And as a postscript to yesterday's post, here is the interview I did with poet Peter Riley about Derek Bailey (and also touching on Riley's own work) that I conducted as research for the Syntactics piece, which was also previously available at dispatx.
A Conversation With Peter Riley
conducted by Dominic Lash
The following conversation took place at Peter Riley's house in
Cambridge during the morning of Wednesday 17th May 2006. I began by
raising the issue of Derek Bailey's much-contested concept of
PETER RILEY (PR): I thought that was a quite simple concept of
Derek's about non-idiomatic improvisation because it was a question
of where the music came from. It came from jazz, and you
know he studied Webern for some time, and he wasn't trying to
continue jazz, and he wasn't trying to continue the Webern
developments. He was doing something which didn't have an antecedent,
so he was quite entitled to call it that. It doesn't prevent it
becoming idiomatic to later generations, I suppose, does it?
DOMINIC LASH (DL): No, when it's set . . . I mean that's what
interested me in the earlier edition [of Bailey's book Improvisation]
is how you get this sense of how obviously a lot of things were
coming out of playing with people, but also how carefully he thought
about what types of musical language he wanted to include.
PR: Yes, I don't know to what extent he did that alone or by
working with others, because that was before I knew him, all the
goings on in Sheffield with Tony Oxley and Gavin Bryars, of which
there's a CD with a lot of chat in it, about that. I think even that
was to quite a large extent to do with playing with others, to do
with playing with those two. It says in there how that trio realised
they were doing something unique, and how difficult it was to have
guests playing with them. You remember that?
DL: Yes, I do. I mean I only know it from those recordings, but it
is fascinating. On that - what do they play, Miles' Mode
don't they? It does start off . . . and then in the middle more what
might be recognisable Derek from later on starts to emerge in the
middle of this - as you say, from playing with . . . But then there
is that CD that Zorn released, where you hear the solo pieces which
Derek . . .
PR: Oh the pieces, the actual pieces?
DL: Yeah, the Pieces for Guitar which is slightly after
that, and you get this sense of him actually writing the pieces, but
he says in the notes he was only concerned with freely improvising.
PR: It was part of his study.
DL: And he also used to write things down for himself, didn't he?
PR: I first heard Derek I suppose about 1972 or 1973, probably. I
was living in Denmark before that. There's a poet called Anthony
Barnett - he was a poet-musician (rather more of a poet than a
musician, but he thought he was a musician - he hit drums and things)
and he played with John Tchicai. I wasn't in Copenhagen so I didn't
see much of this scene, but it was quite lively scene involving
Tchicai and Don Cherry and people like that. Dollar Brand turned up
from South Africa, and so on. It wasn't too far to go and travel for
a special concert. I didn't really know any of these people, but I
was asking what about the UK, what's going on there, and Tchicai
reported, 'Well, you ought to listen to Derek Bailey.' And that was
all Tchicai had to say about UK.
DL: He was the one.
PR: Yes. So I looked this up, and I think the first concert I ever
heard him must have been about that time in Kensington Oval, and that
was when I wrote that first piece about Derek, which was published in
a magazine called Great Works.
DL: There's extracts from that in the Ben Watson?
PR: Yes. And probably my position on Derek hasn't shifted much!
DL: It seems to me as a piece of writing which gets to what
Derek's doing, I haven't read much else that seems to . . .
PR: I don't know, I suppose I didn't get any further in
understanding the music by ten years association with all these
musicians! I mean, as Derek says, most of them are very unwilling to
talk about music. He wasn't, hence that great interview, whatever he
said in it. But most of them weren't, especially younger ones didn't
seem to want to very much actually, because they were still . . .
They weren't all that sure what they were doing, a lot of them. And
they were very aware that they were a bit late on the scene, and that
certain things had been established that they were following through,
I think, or taking to somewhat other places.
DL: I suppose there was a very rapid development, was there?
PR: In London, yes. And it started to spread to other
places. It's funny, I was living in Derbyshire, well North
Staffordshire, through most of that, and managed to keep totally in
touch with the scene I think. I couldn't afford to travel to London
very often, but I was doing record reviewing for Musics, that
magazine, occasional little articles and things, and knew Derek. I'd
go down there and used to stay at Derek's flat, Derek and Janice in
those days, when there was a concert on, and I'd stay for the whole
of a Company Week, so I think I fairly kept up with what was going
on. And chatted to Derek in bits and pieces, I mean there wasn't any
concentrated theoretical discussion. Topics would come and . . . it
would depend on who was around, and what was going on. But I remember
when he was talking about the younger musicians, and what they were
doing, especially people like Steve Beresford, and the Bristol group
- they suddenly stopped - but he was talking about people are 'now
trying to do it without vocabulary', he said, which was interesting.
And he said, 'I don't think you can do that.'
DL: That's fascinating.
PR: It was tending towards silence, in certain areas. And there
were these people in Bristol, they were a nice crowd. Will Menter is
one of the names I can remember. And they had a little scene there,
they put on quite big concerts sometimes, used the Arnolfini gallery
occasionally for things. And there was a percussionist, a guitar,
another sax, and various others, and they travelled round, they
played in London and things. It reached the stage with them sometimes
that somebody would walk on to the stage carrying a trumpet and put
it down on the floor next to him and not touch it for the whole
evening. And sit there and occasionally like drop a sponge on the
floor or wind up a little toy, and let it scuttle across the stage,
you know all that kind of thing was going on. And I suppose they did
other things but they could spend quite a lot of time doing that, and
at some point there'd be something a bit louder and more massive
going on. I can't remember that but I suppose the! y must have done.
They can't have actually spent the whole evening sitting on a chair
winding up toys.
DL: I don't know!
PR: I've got some old cassette recordings of them, I'll have to
listen to them sometime and check what they were up to. And Beresford
was a bit like that, in that his piano vocabulary wasn't . . . Ahhh .
. . Well, as Derek said it hardly really existed as a vocabulary, it
was bits of memories, I mean he'd suddenly play a bit of 'Any Old
Iron' or something like that.
DL: So it was just a confrontation with the instrument, with
whatever it was that was there in the . . .
PR: Yes, though he listened. He played listening. I don't think
Derek ever attempted seriously to play with people like the Bristol
crowd, or others, but he did play with Steve, and David Toop, who was
into another thing entirely. Derek was interested in more and more,
later on, playing with different kinds of musicians.
DL: And I suppose there was the sort of AMM thing which carried on
PR: Never came across that much, actually. It didn't seem to cross
over. I know he liked Keith Rowe's playing very much. But apart from
that, I mean he talks about it in the book a bit, doesn't he? It's a
little section. I hardly ever saw them, except on tours and things
DL: It is interesting, 'playing without vocabulary', because Keith
has now, in the last few years, become enormously influential.
There's this whole sort of scene with a lot of electronics and
things, and after I think not playing much for quite a while he's
become the sort of godfather of . . . Lots of people take things,
there are quite a few people who play the guitar in the same kind of
way he does. I don't really know them very well, but I played with
some of them last week, and that's interesting because the metaphor
they constantly use is 'material'. I don't know if that's more of a
visual art . . . But they always talk about material all the time . .
PR: Not 'instrument'?
DL: No. And I don't think 'vocabulary'. Whereas other people do
PR: I think there was a language analogy running all the time with
Derek. When he spoke of it in that way it was. And also, I always
thought his rhythms were closely related to the rhythms of the spoken
language. I don't think I ever said that anywhere, I don't remember
anyone else saying it, but I always thought that. And I played some
of him recently, and I thought 'those are spoken language rhythms,
quite a lot of them'. And it's not as though he's got a regular pulse
in his head, which he's diverging from - syncopation - in fact. Well,
I mean sometimes it is but sometimes it's just not that, it's not
dependent on that sense of a regular pulse at all, for a long time
sometimes. My theory is that it's bound to be, that if it's not
metricated, it's going to be related to the spoken language. It's
naturally what you'll fall back on, I suppose.
DL: The other thing I suppose is the actual, the physical
construction of the instrument itself. I just wonder if there's a
sense that there's a kind of grammar of the guitar.
PR: Oh yeah, I'm sure he's terribly interested in that.
DL: In terms of how far your hand can move, you know.
PR: Oh yes. Which is why I prefer videos of him, more than CDs
DL: Shame there aren't more.
PR: No, I've only ever seen one, I've seen a DVD of him that's
fairly recently produced, from the States.
DL: From New York, yes I've got that.
PR: I think it's pretty well the only one I know. Well I've got an
old DVD of him with Min Tanaka. I don't think you see him much.
DL: I've seen little bits. There are clips on the internet, from
various things, but they're all short.
PR: It does make a difference when you actually see what his
hand's doing. Otherwise it's just - this sound comes out and you
don't really know what it is. I don't know how much that matters, but
I find it a great help. It helps you to concentrate, and to get a
visual equivalent of the music as it's going along.
DL: Is that in terms of how it might make sense, whatever
that might mean?
PR: Umm, I suppose to some extent it is yes. I mean, there's a
sound produced down there which couldn't come at a different place
because of the time it takes him to get down there. And that sort of
thing. And it's done in a different way and from a different angle,
and all these things have got to change.
DL: There's a quote from him, some interview, where he says that
atonality has this non-grammatical quality to it, so you can have a
sequence which doesn't have that directed sense, which it does if
you're using tonal material. And non-tonal - that's very interesting,
he says that in the earlier version of the book 'my previous uses of
pitch, tonal modal or atonal had been too specific and unhelpful, so
pitch had to be utilised' - he's talking about when he started
playing solo a lot and he felt he hadn't been using pitch before
because it had seemed to be to tied to something, but then he felt
that not to use pitch was to cut yourself off from a . . . 'So pitch
had to be utilised but it's grammatical constituent had to be
neutralised. It had to be non-tonal.' And that's still using the
PR: When I first heard him, I couldn't hear any jazz at all, and
that was 1972 or 3. And I didn't - I never realised that he was
looked upon by some as a jazz musician. It just didn't seem to be
there at all. Except when he was being parodic, of course.
But then he wasn't in those days, very rarely anyway. There wasn't
much of that jokey stuff. Which quite surprised me when I found he
was looked upon as a jazz musician, or that he fell between the
stools of jazz musician and classical musician, actually, in many
ways. And that's because of the rhythm - it's because of that thing,
it's not a syncopated rhythm, as I said before. That was I think one
of the things that drew me to him, and drew me to him as a poet too,
I think, because all my previous serious experience in poetry tended
to be rather academic. Most of the people I was associated with as
poets were in universities or getting teaching jobs in universities
and that sort of thing and were working up a l! ot of theory behind
what they did, so it was a kind of classical world, and I heard this
which was every bit as contemporary as any other music, and you did
think of Webern immediately, because there were all these sevenths
and ninths going around absolutely all over the place. And yet it
didn't belong in that world at all. It was somebody, I mean not an
uneducated person at all, but somebody who came from a different
world altogether, and that was a great help because I wasn't doing
very well with my sort of poetry 'scene', really. I felt a bit of a
misfit in this . . . I was aiming for an academic career myself
originally, but that sort of fell through. And I realised I was
obviously going to drift round for the rest of my life without ever
having a proper job! This became obvious very early on, actually. And
here was somebody else who was doing that really. I mean. Derek had
to eke a living in various ways, which became easier for him later on
when he got Incus really off! the ground, and could live off that,
and had the advantage of global sales of CDs and things, because
however minority an interest it is in music, you have got the world,
whereas in poetry you haven't, you've got the English language zone.
DL: You said something somewhere about the craft, the sense of
poetry as a craft that you . . .
PR: Yes, well that was there all along, really.
DL: This is from you, in this interview in Nate Dorward's thing:
"I like to think in terms of a craft fervently pursued but
within the obtaining conditions. Knowing working musicians such as
Derek Bailey ... "
PR: Yes, I knew there was somewhere I'd mentioned Derek Bailey, so
it was there. It's to do with . . . and also working alone, I think.
Which seems odd to say of Derek, who spent so much time in company,
and at one time said that he valued playing with others more than
DL: There's a quote somewhere where he says that he hates playing
PR: I think it was a phase, actually. I remember him saying to me,
"It's so much more rewarding when you play with somebody else."
Perhaps it was a time when he'd kind of established his vocabulary,
and when he played solo he didn't feel challenged in any way, so he
really needed a . . . I not sure about that or how long it might have
lasted, but he always wanted to play with others, didn't he? I'm not
sure about latterly, in his last...
DL: Well actually, it's extraordinary, all sorts of people that
you would never have thought. Again the international thing, but you
know putting him together with people like Pat Metheny or Japanese
DJs, all these kind of things.
PR: But nevertheless, in spite of that, I felt that he was a
marvellous example of somebody working alone, independently, just not
influenced by what anybody anywhere thought he might, or should be
doing. No mentors to him at all really. And just working it all out
for himself. And playing with other people was part of that. That was
a good example, even the lifestyle was a good example of how you
didn't have to depend on these preexisting structures or
associations. I mean naturally when you start off, when you're young
you seek like minds, you seek people that are doing something similar
that you can associate with. But you don't have to depend on them. I
mean the whole influence of him, whatever I've said about that, I was
thinking about this recently. I can only think about it now in very
general terms, of things like lifestyle and the general cultural
position he was in, rather than details like rhythm and that. Though
there are possible exceptions. I tried to make some! notes, but I've
said most of that already. Being a working musician, that affected my
whole view of music, seeing what it was like being a working
musician. Not only with Derek but also subsequently when I've known
working musicians in places like Romania, who are absolutely
dependent on what they do for their livelihood, and wouldn't be able
to eat if they didn't, cause there's nothing to fall back on in a
place like that. And it makes you a bit less precious about notions
of betraying cultural causes. If one of these bands is offered a
quite good sum of money to play on the television as the backing to a
bingo contest, they'll do it! Because you'd be daft not to. And it
doesn't compromise the music, actually, because the musical area
they're playing on is rich enough to incorporate that. That relates
only tangentially to Derek because he would not have been asked to
play . . .
DL: But it does relate to what he used to do.
PR: Oh yes. Yes I suppose so.
DL: But he managed to eke out an area of music where he could do
something like that, but on his own terms.
PR: And it's interesting, the idea of having a vocabulary when you
can't exactly say what the vocabulary is. Not like a language
vocabulary. It was like his vocabulary. It was a personal
vocabulary, and then he found others that he could talk to in it.
DL: This is what I'm interested in, how far the analogy goes and
how far it doesn't. Because there's something else from him where
he's talking about Company, and the way he would invite people he
knew well but also wild cards.
PR: I didn't hear all of those. They seemed to get wilder as the
thing went on, those casts, didn't they?
DL: Right, cause he felt it had got too cosy. There was some
interview I think in the early eighties, and he says that even those
people in Company who are primarily interested in working with
improvisation, those type of musicians normally do like working with
people who have language or material or vocabulary in common with
them, whereas he had this interest in having a vocabulary and working
with people who didn't share a vocabulary with him. So quite
how the analogy works . . .
PR: It's not simple, is it, because there were a lot of guests
around in those days. It was a very active scene in London and
musicians would turn up from all over the world almost, and they
didn't necessarily always appear in public. They tried to but
sometimes they'd just contact Derek and they'd get together and play
together. Probably about 1980 or so I remember one person, I don't
know who it was, came who played the vibes and wanted to play with
Derek cause he played free, like he thought. But Derek couldn't play
with him. I mean they did, but Derek didn't enjoy it, and one time
stopped and said "Do you think you could groove a bit less?"
(laughter) Which is part of vocabulary really, because groove is
idiom. And though this man was playing free there was obviously
something very jazz-related about what he was doing, a bit too much
DL: So in actual fact he did . . . Although I don't know if you've
heard these things but there are more recent things where he plays
over groove-type things, which is fascinating because I don't think
he would have done that earlier.
PR: I don't know, is it just the steady rhythm or is it actually
an idiomatic groove?
DL: Well it's sort of idiomatic, I mean there's a couple I'm
thinking of . . . There's one with drum'n'bass kind of things which I
think he wasn't so happy with - I think he used to like to play along
with pirate radio in Hackney. It's incredibly complex and it's quick
but it has got a definite rhythm. He plays with Ornette Coleman's
electric rhythm section at one point; it keeps shifting but they
pretty much do play funk rhythms, they do keep changing but
nonetheless there's a very steady rhythm and Derek sort of on top!
PR: Perhaps his attitude towards that changed. Or perhaps it
became more acceptable if it was a bit more aggressive, and more of a
DL: I mean to my ears I'm not sure that those things are as
successful - sometimes his playing sounds more like effects on top,
but he was open . . . I mean I don't think he toured with those
people, he was happy to go into a recording studio for an afternoon.
PR: And did he do some strange things at public events with a DJ?
Doing discs and things, in London.
DL: Yes, that's right.
PR: Which he talked about to me once, and he said the whole thing
was deafeningly loud, he couldn't relate to the other player at all,
if it was indeed a player exactly, I don't know, but he just sat
there and did his thing, and the man seemed to think it was fine!
There were no complaints, whatever went on, and he went away and
everybody seemed happy about it. Which was curiously like the time he
reminisced to me about playing in the Tower Ballroom in Blackpool,
actually. You went there and you did your thing. And you didn't
relate very strongly to the audience who were a big ballroom full of
people dancing shoulder to shoulder, with sometimes a metal grille
that came between you and them to protect the band from flying
DL: So perhaps in actual fact, perhaps he overstated the case
slightly, there is a certain element of vocabulary, at least in terms
of rhythm . . .
PR: But he certainly always preferred a sort of chamber music type
setting where you could hear exactly what everybody else was doing.
And I think Company Week was as much to do with listening as playing,
in many ways, wasn't it? He got people who he thought could listen,
even if they were Lee Konitz. Actually he reckoned that Lee Konitz
could listen and he was probably right. Was I at that one? I was at
least at one of them, I haven't got the recording of it, but that
seemed to be successful, Lee Konitz being there, making these noises.
Or Gavin Bryars for that matter, latterly. Gavin Bryars' later bass
DL: But that's interesting because they are very much people with
a strong vocabulary, extremely strong, but then prepared to enter
PR: Well Konitz has always got a listening element in what he
does. But I don't know cause [Bryars] moved into composition and sort
of stayed there and didn't play as a bassist for many many years. He
seemed to be able to come back, and play in a fairly limited way but
successfully with Company Week.
DL: He seems to have suddenly rediscovered, after Derek's death
almost, he seems to have rediscovered his interest in free
improvisation. They've just released some recordings of the Joseph
Holbrooke Trio but from only a few years ago, when they got together
again, and he's written all these extensive notes about what they did
in the sixties.
I was thinking about this thing about improvisation as the
exploration of occasion - that was a phrase of yours, wasn't it?
PR: Was it? There's a phrase Derek seemed to like very much which
he repeated twice in his book, I think, to do with place.
DL: Well this is what I'm interested in, place and occasion,
poetry and music.
PR: Well as regards music and place that was just an echo of what
Derek was saying to me, really. Because he was talking about how
different it was playing in different places. And how he knew no
music where the audience could so strongly influence the playing, as
free improvisation. And things like that. And he was talking about,
not just the acoustics of the room, though that was relevant.
Especially the kind of career he had, he had to play in very weird
places, I mean there were kitchen noises through a hatch at one
place, constantly, and whether he played to them I don't know. I
don't think he would have done - later, the younger musicians, they
would have played to things like that, cash registers at the bar and
kitchen noises and traffic or whatever invaded the room. But I don't
think he would, he'd sort of persevere but he'd be aware of it. It
would make a difference. And of course also antagonism in the
audience; not necessarily strong antagonism, but just a shifty s! ort
of dull bewilderment or lack of interest, and people creeping off to
the bar and things like that. He would sometimes stop playing and
make an announcement about what a very good bar they have here, and
if you're not interested why don't you . . . "I do recommend
the bar! It's a very good bar. And those who are interested in this
stuff . . . " This is like when he was guest at a - I think it
was some town in the northwest, which was otherwise the local modern
jazz band, and then they got Derek Bailey as a sort of interlude in
this. He didn't play with them, at all, he couldn't have done. So the
audience just suddenly [got] confronted with this . . . this thing
. . . Blackburn I think that was.
DL: But he did say something about musics that get their identity
from a particular place and from a people being rooted in a
particular place, like obviously folk musics, but also other types of
music, "formed in the same way that a verbal accent or a speech
vernacular is formed", so that's the language thing coming in,
but that "in freely improvised music its roots are in occasion
rather than place." So that sense of a place at a particular
PR: Well I suppose he would think that more and more as free
improvised music did seem to be sort of spreading through the world.
This was evident in the records which were suddenly turning up, sent
to Musics for review. They'd start coming from places where you
didn't think there was anything like this going on. And sometimes
they were sort of mitigated - they weren't very free improvisation!
They were freeish improvisations, sometimes. But they did seem to be
getting around the place, I mean they'd start coming from Latin
America, I remember, eventually. Brazil I think. Italy, of course,
Greece, a lot from Scandinavia, always has been. And possibly from
Asia, I can't remember. There might have been the odd thing from
somewhere like that. Whereas nothing ever came from Ireland. It's
quite bizarre, Ireland has always been - poetry too - sort of
intensely aware of itself as a place. And that things come from that
comparatively small place. Although I don't know if it's like that
now. I shouldn't think there's a sense of a global free music
enterprise anymore. I doubt it.
DL: Lots of musicians who fly all over the place and play all over
the world - I'm not sure if that's quite the same thing.
PR: Japan of course, I'd forgotten Japan. Japan was one of the
early major sources of this sense of things beginning to sprout up
all over the globe, but I don't know anything about how they started
in those places. Probably from jazz. I'm pretty sure, certainly in
Japan's case, wasn't it? So it was to do with jazz having got there
first in a lot of these places, and then leading into free
DL: And I suppose in some cases actually hearing albums of
[improvised music]. There must have been . . . which is interesting
because in some ways it's more like jazz, in the sense that there
might be a particular sound even if you're not necessarily trying to
imitate that sound as such, hearing it as a . . . We were talking
earlier about being able to see Derek playing, but there would be
people who wouldn't have been able to do that.
PR: As you know, Derek was always, in spite of everything a bit
sceptical about recording. And felt that recordings actually did
something to the music, changed it to something different. Not just
theoretically , but exponentially it did. As if it sort of pulled it
back in some way or pushed it down in some way. The repeatability,
for one thing. And that's it's separated from the place in which it
took place. There's places in two sense actually, there's places in
the sense of the actual physical location where the thing happens,
and the cultural place. Whether you call that the west or whatever. I
don't know if anybody's talked about this, David Toop would have been
the person to talk about this, but whether the spread of free
improvisation was a sort of part of the globalisation process, I
don't know. I don't see that you would have to because jazz was there
a long long time before it, and nobody was talking about
globalisation then; much more about participation, really. ! So I
think that would be fair enough to . . . I mean this is very old
fashioned of me now but to talk about it in those terms still would
seem quite valid to me. If somebody in Tonga, or Siberia suddenly
started sounding like Derek Bailey, I wouldn't look upon that as
cultural influence, or Westernisation, because there's something
about the music which cuts itself off from that sort of
consideration. How does it do that? By not being idiomatic. I mean
there is a sense in which you're just going to start making sounds.
And if you're going to have a vocabulary you'll make it from them. So
it could be seen as a realisation that . . . of going back to sound,
rather than note patterns, rather than scales and schemes . . .
DL: Pre-imposed ideas.
PR: Yes. Derek held back of course from that, because he would
have seen that as working without a vocabulary, or with a minimal
vocabulary. At one point he started doing scalar improvisation as I
PR: I don't know how that lasted; there was one point where he
decided, or worked out a scale that he was using for this
improvisation, and stuck to it through the improvisation. It's on one
of the LPs, but I'm afraid I can't tell you which. I reviewed it at
the time. I wouldn't have noticed it, I'm actually not a musician,
and I don't hear things technically as well as musicians do. But he
told me that was what it was before I reviewed it. He was very
helpful with things like that!
DL: That is fascinating. I mean I guess it's constantly moving.
PR: John Russell did that as well, independently or something like
that. No, what John Russell did was - I don't know if he still does -
was an improvisation in which he would completely repeat something
he'd just done. He improvised it and had instantly memorised it, and
would do it again. I don't know anybody else who did that, exactly.
DL: You certainly hear certain motifs. Odd places in Derek - in
fact I think one of those very last solo recordings, the first couple
of pieces start from exactly the same place. [Actually tracks two and
three on Carpal Tunnel, Tzadik CD TZ 7612] It's a very short
little motif but they start from exactly the same thing. I don't know
how much that was a specific choice to start from and then head
somewhere else or whether it was just . . .
PR: One of the things I never really sorted out is what
constitutes a piece in improvisation. I mean, I haven't tried much
but I'd have to listen to a lot of recordings now and note what's
happening to find that the piece has something about it which makes
it uniquely that piece. I mean, motifs would be one, obviously, but I
don't know how much he ever did that. And perhaps he wasn't
interested in it being a piece. Or not very interested, lots of other
people were . . .
DL: I didn't hear him live very often, but I liked that sense that
he would come on stage and just start playing, without saying "Right, now we come on and sit and everyone's quiet and the
PR: That was one of the finest things in a way, especially when
you realised that there was nothing unusual about it. If you listen
to Indian music, they will stop and tune in the middle of a piece
very very happily, you know, and then carry on, and you'd hardly
notice they were doing it sometimes. You'd notice the hands on the
peg suddenly instead of on the fingerboard, or whatever. And of
course he did that very freely all the time.
DL: Some of that harmonic vocabulary actually comes from tuning,
PR: I daresay, yes. And I reckon it's even what used to go on in
sixteenth century instrumental music, which got tabulated as
preludes, like French harpsichord music, unmeasured preludes, but
they come from people just . . . It was the custom to arrive and sit
down and sort of diddle around for a bit, and present the scale, the
note, in which you were going to play, and just do arpeggios on it
and run up and down the scale and then a few other chords and then
settle down firmly on where you were going to . . . And this just
became a genre, it became a musical piece. I'm sure that's what
actually happened, was that it was largely improvised. I'm thinking
of things like lute players.
DL: But that, improvisation becoming settled down into a genre I
suppose was what he wanted to fight against to some extent. To allow
that to begin and then to shake things up.
PR: But then some of his improvisations, especially the long ones,
do have a definite character, don't they? I mean that long one on the
DL: That's a beautiful record, I love that record.
PR: There are technical things going on there which seem to be
unique to that improvisation, or almost, as far as I know. To do with
the pedal, isn't it? And how the note emerges a bit after you've
struck it, surging from the pedal, there's a lot of that.
DL: But that album's all acoustic, isn't it? That particular
PR: Is it? Ah, I don't mean that. Forget that. But things like
that. There can be particular technical sound production things which
will characterise - largely characterise - even a quite long
DL: Well I suppose place and occasion - that sense of time. You're
always occupying the moment but of course in terms of a given piece
you have the memory of what has happened, and the sense of what might
happen, and that's always there.
PR: I never knew him to talk about that actually. Perhaps because
I never asked him!
DL: There is something in here [Improvisation: Its Nature and
Practise in Music] about how at any time the past and the future
can both act upon a given moment. The memory of what has happened and
the anticipation of what might happen.
PR: Which is a bit complicated if you're playing with other people
I suppose. You'll have different ideas what's going to happen.
DL: I guess that's where the fun starts!
Place is something that's been very important to you in your
poetry - has it?
PR: Well, as a word, it had a sort of iconic value at one time in
the kind of poetry I was involved in. There was an emphasis on the
physical and geographical reality of where you were. I don't think
this had much to do with the place in music thing really. It involved
having a vocabulary which would include geological terms and
sociological and historical knowledge. It rather came and went. I
mean I was thinking about whether there was anything in Derek's
actual playing which was important for the poetry and still it's in
rather general terms, but one thing was progression. Like, actually
not stopping! I think I learnt quite a lot from that example, which
is that he didn't know how long a piece was going to be. He had a
rough idea, actually, but . . . if he was given a twenty minute first
half it could be two ten minutes, or one twenty minutes, or anything,
it could be fifteen minutes and five minutes and so on. And how he
would determinedly not sometimes carry on and progress. He'd do
something which could have been an ending. You never knew when the
ending . . . It would perhaps go very quiet and slow and just fade, a
quite cadence-like thing as if it's got to stop now, and he would
suddenly break that and introduce something completely new. That was
quite interesting, and I could relate that to the process of writing
in a way. Of course you're dealing with concepts all the time in
writing, so it's different, but you could feel that you'd finished
with a concept or an image group or something and then stop and think
something more is possible, perhaps something interruptive. Something
contrary, from elsewhere, could suddenly come into it. You know this
selected poems [Passing Measures, Carcanet]? I was looking
at the pre- and post-Derek thing in this - it's on page 96. Page 96
is about 1970, and page 97 is about 1977. And I can't see any
difference! It's the same kind of writing. So there wasn't that kind
of . . . there was nothing like that, it's something much slower and
much more general. I did write a note saying 'there's something about
space which is difficult to describe'. A kind of realism, it's to do
with the tone of Derek's playing. Apart from the actual notes, which
could even have a sort of melodic function, sometimes, there's often
a sound area, which he did with electronics or just with
reverberation behind it which often has a sort of bleak - not
'oblique', but 'a bleak'! - feeling about it. There's a somewhat
dehumanised sense of space there. You know he was very keen on
DL: I was just about to say.
PR: Yes, this ties in with that. Because it was often a discordant
- like a discordant chord but not exactly, it was a discordant . . .
and at the same time rather empty sounding aura which he could
PR: Hollow, yes. Probably - I don't know if he did it more with
the electric than with the other. It was easier with the electric,
because with the acoustic he had to strike again to keep it going,
though he had ways of getting round that. I think that was important.
That was interesting and that probably influenced in some way a sort
of general emotional attitude to what you're saying and how it's
going out, what it's carrying into the world. If that's true then I
think the writing of mine which was most influenced by Derek Bailey
was probably the book called Excavations. Cause that's not
only got that, it's got this sort of courage - things are chopped up
a lot in it. You write half a sentence and the rest of the sentence
either doesn't appear at all or will appear twenty pages later, or
things will be taken up much later, so there's no immediate
continuity, as there isn't necessarily with Derek, I think. He'd be
happy to produce a motif, say, or a fragment or something and then
forget it, really. And yet in the best improvisations, in the longer
ones it's, I don't know, perhaps it's taken up - something about it
is taken up, if not the actual chord group, but something about the
tone of it or the way it was produced would be there again. Though
I'd have to study . . . The whole listening thing is difficult with
improvisation because if you study it, it's got to be repeated -
studying rather than listening. It's the same with poetry. You either
study it or you read it. They're two different things. A lot of poets
write for studying these days.
DL: For their poems to be studied?
PR: Yes - rather than read. And I try not to. It seems to me that
if you just read it or just listen to it you get those things, but
you don't necessarily know you're getting them. And if you don't know
you're getting them it's difficult to talk about them, of course,
because you don't know they're there!
DL: I was wondering if there was anything early in the book
[Passing Measures] . . .
PR: It's not actually chronological.
DL: No, I know, I mean early in the book, not actually early - for
example pages 18, 19, 'Driving Down the Wye and Stopping', things
about light and looking at a landscape - 'to see one thing clearly we
distort / the entire landscape'. I was wondering whether there was
anything - not an influence, but a relationship - between that what
it is the audience (of course that's crucially important in The
Musicians The Instruments, the relationship of the audience to
improvised music), but the thing about the audient, an individual
audience member for an improvisation - you have to do some kind of
synthesising activity to make sense of the music, which seems to me
to be different to listening to other kinds of music.
PR: It's more demanding.
DL: But in terms of the sense hasn't been . . . It's not a score
that's interpreted, like we were talking about different musicians
having a different idea about where the piece might go. They're all
up there, and then the audience is there, especially if you're
actually listening to it live, not on . . .
PR: There has to be some sort of identification. You almost see
yourself as a musician when it's being improvised, because everything
hinges on the next tiny little move, and you can't sit back and think
'oh there's a score and he'll do whatever the score tells him to do',
however much personality and whatnot he puts into it. [Phone rings.
After brief interruption conversation continues.] I mean it's not
easy listening to improvised music. I mean it's easy on a record, but
live it's not. I don't think I've ever got through a concert without
completely losing my attention at some point.
DL: I don't think I have either!
PR: It just doesn't happen really. I've certainly got through
whole quite extended pieces. But you have to work, you have to really
concentrate. I think I made my definitive statement about that in
that thing [Company Week]. That's a strange thing. There it
is, actually . . . [shows book]
DL: [reading from book] 'Not planning ahead'. That's interesting,
'reading' as listening to the music.
PR: That's rather idealistic, but that is what it demands in a
way. And it shouldn't be a difficult thing, it's just what we're used
to, and this is what recording has done to us in a way. I think Buddy
Bolden, in some wooden dancehall by the lake in New Orleans, nobody
would have listened any other way, because . . . Well, it's
complicated because it was for dancing as well, so there's a sort of
non-listening, a participatory thing in it. That's it, yes, it's a
participatory thing which you have to force yourself to produce as a
listener. Whereas of course if it's a dance music even if you're just
listening you've got that automatic, you've got it in the idiom, I
suppose. But the music, for example, I go to Transylvania to listen
to, that's quite a complex music but it's got a simple basis, it's
got a simple rhythmic dance basis. But the stuff going on at the top
can be immensely complicated, all over the violin sometimes. And you
get that but you get it in a different way,! you participate because
there's a kind of norm, and he's departing from it and he's doing
exciting things which we haven't heard him do before. Or just little
things, just sliding up to a note which we're not used to. It can be
played to a particular person, like a particular dancer, and they can
feed each other. Or a singer sometimes. A singer and the
instrumentalist can feed each other, and collaborate in way in what
they're doing, and a dancer can as well. That's different. So without
all that, because it's very much a non-dance music and rejects all
the dance rhythms, which linger in some of the most contemporary
jazz. Not Min Tanaka, Min Tanaka's a different thing. I mean the
audience is not going to start doing that.
DL: That would be great wouldn't it?
PR: It would be interesting. I've seen a number of modern dance
combinations with improvised music and Min was the only one I thought
was really successful, actually. I don't quite know why, because I
don't know much about modern dance. The others seem to be perhaps
idiomatic in some way.
DL: Butoh, yes. There's a little clip of Min and Derek on the top
of some mountain, from that same film, a wooden platform, on the
internet which is extraordinary.
PR: Of course there was that tap dancer.
DL: Will Gaines. There were a couple of tribute concerts for Derek
at the Klinker in January which I went down for, and he was there.
PR: I guess that's like the drum'n'bass idea.
DL: Is there something, listening to the music and looking at a
landscape, the sense of the subjective person?
PR: I don't know. For one thing it's so long since I saw any of
this stuff live. mean can be if you want it, I mean there can . . . I
don't think I ever have visual images while listening. There isn't
time for that. Sometimes I've had very interesting ideas while
listening which I look upon the music as responsible for and when
that happens I'm interested to follow them through which means
detaching yourself from the music, possibly, for a while. That's full
of that. [Gestures to Company Week book] Because that's a
commentary on Company Week as it happened, though it's partly
retrospective. Sometimes when that happens I begin to feel this is to
some extent the value of the music, is making you think something,
rather that just making you experience something. So it means
something more for the future, how you work things out in the future,
rather than just ending up at the end saying 'I enjoyed that'.
DL: 'Didn't they play it well'!
PR: Yes. I've rather abandoned that work, The Musicians The
Instruments. I've just prepared a book of all the uncollected
pieces that have been in little pamphlets and magazines since the
sixties, and when I came to that I cut it down to six pieces, which
are the six most straightforward ones. I think it's got an awful lot
of involuted imagery. It's just self-indulgent and I've rather
abandoned it. I kept the Derek and the Tristan Honsinger and the
Lacy, simplified. The Derek one is pretty much the same. And that's
just the sense of him as an example in the various ways I've been
saying. Plus this sense, what I said about him creating a space
there, it's like he's creating a light, as if it's a dark space and
he's spreading a light in it. It's to do with that aura round his . .
DL: In this this first section there do seem to be a lot of
images, a lot of tropes, of spaces and boundaries between spaces, and
facing towards or away from particular. Towards and away from, and
then the Lol one, 'the skin on the heart and the skin on the cavities
inside the heart' . . .
PR: That one went.
DL: The walls of the city. And rooms. The Leo Smith one, 'the
walls', 'inside out becoming outside in'
PR: I don't know to what extent those came from the music or were
introduced to it. With the black musicians there was a lot of thought
at the time about separate places, separate communities, and how
these related to each other when they came together in the music.
With Braxton particularly. He had a kind of . . . there was something
a bit African about Braxton's improvising. There was also the
mathematics which was always a total mystery - to everybody, I think!
George Lewis was the same.
DL: They're both very good chess players apparently, which is
interesting. Looking at the language thing, it seems that's something
you use in the second part, getting on to the instruments -
'consonants', 'phonemes' . . .
PR: Those are more divorced from the actual occasion, the actual
improvisation, I mean the actual musicians. Though the kind of thing
involved is still to do with free improvisation, it's to do with that
kind of playing. Because the instrumentality seems to come out much
more in free improvisation, especially of course at that time people
were very willfully exploring all the different sounds you could make
with an instrument . . .
DL: 'Extended technique'.
PR: Extended technique - like pick up your trumpet and hit it with
a spoon! But also, especially wind instruments, all the different,
some quite way out embouchures you could use, dreadful noises you
could get to come out of a trombone.
DL: Which continues! I guess the voice . . . I hadn't really
thought that through. You were speaking about the rhythms being
influenced by speech rhythms, and this sense of tone. Of course tone
is an accepted musical term, but of course tone of voice . . .
PR: Well it has two meanings, doesn't it, and it means note. And
it means the feel in a way, which is the particular harmonic or
acoustic aura round a musical production.
DL: So that mixture of engaging with the physicality of the
instrument but also . . . I mean that's something that Gavin Bryars
says in Derek's book when he's talking about some of the problems he
had with improvising, which I guess are some of the things I
appreciate in it, but that sense that you can't . . . because you
can't get away from the musician actually playing it at the time, he
says it's like looking at a painting but having the artist standing
in front of it.
PR: I suppose in these the idea is to remove the artist from in
front of the painting to some extent, though it's still his painting.
There seems to be a lot that's whimsical in there that I just stuck
in, actually. Like that sentence ['I once had one (a cello) which
imploded in the middle of an overture by Mendelssohn.'] It doesn't
take us anywhere really, although it's true.
DL: But isn't that what happens in the music? You might have a
moment that doesn't take us anywhere, and it can be abandoned, or . .
PR: Yes, I don't know whether you'd rejoice in that moment or not.
DL: No, you might not, but then you wouldn't be able to do
anything about it.
PR: But then the art of free improvisation was to transcend those
moments. Those moments would happen and then you'd do something with
it. Which is to do with what I was just saying about progression,
about continuing. There are bound to be dreadful things happening.
Dreadful things happen, and then you move it into somewhere else.
DL: I think Fred Frith said somewhere that you get a sense
listening to free improvisations that they tend to consist of bits
that work and then bits that don't work, but that if it's been
recorded and you try and get all the good bits it doesn't work like
What I'm trying to work out for myself is in what ways in which
this whole linguistic metaphor thing is unhelpful. It has limits. It
just seems that to talk about an improviser having a vocabulary is a
very transparent thing to say. But I'm wondering if it's not quite.
PR: It's also what you do with your vocabulary. It doesn't become
a fixed think like something in a dictionary, to improvisers.
Otherwise they wouldn't be capable of surprising themselves. But
obviously there's a technical sense to it; Derek had a very clear
vocabulary of different methods of sound production with a guitar,
quite a lot of them actually. I shouldn't think latterly at any rate
he would actually discover any more of those actually during
improvisation, because he'd covered the field in a way, I don't think
he could possibly produce anything worth producing from a guitar.
DL: Though I think I've read things where he would talk about
finding things which he might have used but then had abandoned
somewhat, so that keeps the feeling of freshness.
PR: Yes, but there must be an edge to it. There can't be such
clearly defined items in the improvising musician's vocabulary. But
it seemed to be very clear to him when there was no vocabulary.
DL: But vocabulary in linguistic terms has always . . . Words mean
specific things, whereas vocabulary in a musical sense . . .
PR: I don't know if repertoire would be a better word.
DL: Although there's also a sense that free improvised music is a
music that doesn't have a repertoire.
PR: Yes, not in the large sense. No, a repertoire of pieces.
DL: Which almost every other music has to.
PR: But a repertoire feels as if it represents a smaller number of
options, whereas vocabulary represents a very large number.
DL: I suppose vocabulary implies more possibilities in terms of
syntax or grammar, you can combine the words, whereas a repertoire
implies a longer . . .
PR: More of set items, like bricks! It's certainly not like
putting bricks together, the object itself is more fluid.
DL: Part of the goal is to keep that fluidity.
The conversation concluded with a discussion of the presence of
improvised music in other parts of the UK besides London.
Many thanks to Peter Riley for his time and thoughts.