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Making It Up as You Go Along

ABSTRACT
The author reflects on his career as an experimental musician, both in the early improvisational group
Gentle Fire and in later work, including his membership in British Summer Time Ends and Kahondo Style.
He discusses some of the common threads running throughout his work, such as surreal juxtpositions,
random processes and constant invention and transformation.

Although this text is written and read in a linear form, in truth I would prefer it if it were
in an interactive medium. To me the thoughts in it are floating: memories, reflections that
have a multiplicity of ways of connecting with one another that have nothing to do with
linearity. I would like it if the reader were to browse through it whatever way they liked,
making their own connections.

In the mid-1950s, when I was six, we moved out of the prefab [1] my parents had been
given after the war into a house they had bought. The prefab had been decorated in cream
and dull green, all the furniture had been “utility”[2]---grey, beige, more cream and dull
green.

My parents redecorated our new house with wallpaper and drapes in patterns and colors
based on Miró and Picasso and bought chairs made of woven red plastic, a new
television, wire racks with bobble feet, Swedish furniture. Suddenly everything was
colourful and had interesting shapes and patterns. After the austerity of the postwar years
this was magical to me.

I imagine many of my generation had some similar experience.

Our old kitchen table ended up in the yard. It was a plain wood table with a white
enamelled steel top that fitted over the wooden top (nowadays it would be a treasure). I
guess my father chopped up the table for firewood---anyway the enamel metal top was
left to rust. I found that if I dragged it over the concrete of the yard it made a most
wonderful sound, an uproar of glassy screeching and metallic roaring that engulfed me. It
drove my mother and the neighbours crazy, but I couldn’t stop, I couldn’t get enough of
it. . . . This is my first musical memory.

In 1968 Hugh Davies [3] asked Richard Bernas [4] and myself to do a series of concerts
at the Arts Lab. We had a great time clambering over the junkies in the foyer to the
performance space, where we would play pieces by Cage and Wolff, by ourselves and
with our friends, on whatever we could lay our hands on: sheets of glass, car parts, pots
from the kitchen at home. One time my parents picked up that Richard was going to play
a piece of mine and insisted on coming. They could not be dissuaded. After the concert
my mother said, “It was bad enough you doing music, but this.” She had obviously
forgotten the tabletop.

The British perceive themselves as a nation of improvisers. The phrases “making it up as


you go along,” “busking it,” even “muddling through” are part of everyday currency.

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This national pride in inventiveness runs parallel with a culture of deprivation---“make
do and mend”; “we don’t have the means, but we’ll find a way of doing it.” In fact we
have a kind of masochistic pride in deprivation and the resourcefulness it precipitates.
The sideways step…

The “found”: found sound, found bit of junk to make a sound with.

One thing led to another, which led to Gentle Fire [5]. I can’t remember how we got
started; I just remember we got the name by consulting the I Ching. There was no
“scene” at the time; we once happily played for hours to an audience of three. Morton
Feldman, on a visit, said, “Have no models,” but in fact there were no models to have.
Some people were already doing stuff: AMM and the Music Improvisation Company;
John Tilbury, a lone piano voice; and abroad there was Musica Elettrònica Viva and the
Sonic Arts Group (later Union). We had things in common with all of these, but we
combined them in ways nobody else did: like the Sonic Arts Group, we played our own
pieces, although we didn’t use technology in the way they did; we also played pieces by
other composers; we improvised, we adapted instruments and our playing of them so that
they became sound rather than “music” generators; we built instruments and electronic
devices; we shared concerts with Ghana’s Master Drummer, Mustapha Tettey Addy, and
his brothers.

One possibly unique activity of Gentle Fire was its “Group Compositions.” Most of these
were, in fact, group improvisations, but based around particular built instruments,
conceptual notions or electronic junk wizardry that Hugh Davies concocted: sculptures
made of the steel for reinforcing concrete; telephone dials, filters and international calls; a
VCS3 (early synthesiser) patched into a cheesecake.

I suppose that part of what we were about was mapping sound into process in a way that
had nothing to do with usual notions of musical iteration. We sometimes used “music,”
but more or less as another sound source. I think we considered all sounds, music
included, to have unique connotative powers, but we didn’t talk much about these things;
mostly we played around with stuff, or one member of the group would unleash an idea
on the rest of us. One rehearsal period we spent mostly playing snooker, another mostly
eating.
Some of the things we did could be construed as an early form of post-
modernism/deconstructionism: fragments of Wagner or Strauss erupting from noise; a
Beethoven piece morphing into a popular song; Graham Hearn’s masterpiece, in which
we played tape loops of the clicks from the centers of vinyl discs while he played a series
of chords extracted from jazz standards and popular songs, each one evoking myriad
associations. My own feeling is that this, at least in part, came out of the love of surreal
conjunctions and juxtapositions which also manifests itself as one of the mainsprings of
the British tradition of stand-up comedy. At any rate, we did them; they made us laugh.

The British don’t seem to like appearing serious. They can be serious, they just don’t like
to be seen doing it.

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Gentle Fire in an interview: “We’re only in it for the money.”

Gentle Fire disbanded in the mid-1970s. We had reached a point where we were playing
to large audiences from whom we felt more and more remote. We couldn’t agree on a
strategy for getting back to playing in more intimate situations, so we packed it in. I
myself was becoming disenchanted with what seemed to me an increasingly introverted
music scene, so I went off to pursue other interests---working with children, travelling,
studying ethnic musics, becoming a parent.

I was lured back into things by Clive Bell [6], who asked me, a bald English trumpet
player, to impersonate a Japanese guitarist. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. It was at this
gig that I first met and played with Peter Cusack [7].

By the 1980s a tradition of free improvisation had formed, although it was a very broad
church. A lot of the free-improvising community also liked playing music from different
genres, often in a pretty straight-up way; even back in the days of Gentle Fire, I, like
Steve Beresford [8], had played soul, reggae and doowop in bands such as Expensive and
Ginger Epstein. Groups like Kahondo Style [9] and British Summer Time Ends [10]
started bringing these genre musics, and the compositions arising from them, into their
sets (Kahondo may even have been formed for this purpose; I don’t know, I joined it
later). I don’t think this arose so much from a philosophical position or an art-political
standpoint as from the feeling, “we like it, we like playing it, so why not?” Sylvia Hallett,
Clive Bell and I enjoyed improvising together. One day Sylvia brought along some
Russian Gypsy tunes she knew. Then Clive had this Ronettes number.

I do think that the love of bringing things that appear unrelated, irreconcilable even, into
juxtaposition and making something coherent out of that played a big part. This went
deeper than genre-mixing. In Kahondo Style, the “sound-based” playing of Peter Cusack
or myself would counterpoint the more overtly “instrumental,” “musical” playing of Alan
Tomlinson or Clive Bell. One of the great pleasures of playing in British Summer Time
Ends is turning to my store of instruments thinking “what shall I play now? Hmm, maybe
the zither,” and turning back to see that Clive has picked up a balloon, and Sylvia, a
thumb piano.

Of course the British can think and be serious. We don’t spend all our time rolling
around cracking jokes (though sometimes when British Summer Time Ends are
discussing our work that we are helpless with laughter). I think we are just more at ease
with the concrete than the abstract. Even our conceptual art is rooted in the palpable. I
myself prefer to work with something tangible, something particular, restricting even: a
sound or array of sounds, a particular situation, an image, a dancer’s gesture. I recently
completed a feature-length piece about India with the video artist Irit Batsry [11]. A lot
of the sounds I wanted to use would have been easier to make here in England, or in the
studio, but I was determined to derive all the sounds from what I had recorded in India;
it made life very difficult sometimes, but I had to do it that way.

Once when I was in Latvia on a solo tour a journalist caught me in an unusually

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philosophical mood. He asked me why I worked the way I did. I tried to explain that I
was endeavouring to dissolve the difference between my work and my everyday life;
trying to have things happen, in my work and how I worked, in a more mundane way…

We start making sense of the world through sound in the womb; after we are born we
still rely on sound to tell us what is, as we wait for our eyes to start working. We do not,
cannot, ascribe meaning to sound, as we do to image or text, yet we understand it. Thus
there is an essential dichotomy between structure and content in an art that is free of
meaning yet communicates directly on the most primitive level. This has nothing to do
with the emotional imperatives of the Western musical tradition.

It is the walking of the line between anarchy and language, between the fixed and the
unknown, that made Gentle Fire, Kahondo Style and British Summer Time Ends, at their
best, so exciting. This may have something to do with accepting that chaos is a part of
order (or vice versa) not the opposite of it.

My father had had a heart attack. I was using his car to ferry my mother around. Once,
my daughter, who was about 14 years old and very into maps, got me to drive to a remote
part of London to see what was there. We sat in the car not saying much. She started
flicking through stations on the radio, trying to find something she could bear to listen to.
Suddenly out came a machine gun rattle of hyper-fast snare drum complexity in great
long asymmetric phrases, a slow duet of bass and bass drum rolling underneath. She
leaned back, closed her eyes and sighed with satisfaction.

“What’s that?” I asked, enthralled.

“For God’s sake, Dad,” she said, “it’s Jungle.”

I got fascinated by the way the DJs were using technology to turn the resource of their
musical heritage into a completely new idiom. My local record store owner said “I like it
that the ones who were stealing records from me a couple of years ago are now making
them.” Later, when I got to work with some of these guys, doing my ‘weird shit’ as they
called it, I was struck by the way they didn’t, even refused to, classify themselves as
musicians: what they were doing was based on skills other than those of the ‘musician’,
and led to different places. I found that the people making and listening to this kind of
music were much more open to a wide range of aural possibilities, which is how I and
others came to work with them. Conventional music making, whatever the genre, is
rooted in a stringent technical discipline: hours of practice honing instrumental skills,
perfecting technique. This can, of course, be liberating, but it guides creativity down
certain paths and sometimes it is useful and necessary to get away from those paths. I am
reminded of how in Gentle Fire we sometimes would swap instruments if we thought our
playing was getting predictable; when we taught or held workshops, if we were dealing
with musicians we would make them work with instruments they didn’t know how to
play, to stop them thinking like musicians.

About ten years ago at the premiere of a song cycle of mine, a contemporary of mine at

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York came into the concert. Afterwards he sought me out and said “I didn’t know what
was being played, but as soon as I heard it, I knew it was by you.” I had no idea what
similarity with my early work he could hear, but he heard it.

An early project of Gentle Fire’s (that never got off the ground) was ‘Gentle Fire Works
A Maze’, in which a London gallery was to be converted into an environment based on a
score of mine, ‘a maze’, and populated by performances, visuals etc by us and colleagues
and friends working in different performance media.

In a recent piece (Chesterfield Starfield, 2000), I had brass bands marching round the
town playing different musics and gradually converging on a central, triangular plaza,
where they played together from the three corners of the plaza, with additional brass
choirs on the roofs of the buildings. All the music was derived from a map of the stars for
that time and day (invisible stars).

An early piece of mine (Ruthie’s Piece, 1972) was created using a computer: I set certain
parameters for pitches that would go into ring modulators and asked the computer to
work out which combinations of input pitches would result in output pitches so that the
inputs and outputs would conform to a particular mathematical relationship, and then put
the results in a random order.
I had no idea what the piece would sound like.

One of the things I do nowadays is make interactive work (CD-ROMs, installations) with
the computer artist Simon Biggs [12]. The technical side of the work is based on readily
available, rather than esoteric, technology. Part of our aim is to produce work that is not
author driven, work with which the audience can have a relationship independent of our
agendas. I usually work by programming random systems to iterate the sounds, in various
relationships to one another and to the processes in Simon’s images. These random
systems are triggered by the behavior and movements of the viewer(s). In part it is rather
like constructing a somewhat unpredictable audio-visual instrument that is played by the
audience. Apart from the pleasure of not being in control of how the sound is iterated and
combined and the enjoyment of the unrepeatable results, it is interesting to see how
people interacting with the installation gradually become more aware of each other and
start interacting with each other through the work . . . start improvising with each other.

I recently met the head of research and development for IBM in the U.K. He was a bluff
and hearty Englishman with a slight cockney accent. We were discussing the possibility
of some of my students doing projects with IBM. He said, “We want to get people to
come in with their dreams, and make those dreams reality.” I said, “How will we do
that?” He said, “Oh, we’ll make it up as we go along, we’ll muddle through.”

References and Notes

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1.
“Prefab” is short for prefabricated dwelling. These were mass-produced at the end of the war to provide
housing for returning ex-servicemen and their families, replacing housing stock destroyed by bombing.

2.
“Utility” is a style of furniture that was cheap and easy to mass-produce. Rather drab, it now has nostalgia
chic.

3.
Hugh Davies: Composer, instrument builder, electronic wizard, improviser; founding member of Gentle
Fire. Hugh had worked with Stockhausen as his assistant and played in the Music Improvisation Company.

4.
Richard Bernas: Composer, conductor, pianist, improviser; founding member of Gentle Fire. Richard was a
fellow student of mine at York University.

5.
Gentle Fire: Founded at York University in fall 1968. The founding members were Richard Bernas, Hugh
Davies, Patrick Harrex, Graham Hearn, Richard Orton and me. Patrick Harrex left and was replaced by
Michael Robinson. Later Richard Orton left. For a more complete account of Gentle Fire’s career, please
see Hugh Davies’s article in this issue.

6.
Clive Bell: Multi-instrumentalist, improviser, composer. To list all the instruments that Clive plays would
take a whole issue of this journal. He plays a wide variety of flutes, notably the shakuhachi, many ethnic
and medieval reed pipes, the khène, the accordion and a mean balloon. We first played together in the early
1970s, when we were both based in York. At the beginning of the 1980s, when I was back in England, he
tracked me down and nagged/seduced/tricked me back into playing. I owe him big-time.

7.
Peter Cusack, as well as being an improviser and a composer, is (as I would also describe myself) a sound
artist. He makes extraordinary recordings of environmental sound and creates wonderful pieces with this
material. He founded Kahondo Style.

8.
Steve Beresford is rightly well known as an improviser; he is also notable as a composer and producer.
Although we were contemporaries at York, we didn’t work together that often. We played in Expensive
(mostly soul) and Ginger Epstein (mostly reggae and doowop). These were sidebars for us, but we took
them seriously. I well remember Steve’s meticulous determination to get the sound “right.” York at that
time was a very fertile ground; besides Gentle Fire and Steve, a whole raft of composers, working in both
electro-acoustic and more traditional media, started out there.

9.
Kahondo Style: originally, Peter Cusack (guitars, bouzouki, electronics), Clive Bell (flute, shakuhachi,
accordion, khene), Max Eastley (guitar, built instruments, percussion, voice), Kazuko Hohki (voice), Alan
Tomlinson (trombones) and Terry Day (drums, percussion). I joined later (cello, bass, trumpet), followed
by Sianaed Jones (violin, sax, voice). Terry Day left and was replaced by Dave Holmes; then Max Eastley
and Dave Holmes left, and Steve Noble (drums, percussion) came in; then Kazuko Hohki left and was
replaced by Viv Corringham. Kahondo Style started in the early 1980s. I believe the term “Kahondo” was
coined by Terry Day. I have no idea what it means. Kahondo Style played a mix of improvisations,
compositions and the occasional rembetika cover. It could get fairly wild.

10.
British Summer Time Ends: Sylvia Hallett, Clive Bell and me. To list the instruments Western, non-
Western and built that we play would be exhausting. The basic line-up is violin, accordion and cello.
British Summer Time Ends also started up at the beginning of the 1980s, playing a mix of improvisation,

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compositions and covers of anything from Russian Gypsy tunes to Kinks songs. It was heaven.

11.
Irit Batsry: Video artist. I first met Irit in 1978 in Israel when she was doing her national service
and I was on the hoof. We became close friends but lost touch with each other for 10 years. Since
1989 we have worked consistently together producing linear video work. Our last piece, a feature
called These Are Not My Images, premiered at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 2000.

12.
Simon Biggs: Computer artist. Simon first used computers to make art in 1978 and has been making
computer-based interactive installations since 1985. We first met at the end of the 1980s; every time we
met, we talked about doing something together, but didn’t until As Falling Falls (also with Stephen
Petronio) in 1996. It is interesting that Simon studied in Australia with Tristram Cary, one of the leading
lights of electronic music in England in the 1960s, but has never practiced as a composer.