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15 September 2008

Oh Don’t Fence Me In

Clare M Cooper Image: Clare M Cooper  
© Somaya Langley

Clare, as you'll read, doesn't feel that great about describing what it is she 'does'. She was born in Sydney in 1981 and has enjoyed the company of the Australian improvised music community since 2001. In addition to directing the NOW now festival, she has spent the last seven years performing solo on harp and/or Chinese guzheng and collaborating with over a hundred artists, filmmakers, dancers and musicians in Japan, the USA, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. She and her husband Clayton Thomas are currently living in Berlin, where they are investigating the benefits of earning a living from playing uncompromised music.

[Zeena Parkins'] style defeats categorization, and is therefore all the more interesting (The New York Times)i

Our shit is beyond the people who are trying to define it (Lester Bowie)ii

What is the difference between a 'noise harpist', an improviser and a 'composer engaging primarily with transcribing field recordings of farm machines for strings'? What if one artist can be defined as all three? Is the difference between a musician and a sound artist dependent on the context of presentation of the work, or the grant that funded it? How do these definitions and titles affect artists?

I am often in awkward situations where I'm required to explain what it is that 'I do' without sounding like a hippy or an elitist. I am neither, but I can tell you that it can sound like it's a fine line.

Hi, my name is Clare,

…I'm a musician
…I'm a sound artist
…I'm a performer
…I'm a curator & festival organiser
…I'm a sound designer
…I'm a contemporary composer
…I'm a realtime composer
…I'm a noise artist
…I'm a conduit for the sound of the universe
…I'm a string player
…I organise sound
…I have played/do play pop, jazz, classical, rock, noise…
…I'm a free improvising musician
…I'm a reductionist
…I'm a maximalist
…I'm an experimental musician
…I'm an instrument builder
…I'm a harpist who also plays the Guzheng.

What purposes do the above classifications serve and how do they add/detract from one's first impression of Clare? In one way or another all of the above apply to what 'I do' and who 'I am' as an artist.

Possible outcomes from any of the above introductions:

…I confuse the person; they nod, smile and move on
…I am asked for an explanation
…I (don't) get kudos from 'the underground' or the 'industry' or the 'academy'
…I (don't) get the grant
…I (don't) get booked for a wedding
…I (don't) get booked for a session
…I am (not) offered drugs
…I am (not) offered a fashion magazine interview
…I am (not) offered a residency
…I'm asked to leave

Prominent genre theorist Daniel Chandler suggests that creating categories 'promotes organisation instead of chaos' and creates 'order to simplify the mass of available information'. Of course, discerning the differences between fields of research and engagement within sound can be positive for some, but what about those of us who don't fit snugly into one box? Or seven boxes, for that matter?

From 2000 to 2007, I organised regular events in Sydney involving artists not only working across a hard-to-define music practice, but also constantly shifting and challenging modes of engagement, communication, performance and community exchange. Clayton Thomas and I started the NOW now festival as a forum for music that centred around (but was not strictly limited to) free improvisation. It was difficult to curate, and it was also difficult to secure support as the performances were as unpredictable for us as they were for the audience. But we continued, as the community grew stronger and more creative 'in front of our ears'.

'I've had somewhat of a hang-up about the stereotype my instrument suffers: the promises it makes to an audience just by being a harp.'The level of creative music in Australia is comparable with anything I've heard, travelling through 16 countries over the last seven years, and I believe that one of the reasons for this freshness, dedication and innovation is the lack of the cultural and historical weights that are used as creative roadblocks, for European artists in particular – there is so much heavy history with relation to the 'masters' and aligning oneself with a particular tradition. I'd like to think that we don't have that pressure in Australia. Even as an Australian living in Berlin, as I do now, I feel less pressure to subscribe to a particular lineage. It's as though it is understood that Australia is a melting pot of cultures, and that in our isolation there is a special and alien concoction brewing…

As a harpist, it's a different story. I've had somewhat of a hang-up about the stereotype my instrument suffers: the promises it makes to an audience just by being a harp. I based my MA on the challenge of extending the vocabulary of the harp. Particular attention was given to the limitations that we habitually set ourselves when it comes to categorising instruments, musicians and genres, and also to the limitations or challenges set by the instruments we choose to explore and the contexts in which we choose to explore and present our findings. A major part of my research was exploring how the incongruity of the harp in an Australian setting could be addressed. I discovered that the major key to relating an instrument to a sense of a place was mimicry, and that through improvisation and intimate exploration of how the physical structure dictates what sounds can be created on the instrument, a musician can build an extensive personal language on any instrument.

I was introduced to improvisation – or should I say the rich history and current international community of improvisers – when I was 18 years old, six years into my harp education. Over the last eight years I have engaged with improvisation as my central artistic focus, and have learned that improvisers are engaged in the ongoing exploration of any (or all) of the following: a personal language/vocabulary, new/deeper/immediate forms of communication, spiritual endeavour, intellectual stimulation, potential, novelty, challenge, adventure in 'uncharted sounds', freedom, anti-hierarchical social forms and more. Derek Bailey's book Improvisation: Its nature and practice in music, originally published in 1980, is a no-nonsense account of improvisation as an artform and life pursuit that still resonates with improvisers over a decade after it was written.

'I find the ongoing circular debate between "composers" and "improvisers" boring and obstructive.'In the mid-1970s Bailey observed that the term 'improvised music' was used reluctantly by many practitioners as it had become almost a term of abuse – it had a widely accepted reputation as a practice 'without preparation or consideration', 'frivolous', 'inconsequential, lacking in design and method', a 'musical conjuring trick, a doubtful expedient or even a vulgar habit'. Bailey suggested that there is 'no musical activity which requires greater skill and devotion, preparation, training and commitment', and that the widely accepted view of the term 'improvisation' completely misrepresents the depth and complexity of an improviser's practice.

I align myself, and the music that I make, with the rich tradition of improvisation. I do not consider the bad press the field has suffered as having limited my opportunities to engage in music. I find the ongoing circular debate between 'composers' and 'improvisers' boring and obstructive. Bailey wrote his book with the intention of presenting the views of 'those who know and use [improvisation]', and to retain the term 'Improvisation' for two reasons: 'firstly because I don't know of any other which could effectively replace it, and secondly because I hope that we, the other contributors and myself, might be able to redefine it.'iii

Naturally, those engaged in what is often referred to by musicians as 'dot-music' are going to hold a more respected position in the sanctioned music world as it is a process more susceptible to academic and bureaucratic acceptance and scrutiny before, during and after its performance. I agree with Bailey that the lack of recognition and status enjoyed by improvised music and those who practice it is astonishing. As a result of the 'almost total absence of comment concerning improvisation' and the 'hopeless misconceptions usually expressed' in the criticism he had observed over the years, Bailey concluded that there is an important part of improvisation not easily indicated or conveyed by its results to those not involved in 'doing it' and therefore it is difficult to appreciate or comprehend. He observed that among improvising musicians there is endless speculation about its nature, and suggests that the most meaningful way to discuss and consider improvisation is through a practical and personal point of view, noting that there is 'no general or widely held theory of Improvisation.'

When it comes to an unnatural focus on the means rather than the ends with regards to improvised or pre-composed music, the hierarchies have not vanished. Identifying genres, taxonomy, and classification with regards to art does not serve those wanting to freely move and experiment. Discussing genres is akin to the 'composition vs improvisation' debate – it is helpful only to those who would draw status from defining one as more advanced than the other. Should the creation and celebration of sound be our central focus, we would soon realise these arguments are holding us back. I'd like to think that the more our listening matures, the less we rely on classifications and boundaries to navigate music. Unfortunately, 'Western' society does not reward those whose activities exist on the blurred edges of a clearly defined and celebrated genre, nor does it reward those who move freely from one to the other. How often do we see an artist rejected or mistrusted when straying from the 'medium' or 'genre' with which they are most often aligned?

It is common, these days, to hear musicians engaged in improvisation/experimental music/contemporary composition/sound art/noise/instant composition/graphic scoring/free-jazz etc… refer to the illusive 'this music'. I believe this is due, in part, to the growing number of musicians who are not interested in being associated with a particular definition or genre. It is recognition of the deliciously 'un-categorisable' nature of the music we are engaged in, not a decisive rejection of other loaded terminology associated with methods of music making unsanctioned by the conservatoriums or the mainstream. The most fascinating aspects of 'this music' are the elements that dodge definition, that are instinctive and are, by their very nature, un-categorisable.

Those engaged in music education have a rare opportunity to break the cycle of listening and playing that subscribes to dos and don'ts by encouraging exploration and risk taking. Let's get busy exploring and enjoying sounds rather than defining the boxes they fit in.

Australian string player Clare M Cooper is interested in unlikely pairings, and what they reveal of machines, strings and the live listening experience. Currently based in Berlin, she plays the pedal harp and ancient Chinese guzheng.


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