Site of Formation 1992

Derek Bailey's On the Edge: Improvisation in Music

Peter Margasak

In September of 1987 I went to see a solo concert by Derek Bailey in Chicago, part of a series at the space Links Hall curated by percussionist Michael Zerang. I was 20 at the time, and I probably had one or two records by the British guitarist, but I certainly hadn’t invested a lot of time in them and my ears hadn’t experienced much free improvisation yet. I just knew that he was important, somehow. The performance confused me, and I was unable to engage in what he was doing in any meaningful way. The experience had a profound impact on me, as it does whenever some alien strain of music leaves me puzzled or angered. It stayed with me, needling me to dig into it, to understand it, and place it in a wider context.

The more I learned about Bailey the more complex his conceptions became—even though, in essence, they were all quite simple. Bailey’s skepticism for working improvisational bands, for example, perplexed me. I only considered the upside of how a unit like the Schlippenbach Trio or AMM could develop its peculiar language and approach over time, its members telepathically anticipating one another’s moves. I was also stymied by how a guy who dismissed recordings of improvised music simultaneously ran Incus Records, one of the most prolific and best labels dedicated to the discipline. The idea of improvisation as a life practice 1 was far too abstruse for this twentysomething to understand, so Bailey’s commitment to perpetually put himself out on a limb—embracing that condition as his life force—all seemed impossibly abstract to me back then. Yet ultimately, that mindset defined his life and work—a process approach at odds with any sort of music industry.

It would be years before I picked up a copy of his essential book, Improvisation : Its Nature and Practice in Music, which was originally published in 1980. I’m sure I didn’t get around to actually reading it until after the BBC’s Channel 4 produced and aired a four-part television program called On the Edge : Improvisation in Music in 1992. Bailey wrote and narrated the series—which was directed by award-winning music documentarian Jeremy Marre—based on the research he conducted for his book. I wouldn’t see it until more than a decade after it was made. A revised version of the book was published around the same time, augmented with material from the interviews Bailey conducted for the TV program. It’s mind-boggling that this documentary hasn’t been made available commercially—although it’s easy enough to find crude VHS transfers of the show over at UbuWeb—because decades later there still isn’t a better or more accessible introduction to the concept of improvisation in the broadest possible terms, even if Bailey’s inclusions are subjective and anything but comprehensive. Of course, researching improvisation was a peculiar project for him, not his life’s work.

While the guitarist privileged the practice of free improvisation in his book, devoting much of it to reflecting on his own experiences with the Joseph Holbrooke Trio (Gavin Bryars and Tony Oxley), Music Improvisation Company (Evan Parker, Jamie Muir, Christine Jeffrey, and Hugh Davies), Company Weeks (ad hoc gatherings he organized between 1987 and 1994 with a cast of improvisers that increasingly included practitioners from disparate traditions and disciplines) and countless other interactions with the diverse array of players who emerged from the British scene, the documentary is more balanced. In both the book and the documentary Bailey eschews hierarchies, instead examining traditions as diverse as Indian classical music, liturgical organ music, qawwali, flamenco, bluegrass, classic Andalusian music, salsa, the Grateful Dead (not exactly a “tradition” but certainly distinct from most other rock bands), electric blues, Gaelic psalm singing, and western classical music, pulling together threads from each to support his contention that improvisation is a central element of all of them, or at least to their development. 

The fact that the first episode opens in Chicago, with AACM reedist Douglas Ewart leading a workshop in a Chinatown elementary school, encouraging a diverse mix of kids through guided improvisation to explore it on their own individual terms, makes clear that Bailey’s passion for the practice isn’t rooted in any specific style or school of thought, an idea reinforced as the series unfolds. Again, improvisation was far more than a style or school of thought for the guitarist—it was the way he lived his life. In his book he spends several pages looking into the educational methodologies of percussionist John Stevens of Spontaneous Music Ensemble, who embraced a vaguely similar openness and spirit of generosity in spreading the practice of free improvisation. 

The program ends with a non-judgmental segment on New York hip-hop, considering the improvisational elements at play in the scratching of a DJ, ironic given Bailey’s cantankerous attitude toward music designed as entertainment. (Despite his famous antipathy toward pop music, Bailey wasn’t afraid of technological developments in music, which led him to collaborate with various electronic music producers, such as Chicagoans like Casey Rice, Bundy K. Brown, and John Herndon, who provided tracks for him to tussle with for the 1999 album Playbacks. Witnessing a live performance with Rice in Chicago in 2001 only increased my admiration of Bailey’s utter fearlessness and his ability to cut to the core of any encounter.)

Compared to the book, where Bailey tends to express a more critical mindset—dismissing hard bop altogether—he tends to moderate his position in the documentary, although that doesn’t stop him from saying of European classical music : “To invent something is totally beyond the scope of the modern orchestra. Its function seems to be more, ahem, technological or, at best, Pavlovian. And, perhaps, they get nearest to improvisation when they’re tuning up.” In contrast, he offers an extended scene with pianist Robert Levin, who celebrates the fact that most great composers were also working musicians, and some of the most lionized works built in space for improvisation—a practice banished by standardization enforced by the record industry and the expectations of audiences demanding “perfect” readings of a piece they’ve internalized.

In a feature published in the Wire in 2004, a little more than a year before Bailey passed away, author David Keenan writes, “Bailey now believes that free improvisation itself has become so codified and defined that it’s effectively neutered, its many recordings serving to fix musical identities and establish operative tropes while labels, promoters, and festivals unwittingly collude to provide a superstructure that facilitates career improvisers and assorted specialists.” From the same feature, Bailey : “ ‘I think improvisation’s great era is over, its time is gone,’ he sighs. ‘My impression is that for any music to be really vibrant it lasts about seven or eight years. That’s all of music, every music period. Bebop, Dixie, whatever, there’s a vibrant period that lasts seven or eight years and after that, it’s over.’ ”

Indeed, toward the end of his own book, the guitarist writes, “One of a variety of reasons that led me in 1974 to start putting this book together was a suspicion that freely improvised music as an identifiable separate music was finished. Like some early 20th-
century ‘ism,’ I vaguely felt, it had run its course and would probably continue to exist, if at all, only as some kind of generalized influence.” While he then goes on to express enthusiasm for new strains of improvisation that developed in the mid-’70s, citing the British quartet Alterations, which deployed ideas from popular and non-Western music into its collective improvisations, it’s hardly a secret that Bailey was no Pollyanna or thoughtless cheerleader.

In the documentary, the guitarist embraces new modes of organized free improvisation, whether John Zorn’s game piece Cobra, the conductions of Lawrence “Butch” Morris, George Lewis’s interactive computer programs, or new tweaks on hallowed traditional forms, such as the open forms of the Korean kayagum master Sang-Won Park and the chaotic humor in Eugene Chadbourne’s disemboweling of country and western. I think it’s telling that most of the final half of the last episode digs into traditional sounds and rituals of Zimbabwe’s Shona people, reinforcing the way improvisational practices lie at the root of all music-making. After spending hours illustrating diverse contemporary manifestations of improvisation, this drives home one of his final points, exploring it in a non-abstract, everyday form where its characteristics haven’t been transformed into ornamental dressing.

In Bailey’s book, composer Earle Brown seems relatively sanguine about the role of the practice in composed music. “I believe affirmatively that improvisation is a musical art which passed out of Western usage for a time but it is certainly back now,” he says. “And I felt that it would come back, which is why I based a lot of my work on certain aspects of it. It’s here and I think it’s going to stay. And it’s not going to do away with the writing of music but it’s going to bring an added dimension—of aliveness—to a composition and bring the musician into a greater intensity of working on that piece.”

Indeed, when Bailey wrote the book it was incredibly rare to find musicians who worked with composed materials and who could also improvise, apart from Levin whose practice fit into the tradition of Bach or Mozart, or the liturgical organ players (represented in the documentary by Naji Hakim). He does include several such players, including the classical clarinetist Antony Pay, who describes improvisations he played while recording music by Stockhausen and who would eventually take part in Bailey’s Company gatherings, as well as violinist Alexander Ba˘la˘nescu. In general, however, Bailey doesn’t share Brown’s optimism. I’d say Brown has turned out to be more prescient, as the growth of musicians equally fluent in free improvisation and composed music—whether jazz-based, experimental, or classical musicians—has rapidly expanded in the decades since Bailey completed his project. The role of improvisation in notated art or experimental music has arguably become more ubiquitous and advanced in the last couple of decades than it has in centuries.

Of course, this development doesn’t necessarily support Bailey’s devotion to improvisation. Indeed, many of these new manifestations relegate improvisation as an element or feature, and not a way of making music. As Bailey wrote in the book, “In all its roles and appearances, improvisation can be considered as the celebration of the moment. And in this nature improvisation exactly resembles the nature of music. Essentially, music is fleeting ; its reality is its moment of performance. There might be documents that relate to that moment—score, recording, echo, memory—but only to anticipate it or recall it.” To the generations that came to this music through recordings,2 that insistence might seem quaint or wrong-headed but it sums up Bailey’s commitment to exploration and spontaneity, above all else, and that spirit comes through On the Edge nearly three decades after it was made. If the Internet has made Bailey’s catholic inclusions less impressive, nothing has weakened or made his salient observations less powerful or important.

1 In my reading, Bailey never spent much time discussing his embrace of improvisation as life force, but he nevertheless seems to have lived it. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention George Lewis, who has written and lectured extensively on the idea.

2 The David Grubbs book Records Ruin the Landscape (Duke) spends a great deal of space examining how pioneers of experimental music felt antipathy towards recordings of their work, while subsequent generations could experience much of that work only through recordings.

Derek Bailey's On the Edge: Improvisation in Music