Archive for the ‘projects’ Category

Two concerts which couldn’t be much further apart in terms of genre, yet both included large amounts of the mysterious process we call ‘Improvisation’:

Atau Tanaka and his completely unpredictable BioMuse vs. the psychedelic delights of the Cosmic Debris Music concert.


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This review looks at performances from ‘The Jahm Band’, a psychedelic, funk-jazz fusion group based in North Antrim and singer songwriter ‘Tom McRae’ who are two performing artists/group who share the same or similar (self-proclaimed) chaotic approach to improvisation within their perspective music/sounds. However within the context of a live performance, this same attitude towards extemporization within their art form yields vastly different results. So at what point in the creative process do similar foundations become streets apart?

‘The Jahm Band’ (Are Ye Jahmin’ or Wha?!)

The Jahm Band are a collection of musicians who play ‘funky, groovy transcendental hoodoo music’ which was originally set up by Will Hawkins, Ciaran Laverty and Dave Hoy a few years ago. ‘The Jahm Band’ is now made up of six fantastic musicians from around Northern Ireland.

The music of ‘The Jahm Band’ is exactly as the name suggests, a series of ‘jahms’, each with the fundamental component of being primarily improvised (within a very loosely fixed medium) which is defined by the quality of musicians within the group as well as a love for what they are creating.

Primarily in hindsight of this performance I would suggest that this is a group of individuals who share the ideal that their music is ‘played by a group of musicians who choose one another’s company and who improvise freely in relation to the precise emotional, acoustic, psychological and other less tangible atmospheric conditions in effect at the time the music is performed’*. This is evident in the simple fact that at several intervals throughout the performance, extended friends of the group (myself included) were invited on stage for a brief ‘jahm’ as the atmosphere/mood of the music/venue compelled the group to do so. Surely this introduced a substantial element of free improvisation as control was passed ‘not to chance, but to other musicians’*, whether or not said persons were aware of any fixed mediums. This isn’t to say that the group lacked direction and required the participation of the audience, indeed quite the opposite. In relation to the inspiration for improvisation, the flamenco guitarist Paco Pena said that ‘anything which has art in it would have an effect. For example, the way people move – you could see someone moving gracefully and that inspires you’. I believe this to be the case when concerning ‘The Jahm Band’. Whilst the main protagonist of the group (Will Hawkins – Guitar) is heavily influenced by the music of Robert Fripp (which was evident at points in the performance) whose music embraces ‘instant creation’, however when the audience began to ‘get their GRooVe on’ this had a very definite effect on the group, spurring them on. This like the cameo musicians served to inspire the group giving their ‘transcendental mission’ momentum!

The improvisational structure I feel was dictated by the members of the group as individuals acting within the institution that is ‘The Jahm Band’. Phasing and ‘Grooves’ would be exchanged with band members and opposed to repeating what has been ‘said’ created their own phrases within the ‘Grooves’ allowing each piece to explored, treating every error as an ‘unintentional rightness’. Needless to say this practice (in order to be carried out effectively) requires considerably high levels of communication which in some cases took the form of whispers, nods and in some cases it was almost possible to see the musicians passing notes, ideas and responsibility across the stage through the way the notes phrases were played and where emphasis was placed at defining moment of the performance.

If was definitely one of these gigs that had the audience holding their breath at every stager and fall, at every sustain and trill, and at the final crescendo the release of the group was shared by the audience which for me defined the special relationship between an audience and improvised music.

Tom McRae

Tom McRae is recognized for his intelligent and sensitive song writing, his haunting vocals and the energy and warmth which he puts into his live gigs, which needless to say is all that was presented and them some at ‘The Limelight’ on Monday 12th November. The gig was apart of his European tour to promote his recently released 3rd studio album ‘King of Cards’. His influences as expressed on www.myspace.com/tommcrae are ‘Gravity, poverty, some childhood issues, and Burl Ives’ which gives some indication of his character as opposed to his music which could be described as being somewhat bleak and depressing. This contradiction does however highlight that (in my opinion) he has a real sense of humour.

Opposed to the performance of ‘The Jahm Band’, any musical improvisation that takes place is rigidly defined by his fixed medium which in this case are the songs from his latest and previous albums which people have come to hear.

After the show I had the opportunity of asking him how he approaches or perceives his use of improvisation within his own music, to which he replied that one factor (similar to that of ‘The Jahm Band’) is that he and the rest of the band enjoy what they are playing. This appears to be a common train of thought with improvisers the world over, as Derek Bailey says in ‘Improvisation – Its Nature and Practice in Music’, ’don’t be afraid of being wrong, just afraid of being uninteresting’ which to me suggests enjoying yourself.

The performance was much more than on of a musical nature, it could also be compared with that of a stand-up comedy act, which in my opinion was second to none. His use of ‘ad-libbing’ to engage the audience both between and during songs allowed for the audience, I believe, to have a definite presence in the performance as performers. The constant interjection of question and answer between audience and performer was very reminiscent of the improvisation that is employed in Rock music as defined my Derek Bailey.

One final key element of this performance which I found particularly compelling was that, although it says on the ticket ‘Tom McRae’ he went to lengths to introduce the rest of the band to the audience (Oli and Olli, Johnny Sound, Stevie Guitars) and included them in his interaction with the crowd. This allowed much of the bands personalities to come forth making them more than simply ‘the men behind the man’ but equals within the performance along with Tom and the audience. The familiarity made the band members embellishments on the original themes much more evident bring improvisation to the forefront of the performance which I believe made the experience all the more engaging and entertaining. The bands relaxed and jovial approach to the performance turned songs of a serious nature into one of light-hearted camaraderie which I believe to be the result of the group adapting (dare I say improvising) to the mood of the audience making them much more accessible.

Although the actual implementation of a similar idea of improvisation, in relation to these two performances yielded very different results is not to suggest that one was ‘better’ than the other, just different. Speaking in strictly musical terms the improvisation of Tom McRae was very rigidly defined, not going beyond the confines of the set pieces, were as The Jahm Band in some cases even went beyond the tempered scale of the West (due to the wizardry of one Will Hawkins).

As an avid supporter of local music (music from Ireland) I am compelled to vote in favour of ‘The Jahm Band’, that is if this were a competition, however I feel that both performances captured what I believe to be possibly the single most important factor of any improvisation and that is to play with you heart as opposed to your head, because as Steve Howe said ‘if you try to closely to look at inspiration it disappears… Untangible’!

Darren McLaughlin

*All references and quotes were taken from:

Improvisation – It’s Nature and Practice in Music. Derek Bailey




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A comparison of the Disparate Bodies network performance (29th Nov 2007) and FAINT (11th Oct 2007), both in the Sonic Lab at SARC.

by Daniel Gillen

I find the Sonic Lab a bit disorienting at the best of times, due to a fairly debilitating fear of heights and fascination with shiny things which light up.  Combine this with a facet of music which to me was at that point entirely unexplored and attempting to review a gig for the first time made the FAINT performance a fairly daunting event to attend.  This was a stark contrast to my attitude when attending the Disparate Bodies performance which I attended almost entirely on a spur of the moment decision in order to see what the differences between it and FAINT would be, having originally intended to use another performance entirely to write about here.

This difference in attitude naturally resulted in experiences which were at odds with each other.  I was more readily able to accept the surreal aspects of Disparate Bodies than I had been at FAINT.  Surreal aspects such as secondlife.com’s alternate reality and the real-time interaction between musicians across a continent.  Whereas with FAINT, for an hour they improvised a simply staggering range of timbres and dynamics, creating such unusual sounds that at times it was hard to know who was making which sound and how they achieved it.  Bizarre techniques, such as Davis using a violin bow on the drum rims and Schroeder playing both a kazoo and a sax at the same time were used to great effect, generating a myriad of what ought to be dissonant sounds and yet somehow worked together brilliantly.  This same manic energy was present in the Disparate Bodies performance, but I was ready for it this time.

I think the same thought process can be applied to the thought process we as Performance Workshop students operate with when presented with the task of improvising music.  I know I all too often suffer from indecisiveness and ‘sheep’ syndrome and make few attempts to try to play something completely different or challenging.  By making affirmed decisions about what and how to play, much more is conveyed to the audience and the performance is made far more interesting.

The very nature of a distributed performance will likely mean the performers involved will have fewer opportunities to play together due to geographical separation.  Whilst a new slant on improvisation might make for some interesting and fresh sounds, there is always the possibility the performance will suffer as a result of the musicians’ inability to ‘read’ each other.

The location of the performers had a few other surprising consequences, chief among which was the predisposition present in the audience of Disparate Bodies to listen primarily to the artists present in the room.  At FAINT, the three performers had fairly equal prominence and dynamic shifts by an individual were much more noticeable to me then those of the performers in Hamburg and Graz in Disparate Bodies. 

Perhaps this concentration on the sound made by what we can see with our own eyes instead of on a TV screen is a side effect of TV itself? The audio of characters and/or actions on a screen in films are normally louder than ambient noise and back-round music added.  A teacher from my old school complained of this same trend in society; of how music and sounds are deemed less important than what we can see.  This was an unusual thing to hear an art teacher complain about, but I agreed with him.

There does seem to be a pattern in that modern media forms are becoming more and more visual-orientated.  Even what were once solely audio devices in the form of the telephone network have been usurped by text and picture messaging on mobile phones and e-mails and (how appropriate) blogs.  Its is entirely understandable too, as all the methods stated previously allows time for consideration of the response to be given and a ‘smart alec’ quip can be thought up in the time it takes to write a text or e-mail.

This is, of course, entirely opposite to improvised music.  There should be as little predetermined as possible. As much as I like the idea of a network performance, my mind seems almost unchangeably wired to want to see performers ‘in the flesh’.  It’s the reason why I would go see a band play live even if somewhat ropey rather than listen to the album at home or, perhaps more fittingly, watch them on YouTube.  An Mp3 player is to me more technically impressive than a guitar plugged into a Vox, and in the same way there was so many intriguing elements to the distributed improvisation in its implementation compared with having FAINT play together live.

I walked away from Disparate Bodies amazed at what I had seen.  I preferred FAINT because I walked away amazed at what I heard.  The tight-nit understanding between the members of FAINT was intangible, and as such technology was unable to recreate it, making all the difference.

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When I first arrived at queens, I did not know exactly what to expect from the weekly concerts that I had heard so much about in the music technology open days. I prepared myself to be open minded, to expect the unexpected and to appreciate the unconventional and as a consequence expand my mind. I’d like to think that this has happened because since coming here I have been exposed to new types of music that if anything, embody the concept of the unconventional. A strong emphasis has been put on exposing us all to performances of improvisation and I feel that it has eradicated my preconceptions of what music and in particular, improvisation entails. It dawned on me when I found myself being somewhat blown away by two performances in particular that six months prior, I would have merely sat in the audience confused whilst trying to work out a tempo or melody. The first of these two performances was “Faint” with Pedro Rebello on piano, Franziska Schroeder playing saxophones and Steve Davis sitting behind a drum kit and utilizing many other percussive items. The second performance was “Dialogic Music” with Paul Stapleton and seven other guest artists with interests and influences ranging from emo punk to medieval welsh harp to ring-tone design; an interesting mix to say the least! On my way to the faint concert I was telling myself to come with an open mindset and to interpret the entire concert as an improvisation. Before the performance even began it struck me that it had a set start time, performance location and I assumed, a time limitation which in a strange way, goes against the theme of improvisation. At the time I was trying to work out whether my analysis was overly pretentious or indeed true. I shall not deny that as a public performance to be enjoyed by the audience, a formal structure in the form of time and location would have to be established. I still could not help asking myself the question that because the performers had to perform at a particular set time and place, did it detract from the overall improvisation theme? As it is with all advertised concerts, the Dialogic Music performance had to conform to the same principles and obviously I cannot hold this against either performance as it would be ridiculous to do so, I am merely highlighting an aspect of improvisation and a topic that could be discussed in greater detail at a different time and place. I observed in amazement at the technical proficiency that was displayed at times during the Faint performance, however I was even more impressed by the creativity displayed during the improvisation which seemed to take the book of convention, shred it up and make it into confetti. Seeing Pedro Rebello playing the strings of an extremely expensive grand piano with a common drum stick was one of the many displays which took me by surprise as was the striking of tom toms by Steve Davis with what seemed to resemble a kitchen whisk. Both of these coupled with the, at times amazingly strange and always instantly engaging sounds which flowed from Franziska Schroeder’s saxophone made me feel immersed in a performance that was like nothing I had experienced before. Whilst the performers in faint played somewhat conventional instruments in a very unconventional fashion, the Dialogic Music performance consisted of instruments that where anything but conventional. On entering the room and seeing the performers sitting quietly and alert on stage, I felt that the performance had already started and consequently I felt instantly engaged and perhaps even a performer or contributor to the overall sonic performance. Paul Stapleton’s massive metallic square shaped musical construction seemed to be the centrepiece of the performance stage and throughout the performance the artists worked together in an almost effortless fashion playing the same or different instruments with an always extremely perceptive ear for the piece as one sound. The dynamics varied from the faint (no pun intended) sound of bare feet on the wooden stage to the thunderous striking of the metal construction with beaters by more than one artist at a time. Transitions between the different dynamic levels seemed to be seamless and communication between the artists, telepathic. However, one thought that crossed my mind during the performance was the layout of the stage and how it would affect the improvisation with different sound making devices scattered about the area. This applies not just to this performance only, but for any performance that has ever or will ever be performed by anyone. The thought was brought on when I observed a performer who whilst listening to the overall sound intently, suddenly looked about for a beater to strike his current instrument with. The beater was not within easy reach and he had to move to obtain it, after which he returned to his original position and struck the instrument to create the sound. I had to ask myself whether he struck the instrument because he felt he had to after obtaining the beater even though the moment may have passed or if he genuinely believed that the moment was still right for his action. Another small thought which crossed my mind was the use of pre-recorded sounds in each performance, through a lap top for the faint concert and a tape recorder for Dialogic Music. I wondered whether the pre-made sounds contradicted the improvisational nature of the performances as they were composed prior to the performance. However I felt that the timing of when these recorded sounds were played was significantly more important than the issue of them being pre-recorded since the idea of not allow oneself to use a sound source that is right for the moment just because it is pre-recorded is a limitation and therefore not desirable. Overall I felt engaged and enthralled during each of the performances and to be honest, I am not sure whether my experience of the two performances would have been as pleasurable for me a year ago or if I had not opened my mind to these new musical concepts. That being said, I’d like to think I have opened my mind as I did appreciate and to an extent feel part of both performances and their extremely influential displays of improvisation.

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Hello all,

Is anyone interested in performing a 15 minute improvised piece this Wednesday (31st October)?

I have a couple of people already enlisted, but would like a couple more. The performance would be in the morning, just before the Performance Workshop class in the Music Building.

Please get in touch with me as soon as possible via this post or one of the following email addresses –



Thanks in advance for any replies,


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Just a reminder that your reflective writing for Improvisation One is due this Wednesday before class at the latest.

Also just to clarify… regardless of what we may have said before, you need to hand this in to Audrey or Iris in the School of Music Office.

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