Carl Ludwig Huebsch: „Tom, from the point of view of a listener, how do you tell whether an improvisation is good or not?“

Tom Djll: „That’s a good question. For me it’s a sense of surprise – the initial surprise of a good improvisation. I hear something and I’ll go‚ ,Oh! I just did not expect that, and now I’m really intrigued and I’m waiting for the next surprise.‘ So that leads to anticipation, which generates a forward momentum. It’s like the music´s got energy, it’s moving forward.

As a listener, I want to feel there’s an energy that’s moving or building. Even in a static kind of real super reductionist improvisation, there is still a tension. It may not feel like it’s moving anywhere, but it’s tense and building the energy of anticipation.

Huebsch: „If you would explain to somebody who wants to improvise: how will he know when the attention is there, when he plays?”

Djll: „Well, I think your sort of natural inclination is to play. But let’s say you hold back from that and you deny yourself that sort of natural impulse — you just hold back. Again, for me, there is a sort of anticipation feeling – that this emptiness is actually building. Especially if there is an audience and they are expecting something to happen and nothing is happening, as long as they are brave and stay with it, I think that feeling can build not only between the players but between the players and the audience.

[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!]

Huebsch: „Is there something an improviser should know that an interpreter of written music doesn’t have to know?”

Djll: „Well, I would say the quality of listening is different. In both cases, you have to listen, obviously, you have to hear what is happening. If you are playing written music you might get lost if you are not listening or your dynamics are way off, or you are out of tune or all those things. That depends on critical listening. But in improvisation the listening leads to the composing that’s happening in the minute. So, that leads into all the different ways of relating to somebody else as they’re playing.

Huebsch: „So, the composing or whatever is happening in the moment is driven by the listening?“

Djll: “When you start an improvisation you have to start with something. And it might just be kind of a “barp,” just whatever sound you start with, but then the other person – or even yourself, if you are playing solo – you hear that sound in the space, you feel how the audience receives it and then you move forward from there.”

There are sounds that do mean something. If you imitate a car alarm or if we hear that dog barking as we did while we were playing, you might start imitating that, and then you’re bringing this outside meaning into the improvisation, which is usually a bad thing to do in my opinion. Unless you’re with somebody that trusts you, you might do that imitative gesture and then it can be okay.

Huebsch: „As you said listening is a part of communication: Maybe I’ll go further and ask 

you, is improvisation communication?

Djll: I’m no longer sure that art, or whatever it is creative people do, should be expected to communicate an object of “meaning.” I’m more interested in the questions, than the answers! One has no control over how your creative statement is received, anyway. Either by the audience, or your fellow players! If everything were certain and always understood, this would all be very tedious and unnecessary.

Having said that, certain useful elements in improvisation communication to consider when either assembling an improvised sound event (or reflecting on it) are: who you’re playing with, and, do you know them, how well do you know them, how long have you played with them, are you familiar with their language or are you comfortable with them, all those things.“

Huebsch: „So it’s an intimate thing?“

Djll: „I would say it’s a social dynamic. A lot of the improvisation projects that I’ve put together – especially ‘Grosse Abfahrt‘ – are really based on who’s in the group. It has to do with who’s in it and how they all relate to each other. We did four CDs and every one of them has me and Gino Robair, Tim Perkis and John Shiurba and Matt Ingalls, as the core group.And then I bring in outsiders and we explore how do those two social dynamics relate, as expressed through sounds. That’s what I was interested in with that group. “

Huebsch:  When people talk about composed music, they often talk about structures, about funny sounds and how they are written down. They talk about the relation to the 9th symphony of Beethoven, or they talk about the relation to the cold war ending, they have all these kind of background things that are interesting when they are about talking about a composition. So, what should we talk about when we listen to improvised music or when we exchange experiences about improvised music?“

Djll: „Well, the better the music, the sharper all those details are going to be, and it would be easier to talk about them, rather than to talk about a flabby improvisation – unless you just want to be critical about it and say, “That person didn’t do what they should have done, or they are not committed to that sound,” or whatever – but a really sharp improvisation sometimes goes out of the abstract into something concrete that you can almost see. Now whether it means anything or conveys a meaning, I guess that’s another question.“

Huebsch: „Is it kind of a swarm? Swarm intelligence that is happening within an improvising group?“

Djll: „Sometimes. I’m thinking of that phenomenon called a murmuration – great word – which describes a huge flock of birds, like thousands of starlings, all moving more or less together instantaneously. Except sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the murmuration breaks up into two or more smaller groups of birds. There’s a beautiful tension between cohesion and individuation. There are some beautiful shapes to it. That gets into what our human brains want to see and want to hear. We are wired to make sense out of things, so that’s why all these questions come up.“

Huebsch: “ How would you talk about the improvisation based at least one of the most important ingredients, that being: how [do] the players communicate?“

Djll: „Tthere is at least one kind of communication, if it is a soloist. There is a different kind of communication, if it’s a duo; and different yet again, if it is trio.“

Huebsch: „But how do you tell it’s good? It is at all necessary to say whether it is good or not?“

Djll: „Quite often it doesn’t feel like it is necessary, no. I don’t like to go right to the critique if it is something I just played. I like to give it some space. And the other thing I was going to say, I don’t know if it has anything to do with it, but I don’t usually compliment people either, unless they really surprise me, and that doesn’t happen so often anymore.“

Huebsch: „Are you saying you have heard too much?“

Djll: „When it comes to being really surprised I can only blame myself for having that jaded feeling, but that’s kind of how it is. But that doesn’t make me stop playing or trying to reach new places with new playing partners, I mean of course I’m going to continue, it’s my favorite thing to do.“

Huebsch: „Cool.“

Djll: „Playing music really gives my life meaning right now, in almost a dangerous way. I practically have nothing else that means so much to me as playing, especially playing with other people. I just went through a real slow period in August and the first part of September, and I got really depressed because I just didn’t have enough sessions with people.

Huebsch: One more point: Do you think that there is a language aspect to playing?“

Djll: „Yes, but it’s not just the sound. It’s how you apply it and what the context is. All those thing come into play. You know, when you do it, how you do it – not just the sound. To me, it’s like serving food: you can just shove a plate of hamburger at somebody – or you can be respectful about it and serve it well. They’re going to take that into their body and it becomes a part of them!

Last night, I was at this improv workshop and there was a guy who was playing a sound and it sounded like he was frustrated and he just was like, “Shit, I’m just going to play a fucked up sound.”

But he did it in such way that it sounded really disrespectful and awful – I had to leave the room. But getting back to the serving thing. He was serving that sound in a really half-assed way. And I don’t think he achieved what he wanted to achieve.“ What I heard was, first, frustration, and, second, a lack of commitment – or just confusion about how to successfully put across this fucked up sound. Somebody in another context could play a sound with all the same physical elements and it would just be like ‚oh yeah, that just hit it just right‘, because it’s got a feeling of commitment – doing it at the right time, with respect for the audience.“

Huebsch: „So he had a different listening than you?“

Djll: „Probably, yeah.“

Huebsch: „So, listening needs to be as developed as playing?“

Djll: „Yeah. Listening is an art. I think it is a creative act. Listening is creative. Shit yeah, absolutely yeah! No matter how you do it, I think that’s a fundamental thing that belongs to every person, that you can’t take away from them, whether they know it or not. Yeah, I feel almost religious about that.

I don’t usually get spiritual and think about things in those terms, but yeah. How you listen is indivisible, it’s irreducible, it’s just absolutely at the core of who you are, right? Even if it’s all acculturation from your surroundings or something you somehow incubate in yourself – I’m not saying you’re born with it, necessarily. You can learn it. Certainly for the kind of music that we are talking about you have to learn a lot of things to get more out of it. The more you know the more you get out of it… but also the more jaded you get, the more often you go ‚oh I’ve heard this before‘.“

Huebsch: „But Isn’t it interesting that kids – before they learn to talk – make a much broader variety of sounds, but only certain sounds are being reacted too by their parents.“

Djll: „Yeah.“

Huebsch: „And this is how they narrow down their variety to be understood.“

Djll: „Yeah, that’s a great point. That’s interesting.“

Huebsch: „Maybe improvisation has to do with that fact, also to learn something like a language that doesn’t have any rules or doesn’t exclude anything, but it rather it’s a certain way of reacting to events.“

Djll: „Yeah, you know what you’ve made me think of? It´s the Wandelweiser group. And some of the associated people like The International Nothing* who came out here a couple of years ago. That was a good concert, but it was obvious soon after they started that they were going to eliminate all that extended technique language and just focus on a very few basic elements. And the communication that they seemed to be going for was different, obviously, but how was it different? Is the message that they were conveying: ‘We are focusing on this‘ or ‚we’re not going to do that‘, or was it really more like a very calm and sort of reasonable exploration – not even an exploration – an exposition.“

Huebsch: „Did they improvise or play a composition?“

Djll: „I think they were playing compositions, but just two clarinets – very, very simple.“

Huebsch: „Well, I think when they improvise then it’s also a different question. A very reduced improvisation can be super nice, and there have been these times when almost everybody tried to get at  it in a certain way. For me, I love the fact that improvisation actually can take anything and that I don’t have to have taste while I play, and after playing I start to have taste again, and can think about whether I like it or not.“

Djll: „That sounds like what Jack Wright is kind of getting at, in his book ‘The Free Musics.‘“ I just got to the chapter that seems to me to be the one with the most meaning in it. He starts off by saying there’s an activity he calls free playing. You don’t even have to have an instrument or be thinking about music, you could just walk down the street your own way, and be free playing.

“What Jack seems to be getting at is the idea that you remove meaning, in a way. You remove the drive towards making sense or having some kind of utilitarian function, like if you’re walking down the streets in some meandering path, not really ‚getting anywhere‘ – that’s what he would call free playing. You take this idea of walking and play around with that. What you were just saying about playing without taste sounds to me pretty similar to what Jack is talking about, of removing ‚boundaries.‘

“I like the idea of being useless. This gets into a kind of a political idea for me – not contributing to this fucked up society and actually creating a bubble of meaninglessness, which in its own way is a kind of purity. If I create something ‘they’ can’t use, I have succeeded in preserving myself! On the other hand, it’s sort of an antisocial attitude I have, like‚ ,fuck it, I’m just going to do what I do, because that’s what I do – and fuck the rest of the world‘.“

Huebsch: „Oh well, to me it makes totally sense, I can totally relate to that.“

Djll: „I love that I’m not playing music for a living. Not that doing that is bad, it’s just not what I want to do, and it helps me validate that decision to say, “Okay, the economic structure is all messed up, so I’m not contributing to it – I’m making something that’s purely useless, like nailing a banana to a piece of wood, it’s just useless.“

Huebsch: “Tom, I come to my last question, which touches a different field. What is typical of improvising musicians from the Bay Area?“

Djll: „I’m so much a part of it and I’m also neurotic about my place in it, but I’ve been that way all my life, so that is how it is. Wanting to be an outsider even when you want to be an insider, you know what I mean? It’s just a way to keep yourself safe and at a distance from people. It’s stupid, just like any habit.

But to get to the question, I probably would be kind of critical and say – at least among my generation –it feels kind of muddled, feels like kind of like there isn’t a ‘school,’ as Alvin Curran would say, or a special quality or anything, it’s like, yeah… kind of a mess [laughs]. But on the other hand, just in a socio-historical way, not in any kind of music quality way, the presence of certain institutions, especially Mills College, is the force that would define for me the Bay Area scene more than anything else.“

I guess I don’t think in terms of a ‘Bay Area improvised music’ style or sound. In the early 90’s there was something here that people were calling improvcore, bringing this all hardcore post punk element into the music and everything was kind of loud and jangly for a while, and that seemed unique to the Bay Area. But, really, it didn’t last very long. (And how unique was it, really?)

Djll: „But as far as the improv scene, I have to be kind of critical, maybe just because I’m very self-critical.

There have been times when I wanted to stop a session and say, ‘let’s just do something different, let’s just not do what we always do, let’s do something and let’s talk about it first,’ – what’s wrong with that? I would be interested in doing something really elemental — just start with an idea: ‚okay you have two notes, make something out of that‘, but then people say ‚well, you’re composing.’

Huebsch: „Well, that can be very nice, to compose such a piece…. Thank you very much, Tom.“

[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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