Are British improv musicians all up their own arse?

The idea of a composer writing instructions for a group of people whose playing he doesn’t know strikes me as bizarre

That quote was taken from an interview with saxophonist John Butcher from the latest issue of The Wire, and it led me to ponder something I’ve been thinking for several months now. Why are British, and I stress the British, improvisational musicians so oppositional? They can’t seem to open their mouths without uttering some grand manifesto, or some pretentious and humourless diktat as to what music should be. They remind me of those cliquey, factional neo-Maoist, neo-Stalinist and neo-Trotskyite sects that riddled the left like woodworm during the sixties, seventies and eighties: ostensibly for the working class, but forever engaged in an internecine struggle to see who was the most didactically ‘correct’, and thus deliberately alienating everybody but the hardcore few. They never seemed to see the paradox of a so-called class-based movement being so narrow and unyielding in its outlook that it became, by its very nature, totally inaccessible to that very class.

In the same way, you rarely come across British improv musicians who have anything good to say about composition. Rather than see theirs as a different, but equally valid, way of creating music, they always seem to see themselves as caped crusaders fighting some aural wickedness unleashed by the nineteenth century white establishment, and maintained by its evil minions today. Grand old man of improv, Derek Bailey, always seemed particularly contemptuous of ‘finished’ music, declaring himself only interested in the process (but happy to release CDs by the truckload, of course). Many people are put off by the constant theorizing and contextualization that surrounds what is, in effect, a simple process of ‘pick up, play, and see what happens’. The forthcoming Instal festival is full of such guff. Self-Cancellation? Energy Births Form? Does anybody actually know what they’re talking about, here? The great shame is that it makes improvisation look like the sole province of an intellectual elite, and definitely “not for the likes of you – this is improv music for inprov people”.

Perhaps this horseshit belies a sense of self-doubt – that the sounds at the centre of the whole circus are incapable of standing up to scrutiny, naked and alone. That, then, is bad music – whether it is improvised or composed.

I stressed at the beginning that it was something peculiar to British musicians. I’m sure there are many from all around the world who are like this, but you just don’t get the same theorizing from American, European, Japanese or African musicians. And they all seem to recognise, too, that improvised music can be fun to play and fun to listen to. It doesn’t have to be intellectual or confrontational. Supersilent can be challenging and difficult, but they never appear remote. When I last saw John Butcher, it sounded like a duck being strangled. Boy, am I going to enjoy Friday night!

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One response to “Are British improv musicians all up their own arse?

  1. i always thought music should be used to connect and communicate with others. this kind of nonsense always reminds me of the kind of people who flick through other peoples record collections going shite…shite…shite….shite….shite… as if the only way they can validate their own tastes and talents is in opposition to others.

    it’s a deliberate and unnecessary over-intellectualisation of music that if it is any good should speak to you whether or not it comes with a party political broadcast.

    something that generally puts me off instal.

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