A series of Jim Reilly's interviews with players, fans, and the people
behind the scenes of the Chapman Stick.
Talking with Greg Howard
about improvisation and The Stick as an improvisational instrument
January 17, 2006
It's funny how things come together. This interview stayed on my mini
disc recorder for months before the time finally opened up to sit down,
transcribe, and edit it. And as I was trying to come up with
some clever introduction, the following definition of improvisation
fell into my lap: "The ability to capitalize on the unforeseen and to
transform given materials into one's own scenario."
Who said that? Stockhausen? Miles? Emmett? No, how about...Stephen Greenblatt,
a literary critic, discussing the way in which Iago crafted his strategy to
convince Othello that his wife Desdemona was being unfaithful to him (she wasn't by the way).
Don't fear, that's the last Shakespeare reference, but it leads to
the heart of what Greg and I were talking about: the way improvisation
blends seamlessly into everyday life. We're all improvisers. Whether
that manifests itself through our music, some other creative endeavour,
our relationships, or even how we plot to destroy our rivals
(like Iago, sorry that's really the last of the Shakespeare).
Greg has gone further than most with improvisation as a defined art form.
He has released three bona fide improvised CDs: Sticks and Stones (1987,
with guitarist Tim Reynolds), Water on the Moon (1998, solo), and Ether Ore (2005, solo).
He has also performed many completely improvised concerts, in addition to his more
tune-oriented offerings. His ability to capitalize on the moment and transform it
into something tangible finds its way into his teaching and writing, too.
Improvisation is elusive at best, and it seems like attempts to pin it
down only serve to make it more obtuse and evasive. Somehow, though, through
Greg's music improvisation takes a shape that we can almost grab on to.
At the end of this interview I've included the liner notes that I wrote for
Greg's CD/DVD Ether Ore. At the time I was searching for a way to define
improvisation, specifically through Greg's music, and I think I came pretty close.
But it's still not quite there. Even after talking with Greg at length,
and spending several hours working with this interview, I feel like I've
almost got it, but still not quite. Maybe that's the nature of improvisation,
that it's always just out of reach, and it's that chase, the momentary captures,
the glimpses of clarity when all the notes line up that keeps us coming back,
keeps us playing.
Jim Reilly: Let's talk about Ether Ore. What does that title mean?
Greg Howard: On the surface it's a reflection of a genre. The pieces are
very "space music" oriented, which is different from most of the improv that
I've done in the past. The only reason I called my previous improv recording
Water on the Moon was not because it was a space music recording as many people assume,
but because that was the week they announced the discovery of ice crystals on the moon.
That was an impossible reality, but yet it was discovered - and here I had just done
this cohesive, one-hour, non-stop improvised piece, which seemed to me like an impossible thing.
It all fit together in that respect.
So I didn't really consider WOTM to be a space-music record, but an improvised "concerto"
for The Stick. Ether Ore starts out as space music but perhaps the pieces have more of an
evolution to them than most space music does. They get into groove elements and specific
harmonic elements in a way that doesn't normally happen with space music.
JR: On both of those albums did you start with specific ideas or with a blank slate?
What is your approach when you walk on stage and pick up your instrument?
GH: I try not to have any pre-conceived concepts before beginning an improvisation.
With Water on the Moon it was the beginning of a specific project, a CD of improvised
pieces from several concerts, I wanted to collect on one recording. I was not necessarily
setting out to improvise non-stop for a whole hour, but it just kind of happened. And my record was finished!
JR: Did you have anything predetermined, a key or anything like that?
GH: The only thing that was predetermined was based on this one echo setting that I use a lot.
The tempo of that was 1.4 seconds, which is the maximum that that particular effects unit allows
me to use. That delay creates this very slow tempo that influences what's happening. Apart from
that, no there is nothing predetermined about what is going on.
JR: Is that your standard way of approaching improvisation?
GH: Usually. Every now and then I get the idea to try and mimic some kind of a real life item,
I try to recreate some experience, or concept, like people playing basketball, or something like
that. I try to imitate some life event. But I rarely do that.
JR: Do you have some recorded examples of when you've done that?
GH: I don't. The things I've released were improvised, recorded, and then later named. They didn't start out as a particular concept. I guess the only exception to that would a track called "Tim Was Here" on Ether Ore. I recorded that at Miller's in Charlottesville, where Tim used to play a lot. I wanted to try and recreate the echo-inspired, funky groove that he used to play. So that was a conscious choice on that piece, the name and the idea came first.
JR: There are lots of different types of improvisation. You've got the free association, free improv, the kind of stuff on Water on the Moon and Ether Ore, improvisation in a tune, like a solo on Sol, and the group Code Magenta, which is more rhythmic and structure, yet still unscripted. What are the differences between these, what role does improvisation play in each of these different environments?
Greg's first release, 1987
GH: The first differentiation is whether you're playing as a soloist or in a group setting. As a soloist, you're responsible for every element - harmonic content, rhythmic content - and you can change it in a moment's notice. You can't really do that when you're playing in a group setting, you have to communicate.
On something like Sticks and Stones or Code Magenta it tends to be more about creating parts, hearing what other people are doing and reacting to those by making up a part that either plays with them or plays against them, either harmonically or rhythmically. A percussionist I play with a lot (Darrell Rose) used those terms. He'd say that he was either going to play with me or play against me on certain tunes.
Improvising in the context of an established piece of music is going to have a specified harmonic structure. The challenge for the improviser is to expand upon the harmonic structure that's there, not just by playing notes, but to actually play very clear phrases, and to really express something new within that framework. It's amazing to me that blues can still be 'new.' But it can because players are expressing emotion; they're speaking through their music even though the pitches that are available to them haven't changed. It's the same thing with jazz soloists. I'm sure we all know jazz soloists that we don't even want to listen to because all they do is play the "notes," they don't think about the phrase. And it's the phrase that is the important expression, just like in speech.
That idea of phrasing comes out in free improvisation, too. Water on the Moon isn't space music to me because it's really much more about phrasing and creating melodic lines that you can go back and listen to, you can hum them, they have that kind of normal harmonic and rhythmic element that we're familiar with even though they're improvised. It's really "spontaneous composition," hopefully not spontaneous combustion...
JR: What about the role of the audience in a live improvisation?
GH: One of the pieces on Ether Ore, "Freedom of Expansion" was recorded in Montgomery, Alabama at this very cool little bookstore where they had this improv co-op that met once a month. When you're playing for an audience that you know is really keyed into improvisation, like that one, in a way it's very liberating because you know that they're going to go with you. But when you're playing in a room where the audience may be not expecting something like that, it can be a real challenge for the audience.
I remember when we did that improv with four Stick players at a seminar in Montreal (the players were: Greg, Steve Adelson, Olivier Lagace, and Jim Reilly, check out the seminar report), if you thought that was a challenge for us, it was a real challenge to the audience! In a sense you've got to resist the temptation to be self-indulgent and really focus on making a musical statement. If people are really listening, it can be exhilarating. You know when it's working and it's a rush, you can feel that people are with you. Every now and then people will hoot out applause or something like that, and then you know that you're engaged in this really spontaneous act, together.
On the DVD track that came with Ether Ore, from the San Jose concert, there was a moment about six minutes in where I came to a big pause in the piece and somebody whistled out. It made me feel so great to be on stage and to have gotten through this big improv in front of all these people and to realize that I was actually saying something - because sometimes it doesn't work!
with Tim Reynolds in St. Louis, 2004
JR: That's my next question.
GH: What, falling flat on your face?
JR: Yea, what then?
GH: Right, and being up on stage left grasping for straws?
JR: Exactly. What's the fix for that situation?
GH: The thing you have to resist is to just change your effects settings and keep on going. I think the fix is thinking about what you're doing as opposed to just reacting to what you're doing. Most of the time when I'm improvising I'm try not to think about what I'm doing musically. So the fix for that situation is to really change it up. Sometimes I'll even just come to a complete stop, take a breath, and start doing something else. Or, I'll take the part on The Stick that I want to get out of, leave it alone, and do a pedalling figure in the other hand while I think about where I want to go.
You don't want to be constantly pouring all your clichés into something. Really creating something new requires a headspace that is very meditative. I haven't done a lot of meditation, but to me it's about concentrating without concentrating on anything in particular. It's just being open to the present and the now.
JR: What about when you listen back to your improvisations? Do they sound familiar? Do you recognize some parts and not others? How does the experience change upon reflection?
GH: When I take it out of the physical performance space, so I'm not presenting something to an audience but just listening to it as a piece of recorded music, a lot of times it just doesn't work. But there are times - these are the pieces that end up on the recordings that I put out - that there is something being said musically that I would never come up with on my own if I was sitting down with a pencil trying to compose a piece of music. It's those kinds of phrases and ideas that I think are the purest forms of musical creation. When those things happen, and you end up with a nice little theme, and it's not something that you intend or something that you've ever done before, that to me is real composition. It's analogous to having a really great conversation with somebody you find very interesting. You're exploring but you don't really have an agenda. You're just exploring the music and great things happen, great ideas emerge. That, to me, is when improvisation is really working.
JR: Does that work itself into your process when you're writing structured tunes?
Code Magenta, 1995
GH: For me it does, because I do most of my composition as vocalization. I like to write by singing. If I'm going to write by playing I'd rather it be in an improvisational context as opposed to a very formulaic context. I find that my hands are going to lead me down a particular road, whereas my voice is going to lead me someplace totally different - a purer source, if you will - that's not limited by my technical skills as a musician. I'd rather compose with my head than my hands.
Translating that kind of music to the instrument is very instructive. If you can't play it, there's a reason why you can't play it, which gives you something to practice. Every technique that you develop on your instrument is another tool that you can use in improvisation. You can build some pretty amazing things if you've got the tools you need.
JR: I know you're stepping back from performing for a while, but do improvisation and these ideas we've been discussing play a role in any upcoming projects?
GH: What I want to do more than anything else right now, is get back into exploring this process of improvising outside of the performing aspect. I used to do that a lot. For years, before I started performing as an improviser, I used to jam and explore by myself. When I'm practicing now I tend to practice techniques and tunes, whereas I think it would be good to practice improvising again, just to continue to expand that palate, not just technically but sonically. I think that's a really good way to learn new things.
JR: Is it freer when the audience isn't there? When there's nobody listening? Could you have recorded Ether Ore without an audience and still come up with such strong pieces of music?
GH: Well Ether Ore only works because it was excerpts. The audience was there, and they got to hear all the stuff that didn't work, too. While we played a lot of gigs together, the recordings I released with Tim Reynolds were all studio improvisations, and there were some beginnings and endings edited from those as well. I don't want to release something just for its own sake, the music has to work. That's the luxury of recording over live performance. You can do it until you get what you want (or you can record a lot of concerts...)
JR: But there was still another person there, you had Tim there. What if you're completely by yourself, alone in your in studio on the outskirts of Charlottesville? Is that a liberating experience where whatever comes, comes unhindered?
GH: Well it should be, and that's a great idea. Ultimately that's a place I'd like to go. I think I've looked at improvisation as a style of performance for a long time, not so much as a style of recording. There are some technical things I'd like to work out before doing something like that. I'd like to make some surround recordings, where I have speakers set up in environment I'm recording in. Then mix live in a surround environment, and start playing with sound not as something that comes from The Stick but something that comes from an environment.
Check out "Big Bang 4965" in
the Online Videos section
Technology opens a lot of doors in improvisation, and I think that it's worth exploring, too, because it's about creating music and sound not just about being able to create "notes." I've always been about exploring sound through my improvisations.
JR: What about The Stick as your choice of improvisational instrument?
GH: The Stick is a particularly well-suited instrument for improvisation on a number of levels. The most obvious one is the huge range of pitches that you have available. There's no other stringed instrument that has the kind of range of pitches that you can get instantly. I really tried to explore that a lot on the Grand Stick pieces on Ether Ore. You've also got the two-hand capabilities, the fully independent counterpoint, the interdependent counterpoint, and all the permutations, all the places in-between.
Then you've got the expressive qualities of the instrument, just having your fingers on the strings, which the keyboard player just never gets. After-touch is cool but it's not the same thing as having your fingers right there where the vibration is happening, and all the subtleties and different articulations that can come from that. In that sense it's a very organic instrument when compared to keyboards, which are machines.
The last element is just the sonic versatility of the instrument - being able to have two independent signal paths and the ability to switch around between them and create these layers and layers of sounds without using synthesizers, so that there is still this analog fact of the vibration of the string.
All those elements combine to make The Stick a fantastic improvisational "input device," for lack of a better term. Whatever idea comes out of your head can instantly be translated through The Stick as sound. It's so rewarding in terms of the way it your ideas back to you.
Bonus: Jim Reilly's liner notes from Greg's 2005 CD/DVD Ether Ore
Ether Ore - Mining the Heavens
Something magical happens when a performer takes the stage, abandons all preconceived notions, charts or plans and simply plays. This 'play' is creative abandon, spontaneous composition, exploration. This is improvisation.
At it's best, musical improvisation is a game, almost a tennis match between player and audience. In his book Improvising Jazz, Jerry Coker writes that the listener tries to guess what's coming next. "If the player always gives the audience what they're expecting they get bored. If they never hear what they think they're going to hear they get frustrated So the improviser finds the balance that works" This is the very reason why the recordings offered here work so well for me. Just when I'm starting to think I know where Greg is going he grabs me by the ear and takes me somewhere else.
Improvisation is spontaneous composition under fire. Dangerous. Open, honest, exposing and impossible to fake. That's why I like it.
True improvisation offers the listener a rare glimpse into the head and heart of the performer. The listener is present with the creator at the moment of creation, the irretrievable moment when the intangible becomes real, communicated through sound.
Engaging, electric, inspiring, eclectic, angry, self-reflective, indulgent… It doesn't really matter; call these recordings all or none of the above. Improvisation only works when the artist is free to explore whatever path the music reveals. I have the feeling Greg wasn't trying to sound like anything while he was creating this music. I'll bet he was reacting, responding, listening, trusting, experiencing and enjoying the rare moments of insight that he can only express as his music. As listeners, that's about the best we could possibly ask for.
Kamloops BC, Canada
Feb. 13, 05
For more about Greg's improv recordings see:
videos and CDs
and check out Greg's web page for mp3s from the various records menationed here.
Jim Reilly can be reached at
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