Racer Sessions

Sundays, 8-10pm at Cafe Racer in Seattle, WA

Colin Pulkrabek - November 28th, 2010


Hey guys! I hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving. My name is Colin Pulkrabek and I am curating Racer Sessions! Now, some words about the works I will be presenting. The first piece is collaboration between Sam Potter, a fellow undergraduate at the UW who studies Digital and Experimental Arts and Math, and myself. It is titled Long Study #1. We created this piece by sequencing and layering recorded clips of me playing extended techniques on the trombone. Throughout the creation of this piece we have done our best to create a ‘new’ musical dialect for ourselves, one in which the logic focuses more heavily on the timbre of the sounds that I can make. The second piece I will be presenting is with a new group I have formed called Troon. We will be playing a piece entitled Music for Cello and Ensemble. This piece began as a short text description that was able to successfully grow into a full-fledged work through an iterative improvisational process. 

Now I want to present an idea for consideration. This is not an idea of mine, but rather one that was given to me by a man named Dan Warburton. This summer, I traveled to Paris as part of a study abroad program and because of a mutual friend I got the chance to interview this wonderful violinist, pianist and music journalist. He runs a website called Paris Transatlantic (paristranatlantic.com) which is veritable treasure trove of interviews and articles that have been done by Warburton and others. After I interviewed him, he sent me the following article. I would like everyone who reads this post to read this article and then come tell me your response at the session. I am curious to hear what you have to say!

Colin Pulkrabek

PS g3t r34dy 4 the j4m. it’ll b gr8. 

Les Instants Composés

Dan Warburton

Here’s a little test for you to try out on your friends: ask them to name ten 20th-century composers. Meaning born after 1900 – so Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Stravinsky, Bartók, Debussy and Ravel are excluded. Pop stars or jazz musicians don’t qualify (though one could certainly make a case for including Ellington, Monk and Mingus), but Gershwin and Bernstein do, so I suppose you could also accept Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim and even (gulp) Andrew Lloyd Webber … and, by extension, Ennio Morricone, John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith. If they manage to come up with ten, ask them to do the same for composers born after 1950. Unless they’re new music nuts, or just plain nuts, they’ll be hard-pressed to come up with half a dozen. The point I’m making is simple: what’s usually laughably referred to as “contemporary music” in major record outlets consists for the most part of work written by men (not women – that’s another point worthy of an article in itself) who are either dead (Cage, Xenakis, Berio, Nono, Feldman…) or old enough to be my father, even grandfather (and I was born in 1963): Carter, Boulez, Ligeti, Stockhausen, Kagel, Ferrari, Ferneyhough. Here in France the work of John Zorn, Bernhard Günter and Heiner Goebbels – who I would classify as composers without a moment’s hesitation – is normally found in record store bins intriguingly titled “musique nouvelle” (as if Justin Timberlake, REM, Slayer, Massive Attack and Marilyn Manson weren’t new), along with the kind of music Gil Scott Heron once ironically referred to as “miscellaneous”.

One explanation for the apparently moribund state of contemporary composition (at least as far as performance is concerned) is that it costs a fortune to programme new music, thanks to the ridiculous copyright laws currently in effect. Providing that they’re subsidised to the hilt, small specialised ensembles can continue to commission and record new work, but most of the world’s leading symphony orchestras and opera companies are lucky if they can present a couple of new works per season. The much-trumpeted “return of opera” in the 1980s, prompted in part by the success of Glass’s Einstein on the Beach and John Adams’ Nixon In China, has all but fizzled out, leaving major works such as Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten and Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre (both of which by rights should be standard rep for any self-respecting opera company) to gather dust on library shelves. Stockhausen’s epic opera cycle Licht seems, despite its title, condemned to the outer darkness, at least until the end of the 21st century. A similar blossoming of new orchestral music on the other side of the Atlantic in the early 1990s, which consisted mainly of slick PoMo outings by the likes of Michael Torke, Michael Daugherty and Todd Levin, has all but dried up too. On a recent trip to just one record shop in Paris I counted no fewer than eleven remaindered copies of Levin’s awesomely egomaniac album De Luxe (recorded by the LSO in Abbey Road and released on Deutsche Grammophon, no less, in 1995). Thomas Beecham’s snide remark about new music receiving two performances, one in the Royal Albert Hall and the second its echo, seems dangerously close to being true.

The other principal reason for the dearth of exciting new writing in the instrumental domain is, however, unrelated to market forces. The search to extend the repertoire of existing instruments by incorporating new playing techniques is now no longer the exclusive property of composers; the sheer speed at which free improvised music has moved forward in terms of discovering new performing techniques has left composers far behind, sharpening their pencils in a cloud of dust. If a graduate composition student today were asked to prepare a transcription of a solo by Mats Gustafsson or Axel Dörner, s/he would face near-insurmountable difficulties merely formalising notational systems – one for the saxophone, one for the trumpet – that would suffice to render the music performable by another instrumentalist. The chances of such systems being both generalised and accurate enough to enable successful transcription of similar work by John Butcher and Greg Kelley are, frankly, infinitesimal.

The above remarks about the sorry state of contemporary composition take for granted one standard and relatively straightforward definition of what actually constitutes composition: the existence of a score. But such a definition would exclude the large body of electronic music that has been created since the middle of the last century, almost none of which is published in score form (among the exceptions are Stockhausen’s 1960 instrumental score for Kontakte, the 1967 study score and 1969 orchestral version of Hymnen, and Ligeti’s elegant, multi-coloured “listening score” of his 1958 Artikulation; but these and others were published as an aid to listeners and performers rather than as something to be “played”1), and nobody would seriously dispute that the ranks of composers should include pioneers of musique concrète such as Pierre Schaeffer, Pierre Henry, Bernard Parmegiani and François Bayle. By extension, any list of contemporary composers should also include Bernhard Günter, not to mention Francisco López, Marc Behrens, Asmus Tietchens and so forth. Of course, whether die-hard academics like the people who taught me the basics of electronic music at the Eastman School of Music years ago would be happy to include un peu de neige salie and Warszawa Restaurant in the hallowed “canon” of electronic music masterpieces is a moot point. Likewise, Bob Ostertag’s scathing comments on “computer music” in Resonance magazine several years ago2 would seem to indicate that he, for one, is quite happy to remain at a safe distance from the “contemporary music” bin.

But, I hear you say, Ostertag isn’t a composer, he does it live so he must be an improviser … or must he? The phenomenal amount of work he put into sampling and resampling on his Say No More cycle of albums would certainly constitute composition according to my understanding of the term. Being able actually to read music is no longer a prerequisite for being a composer (nor for that matter, improviser): French musician Jean-Luc Guionnet freely admits he can’t read a note, yet this hasn’t prevented him creating electronic music of extraordinary finesse (or, as a saxophonist, tackling ferociously complex compositions: he simply learns them by ear). There remains perhaps the question as to whether a composition can be said to exist if it’s never actually been performed (do scores alone constitute compositions?), which is one of those “if a tree falls in the forest can anybody hear it” quandaries that I’ll happily hand over to professional philosophers. Let’s return instead to the question of the score.

By the end of the 1950s, the influence of the increasing availability of recordings of improvised music (in the form of jazz) and the notational innovations of Cage and the New York School began to make itself felt on both sides of the Atlantic, and composers began to flirt with the idea of improvisation, but within carefully prescribed and notated limits (one could cite Lutoslawski’s “aleatory counterpoint” from 1961’s Jeux Vénitiens onwards, and the graphic scores of Haubenstock-Ramati, Bussotti, Penderecki and Cardew). Some composers, attracted by the sheer energy of free jazz but conscious of the fact that they were incapable of notating it accurately, left room in otherwise fully written-out scores for Dionysian blow-outs (Ralph Shapey’s 1959 Rituals, Robert Erickson’s 1963 Piano Concerto…), while others, notably Gunther Schuller, with his Third Stream experiments, actively sought collaboration with improvising musicians (John Lewis, Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman).

Before long the thorny question of where to draw the line between improvisation and composition had led to some celebrated bust-ups. Readers will no doubt be familiar with Tony Conrad’s assertions that the music he made with La Monte Young, John Cale, Angus MacLise and Marian Zazeela in what he calls The Dream Syndicate (Young has always preferred the name Theatre of Eternal Music) was a group effort and was not written by Young, who refuses to release his recordings of the work until the other surviving members officially recognise it as his composition. Similarly, some of the musicians, including trombonist and composer Vinko Globokar, who took part in the recording of Stockhausen’s “intuitive” compositions Aus den Sieben Tagen, the scores of which consist of little more than simple sets of vague instructions, felt that their highly distinctive contributions merited more of a paycheck than a namecheck.

This is a celebrated example of verbal and graphic scores being, unless they’re accompanied by very precise performing instructions on the part of the composer, notoriously open to what Bernhard Günter terms “abuse”. Hence the release of some well-intentioned but indisciplined readings of Cage in recent years, notably Sonic Youth’s colourful but self-indulgent versions of his number pieces on Goodbye 20th Century. Maybe they should have stuck to Cardew’s Treatise instead, since as Keith Rowe admits in his pep talk to the guitarists on Jonas Leddington’s balance beams3, “basically what you need to do is build up a relationship between what you see in front of you and the sound that you make. We might all make different sounds in response to the same circle.[…] On one level there’s nothing to say about it because there are no rules.” While Cardew’s own comments on the subject in his “Towards an Ethic of Improvisation” are somewhat more erudite, his score remains open to a bewilderingly wide range of possible interpretations. Certainly, compared to the frightening complexity of scores by the likes of Ferneyhough, Finnissy and Xenakis, performing Treatise is child’s play, which probably explains why so many people have had a crack at it, with wildly differing results. But it would be a serious mistake to suppose that all graphic and verbal scores are “easy”. Morton Feldman’s graphic notation, as used in the music he wrote during the 1950s, is extremely precise and makes strenuous demands on the performer. It’s worth bearing in mind that even the doyen of avant-garde pianism, David Tudor, used to prepare – i.e. actually write out in meticulous detail – his own performing versions of Feldman’s scores.4

Verbal scores are not without their difficulties either. Admittedly, I found it relatively straightforward to “play single sounds with such dedication until you feel the warmth that radiates from you” (Intensität from Stockhausen’s Aus den Sieben Tagen),5 whereas Christian Wolff’s Play, from his Prose Collection (1968-71), which I discovered in Michael Nyman’s Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond6 proved exceedingly difficult when I rehearsed it with the New Music Workshop Ensemble, an ad hoc group of enthusiasts, most of them non-musicians, that I put together in Cambridge in 1981. I had mistakenly assumed that playing experimental music would be “easier” than trying to tackle Xenakis’ Eonta or Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto. In one sense it was (none of us had the technical chops to tackle such scores anyway, let alone the money to hire the parts), but in another it proved gruelling. Plans to perform the piece in concert were shelved after a mutiny in the ranks, when several of the musicians admitted they were “just improvising”.

“Just improvising”, indeed. As if improvising were some sort of soft option. In terms of definitions, though, “improvisation” is perhaps less problematic: “improvised” simply means “unforeseen”, right? True, but the fact that improvisers create their music in real time in no way means they haven’t chosen to exclude numerous possible courses of action prior to performing. The majority of seasoned professional improvisers are choosy about who they play with (face it, we’re not likely to find Peter Brötzmann gigging with Radu Malfatti in the foreseeable future), and tend to restrict themselves to their own personal repertoire of techniques (“tricks”, as Paul Lovens calls them). Jim O’Rourke put the cat among the pigeons a while back when he said: “I make a distinction, and a lot of people in the improvised music world don’t, between people who play improvised music and people who improvise.[…] I have no problem with the Evan Parker Trio. But they’re not improvising. They’re playing Evan Parker Trio music.“7

Though O’Rourke’s comments, not surprisingly, caused quite a stir, he wasn’t that far off the mark. The distinction he makes between “improvising” and “playing improvised music” harks back to an earlier lively polemic on the subject: for the former read “non-idiomatic” and for the latter “idiomatic” and you’ll see what I mean. Personally, I’d be inclined to go a step further and claim that “non-idiomatic” free improvisation doesn’t exist at all.8 The trombonist and composer Radu Malfatti’s reminiscences about the London free improvising scene come to mind: “Gradually it became more and more a status quo: improvisers had to act and react in a precise way in order to be accepted as improvisers. ‘Rules’ emerged and certain ways of playing were ‘forbidden’ and became unacceptable – stagnation took place and a pure, idiomatic way of playing was born! I once walked offstage at the Little Theatre during an SME gig because I was so unhappy with the way the music was going at the time. I just packed up the ‘horn’ (as we used to say back then) and left.”9

Malfatti is probably right to caution against stagnation, but, as Uma Thurman will tell you, the sword cuts both ways. On October 24th 2001, pianist Frédéric Blondy and myself gave the world premiere of Malfatti’s L’instant inconnu, a 60-minute piece for violin and piano, at Les Instants Chavirés outside Paris.10 For the second half of the programme, Radu reluctantly agreed to play a set of improvised music with us, but prefaced our rehearsal together the day before with a clear statement of what he would and would not do – not that we were in much doubt to start with. Having been warned – by Axel Dörner – that Blondy was, as pianists go, quite ebullient (to say the least), Radu was anxious to impose his own code of conduct. This we duly followed, to the delight of all concerned, not least Radu, who described Blondy’s performance as “the best piano playing I’ve ever heard.” 

What should be clear (hopefully) from the above is that the county line between composition and improvisation can no longer be mapped with any accuracy; between fully notated compositions and unfettered free improvisation there now exists a huge grey area, and, as David Toop notes in his recent Wire review of Malfatti and Taku Sugimoto’s Futatsu11, “reasons for distinguishing between composition and improvisation are diminishing fast.”12 Compared to the classic albums of early free playing, today’s improvised music, particularly of the electroacoustic and lowercase persuasion, has slowed down considerably. There are several possible explanations for this, ranging from aesthetic (a prevailing desire to distance improvised music from its roots in free jazz) to purely technical: in a performance situation, it takes time for instrumentalists to prepare particular effects on their instruments, or for laptoppers to open up a new window or load a new soundfile. If you deliberately leave between 20 and 30 seconds of silence between notes (as seems to be the case for the Taku Sugimoto Guitar Quartet), you have plenty of time to plan – dare I say compose – your next move.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to tell upon listening whether a piece is composed or improvised.13 Not that it was necessarily any easier in the past: the aforementioned music by the Theatre of Eternal Music sounds composed, if only because it remains relatively static and restricts itself to carefully selected pitches, while the unbridled energy of Michel Portal and Jean-François Jenny-Clark’s playing on the Deutsche Grammophon recordings of Aus den Sieben Tagen sounds distinctly improvised – as indeed it was. Selecting a more recent example, the work of Greek improvising cellist Nikos Veliotis – whose latest album Radial on Confront sounds remarkably like his performance of Radu Malfatti’s “Indiscrete Silences” released on Bremsstrahlungseveral months earlier:14 dense, multi-voiced drones interspersed with long stretches of silence – seems to be a clear illustration of what Canadian writer Nate Dorward calls a “third way”. Although his solos take place in real time and are entirely improvised, Veliotis has, prior to performance, made several conscious compositional decisions as to what he will and will not do. One might argue that the “rules” Malfatti spoke of are now well defined and numerous enough to constitute an unwritten verbal score. Indeed, one could quite easily jot down a set of precise instructions that, if followed to the letter, would reproduce Veliotis’s music to a high degree of accuracy. The same could be said of several distinctive – predominantly lowercase – improvising musicians, notably Sugimoto, whose recent (Malfatti-inspired?) forays into the world of composition have attracted considerable attention.

In the final analysis, of course, it’s what you hear that matters, though as a university-trained musicologist I feel obliged to try to come up with a name for music such as the above. Since “Third Stream” is ruled out (Gunther’s been there, done that), as is, for purely political reasons, “Third Way”, what should we call it? The title of Mats Gustafsson’s 1997 solo outing on Phonosuecia, Impropositions, isn’t bad, but I still feel drawn to Misha Mengelberg’s term “Instant Composition”, which as Kevin Whitehead points out, was originally used by Jim Hall in a 1958 set of liner notes to a Jimmy Giuffre album. To quote Whitehead: “A quiet manifesto, those two English words countered notions that improvising was either a lesser order of music-making than composing, or an art without memory, existing only in the moment, unmindful of form.”15 So here’s to Instant Composition!



1. One might also cite the graphic options on the recent educational INA GRM-produced CD-ROMs.

2. “Why Computer Music Sucks”, Resonance vol.5 #1, 1996, pp.4-5. The article was first published in Prix Ars Electronica, 1996.

3. A documentary of the second Erstwhile AMPLIFY festival included in the AMPLIFY02:balance box set, Erstwhile 033-040 (7CD + DVD), 2003.

4. See John Holzaepfel’s essay “Painting by Numbers: the Intersections of Morton Feldman and David Tudor” in The New York Schools of Music and Visual Arts, Routledge (2002), pp.159-172].

5. Some of Stockhausen’s other requirements pose problems of an extra-musical nature, notably Goldstaub, which requires the performer to “live completely alone for four days without food in complete silence, without much movement…”

6. 1974, republished Schirmer 1981. Wolff’s text is printed in full on page 96.

7. The Wire 165, November 1997, p.39

8. “Everything I do is idiomatic” – Phil Durrant, email to the writer, 2002.

9. Interview with the writer for www.paristransatlantic.com in 2001 This was extensively pillaged and repackaged to form part of the E-mail Exchange between Malfatti and Taku Sugimoto in Improvised Music from Japan 2002-2003, pp. E-66 – E-73, and not credited as such, so I’m taking the opportunity to set the record straight.

10. The work had been performed 19 days earlier in 2001 in Kittsee, Austria, by Evi Reiter (viola da gamba) and Hannes Löschel, but as Reiter did not perform Malfatti’s score as written, preferring instead to play middle D flat throughout (the viola da gamba part actually specifies eight distinct sixteenth-tone divisions between the D flat and the C below it), the performance at Les Instants was the world premiere of the work as written.

11. Improvised Music from Japan IM 508/9. In the light of this recent collaboration, it’s interesting (and amusing) to note that Malfatti’s initial reaction to Sugimoto’s music was not particularly favourable: he thought the Italia album on A Bruit Secret, which I played to him during that stay in Paris in October 2001, was “too melodic, too busy”…(!) Sugimoto, for his part, had already expressed strong admiration for and desire to play with Malfatti in an interview with Michel Henritzi, September 2000. In Peace Warriors #17.

12. The Wire 239, January 2004, p.54.

13. A good pair of ears can usually spot improvisers trying to play compositions. In her Invisible Jukebox for The Wire magazine (Wire 216, February 2002, p.21), French bassist Joëlle Léandre did so on hearing Sonic Youth’s Goodbye 20th Century, and was somewhat indignant when told the music was by Cage. The piece in question was Six (Third Take).

14. Bremsstrahlung blung004, 2003, coupled with Music for Listening by Ilya Monosov.

15. The Instant Composers Pool: 30 Years (limited edition book + CD), p.3.