I started making improvised music around 1978, after moving to London. Music had always been important to me, and throughout my art school years I’d sung various kinds of material but most of it seemed unsatisfying. One night in London I went to a concert by Mike Cooper, who I’d previously heard play blues in my hometown of Lincoln. To my surprise he was playing the guitar strings with a fan, making sounds with balloons and bouncing ping-pong balls on the guitar.
This was my first experience of improvised music and after my initial shock I was very curious about it. When I asked Mike to explain, he just said: “Try it!” and so, a few weeks later, I did my first improvised music gig, with him, a dancer and sax player Lol Coxhill.
Improvised music can be scary to perform. You start a gig with nothing, knowing things can go horribly wrong and there is nowhere to hide. Yet at its best the music can be sublime and could never have happened without taking that risk.
Improvisation is inclusive; performers from different areas of music, with or without training, can work together to create something truly of this moment and this place. In his classic book Improvisation, the late guitarist Derek Bailey wrote: Improvisation can be considered as a celebration of the moment. Concentration is essential, to follow what you are playing and what everyone else is doing and to reach that state of being fully present, where the group is not a collection of egos pulling in different directions but a unity that creates something larger than the sum of its parts.
My performances explore the possibilities of the voice - a basic, readily available and very flexible instrument. Central to the improvisation is listening - to my own and other musicians’ sounds and to the sound of the environment where we are playing. As soon as I lose this focus, I notice lazy responses creeping in: familiar sounds from my “repertoire,” staying too long in a comfortable area, or else jumping restlessly from one thing to another.
I am trying to find a way of staying relaxed and open to the music as I play, without pushing it in any particular direction. My aim is for the music to surprise me and to relate specifically to this particular meeting of musicians in this context.
I hope the audience leaves their baggage at the door. Expectations and preconceptions can really hinder listening. I like those audiences who meet the players halfway, bringing the same concentration and openness we try for. It can be hard - this music often isn’t easy listening. An attentive audience will be aware of times when we struggle and how we resolve it, and will take pleasure, as the performers do, in those moments when the music seems to just play itself. Improvisation is a cooperative, collaborative process and I think that includes audience as well as players.