Lemur – Methods and Music
Michael Francis Duch
Lemur is a Norwegian quartet of improvisers, which was founded in 2006 and consists of: Michael Duch on bass, Bjørnar Habbestad on flute, Lene Grenager on cello and Hild Sofie Tafjord on French horn. The CD ”Aigéan” is one of three recordings and the second CD made by the quartet during the period of 2006 to 2010. It gives a pretty accurate impression of Lemurs sound and music at this point, as well as how the music has evolved throughout the period of two and a half years between each recording. The recordings were released two years apart on the Norwegian record label +3DB. The title, being the Irish word for ocean, was chosen to describe the different musical landscapes of Lemur, and the titles of each track are also from different types of landscapes such as deserts and dry, underground or lunar oceans.
This essay is an attempt to describe the working methods of this ensemble, as well as to analyze the way the quartets sound and music has changed during the period from our first concerts in 2006 to 2010. Lemur inspired me to write my application for The National Norwegian Artistic Research Fellowships Programme, and has played an important part during my research period from October 2007 to October 2010. Most of the methods I refer to in this text are developed collectively by the ensemble, while the reflections and analysis are mine, and are thus to be seen as my own points of view. Although I believe that my fellow musicians in this ensemble would agree on most of the conclusions I have drawn from my reflections based on our music and music-making, there might be some areas and certain viewpoints where we potentially could disagree.
Lemur played their first concert in Trondheim on the 29th of November 2006 and the debut album Septem was recorded in Bergen only two days later. Three and a half years later Lemur has performed 44 concerts in 11 different countries, and 39 of these concerts, including three workshops, has been performed during my period as a research fellow at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). Lemur works almost exclusively with improvised music with only a few exceptions, where the quartet has performed music by Gavin Bryars, Howard Skempton and John Cage. Lemur has performed concerts featuring Julia Eckhardt, John Hegre, Amit Sen, Mats Gustafsson, Dickson Dee, Eivind Lønning, Kjetil Møster, Børre Mølstad, Tom Løberg and Trondheim Sinfonietta.
Lemur has recorded music with the legendary punk poet Patrick Fitzgerald and are playing on his song ”Tired” from the 7’ split release with Attila the Stockbroker, which was released in 2008 by the Norwegian record label Crispin Glover records. Lemur will also be featuring on several tracks on Fitzgerald’s forthcoming album ”Subliminal Alienation”, which is due to be released on the same label in the late autumn of 2010, as well as on one track on a double CD documenting experimental music performances in Salford in 2009. Live recordings from past performances in cathedrals and churches in Hamar, Glasgow and Grefsen from the period of 2007-2009 will also be released as either a double or triple CD in 2011 by +3db.
Method and music
”When our group plays, before we start to play, we do not have any idea what the end result will be. Each player is free to contribute what he feels in the music at any given moment. We do not begin with a preconceived notion as to what kind of effect we will achieve. When we record sometimes I can hardly believe that what I hear when the tape is played back to me is the playing of my group. I am so busy and absorbed when I play that I am not aware of what I’m doing at the same time I’m doing it.”
Ornette Coleman (Cox, 2004:254)
During this quartets almost four years of existence we have met for rehearsals in between tours and recordings, and sometimes as long as a week has been dedicated to practise and rehearsing. This, I believe, is less common in free improvisation than in other musics. While these rehearsals are mostly concerned with improving the interplay of the ensemble, using either existing exercises by others or creating our own, the music, once it is performed at concerts, is never planned or discussed beforehand. The music is always freely improvised in concert, but often it can sound as if it is rehearsed or composed – for better or for worse – and it is quite clear that this is due to our rehearsals and methods of practise. An important question is whether this form of music-making is less ”free” or less improvised than that of other ensembles? This question has also been a central issue during my research for the past three years and I strongly believe that the very opposite can be true, partly based on my own experience from being a member of Lemur.
When I am improvising in ad hoc-situations, either with people I already know or have never met before, I quite often find it more tempting to use my own clichés than in situations where these particular clichés have already been used. This seems to function almost as a form of defence mechanism, whereas in an ensemble where I play with some regularity, like Lemur, using the same type of material gets musically challenged and confronted in a way that does not happen in ad hoc-situations. In addition, I feel more confident in the situation of the music-making itself. However, in an ensemble that plays together often, playing the same material could eventually lead to playing the equivalent of ”songs” or ”tunes”, rather than free improvisation.
These clichés which I am referring to might be particular sounds, or techniques that are used to produce these sounds. They may sometimes even take the form of what one would call quotations, where one is quoting other references in either a subtle or a more direct and obvious way. In jazz these quotes are often in the form of phrases, which either are related to other jazz musicians or to standard tunes, and they are often a way of honouring or acknowledging ones colleagues or inspirations. It should also be mentioned that there is obviously a great difference between what one can call ones own clichés as opposed to other peoples clichés, as inventing ones own material is far more creatively challenging than using others. One does, however, have to learn other people’s musical phrases and material which, for better or for worse, eventually becomes clichés before these are transformed into ones own personal musical language.
It sometimes seems that when being an improviser it can be hard to admit that ones own music is inspired by, or may even sound like, others’ since the music is obviously supposed to be improvised in the first place. One can therefore be expected to create unheard sounds and brand new music every single time one engages in the act of free improvisation. I believe that clichés and musical quotes in free improvisation are often as common and obvious as in other improvised musics, but what is recognised as a strong feature in some musics can be seen as a weakness, or even be ridiculed in others. Most musicians can probably easily recognise having been in the same or similar situation as described here by Laurie Anderson about her encounter and involvement with the performance art in the early seventies:
”As a young artist on the 70’s New York downtown scene, I was pretty sure that we were doing everything for the very first time, that we were inventing a new art form. It even had a clumsy new-sounding name ”Performance Art,” and critics and audiences struggled to define this ”new” hybrid that combined so many media and broke so many rules about what art was supposed to be. So when RoseLee Goldberg’s book Performance: Live Art 1909 to the Present was first published in 1979, I was completely amazed to find that what we were doing had a rich and complex history.”
In almost all other musics it is important to be able to perform without getting the right notes wrong. In free improvisation it sometimes seems that one is striving to achieve the very opposite: playing the wrong notes right. By this I mean that one often tends to use extended techniques, making the instrument to not sound as it ”normally” does. Freely improvising ”from the top of your head” could mean that you can play whatever you like, but sometimes there seems to almost be a fear of playing in harmony, rhythm or to play something resembling a melody. This could possibly be one of the areas that separate free improvisation as a method and a genre from other improvised musics, because in the genre of free improvisation, musical elements and characteristics such as melody, harmony and rhythm sometimes seems to be avoided. This is, however, not true for all practitioners of free improvisation, and I would like to quote Cornelius Cardew describing the music-making of AMM, as I believe he touches upon some of the fundamental basic ideals of this music:
”We are searching for sounds and the responses that are attached to them, rather than thinking them up, preparing them and producing them. The search is conducted in the medium of sound and the musician himself is at the heart of the experiment.” (Cardew, 1971:127)
In Lemur we seek to keep an open mind and to include every possible musical aspects and elements in any given musical situation. That is not to say that we try to do this all the time or all at once, such as in the sometimes cartoon-like music of John Zorn, and neither do we make a habit of engaging in humorous quotes or musical jokes. Although our band-name is based upon a quite funny and humorous little animal, our music seldom intentionally reflects this. In my view, there are almost no limiting aspects to our music-making. We are four quite different improvisers with various aesthetic preferences who are performing together, as opposed to improvisers who get together because they share the same aesthetic preferences, whether this is minimalism, free jazz, noise or other sub-genres within free improvisation.
Musical backgrounds and styles
The background and aesthetic preferences and playing styles of each member of Lemur varies, although we have performed several concerts with the same musicians at the same venues or festivals outside of Lemur. Grenager and Tafjord have played together since 1995 in the highly experimental quartet Spunk, while Habbestad and I have done several projects with the N-Collective, an international network of musicians, improvisers and composers. While Grenager and Habbestad both have their background and formal training from classical music, Tafjord and I both have our backgrounds and formal training in jazz and improvisation. This often results in several ”styles” operating individually and melting together at the same time, rather than a specific area that all four are striving for together. This creates a music that is made of contradictions; perhaps it can be called something like busy-minimalist, atonal-melodic, cagean-free jazz?
Several styles and genres melting into one or operating at the same time, is not an uncommon feature in free improvisation, or any other improvised music for that matter. It seems that, for example, defining the genre of jazz becomes increasingly difficult, as it contains myriads of different styles and continuously attracts and adds more sub-genres to itself. Free improvisation is however distinctly different from jazz as it is a method of music-making as well as a musical genre, so one can say that the name is defined by the activity itself; if it is not freely improvised then it is not free improvisation. Therefore we can identify this genre from its method in contrast to jazz.
In his book Improvisation – Its Nature and Practise in Music, Derek Bailey has described free improvisation as a method and not a genre, and has also claimed that this music is non-idiomatic. I therefore read an article called Les Instants Composés by Dan Warburton with great interest, as in the article he discusses this matter and refers to an interview with the Austrian composer and improviser Radu Malfatti:
”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 packet up the horn (as we used to say back then) and left.”
Since the early seventies Malfatti had been involved in free improvisation with its founders and innovators, such as Derek Bailey, Evan Parker and Barry Guy, as well as other prominent performers within the same field. The stagnation he refers to in this particular interview seems to have taken place during the eighties, and it made him think about free improvisation and composition in an entirely different way. He was very much a part of what inspired the new aesthetics of free improvisation in the nineties, which has become known as the new London silence, onkyo, Berlin reductionism/minimalism or simply reductionism: free improvisation had definitely become idiomatic and was creating its own sub-genres as a consequence.
Free improvisation and the established ensemble
Creating and putting together an ensemble is often done with the purpose of gathering a group of improvisers together, either because of their likenesses or differences, in order to create spontaneous and new music. Derek Bailey was striving for what he called a non-idiomatic music by engaging in free improvisation in new settings and, from time to time, with odd and unusual combinations of musicians. Their differences in backgrounds and styles were part of his idea of challenging himself and not to musically stagnate. The free improvising ensemble AMM, which Bailey has referred to as ”the ’official’ improvising group” (Bailey, 1993:128), is described in the following way by one of its founding members, Eddie Prevost:
”The personalities within the ensemble are clearly defined. They have maintained their integrity. Part of AMM’s philosophy, its ethos if you like, is the idea of having concurrent commentary: separate voices speaking at the same time, interweaving and interleaving. But each voice is not atomised or individuated. Paradoxically, it may be that individuality can only exist and develop in a collective context. So when the musical situation seems chaotic, when we are caught up in the maelstrom of sound, in which times it is almost impossible to ’distinguish’ yourself, delineate your contribution, or else the enterprise is a meaningless cacophony. And, in the final analysis, it’s up to each musician to ensure that this does not occur.” (Bailey, 1993:129)
In the cases of both Derek Bailey and in AMM the method of free improvisation in spontaneously creating music is as important as the aesthetics and sounding result, the first being if not even more important than the latter. Lemur was not so much designed by either the musical and aesthetical likenesses or differences of its members, as it was of the anticipated idea of the sound of the four instruments together. A common interest in exploring this sound, how it is created and how it can be musically challenged and altered through practise and rehearsals, is an important factor that keeps the ensemble together and drives it forward, in addition to playing concerts and recording albums together.
Methods and exercises
”Connected with this is the proposition that improvisation cannot be rehearsed. Training is substituted for rehearsal, and a certain moral discipline is an essential part of this training.” from the essay Towards an Ethic of Improvisation by Cornelius Cardew (Cardew, 1971:126)
At our very first rehearsal, before we had played our first concert together, we found a shared interest in the actual sound of the ensemble. The combined sound of these four instruments together, creating a sound being both big and lush, perhaps something which could belong to the romantic era as if this particular quartet, or rather this combination of instruments, was something invented by Brahms, Mahler or even Wagner. It is important to see that these examples are in comparison to the actual sound of the ensemble, not the music that more probably has more in common with the second Viennese school.
An important part of learning how these instruments sound together is to know each individual instrument with all its limits, strengths and weaknesses. While the bass, french horn and cello are roughly within the same accessible range from the bass- to upper mid-register the flute covers only the treble range, but the upper treble range is also an area which is accessible for the strings, but not for the french horn. Playing loud in the low register as well as playing soft in a high register of the wind instruments is difficult, but for a stringed instrument it is more or less the other way around.
These are only a few of the areas that we have been trying to identify within the ensemble-sound of Lemur, and we have mainly used and created our own exercises for this purpose. The exercises have been concrete, such as playing a chromatic scale from the lowest accessible note and each instruments joining in as their range allows them to, the french horn entering only a whole tone or semitone after the bass in the contra-octave, the cello a fifth later in the great octave, and finally the flute enters two octaves above the cello. The scale continues within the range of the instrument, and usually ends with the cello alone. This exercise is particularly good for learning to know each instruments different characteristics and range as well as improving intonation. It should be played with normal dynamics (mezzo forte) as well as varying degrees of soft and loud. One can also differentiate on which low or high notes can be obtained by normal playing, or extended techniques so that the normal and extended range of each instrument becomes obvious to the others involved.
Other exercises are more abstract and demand more active listening and creativity from those involved. A similar exercise to the one I just mentioned, which also is quite often used by Lemur, is by building ”chords” within the ensemble utilizing its entire range. These are not chords in the technical sense of the word, but sounds that have a similar function. Rather than building these chords from specific pitches they are made up from register areas, such as bass, middle and high. The obvious is to build such a chord from bass, french horn, cello and flute, but what happens when the flute plays the bass-part and the bass is supposed to play in the higher octaves? Or if the french horn is supposed to play in a higher register than what is possible on that particular instrument? By trying to balance these chords one has to find solutions to several problematic areas such as dynamics and timbre. A part of this exercise or an exercise of its own is to start and stop these chords together learning how the sound starts and stops with each instrument involved.
A more tonally abstract exercise is where one person plays a sound and the rest are to play within his or her sound. This is not necessarily the same as trying to copy the given sound, but to find a creative way of both recognising and enhancing the essence of the sound given. This a particular fruitful exercise, which is closer to that of improvisation than the others I have mentioned so far, but at the same time it is related to the other, exercises as well. It challenges one to find different ways to play in unison rather than just in pitch. The sound can evolve from being a single sound to the combination of several sounds performed in a certain way with certain fixed characteristics. This exercise can also be used as the starting point for an improvisation.
”The medium of improvisation is rendered sterile when the conditions of music-making preclude, negate or obscure either dialogue or heurism. If the emphasis is drawn away from social interaction – even in the name of wider communication, of beating a drum for a political party – then the music serves another purpose. Assuaging audience expectations, adjusting the volume to their demands, these distort the creative dynamic. The listener may not know whether or not a piece of music has been composed or collectively improvised. But ultimately this knowledge is a prerequisite for comprehending its beauty and worth.” (Prévost, 1995:77)
So far these exercises have concerned pitch, harmony and sound in general, but we have of course also used some rhythmic exercises in Lemur. At first, my notion was that rhythmic exercises were probably the most difficult to relate to free improvisation, but based on my experience this has changed to almost the opposite. Usually we have started by playing a common pulse in unison in an extremely slow tempo, and then individually changing beat gradually, but still relating to the main tempo and occasionally creating polyrythms. This can be gradually changed into metric modulations as well with gradual or sudden changes in tempo created collectively rather than by leading roles within the ensemble. A possible variation is to extend this exercise to using phrases instead of just playing single notes. These phrases may either be strict rhythmic phrases or phrases repeated and placed within a rhythmic context. By repeating a certain phrase it can have a rhythmic function when it is repeated although the phrase itself does not necessarily seem be a rhythmic unit in itself.
Another rhythmic exercise is that each performer finds and plays his or her own individual beat, while trying not to relate to the others involved. If the beat or tempo somewhat coincides with any others involved then it is to be changed immediately. This seems to be more difficult in mid-tempos rather than in either very fast or slow rhythmic phrasing. This is obviously an area that is highly subjective, as any music played by two or more performers however random it is performed, can be said to have some form of rhythmic relation. This is therefore in many ways trying to do what is essentially impossible. John Stevens stresses the importance of developing rhythmic skills within any music, also free improvisation, in the introduction to his music workshop handbook Search & Reflect. He also includes timing as well as time when speaking of rhythm, when he using the following example to validate his statement:
”For instance, when two people converse while walking down the street, both must move at the same pace in order to communicate. Even if the people use different step-lengths, these steps must be synchronised rhythmically in order to converse. In music, the best conversations are those where the participants are saying what they want to say, at the same time paying full attention to what the other person is saying. Rhythmic awareness allows an individual to be dynamically creative within a group whilst remaining sensitive to the other members of the group.” (Stevens, 2007:1)
The last of the exercises I have mentioned here is in fact inspired by a part from the composition Burdocks by Christian Wolff, and it creates a strange relationship between performers when one is focussing on not playing together, but rather on the sum of each individual beat interacting. It is almost like improvising indeterminate music in the spirit of John Cage, and it is also closely related to the compositions from the minimalist-era in New York in the early sixties by Terry Riley, Steve Reich and La Monte Young – all three composers who had backgrounds as jazz musicians.
These exercises with various variations are roughly what Lemur has dealt with during my research period, both as a quartet and more recently as an octet in late April 2010. We have also used these exercises or similar ones in workshops in Gothenburg, Trondheim and Bergen.
Rehearsed improvisations or freely improvised music?
As I have mentioned earlier, a concert with Lemur has never been planned in advance regarding musical content. Our exercises which we practise in rehearsals are purely intended on strengthening our improvisational abilities and musical qualities as a quartet dealing with free improvisation, and there can be little or no doubt that these exercises also have an impact on our music-making. The question is in what way our exercises and rehearsals do affect our music? Although they are primarily intended to making us better at improvising together as a group, they may also have an effect on the actual sounding result of the music itself. Is it really freely improvised or are our improvisations rehearsed and function as subconscious scores and compositions? What level of freedom is involved when we engage in free improvisation with Lemur?
To try to explain this I must return to our very first musical meeting, which was at the same time as when I was writing my application for being a research fellow at NTNU in Trondheim, late November in 2006. Our first meeting as a quartet, at least musically, was during three days of rehearsals where the seeds of our exercises were sown. Both our rehearsals and our first concert was in Trondheim, and two days later we recorded our debut album ”VII” which was subsequently released as a CD on +3db records almost two years later. I believe that our rehearsals actually created a lot of the material which can be found on this recording, and thus some of the music of this CD is in fact subconscious sketches and ideas that manifested themselves during our first studio recording. I also believe that much of the same material was present during our first Norwegian tour of four concerts, also as a direct result of our first rehearsals, and that it is something that had changed and matured considerable after our first European tour a year later.
VII - the debut album of Lemur
On the first track of Lemurs debut album VII, which is simply called Unus, a pizzicato part in the strings is established after one minute, and after three minutes this develops into a slow quasi walking bass section, which lasts about two minutes before it dissolves. The first plucked notes function as a musical cue indicating and opening up for the possibility of this musical landscape to happen, rather than dictating what is to come. I must add that this musical material was something that we had investigated both at our first rehearsals as well as our first concert, so although it was not planned or played on cue, it was still a familiar musical territory for the ensemble to relate to.
The second track Duo is an almost romantic meditation on the lush ensemble-sound that last for approximately five minutes before growing into an intense and busy part ending with an interference-effect created by flute and cello in the higher registers of the instruments. The third track Tres opens with a fairly busy and loud, thick and slow moving drone centred around C# which gradually thins out and ends with the french horn alone. The fourth track Quattor is also a drone starting a semitone lower than the previous track, but much softer, slower and less busy of nature. Like the second track this is also a meditation on the sound of the ensemble itself, and both unisons and chords slowly emerge from the initial drone, changing character and the feeling of root of the chords throughout the almost 10 minutes of which it lasts.
Quingue opens and ends with a monotonous and repetitive single note pulse in the bass as well as a faster, repetitive and non-pitched pattern by the cello lasting halfway through, while the flute and french horn have a shared solistic role throughout this relatively short piece. Sex is a six minute classic Improv-track which is relatively busy and more of a call and response-type of piece as opposed to the rest of the music on this album. It ends with a ten-minute melodic ballad centred around on open strings and harmonics of both cello and bass. At a certain point in this piece an overdub is used to create an even larger ensemble sound.
As I experience it, every track on this album is somewhat related to the exercises and other musical material which was developed during our first days of rehearsals, and they all have what one could call a central theme or basic idea for each track. The level of so-called freedom involved in these recorded improvisations are therefore relative, but on the other hand it gives us a pretty accurate impression of what this ensemble sounded like when we first met and were developing the music and sound of Lemur in the first place. At the same time I must admit that while we were listening back to what we had recorded before editing, mixing and mastering, there were many parts of our improvisations that astounded us as they were radically different than we had expected them to be. This I believe to be a proof of the spontaneous and unexpected music that can occur despite rehearsing and practising free improvisation.
Aigéan - the second studio album
Two and a half years and 30 concerts later we recorded our second album. This was also in Bergen and in the same studio with the same sound engineer, in Grieghallen with Davide Bertolini, and will be released as a CD by the same record label, +3db, late summer 2010. The release concert for Aigéan will be held in Nidarosdomen in Trondheim 18th of September 2010 as a part of a presentation of my artistic results attained during my research period, and this CD will be part of the documentation of my work. Like our debut album this CD also consist of a total of seven tracks and is roughly five minutes shorter in total than VII, and while the recoding of our debut album was done in one day this CD was recording during three days in studio. This recording and production had a larger budget than our previous CD, and therefore more time could be spent in every part of the process of making our second album. But still I do not believe this was the entire reason for this CD sounding better than our debut-album.
I believe our sound and music has matured considerably during these two recordings, and although there are similarities between the two, this CD sounds a lot less rehearsed or pre-meditated than the first one. Another reason for this could be that our first recording will always suffer from being exactly that: our first recording, with all that this could implicate. This particularly concerns the sound of the ensemble, but also our already established aesthetical preferences at the time it was recorded. I believe these preferences are something that is subject to a continuous change for us, both individually and as an ensemble. As we know each other better musically, these preferences now seem to have another function in our music, since we have grown more confident in our individual contributions in a collective manner. Therefore I believe that the music now is less predictable and that each track is less stereotypical, but still it is not in any way radically different from on our debut album. Those who have heard our music before, either live or as a recording, will probably recognise it as being Lemur fairly easy.
The music has, however, matured in a way so that it is more open and yet more complex at the same time. This complexity is particularly true when it comes to the details in the music, in such areas as texture and form. The interactions seem to have more depth and are working more in parallel layers, where each individual instrumental voice is less important than the whole. Solos and trios appear several places as well as in different combinations of duos, which on VII was limited to being almost only either strings or wind instruments together, but more seldom in combination. The changes within the music seem to me to be less abrupt and more elegantly solved, but the main difference lies in that the music seems less stressed and more focused.
I also believe that it is because of this that there are fewer edits and constructed musical passages on this CD than in our first one. Whether a CD consisting of freely improvised music should be edited or not, is another question entirely. This is something which is discussed in my essay Free Improvisation – Method and Genre, together with thoughts about the process of recording and editing free improvisation. I believe that the combination of frequent rehearsals as well as playing 30 concerts between the two recordings is the reason why the music sounds this way on Aigéan as opposed to on VII.
Aigéan – track by track
The first track on Lemurs second album is Dasht-e Lut, which is a large salt desert in south-eastern Iran, and it opens with various harmonics and overtones, as well as pitchless bowings by both cello and bass. The cello plays a pulsating drone in G that then gradually dissolves into a pitchless pulse, and the bass takes over this pulse with a tremolo played on a contra C on an open extended E-string. The french horn makes gurgling sounds halfway through and then briefly plays in dialogue with the cello before returning to the gurgling noises again. The piece ends with percussive effects in all instruments, particularly present in cello and flute, and finally with the french horn alone.
Percussive pulses initiated by cello and followed up by the french horn dominate the second track Panthalassa, which was the vast global ocean that surrounded the super continent Pangaea during the late Palaeozoic and early Mesozoic years. A darker and much lower pulsating sound enters with a bouncing bow on the tailpiece of the bass, and the flute enters after a minute with fast slaptongueing phrases on top of the other instruments. It gradually becomes louder and more intense before slowing down and ending with long floating tones played by french horn and flute during the last minute of the piece.
The third track Betpak Dala, which is a flat desert in eastern Kazakhstan, is also dominated by continuous percussive sounds halfway through, but played more rapid and in a softer manner than the second piece. The bass takes more of a solistic role by playing a combination of plucked harmonics and ordinary tones covering more or less the entire register of the instrument. This continues throughout while the other instruments both colour and enhance what is played by the bass with both single shorter and longer notes and sounds through the latter half of this piece.
The fourth track Imbrium, which refers to the lunar ”sea” Mare Imbrium, is a calm, consonant and meditative tonal landscape with a drone in D played by the bass two thirds through, before the drone, pitch and tone colour changes to an open sequence of chords with a slightly darker mood and tonal colour. The few dissonances that appeared is first initiated by the cello halfway through the piece and later followed up in the same instrument towards the end.
The fifth track Dzibilchaltun, a Mexican Cenote at a Mayan archaeological site, is where I believe the parallel styles and individualistic roles forming the interplay of the ensemble becomes even more apparent than the preceding tracks an this album. The bass plays a repetitive and pulsating drone made up of open harmonics continuously throughout the ten-minute piece, while the other instruments play more solistic roles and both flute and French horn alternates and takes turns in joining playing with the pulsating bass. The cello plays a distinctive motive that reoccurs and gradually changes throughout the first half of the piece. It is more or less intense all the way through, but it reaches its peak after two thirds into the piece with harsh, loud and long pitches played by the flute, and gradually decreases in intensity and ends with a much softer solistic part played by the french horn, occasionally joined by flute with less presence of the cello than in the first two thirds of the piece.
Like the former track the sixth one Saragasso, a region in the North Atlantic Ocean surrounded by ocean currents, navigates through different musical landscapes and is also an example of the different references and styles of each member playing together. The flute and cello is particularly present in the start of the piece; a dialogue where the bass and french horn play more discreet and supportive roles. The piece ends in more or less the same manner with the french horn gradually becoming more present towards the end, joining both flute and cello in rapid high-pitched phrases.
The final track Krizna Jama, a cave of subterranean lakes of emerald green water, opens with soft melodic and percussive sounds and phrases from the flute, and is joined after 30 seconds by the other instruments playing relatively short phrases, single notes or sounds in varying dynamics throughout the piece in a more pointillistic way than the other tracks on this album.
Continuity, rehearsing and long-time collaborations
Playing with an ensemble for four years is perhaps not what one would call a long time, as it most probably takes decades rather than years before one can reap the full benefits of continuous collaborations such as ours through concerts, tours and rehearsals as well as recordings. In his book Improvisation - Its Nature and Practise in Music Derek Bailey interviews several musicians, in a chapter titled The long-distance improviser, who all have in common that they have played free improvised music in the same ensembles or with the same colleagues for a great number of years. He particularly mentions the three ensembles SME (Spontaneous Music Ensemble), MEV (Musica Elletronica Viva) and AMM, who were all founded in the mid-sixties. SME was disbanded in 1994 when its founding member John Stevens died the same year. MEV and AMM still exists today, almost half a century since both ensembles were founded.
The English improviser Evan Parker answered the following after being interviewed by Bailey on the topic of continuity and collaborations over a long period of time:
”In practise, the closest I would get to a laboratory situation is working with the people I know best. It can make a useful change to be dropped into a slightly shocking situation that you have never been in before. It can produce a different kind of response, a different kind of reaction. But the people I’ve played with longest actually offer me the freest situation to work in.” (Bailey, 1993:128)
The American musician and former member of the band Sonic Youth, Jim O’Rourke, has said in an interview the he makes a distinction between ”people who play improvised music and people who improvise” as well as saying that the Evan Parker Trio were not improvising but ”playing Evan Parker Trio music” (Marley, 2005:109). This brings us back to the question of whether this music has the capacity of being non-idiomatic, or perhaps rather that if an established ensemble that has played regularly together for a number of years can really engage in a truly ”free” improvisation? I believe that the Algerian philosopher Jacques Derrida can partly help us to answer this question; by his statement that one can only believe in improvisation through believing that improvisation is impossible. It is impossible because improvisation is something unforeseen and thus we have no ability to know what the future (improvisation) will bring (Stensholt, 2006:317). Not only is ”free” improvisation impossible, but also improvisation itself!
If there is any truth in the arguments of Derrida then free improvisation can never be non-idiomatic. That is not to say that one cannot freely improvise, but rather that when engaging in (free) improvisation we are dealing with both conscious and sub-conscious musical material that we already know of. This already existing material is what we use when we improvise and spontaneously create music. I believe that this is also a reason for practising (free) improvisation by using various exercises while rehearsing. I have already presented several examples from Warburton’s text on improvisation and instant composing, and I would like to quote him once more, as I believe he quite elegantly explains the heart of the matter while referring to a situation where some musicians in a contemporary music ensemble had admitted to been ”just improvising” instead of playing what was on the actual score:
”’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 (.), and tend to restrict themselves to their own personal repertoire of techniques (’tricks’ as Paul Lovens calls them).” (Warburton, 2005:112)
Increasing ones musical flexibility, awareness and the level of freedom involved in free improvisation, by continuous collaborations and rehearsals involving the practise of exercises as well as freely improvising together, has been a central area of my research as well as a personal motivation factor for making music with Lemur. So far we have been constantly challenging each other and ourselves through trying out new ideas and ways of improving our music and music-making. This is something we have done through playing various composed musics, ranging from the experimental music of John Cage and Christian Wolff to fugues of Johan Sebastian Bach and recording with the legendary Punk-poet Patrik Fitzgerald. We have also done projects where we have invited guests performing with our ensemble expanding it from quartet to twice the size with performers such as Mats Gustafson, John Hegre and Julia Eckhardt.
Although Lemur has been involved in performing on acoustic instruments, and with a few exceptions in almost exclusively acoustic settings, our most recent project is a completely electric and electronic version of our ensemble at the Pstereo-festival in Trondheim, which is a festival mainly for pop and rock music. As well as this radical change to our sound itself we will be improvising to the silent surrealist short film Un Chien Andalou directed and produced by Luis Bunuel in collaboration with Salvador Dali in 1929, as well as a joint collaboration with the poetic post-punk band Dog & Sky playing live to Walter Ruttman's Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt from 1927. Our release concert for our second studio album Aigéan will be a part of my final presentation of my artistic research in Nidarosdomen 18th September.
As I have mentioned earlier in this essay I believe that it is our continuous search for new approaches to our music-making as well as what Eddie Prévost refers to as the practise of self-invention, the method of free improvisation itself, that makes our music worthwhile listening to. I would finally like to add that it is also because of the friendship, respect and admiration for my fellow colleagues in this ensemble, which I also believe is mutual, and which among several issues certainly is not a disadvantage when making music together. It is because of this I believe that Lemur will be playing together for many years to come, and that we will continue to challenge our music and ways of music-making through our method of practise. Hopefully this will also lead to making new exercises and ways to practise and rehearse, and ultimately in increasing the level of freedom involved in our improvising.
List of activities
29th November, Dokkhuset, Trondheim
30th November, Sound of Mu, Oslo
1st December, Grieghallen studio, Bergen
1st December, Kunsthallen, Bergen
3rd December, Cementen, Stavanger
7th October, Parkteateret, Oslo
11th November, Christianskirche, Hamburg
12th November, DNK, Amsterdam
13th November, Culturen, Västerås
14th November, Galleri Agueli, Stockholm
17th November, Ystad konstmuseum, Ystad
20th November, Musikhøgskolan, Gothenburg (workshop & concert)
21st November, Belleville, Oslo
22nd November, Hamar Domkirke, Hamar
23rd November, Cafe Ni Muser, Trondheim
22nd January, Sound of Mu, Oslo
30th April, Institutt for Musikk, Trondheim (workshop)
1st May, Dokkhuset, Trondheim
2nd May, Speilet, Fredrikstad
3rd May, Landmark, Bergen
4th May, Sound of Mu, Oslo
11th October, Usf Verftet, Bergen
6th November, H8, Berlin
7th November, Qo2, Brussels
8th November, Qo2, Brussels (recording with Julia Eckhardt)
9th November, Worm, Rotterdam
10th November, Golden Pudel, Hamburg
14th November, Velvet Underground, Taipei (Duch, Habbestad, Hegre, Dickson Dee)
18th November, Dreamer House (Hegre for Grenager)
20th November, Niniho gallery, Foshan (Hegre for Grenager)
21st November, MoCa space, Shenzhen (Hegre for Grenager)
22nd November, Oxhouse, Macau (Duch, Habbestad, Hegre)
15th January, Fabrikkhallen, Oslo
25th March, Griegakademiet, Bergen (workshop & concert)
18th-22nd May, Grieghallen studio, Bergen (recording)
22nd October, Nils Aas kunstverksted, Inderøy
23rd October, Dokkhuset, Trondheim
25th October, Streetlevel Photoworks, Glasgow
26th October, Glasgow University, Glasgow
27th October, Edinburgh University, Edinburgh
28th October, Ryan’s Bar, London
29th October, St. Philips Church, Salford
31st October, Grefsen kirke, Oslo (recording)
1st November, Henie Onstad kunstsenter, Høvikodden
24th April, Bomuldsfabrikken, Arendal
25th April, Henie Onstad kunstsenter, Høvikodden
28th April, Galleri 3’14, Bergen
29th April, Podium, Oslo
20th August, Pstereo festival, Trondheim (Hegre for Grenager)
18th September, Nidarosdomen, Trondheim
Bailey, D. (1993), Improvisation - Its nature and practise in music, New York: Da Capo.
Cardew, C. (1971), Towards an Ethic of Improvisation, in Prévost, E. (Ed.) (2006), Cornelius Cardew: a reader, Essex: Copula
Cox, C. and D. Warner (2004), Audio Culture – readings in modern music, London: Continuum.
Goldberg, R. (2004), Performance – live art since the 60’s, London: Thames & Hudson
Marley, B. and M. Wastell (2005), Blocks of Consciousness and the Unbroken Continuum, London: Sound 323.
Mertens, W. (2007), American Minimal Music, London: Kahn & Averill.
Nyman, M. (1999), Experimental Music Cage and Beyond, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Prévost, E. (1995), No Sound Is Innocent, Essex: Copula.
Prévost, E. (2004), Minute Particulars, Essex: Copula.
Stensholt, K. (2006), Improvisasjon – kunsten å sette seg selv på spill, Oslo: Damm
Stevens, J. (2007), Search & Reflect, Middlesex: Rockschool
Tilbury, J. (2008), Cornelius Cardew A Life Unfinished, Essex: Copula
Warburton, D. (2005), Les Instants Composés, in Marley, B. and M. Wastell(2005), Blocks of Consciousness and the Unbroken Continuum, London: Sound 323.