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31 July 2007

assembling...improvising: Rik Rue

Rik Rue Image: Rik Rue  


Improvisation has always been well represented in the AMC’s publications, unlike the situation with many journals on music. The Summer 1991-2 Sounds Australian issue was one of several focussed on it, and one I edited. The following edited conversation between improviser Rik Rue and myself – originally published in that issue – raises a range of ideas that remain relevant in contemporary improvisation, and indeed in the present work that Rue and I separately engage in.

At the same time, it is interesting to note some of the issues on which one might well have a very different perspective in 2007 from those we had in 1991. Amongst these is the emphasis on using ‘tapes as a form of instrument’. The technologies available now to permit this are dramatically enhanced since 1991, and for many people, the tape is replaced by a soundfile on a computer hard disc, providing instant access, and the capacity to choose from a larger selection of soundfiles rapidly, and to project more of them at once if so chosen. Similarly, the capacity for ‘instrumental’ moulding of the sounds on tape to give ‘phrasing not unlike saxophonists altering their embouchure’, is also vastly improved. ‘Hyperimprovisation’, to quote the title of a recent book of mine, is the elaborated application of improvisatory techniques using computer mediation, and one unusual feature it permits is dictating that certain events occur long into an improvisation, yet, if one wishes, occur in an unpredictable or largely uncontrolled way.

Rue’s discussion of words and speech as musical components is also relevant to the developments of the ensemble Machine for Making Sense, and for other recent approaches such as the concept and utilisation of ‘NoiseSpeech’ which I have developed. NoiseSpeech is a spectrum of sonic structures which appear to be related to speech sound, but do not contain definable phones or words; they may or may not derive from speech sounds.

Rue remains as active as ever, with new albums on Tall Poppies and elsewhere; and one of his environmental works was commissioned by my ensemble austraLYSIS, and recorded on our ‘Windows in Time’ CD (Tall Poppies).

Improvisation is part of the language of composing to me. I find improvisation quite an arresting language...Roger Dean: Tell me roughly what you mean when you use the word improvisation?

Rik Rue: It’s a collective consciousness derived from my experience of music and sound as it stands whenever I choose to utilise it.

Roger: In the last couple of years, whenever I’ve seen you do anything which seemed to involve improvisation, you’ve used material which you have prepared beforehand. Of course you have changed it in performance in complex and interesting ways. Did you ever do improvisation in the more old-fashioned sense of playing an instrument, playing something where there was nothing pre-existing?

Rik: Yes. I have been involved in non-idiomatic improvisation as an adequately bad saxophone player. I was inspired by the various developments of jazz and later on by European improvisation: what people loosely term free improvisation. The non-idiomatic improvisation came out of the various schools in the UK and Europe, Misja Mengelberg, Derek Bailey, Han Bennink and so on. Prior to that I was inspired by two areas of jazz: John Coltrane and by earlier stuff from Charlie Parker to traditional polyrhythmic music from Africa.

Roger: Eddie Prevost has discussed whether one could ever have ‘idiomatic’ improvising; whether that would be a contradiction in terms etc. What do you mean by ‘non-idiomatic’ improvising?

Rik: ‘Non-idiomatic’ improvising doesn’t rest in a particular school or idiom like jazz.

Roger: So does non-idiomatic mean then that you don’t consistently stick to one idiom or that you try to make a music which doesn’t have any idioms?

Rik: Well, my restrictions are created by the people who I perform with, because I am using their voicings on multitrack tapes. I use my tapes as a form of instrument where I set up a rhythm track, where I set up a lead voice, and I can switch from one thing to the other or act naturally through pitch control. Then through a mixer I can choose the various elements that will be performed. So a drummer might have a snare and a cymbal, and I might prepare my tapes in that manner or I can escape to the point of having an orchestra of sounds. Some are found sounds, some from other members of the grouping I’m working with. For example, in the case of Jim Denley (flutes, saxophone, voice) I use his vocal inflections and I recompose it onto tape in different ways and throw it back at him in performance. I can use that in rhythmic form or as a counterpoint.

Roger: Would it be true to say that the tapes with which you do significant improvisation are already intrinsically polyidiomatic by the time you arrive at the performance? Or do you think some of them are really non-idiomatic in the sense, free of idiom?

Rik: They can be. There is always the possibility through the use of multitracking, having multitrack machines and mixers, to throw away a lot of ingredients. So I can break the ‘rules’ inherent in the prerecorded material whenever I choose. So there is an escape to abstraction available all the time; I can actually combine and juggle up the contents.

Roger: So do you mean that it doesn’t really matter whether it is polyidiomatic or non-idiomatic, because you have the choice all the time?

Rik: It depends on the circumstances. If I am working with people who utilise text, I would have a tendency to use their work in a certain way, working in the area of sound text or working with the area of atmosphere or whatever. The beauty for me is finding how to make tapes talk so they don’t sound as if switching on a button produces a predetermined thing. I treat the medium as musical and improvisational tools.

Roger: Does the idea of making a tape talk imply making it give the impression that it has been improvised? Perhaps because talk is improvised?

Rik: The tape is improvised in a sense, by equalisation, adding timbres, adding pitch controls, the various combinations of mixing. All those areas give you a sort of phrasing not unlike saxophonists altering their embouchure, and I approach the tapes in this manner.

I have had ideas for performance which might take the form of graphic scores. I may set out to work in a musique concrete way and then find myself altering the structure of the pre-determined work. Like making up a graphic score. The reason why I like improvisation is that it gives me the tool to elaborate on ideas, to enhance in a sense. Whereas a lot of other people find it difficult to deviate from a rehearsed score, I don’t. One wakes up quite differently every morning!

Roger: So you might use improvisation in order to create something in real time, and after a few workshops it becomes a permanent composition.

Rik: Improvisation is part of the language of composing to me. I find improvisation quite an arresting language. But working in composed areas, in set formats, say working with a radiophonic medium where you have got a script, that has another set of rulings that you work towards.

Roger: Have you written notated scores for other people to perform?

Rik: I have just written a piece in a sense blindly for the electronic group OHM. I have laid down what I call the bed track, but I have done it with them in mind. The piece is called Vacant Lot and it involves the butcher bird as a lead minstrel voice. I’ve written the various components of the piece graphically. It’s a piece with solos, with a lead voice for them to fit in with. I have given them the freedom to propose their own series of compositions based on it. If you choose to you could regard musicians as possible dots on the graphic score; that’s how you can communicate to those people by choosing them to be your musical score. Jim Denley has worked in that way with me. There is another interesting point: working with found sound. I don’t see why the environment has to be notated in a musical fashion and imitated by instruments when you can actually utilise the environment itself.

Roger: When you go out and record interesting aspects of environmental sound, you have then modified it, improvised with it, in the process of recording it, haven’t you?

Rik: To an extent. You’d be surprised that in a lot of the tapes I haven’t altered the environment. I did a thing on the [speaker's corner in the] Domain [in Sydney] which I consider to be a piece of improvisation. I was recording speakers and in half an hour of program I did, the speech was like literally hearing. It had the same effect [on] me as hearing Africa praise poetry. I mean it was full of musical notations from all the people who existed at one time in the Domain speaking and carrying on. I examined that musically but also I was trying to get their points of view across without mimicking or using them in a manipulated form.

Some of the environmental things like the water recordings, I do untreated. There might be crossfades or sections taken. But if you put a microphone in front of anything it isn’t a reality of that situation. There is a tradition here from Percy Grainger, and before that it existed in Africa. A lot of the people in Africa were talking music: they were vocal tape-recorders in a sense.

Roger: There are two common approaches to using environmental sound which are very different from that you just described. One is we take an environmental sound and accept it as an event within something which we are generating and maybe use it, maybe respond to it, maybe don’t, but it is part of it. The other is that we actually record it and then perform a response to it, real time or slower. What you have just talked about, at least the relatively unmodified use of the recordings that you went out and made, is more a kind of selection of available material. But you do sometimes use it as a kind of real time improvisation don’t you?

Rik: To a degree, yes. It’s amazing that you can record some sounds for a particular musical causal structure: but they automatically defy it and if you play around with them you can actually work in very well to make a whole series of musical statements. Similarly, if you are using human voices, you may be misrepresenting them. I prefer the irony of using tapes in improvisation. Satire interests me but it is very dangerous.

Roger: Have you ever actually improvised yourself verbal elements which were then used in your tapes?

Rik: I have. My voice is very limited. I have the same problems a lot of other people have in using their voice. They sing in the shower and they go out. I am in love with women’s voices. They have an inherent quality which is particularly beautiful where the sounds were spoken and there is non-verbal expression too. Women have been exploring their own voices through feminist causes or for self-expression in many ways and a beautiful quality has come out. I think it has always been there but it has been given a bit more of an opening. So I have been working with people like Amanda Stewart who I have got improvising. She has been involved in tape cut-up work in various phonic ways.

Roger: Why do you use women’s voices in particular?

Rik: Because they are not men’s voices, I suppose. If we want to talk about why one might prefer a bassoon to an oboe, there is a capacity of expression. But with voices there is also a political level. If that is linked in I find it enchanting. I’ve worked with people that work with set text too like Chris Mann. I find him incredibly musical: it’s a be-bop solo to me.

Roger: Why do you make the analogy with be-bop, in which Kerouac was involved.

Rik: Well, Kerouac expressed. Chris to me sings, he actually sings. He has actually got the solo voice characteristic of it, he has got the musicality, and he has got the expression.

Roger: But be-bop has a rhythmic precision and regularity which I don’t think is something Chris is seeking.

Rik: It is not so much that he is reflecting on Charlie Parker’s voice but the reading has got that musicality. It is not necessarily referring to his impression of that period. He could be talking about logic or discoursing on the philosophy of time; he could be having a philosophical debate about Chomsky or something. It is those arguments that come out but the musicality of his reading is really quite set and it is always interesting to me. It goes into this wonderful Irish-Australian kind of real time language.

Roger: I was going to say of the ‘Machine for Making Sense’ [as heard in Sydney, 1991] that the verbal part of the performance was reproduced in an identical or very similar fashion each day wasn’t it?

Rik: The words were constant and we did have a score. Certain things were governed by cues (timing cues, reference cues) but they were broken up. At certain points there were structures and there were improvised segments and so forth.

Roger: But Chris wasn’t really involved in the improvising was he?

Rik: Well certain things changed. One of the greatest things in Melbourne was that one of my tapes got jammed and that turned into a little bit of performance. It was a hysterical idea of pulling out a tape and banging on a tape recorder and throwing it back into the machine. It is just like that with the timing of Chris’s entries: a second later changes the whole complexity. Timing can be a facet of improvisation too, the timing and anticipation. Also when recording frogs in the field you get a series of calls and you try to work out the timing and there is a great polyrhythm and then a breeze comes along and quietens the frogs.

For the improviser in real time collaborating...is one of the great attractions.Roger: Let me come to the final area that I thought we would discuss. For most composers, that is those who write notes on pieces of paper, the opportunity of collaboration is really very restricted. They might deny it, they might think they are collaborating with an orchestra but in practise they aren’t and certainly the orchestral musicians would not feel they were. For the improviser in real time, then, collaborating, at least as far as I can see, is one of the great attractions. You can really take note of what somebody else is doing and use it. Now in most of your work with tape, you’re in an intermediate position aren’t you? Is it still important that you are collaborating as far as using a source material from other people as well as yourself?

Rik: Not necessarily. I’ve got a very democratic approach to working with people. And there are a very few times that people have hired me to actually do something specific. Luckily there are many people who I’ve cooperated with in the art of the sonic, as I like to call it. They include musicians, visual artists using sound as a sculptural role and so on.

Roger: Are you concerned to be able to collaborate in real time with other musicians?

Rik: It is very important for me at the moment to be able to interact with other people and to hear their musical viewpoints. This is one of the beauties of improvisation. There is an accommodation that is reached which I find a real organic process. I go for science and magic. I think improvisation is an alchemy of understanding.

Roger: Could it be that improvisation is a way of evading admitting to your core personality?

Rik: Possibly, but I find that a very restricted point of view.

Roger: Some improvisers are extremely flexible!

Rik: Yes, flexibility is possibly the greatest gift to have because you might need to be white or black.

Roger: An improviser can be both.

Rik: An improviser can be both. Sound as organised sound is quite restrictive as an artform, so it depends upon what society one lives in and how one can integrate with it. Improvisation seems like evolution of music. It is like dropping a pod in the right sort of fertilisation pattern for a plant. It is quite natural. I think it has got scientific in a peculiar kind of way. It is as if one’s response to a comment could be re-addressed.


Originally published in Sounds Australian, No. 32 Summer 1991-92.

Further links

Subjects discussed by this article:

Roger Dean is a composer/improviser, and the founder and director of the sound and intermedia creative ensemble, austraLYSIS. He recently became a research professor at the MARCS Auditory Laboratories, University of Western Sydney, and the Chair of the Australian Music Centre board, after a period as Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Canberra.


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