|Steve Noble and Okkyung Lee in conversation at Cafe Oto
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2012. All Rights Reserved
‘What do you think you are doing?’ Discussion with Caroline Kraabel, Ross Lambert, Okkyung Lee and Steve Noble, chaired by Trevor Brent.
(Cafe Oto. 30th April 2012. Report and drawing by Geoff Winston)
The opening event for the Freedom of the City festival took the form of a conversation, involving four leading improvising musicians talking about the art of improvisation. This was also an improvised event with the unpredictable directions of the conversation arising from the group’s chemistry and the varied perspectives of each of the participants. Trevor Brent, who has been the organiser of the festival for four years, steered the discussion, but gave the musicians room and a good context to explain what lies behind their musical collaborations and solo performances – subjects which are notoriously difficult to put in to words.
Leading the response to the loaded question, ‘What do you think you are doing?’, guitarist Ross Lambert described his approach as either playing ‘as though it is the last time [I] ever have the opportunity to play’ or ‘playing for the first time ever’, a refreshingly pared down way to describe such complex processes. Percussionist Steve Noble was equally clear on his motivation – ‘I’m playing music that suits my personality … it’s a very natural way to make music’. Cellist Okkyung Lee, maybe feeling that she was being put on the spot, asked if the question was about musical improvising or her life in general and said she liked talking about music, but not so much about what she did! She then went on to quite precisely describe the organic nature of performance, being as blank as possible at first and to respond to each moment – ‘there’s always something happening that you don’t expect.’ For saxophonist Caroline Kraabel, improvisation is a ‘way of being, not just music.’
Noble, who thrives on the energy of London, its changes and fluctuations, cited Britain as a country that does improvisation very well as a way of life, even though the audiences for the music can be very small. Lambert turned to the decision-making bound up in improvised exploration and risk taking, with the most interesting music sometimes ‘going to places where people might not want to go.’ Lee ventured that ‘this kind of music fits certain personalities [who are] looking to push a little further. We do it because it is challenging.’ And Noble made the point that he’s ‘not playing music I want to hear, but music I want to play.’
Bringing a universal perspective to bear, Kraabel declared that music, along with dance, is ‘primordial’, hinting that the improvising experience is a way of giving rein to these fundamental currents that run through life at many levels.
They talked about the audience’s role and the performer’s awareness of audiences, and the extent to which recordings can capture a live event, hitting some difficulties when asked how an improvised event might be evaluated – Lambert was not really prepared to talk about it and Lee suggested that ‘grades’ were one of the reasons she didn’t live in Korea! They moved on to the practicalities of the lifestyle – the basic costs of getting to and from a venue may not even be covered by the door money, but the audience might be appreciative, and in one case, where only one person, a Norwegian artist, showed up to Okkyung Lee’s afternoon concert in a remote corner of Brooklyn, it led to a series of successful collaborations.
This was a valuable insight in to what some classify as a ‘difficult’ musical area, and others take to without a second thought, contributing to an understanding of what it is that attracts certain personalities to this area, and how they respond to the uncertainties and the potential offered by this way of approaching performance. This was a perfectly unconventional way to celebrate International Jazz Day and a great way to work up to the Bank Holiday weekend’s Freedom of the City Festival at Cecil Sharp House.