Thinking about the most memorable performances I have been involved in has served as an effective reminder of how bad my memory is. Actually, that needs a little bit of qualification. I’m not particularly absent-minded or forgetful—though I’m not fantastic about birthdays. I have no problem remembering what gigs are coming up, or in general where I’m going to need to be in the coming weeks. But if I’m asked at these gigs what I’ve been up to recently—as I often am, the life of an improviser (well, my life, anyway) consisting much more of sporadic encounters with a shifting cast of associates than regular meetings with the same ensembles, so that there’s catching up to be done at most shows, both personally and musically—I often struggle to recall even one gig I’ve done recently. Perhaps, you might be thinking, that’s because they’re not all that memorable. But the same thing happens if I ask myself what are the most memorable gigs I’ve ever done: blankness.
Ruminating on this state of affairs, I find myself wondering if this might not be an entirely negative situation for an improviser. A forward-looking imagination consisting of projections and fantasties of what is about to happen (Memories of the Future, according to Kode 9 and the Spaceape) is more likely to give the music life and momentum than total recall about everything that has happened up to that point, which I imagine would be close to incapacitating. I take some comfort that I am not alone from the poet Tom Raworth who once wrote of his method of reading as much as humanly possible, of which he retained very little. Or Derek Bailey, who upon being played a recording of some Webern by Ben Watson initially had no idea what it was, even though it was music he had at one stage in his life listened to over and over again. When I return to a record I once listened to obsessively, but have not gone back to in a long while, I sometimes find tremendous excitement before I put it on. I will have only a vague idea of it in my mind, more connected to my memory of the effect it had on me than to how it actually sounds, and so I can’t wait to discover what wonders lie within. But more often than not when I do actually put it on I find it all comes rushing back to me, that actually I know it very well indeed, that it’s not actually that great after all, and that that was precisely why I hadn’t listened to it for so long.
So it’s the cue that is often lacking, more than the memory itself. I suppose I could list the “biggest” gigs I have done, with the “most famous” people, since that’s what non-musicians often assume you will remember. I suppose the most “actually” famous person to encounter a gig of mine was when I played in the band of a drummer friend in Oxford, who was himself a friend of Jonny Greenwood. Mr. Greenwood passed me on the stairs as I was carrying my gear out of the pub and said “nice playing”, out of politeness I think since the stairs were rather narrow. But I can’t remember anything else about the gig, so I don’t think that counts. In fact, memorable moments at gigs often happen at those at which one isn’t playing. A particular favourite was the moment before Radu Malfatti and Michael Pisaro played a duo at the Stone in New York as part of the Amplify 2011: Stones festival; both men were settling themselves in their chairs, Michael had checked that all was right with his guitar, the audience chatter was just fading away, and you could see from Radu’s face that he was getting himself into the right relaxed-but-focused state for playing, when he suddenly looked up and exclaimed, “my trombone!” And indeed, it was sitting on the other side of the room… I’d love to be able to get into that kind of state of mind before playing but temperamentally and for ergonomic, physical reasons (it’s quite hard to forget whether or not you’re holding a double bass) it doesn’t seem likely. Perhaps if I was that comfortable within myself I’d remember more of my gigs.
Playing some of Michael’s and Radu’s music along with that of a number of other Wandelweiser composers in a seven-hour concert with Rhodri Davies in Glasgow in January 2011 was also very memorable, but what I remember most is not anything musical as such but rather the contrast between being in a performing state, and withdrawing from it somewhat—not totally—when Rhodri was playing a solo piece, as well as the way the light gradually fell over the course of the concert as evening drew on, the change imperceptible but resulting in a dramatically different atmosphere at the end of the performance than at the beginning. Alternatively, sound can make something memorable in a not-exactly musical way. Playing with Tony Conrad at the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in 2008 was a memorable gig but much more memorable was in the soundcheck before they closed the automatic doors—the bass was so heavily amplified that when I played a note (all I was allowed to play was my lowest string open, tuned down to D) so much air was moving that the automatic doors would open! Now that’s low end you can’t ignore. (There’s a little film of the event here, which is itself made particularly memorable for me by the inadvertent cameo of my dad’s purposive striding at 1’59”.) Although, thinking about it, being ignored can itself be very memorable. There was one performance at a leaving party for a very important arts bigwig with a quintet, where an absolutely full-on Steve Noble drum solo was paid no more attention that if it had been a radio tuned quietly to Classic FM. As we left, one of the Important Persons said to us, “sorry you didn’t really get much attention paid to you, but it was awfully nice.”
Of course, what is memorable for an audience may be—usually is?—totally different from what is memorable for a performer. I try not to think about what audiences are thinking, not because I take them for granted or don’t care what they think, but because I’ve learnt the hard way that I have no idea what they think. Gigs I’m sure will go down a storm actually go down more like a lightning-struck lead balloon, while excruciating trainwrecks can leave people beaming. At the last gig during the UK tour of my Quartet last year (documented rather elegantly here), I was accosted in the interval by some audience members. They were enjoying the music but irritated by the fact that we segued every tune. Why couldn’t I allow some breathing space, they wondered? I tried to explain that I did understand what they meant, but that I was interested in what happened to the improvisation in the space between the tunes, and that with luck now they knew what was going on it wouldn’t seem so exhausting. But they persisted and I’m afraid I lost my temper just a little bit—we were about to play the very last set of the whole tour and I certainly wasn’t about to start changing how we approached the music at that point. As it happened, the last set was particularly intense and breathless, one piece rushing headlong into another, and while I thought I was musically great, part of me couldn’t help but think how much that one table must have been hating it. Coming off stage I inwardly flinched as I went past their table, and one of them grabbed my elbow: “That was great! We loved it!” “It wasn’t a problem, not having breaks between the pieces?” “No, it was fantastic!”
Not much more than half a year on from the gig, I remember that audience reaction, and my reaction to the reaction, much more than I remember the details of the music itself. Not that the youtube clip will let you make up your own mind, of course, as it’s only a few edited highlights. So much ends up online these days, and so little in exactly the way that one would choose. Not that I’m complaining—most people are pretty good about asking you if they can put things up, and I always say yes anyway. As long as there are some good videos floating around, I can’t get too worked up about the existence of the bad ones—especially as what I don’t like about the bad ones is almost always my own playing, and hence my own fault. As I believe Derek Bailey is supposed to have said once when Simon Fell told him he didn’t like a particular bit of his bass playing on a recording of them playing together, “well, you shouldn’t have played it then!” Listening and watching back I tend to like recordings most if they don’t sound the way I remember, or give me a different perspective on the music. Like this recent duo with John Russell. The recording is adequate but not amazing (and much better on headphones than laptop speakers, of course), but listening to the music as a whole feels very different to my memory of the sensation of playing. After the fact, the music seems more organised, with a plethora of different ways one can listen to the connections between parts, and at the same time, paradoxically, more chaotic, without the inexorable discipline of the need for decision in the moment.
A totally forgettable gig just makes no impression, but a really good gig impresses itself on you in different ways at different times, changing itself in the memory into different and dramatic shapes, ready to be brought back to mind when summoned by the appropriate cue, each recall adding to and altering the memory itself. If fully remembering something is a neat and tidy recall, all details filed appropriately, perhaps what I really mean is that I prefer the gigs I can’t remember.â–
Dominic Lash, Southville, 13/8/14