Marsh, who visibly lived every note he played, his face lined with emotion. A single note from a playing companion could make his face light with joy as he mentally explored the sonic possibilities it presented, like a child being given its first yo-yo.
Fittingly, the festival was opened by a member of the young generation who knew Marsh well. Double bass player Guillaume Viltard began his set with a lament, a smeary, teary arco scraping. As he rubbed his bow and fingers all over his bass I felt I could hear every minute detail of its construction. In the vibrations, squeaks and buzzing, I could hear the grain of the wood, and the ridges of the strings, as if he was less playing the instrument, and more getting it to tell the audience about itself. As the set progressed, the additional percussive embellishment he provided, from tapping its neck, striking the body with the bow, and stamping his feet, made it seem like he wasn’t alone on that stage. He finished by creaking the tuning pegs rhythmically, slowing to silence like an old clock counting its few last seconds.
Other young artists on the bill were showing that the scene continues to thrive and develop in exciting ways. The cellist Okkyung Lee is a very active and highly regarded member of this community, having recorded with Evan Parker and Phil Minton in recent years, but this solo performance had an unexpected incandescence about it. She seemed edgy or unhappy at the start, snapping brusquely (if rightly) at a photographer, but she managed to translate this emotion into a searing and raw performance. She began by playing so softly that it was if she was swimming in the sounds of traffic outside, but her fluid playing soon begat a torrent of notes, furiously fingering some extraordinary fast runs, before the stream finally snagged on a rock. She continually caught herself on these repetitive, sawing, grinding riffs, the music finally splintering and submerging – by the end, her bow was as ragged as her mood, and she marched off stage briskly, her mind still seemingly ablaze.
I took much pleasure from the youthful energy and invention on display elsewhere. Han Earl-Park’s idiosyncratic guitar style was beguiling, his array of tiny, sharp sounds glinting like fragments of broken glass – the interplay between him and trumpeter Ian Smith was almost telepathic, changing directions as one, and the music coming to two seemingly unplanned and instinctive dead stops. Lee Patterson lit up a couple of ensemble sets – literally in one case, feeding the airy hiss of a close-mic’ed naked flame into the atmospheric mix of minute sounds being produced by Rhodri Davies, John Butcher and others in their group Common Objects. Only occasionally did it feel that there was invention for its own sake: the electronic experiments of Grundik Kasyanksy, while fun, seemed to bear no relationship to what anyone else was doing on stage, while the interjections of Ross Lambert (metronome, bowed goblets, vibrator) into his trio served to disrupt the little flow that there was. A few imperfections would, of course, be expected across 16 sets of improvised music.
Even the more long-standing members of the community showed signs that they were still seeking out and enjoying new experiences. John Russell’s duo with the trumpeter Jamie Coleman had plenty of quirkily enjoyable exchanges, close to call and response at times. Steve Noble’s pairing with the prepared piano and electronics of Sebastian Lexer was particularly inspired, keeping the drummer in textural and even harmonic areas rather than more traditional rhythmic ones. Lexer sampled and played back the sounds he was making, having Noble dance with his own shadow, while the sound of bowed piano strings and scraped cymbals mingled and filled the glorious space in the hall. Eddie Prevost and Evan Parker explored this receptive place further, the saxophonist tracing delicate spirals in the air while Prevost filled the room with deep resonance from his huge barrel of a drum.
The vocalist Phil Minton was the one who best embodied that conjoining of improvisation and life. While Christian Marclay span records behind, Minton twisted his body corkscrew-like, feeling everything, his expressions pained and tortured (at one point, I’m sure Marclay looked over just to check he was OK), producing squeaks, howls and incredible split notes. This was a great duo set, in which at times it was impossible to tell who was making which sound: both were equally capable of producing pop and crackle. As Marclay juggled and cut into techno and jazz records, he brought many moments from the past into the now, spirits for Minton to inhabit and reanimate.
In the Sunday evening slot that was originally due to host the Tony Marsh and Mark Sanders percussion duo, rather than leave a gap in the programme, Sanders picked an alternative band, featuring John Edwards on bass, Shabaka Hutchings on saxophone, and Jeb Bishop on trombone. In an earlier set with Caroline Kraabel, Edwards had reacted to a broken string by seizing it as an opportunity to try something different, savouring the buzz that the loose string made when held against his bass and bowed. Here, the group in which he featured turned a much more difficult (especially emotionally) situation into a triumph, with an upbeat and high energy session. They walked tantalisingly just on the free side of the in/out line, sounding like a lost 1969 BYG performance. The polyrhythmic Sanders was on supreme form throughout, and he and Edwards locked into a deep pulse in the backline, while up front Hutchings and Bishop gleefully engaged in animated close discussion, sharing melodic ideas, and completing each other’s phrases. Ultimately, this combination of masterful talent with infectious enthusiasm was possibly the best tribute to Marsh of the weekend. From sadness to joy in a heartbeat, so life goes, and in its improvisatory celebration of it, Freedom Of The City knows exactly what it is doing.