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photo @ Lenny Conzalez

Carl Ludwig Hübsch:“Chris, from a point of view as a listener, how do you tell whether an improvisation is good?“

Chris Brown: „I think there’s more than one way probably.  The first thing that comes to my mind is that I’m hearing ideas. I’m hearing something that’s developing, an idea that grows in some way. If that is in the solo situation, it’s like that. In a duet situation or a group situation, I’m usually listening to the interaction between the players, which shows me that they are listening and that together they are creating a conversation, but more like a structure by means of their responses to each other –  that you can feel and hear the growth of ideas in the music. Maybe that’s the most inclusive definition I can respond with.“

Huebsch: „So, is there something that an improviser needs to know that a person who plays written music doesn’t need to know? Is there a different qualification?“

Brown: „I think there is. I think that improvisation is an area of playing that all performers need to develop. At the same time I think that every performing musician has an improvisational element to what they do, even if  all they are doing is reading a page. There’s still a lot of aspects to the music that need to be created in real time. But if a player doesn’t think of it that way, it’s probably not going to develop much beyond that. With improvisation, it’s something that you develop and not something that you are just born with. For example for myself, when doing a free improvisation with somebody else, ones learns to hear and respond immediately, and this changes whatever plan I might have had before. As an improviser I may create structures either on paper or in computer software that limit what I’m doing. But since I am improvising, the validity of the structure is based on how useful it is in an improvisational setting.

But, I guess I’m reluctant to say one thing that applies to all kinds of improvisation, even contemporary so called free improvisation. I mean, I think that field is not completely defined or definable and I’m hoping it remains that way.“

[We herewith kindly ask you to respect the authors rights especially of the interviewed musicians and not to quote this interview it without asking our permission.]

Huebsch: „Nice… Are improvised sounds addressed to the other players? Is that the kind of information that they have in themselves, that they are not only reacting and that they are means of communication?“

Chris Brown: „I don’t think it’s quite like that, but if you’re playing with somebody else, you’re thinking of it as one music, and so one part of that music you’re creating and the other part another person or people are creating. But you listen to it like it’s a single thing or I do anyway.

And so responding is maybe a better way of saying it than communicating. It’s more like I hear something that I didn’t do and what I do next is influenced by that. That doesn’t mean it’s either imitative or question and answer, so it’s not a formal kind of communication like if we’re doing it with words. It’s more a realization that this sound space has changed because of what you just did, and what I do is going to be changed by that. I’m going to be influenced by it, if the improvisation is a good one.

Another way to define what makes a good improvisation, is when you can tell that the players are completely aware of what each other are doing. That could mean that they are being silent even, but there’s an awareness and you can feel that all the players are making decisions. And you can apprehend, – you may not understand exactly what those decisions are, –  but you can feel the intentionality of what they are doing, and how it reflects an awareness of the whole.“

Huebsch: „So, if people talk about improvised music or even write reviews, should they not base their reviews on this way to look at it?“

Brown: “Yes, but there are maybe other ways that people listen that would be totally valid to discuss, I’m not going to rule that out! But, if I were writing a review, I would probably be writing about that.  I’m usually listening for a sense of hearing something I haven’t heard before.

Huebsch: „So, the first thing that gets you is not actually the sonic materials, but the response of the players, their responding?”

Brown: „If there isn’t a sense of group listening or coordination that can be apprehended, then it’s usually not taking advantage of the situation, and it seems unrealized. I’m usually listening for how whatever the players are doing is developing. Sometimes it could be the quality of the sound they are making or it could be the notes that they are playing or the texture or whatever it is. Or the combination of all of those… you want to understand or find something in the language that they are creating that is intriguing, that makes you want to listen more, because you’re hearing it evolve, you’re hearing it change. Now, it can change gradually, it can change smoothly, it can change roughly, but you sense the compositional activity. You can basically hear the person thinking, or not…“

Huebsch: „…Or being there, or being aware…“

Brown: „Yes. I’m reluctant to go all the way in saying that there is a narrative all the time, but there’s something about that that I think is inevitable when you’re creating music. Because in real time, as one moment follows the next, there’s no way as a listener you cannot be affected by the way the performer or musician does that. What you are doing moment by moment in the succession of those moments creates a kind of form. So, that could be said to be a kind of narrative. And I hear that in the so called free player as well as I hear it, let’s say from a a classic bebop player, that it is nearly the same quality even though the language is different. And I think it’s probably also true in those times that the same interest was there in terms of hearing the player do something they haven’t heard before. An improviser is always trying to add something to what they have done before rather than just repeat it.

Huebsch: „Chris, you have mentioned language…“

Brown: „I’m steering away from the word “communication” just because  I’m thinking in terms of musical language rather than spoken language. Spoken language is meant to describe specific things, and to be understood in a particular and not another way unless it’s poetic. Once it becomes poetic, then it’s about having multiple meanings, and in that sense becomes more like music. But if I talk about a musical language, I might be talking about a single composer’s musical language, or a single improviser’s musical language. Somehow it’s very difficult to perform improvisation without developing a sense of what that is. Because pure randomness is not a possibility for human beings. We can force ourselves to do that by notation or by computer software and things like that. But there is always some sense of repetition, some sense of development. And those are the kinds of things that require a vocabulary of sound. I think a lot of free improvisation involves  inventing a musical vocabulary that has not been used before by that musician. That language is a matter of an evolving vocabulary, they start with particular kinds of sounds, and they keep adding more sounds, or they keep adding different ways of creating texture, etc., etc., right? So, that’s what I mean by language. That there’s a vocabulary that applies both to the sounds that they are using and to the way that they put them together, that has a kind of a consistency because of the way that they’ve made music.“

Huebsch: „But the principle of how this music is being put together is the collaboration, isn´t it?

Brown: „I think that in that case we’re dealing with a communal mind. There needs to be a sense about awareness and there’s a sense of how the audience wants to hear the way that a composition develops. But basically every player brings their sound, their music to the group, but then they have to relinquish it, or they are looking for the opportunity to develop it in a different context, where somebody else has another one. I would still prefer not to call it communication because for me that’s too formal, because what happens is much more immediate than that. I mean it’s hard to communicate with verbal language when everybody talks at once. But in improvisation, it can work. Part of the idea is that players are playing at the same time. They are hearing and they are creating at the same time, and they are doing that in the context of a group. But in a good version you can hear it all, and you hear the changing relationships between the different musics that are participating to make one music.

Historically, traditional ensemble musics developed structures that allow people to get into that quickly. That’s what makes it exciting still to listen to, let’s say a traditional Indian music improvisation. To me it can feel as free as a so called 21st century Euro American free improvisation, because basically the same activity is going on, that is that everybody is playing at once and everybody is creating spontaneously at once and you can hear their relationship, and that’s what really excites me as an audience member, that I can hear the very close, the intimate interaction of the voices in the music.

And the question about style is really how do you get there? Is there a style in the kind of free improvisation we’re talking about? I think there is actually, but I don’t want to define it in advance. I think that most styles get defined in retrospect.  It’s a kind of research, you’re looking for something that you haven’t experienced yet musically.   I think the art of free improvisation is to be able to call upon all kinds of different musical textures and vocabularies and be able to create that moment and not to depend on a particular type of relationship in order to have it.

Huebsch: „I come to my last question: What is typical of improvising musicians from the Bay Area?“

Brown: „I would say that compared to what I think of as free improvisation from other parts of the U.S., there tends to be a wider range of energy. Free improvisations here might be more likely to be judged well, even if they never rise above mezzo forte or never got very fast or intense. There is a whole range of people who are improvising in a very low-key way and even might be very uninterested in any improvisation that sounds like so called free jazz. There is a lot of diversity of approaches here and the Bay Area in general has a lot of musicians and different musical scenes going on at the same time and a lot of times they don’t intersect that much, because there is so very little support for their activity. There is a cultural bias that’s in favor of doing your own thing. There are difficulties with transport and commuting, etc. so a lot of concerts go on with very small audiences. And what that means is that there is not just one scene that everybody is following. There are all these different little scenes happening here and there. So, it’s kind of a place where you can really develop something that is your own. But developing an audience for it is another problem. So it’s kind of amorphous and difficult to characterize or define. There are just too many scenes for that.”

Huebsch: “Did I understand you right that  here the tendency is stronger to  want to have anarchic or wild playing than elsewhere? Did I get it right?“

Brown: “People in the scene here tend to judge things harshly if they sound too much like something they’ve heard before. There is a strong preference that what you are doing be unique, and then beyond that — and this is what I mean about about being anarchic –  not following anybody else’s rules. People in the scene here like things to be pretty weird. That said,  I’m a little bit doubtful about what that necessarily means, because what’s weird to one person is just regular to another.”

Huebsch: „Thanks for the talk, Chris.“

[We herewith kindly ask you to respect the authors rights especially of the interviewed musicians and not to quote this interview it without asking our permission. Thanks for your solidarity!]

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