REVIEW: Derek Bailey // Three Presences (2 March 2018. Cafe OTO)

Alex Ward painted live by Gina Southgate
Picture credit: © Gina Southgate 

Derek Bailey // Three Presences
(2 March 2018. Cafe OTO. Review by AJ Dehany)

Experimental free-improvising guitarist Derek Bailey (1930-2005) remains divisive. In the run-up to a fascinating three-tiered evening at Cafe OTO devoted to his work, I asked around for opinions, and a friend of mine pretty much nailed the problem: “I can’t tell the difference between him making random noises on the guitar and me making random noises on the guitar.”

Derek Bailey // Three Presences was instructive in offering some ways to think about the problems raised by this undeniably difficult music, presenting some recently discovered compositions, two films that illuminated his practice, plus a live improvisation using pre-recorded fragments of Bailey himself.

I hadn’t anticipated how entertaining the evening would be. The first performance of With Apologies To G. Brecht was Fluxus-inspired performance art, requiring the performers to follow instructions on shuffled cards. Simon H Fell put his bass down and headed to the front door with a cloth to clean the window, Alex Ward took a break from deconstructing the clarinet to visit the bar with an armful of tinned baked beans, and Mark Wastell when not bowing cymbals attacked the cello with good-humoured ferocity.

Score cards and objects for performance of With Apologies To G. Brecht
Photo credit: © Fabio Lugaro
Alex Ward performing Derek Bailey’s compositions for guitar
Photo credit: © Fabio Lugaro
Alex Ward played some of Bailey’s composed works for guitar: No 10, made up of five short pieces with influences as wide-ranging as Debussy, Messiaen, flamenco and baroque lute music, Compositions 18-20, and Bailey’s final composed work, No 23 “Bits”. With some excitement, I asked Alex about these notated works, telling him I was not familiar with them. He told me that pretty much no-one is familiar with them! “The scores to them were only discovered about three or four years ago and remain unpublished, only currently shared with those entrusted to perform them with the blessing of Derek’s widow Karen. Prior to this, all that was known of them were a few recordings by Derek himself dating from the mid-60s and not released until almost 40 years later, on the Tzadik CD Pieces For Guitar

Upon a first listen, the compositions are hard to distinguish from the improvisations: the same fractured, spiky, arrhythmic, percussive attack, though perhaps, as a consequence of being notated, more of a tonal and harmonic sense, though as we progress through the chronology of the pieces up to No 23, the compositions tend to be more like suggestions to improvise from. As they became shorter and more abstract they reminded me of Samuel Beckett, whose works similarly become sparer until there’s almost nothing left. Gavin Bryars notes Bailey’s interest in that direction: “He loved Beckett.” (Ben Watson, Derek Bailey and the story of free improvisation, p75)
Simon H. Fell
Photo credit: © Fabio Lugaro
Composition No 23 “Bits” is a series of ‘events’ that seem especially fragmented, but we are told that the second half is an exact retrograde of its first half. This points to Bailey’s use of alternative approaches to structure and order, which are many and various, even if hard to perceive. In the Joseph Holbrook Trio, his seminal trio chiefly active in the sixties but reprised occasionally later, bassist Gavin Bryars and drummer Tony Oxley were exploring a basis of eighteen beats over each bar of 4/4. You still have the pulse but the beats are rarely falling on that pulse. If that sounds tricksy, it kind of is.

The closing performance of the evening was IST’s Virtual Company, with Simon H. Fell on cello and Mark Wastell on bass improvising against 99 randomly ordered recorded fragments of Derek Bailey and Will Gaines performing and talking, as well as their silences. It was a valuable experiment. Although the fragments can’t respond to the players, there was a certain conceptual interest in improvising with them, invigorating a completed performance with new life. Bailey made hundreds of records but found the idea of recording spontaneous improvised music problematic or pointless: “Preserving the music has always seemed a bit cock-eyed.” Perhaps Virtual Company points toward notions of ‘remix’ that might point toward creative approaches to addressing these ongoing conundrums.

In between these opening compositions and closing performances, the second part of the evening was devoted to the first public screening of two films recorded by David Reid presenting highlights from two solo performances given by Derek Bailey. In the first, from London record shop Sound 323 in 2001, he talks and plays at the same time and demonstrates some of his techniques on acoustic guitar, including the mysterious properties of acoustic feedback, employing a similar means to that used to make wine glasses sing.

The second film involves Derek Bailey in a playful question and answer session at the Electric Cinema, Birmingham, in 2002. He’s on good form, drily funny and unassumingly interesting. When asked “How do you judge whether a piece of improvisation has been successful or not?” he is gracious while acknowledging he’s been asked this a hundred times. “Well,” he says “it depends if I’ve been playing with other people. If I’ve been playing with other people I can always blame it on them… Years ago it used to be easy to get people through things. You could never leave a space ‘cos somebody would shout Bullshit! So now it’s more complicated. If it feels as though it’s been good you have to assume it is, because if you can’t rely on your own judgement you’re really in trouble in this game.”

In the room, there was a sharp intake of breath when someone asked “Why did you stop working with Evan Parker?” They chiefly fell out over the Incus record label, which Bailey ran with his wife Karen after Parker left the enterprise. I had been thinking about this earlier because I’d noticed the coincidence of a major evening devoted to Derek Bailey taking place at the same time as a major appearance from Evan Parker, in venues across the road from each other. Somewhat reflecting the two figures’ reputations, the Vortex is in essence a prestigious jazz venue, while Cafe OTO is more determinedly experimental.

Another questioner asked if free improvisation, which seems to be associated with jazz, holds an allegiance to jazz. Bailey replied “For me it certainly has no allegiance to jazz,” while noting that there are similar and overlapping methods, and plenty of improvisers who are not jazz players but say they are, and vice versa. His own background was in jazz and jazz-related music, so it’s in there but, he says, “a lot of my playing has been to avoid playing jazz”.

Not only that, Gavin Bryars says Bailey “tries to avoid tonal reference in everything he plays” (ibid., p100) — which made it awkward for them playing together when Bryars was thinking harmonically and using pitch, like a composer. Some people say you can fit Derek’s playing into ordered systems (25ths is suggested) but Bryars doesn’t think so. Bryars became a proper composer, and, as far as anyone can tell, Bailey abandoned composition completely in the early ’70s, devoting himself almost exclusively to free improvisation.

So if he’s not playing jazz, and he’s not even playing tonal music, what is he playing and is it good? Instructively, Gavin Bryars talks about seeing a bassist (Johnny Dyani) play, who he thought was, in essence, faking it. “He’d got that kind of rather angular Richard Davis, Gary Peacock thing, where you’d leap from one register to another and you’d hit this note and you’d think, God that’s amazing –  but I could see the way his hands were going, that it was guesswork […] It sounds reasonably competent playing, it’s not flash, but it’s reasonably assured. I could see when I watched Johnny playing that it was guesswork – inspired guesswork — but no more than that. And I just felt, What’s the point?” (Ibid., p80)

He’s talking about jazz playing but to me it really sheds light on Bailey. If Bryars can discern between guesswork playing in Dyani and something more intentional in Bailey, between fake and genuine, then I’m loth to see Bailey’s playing as merely arbitrary – even if many of the decisions made are physically determined and may be ordered more at a subconscious level. Think of Jackson Pollock’s action painting. The paint is out of control, yet at the same time controlled, both consciously and unconsciously. This is getting a bit sophisticated isn’t it? If Bailey had really wanted to get away from tonal playing completely he could have banged on a wooden box, rather than banging on a wooden box with a load of metal wires stretched along it that are explicitly intended for the production of tones. The interest, conceptually and artistically, lies more in the attempt than the result. How far is it possible to go away from conventional music using a conventional instrument? Derek Bailey will always be revered by those of us who admire his dedication to going all in and far out.

AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany@gmail.com

Tzadik CD Pieces For Guitar

Simon Fell’s detailed programme notes for Three Presences 

Composition No. 10: Five Pieces for Guitar (1965-66)*
Composition Nos. 18-20: Three Pieces for Guitar (1966-67)*
Composition No. 23: Bits (1967)*
*performed by Alex Ward (guitar)
With Apologies to G. Brecht (date unknown)**
**performed by Rhodri Davies (harp), Simon H. Fell (double bass), Alex Ward (clarinet), Mark Wastell (cymbal)

Sound 323, London – 15th September 2001*
Electric Cinema, Birmingham – 12th April 2002*
*filmed and recorded by David Reid

A virtual Company performance from IST together with pre-recorded fragments of Derek Bailey and Will Gaines.

Categories: miscellaneous

2 replies »

  1. Hi AJ; thanks for the useful overview of events at Oto on Friday night. I enjoyed much of what you wrote, but there are a handful of points I'd like to pick up on…

    It's a shame that you begin by repeating the hoary old cliché of randomness without really interrogating the use of the term. My dictionary defines 'random' as “without aim, purpose or fixed principle; heedlessly, carelessly; haphazard”. Such terms clearly (and audibly) do not apply to Bailey's playing – anyone who thinks they do just hasn't listened closely (or at all).

    It seems 'random' is often used by people to describe something which is unfamiliar – where they don't comprehend the language, syntax or principles involved in the discourse – or something where they have not as yet come to perceive, understand or appreciate the system, pattern or logic within a complex phenomenon. (Your friend possibly also feels that Finnegans Wake is just random words, or that Pollock indulges in random drips.) The answer to 'the problem' is simply close, attentive and/or informed listening (or reading, looking).

    In the 12th paragraph you seem to contrast atonality with 'using pitch, like a composer'. (I suggest you try play atonally without thinking about pitch and its implications – you won't get very far.) The difficulty between DB and GB at that time stemmed from Bryars' return to what Bailey termed the 'Sunday-evening Edwardian' aesthetic; a conflict between modernity and post-modernity rather than between improvisation and composition. Despite what you say later in the paragraph, Bailey remained interested in the possibility of working with (other people's) composition to the end of his life, as long as it could be done under very strict circumstances that he would dictate. (By the way, I sincerely hope the use of the term ‘proper composer’ in this paragraph is intentionally ironic.)

    Please don't swallow the Bryars approach to the Dyani question. If there was a certain amount of intuition in Dyani's technique, this does not invalidate his playing and label it 'fake', as you seem dangerously near to implying. This is not a discussion about validity, but rather an unsympathetic interface between 'eurological' and 'afrological' methods of learning and the acquisition of technique (see George Lewis for more on this theme).

    For somewhat more conclusive evidence of Bailey's interest in Beckett, you could perhaps have mentioned his setting of Beckett's 'Ping' for four musicians and speaker, which I have conducted in both the UK and the US, and which was broadcast by BBC Radio 3 in November 2015.

    OK. Thanks for coming to the gig – and next time come up and say hello!

  2. An interesting read. I have to say, though, that I raised my eyebrows at The interest, conceptually and artistically, lies more in the attempt than the result.” I can only say listen to Bailey often and enjoy “the result” immensely!

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