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

Gino Robair: „As I listen to the sounds, I want to feel like they have a sort of spontaneity and direction; that the musicians are not noodling, but are going in some sort of direction with the improvisation. So, that’s one thing I am listening for. Do they have intent, or are they looking for intent?

Second, I like it when the instruments are melding in such a way that I can’t always tell which person is making which sound.“

Hübsch: „Is there something an improviser has to know that an interpreter doesn’t have to know?“

Robair: „Improvisers need to be able to make quick decisions about the content of what they’re creating as they play. And those decisions must take into account what’s happening around them—the sounds from other musicians, the sound and resonance of the environment, and so forth. Improvisers need to have the skill and confidence to make something happen and to work with whatever the results are.

Of course, if we’re talking about interpreters of someone else’s music—a soloist in a concerto or the players in a string quartet—they, too, need to be able to react to what is happening around them, to a certain extent. But because the direction of the music has been predetermined, the skill set they develop is different. For example, they don’t have to be prepared to deal with the music if it changes radically.“

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Hübsch: „Is there a kind of information within improvised sound that a composed sound doesn’t have?“

Robair: „Not for me.“

Hübsch: „How do you know it’s written or improvised?“

Robair: „Well, the problem here is the concept of written music versus improvised music at this point in the 21st century. If you play, for example, the later music by John Cage, it is in some ways structured in terms of the time and the content. But to some listeners, it may sound improvised because it’s not notated, nor even conceived, in a conventional way.

In the contemporary works I enjoy listening to, it’s difficult to know to what degree the music has been composed. I think it’s very difficult based on modern scoring techniques and what people consider a „composition.“ Let’s say that you ask musicians to interpret a graphic score, which is then made into a CD: If the person listening to the CD didn’t know that the musicians were interpreting a graphic score, he or she might think the music was improvised. Then the question is: Does that matter? And if so, why?“

Hübsch: „For you as a player, is there a  – so to say –  meta-content within the sounds that you exchange with your collaborators, something beyond the actual sound?“

Robair: „That’s a difficult question for me, because when I play compositions I play what the composer asks me to play, whereas when I improvise, I make sounds that are more complex and personal, so I would say it depends. That’s a tricky question for me. Are you talking about me as a performer or me as an interpreter?“

Hübsch: „As an improviser, does it have a different meaning or different information within that sound than within a written context and what would that be?“

Robair: „Yes, there is an implicit message—some would say a political one—based on the fact that I am freely improvising. And there is meaning in the way I approach the drums in a non-idiomatic way. In both instances, it’s a statement. But it is not a rejection of the traditional role of a drummer within standard styles of music that I grew up with. Rather, it reflects my own curiosity and interest in finding new ways of using my instruments. But I wouldn’t have gotten to this point if I hadn’t spent years learning to play traditional music, much of it in a written context. That background provided the springboard for where I am now.

But when I improvise, I focus on the sounds and follow their development. And I hope that the people listening are moved in some way by it.

On the other hand, I recently played a piece by a composer who asked me to make the sounds I normally make as an improviser, but within a framework that specified the types of sounds and when they should occur. In this case, with my highly personalized approach to percussion, any “meaning” is what she has told me the meaning should be; her intentions for each section of the work. So, as I performed it, I was channeling the information of her piece through my instruments.

But I’m not so sure listeners hear the difference between pieces that have an open score compared to something fully improvised. Depending on the situation—a graphic score versus free improv versus a rule-based improvisation—sometimes you can only tell the music has pre-determined organization because on a sort of blockiness of the changes. But sometimes not.“

Hübsch: „What do you mean by the blockiness of the changes?“

Robair: „In other words, when a composer has indicated a place where everyone changes all of a sudden, then the changes are like blocks.

But I’m not so sure the differences between scored and improvised music are as clear as they would have been 50 or 70 years ago. And I think one reason why a lot of composers now are very comfortable with free improvisation, and vice versa, is because the elements can be the same. You choose the level of “composition” that suits what you have to say, but you may still want to say it with the languages that improvisers use. You’re just helping create a different sandbox for them to play in, as opposed to saying there are no boundaries in terms of structure.“

Hübsch: „You said that the sounds of your own choice are more complex than the sounds that are usually written for you. Is that the difference between improvised sounds and composed sounds?“

Robair: „No, it has to do with what a composer knows about the potential of the percussion instruments, what they’re hearing in their head, and what they can expect from players who will attempt the piece in the future. If a composer tells me to strike a cowbell with a yarn mallet at mezzoforte and let it ring out, then I would do that. But if I’m improvising and I want to play a cowbell, I can scrape it, bow it or dip it in water while I’m hitting it. And that’s just three options out of many.“

Hübsch: „What is the basis for your decision there?“

Robair: „When I’m doing it for myself, my decisions are based on what’s going on around me; what I am reacting to and what I want to convey. This is at the core of what you asked earlier about how the skills improvisers develop differ from those of an interpreter. How I play my instruments at any given moment depends on how I want to react to what’s going on around me. For example, to follow, to ignore, to support or to oppose the other musicians. But no matter what, I’m still being influenced by them, as well as the audience (if there is one) and the resonant characteristics of the space we’re sharing. As an improviser, I am inspired by the challenge of dealing with all of these unknowns because it takes every dimension of reality into consideration. A traditionally scored composition, on the other hand, cannot.

Because of this, it is difficult for me to use standard notation because every instrumentalist I enjoy working with can make so many more sounds than can be notated. And if I did try to notate them in a very specific manner, I would probably find their improvising much more interesting, anyway. So I’d rather just hear what they have to say on their instrument.

I’ve played very complex scores written by percussionists and those by non-percussionists, but I find the techniques that I do are not part of that repertoire. For me it’s more pleasing to play the sounds that I like than it is to play the generic sounds that appear in the majority of percussion scores, where you are asked to hit this thing with one kind of mallet and this other thing with a brush or stick.“

Hübsch: „Is improvisation communication? Is communication the base of improvisation?“

Robair: „The aspects of improvised music I enjoy are the same aspects I like about communicating with people. When I am at a party, I don’t like small talk. I like to interact with people, find out what’s unusual about them. And similarly, when I play music, I like to hear music that is new and unusual and sparks my imagination. I’d rather play with a tuba player who plays the tuba like you, which is not somebody who is worried about showing off their virtuosity, but is actually listening and responding to the acoustics of the room, responding with whomever they are playing with. To me that is a kind of communication, which is not about talking and not listening; it’s a give and take, and I value that both in music and in verbal communication.“

Hübsch: „When I had the interview with Tim Perkis, we came to conclusion that in composed music the compositional recipe is the reason for the sounds, and in improvisation the compositional principle is this kind of communication or reacting or non-reacting and all the things in between; communication more in the sense of sharing a room. So, in a composition on one side every note has its place because of a compository principle which in improvisation it doesn’t. There it takes its place in the moment of play.“

Robair: „Yeah, I think I would agree with that if you could look at it in a sort of larger sense. Even if you have a completely open compositional structure where people are improvising, you could still say that you have to do something when the instructions tell you to. You’re still doing it whenever you feel like it in the concert space. So, I guess you could say that.

As someone who plays unconventional instruments, people write for what I do as opposed to telling me what to do. They know my sounds and they will often say: Do what you do when x happens, or Do what you do with so-and-so when y happens. This is occurring more and more in “scored” works, that I’m actually improvising, but I’m improvising with different people at different times. That’s the only criteria. So in that case, it’s very difficult to call it a composition, except for the fact that they’ve determined when and with whom I play, but not what I play.“

Hübsch: „It’s already a very strong limitation for an improviser, right?“

Robair: „Yeah, but in a sense, even the venue puts a limitation on you. The time of your gig puts a limitation on you. I can’t go to the bar down the street and play at 3 am. I have to play when they say I can play and stop when they say.“

Hübsch: „When you play, should your sound be understood by the other improvisers?“

Robair: „I don’t really think of it that way. I don’t think about it as something that I’m communicating that needs to be understood. I am activating air. Sometimes when I improvise I will start with a gesture and I don’t even know what it’s going to sound like. And the performer next to me would never know that, and the audience probably would never know that: Only I know that, because I want to start an improvisation without having any pre-conceived notions. So, I try to clear my mind and I do whatever comes first. I might begin with something I see in the environment, but hadn’t thought about before. Like I might take that light stand right there and scrape it on the floor. And it’s only because I decided to in that moment, and not really thinking of any message. It’s just that I’m trying to start a conversation. I don’t have any other subtext.

The approach is the same even when playing solo. It’s just a way to invite the spirit or get the air moving in such a way that something happens that will trigger things that are unusual. If I had any goal or message, it would be to create a situation that is unusual within the realm of the traditional concert setting, because that’s usually where I am.“

Hübsch: „For me the fact that I play, that’s the whole information. Well getting back to the idea of a conversation, what does the word understand imply?“

Robair: „You know, it’s funny because people who are watching me do what I do will have a different understanding of what I intended, even if I didn’t intend something. I learned early on not to think or worry about that.“

Hübsch:  „Last question. What is typical of improvising musicians from the Bay Area?“

Robair: „I think what typifies an improvising Bay Area musician is that they are a lot more open to exploring the potential of their own playing. And they’re more interested in exploring the genres beyond what they would normally be pigeonholed into. For example, you might see a “jazz” saxophonist play here in a jazz group one day, and then appear onstage with a noise group or with a rock band or with Korean classical musicians another day.

Whereas, in another part of the world, if you play completely free music one day and then play traditional jazz the next day, the free jazz musicians look down on you. I haven’t actually seen that very much here. But I have seen that mentality in other parts of the United States where people really need to make a career and they have to stick with one thing. Here, it’s more open and you see groups such as the ROVA Saxophone Quartet playing in all kinds of different situations.

In the Bay Area, you will see folks playing traditional music one day and then playing contemporary music the next day, and for me that’s very healthy for the musicians here. The people who want to make a career out of improvising tend to move away into situations where they get more press traction, such as New York City. But I feel like a lot of them get locked into a certain style, whereas here it seems like it’s more creative.“

Hübsch: „Thank you, Gino!“

[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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