Thank you for your kind comments about the Night Journey album with Matthew Barley. This a suite of pieces for shakuhachi and cello that are totally improvised.
You asked me the question “How do you improvise?”
I find that to be a fascinating question, and as I don’t really know the answer, it gave me cause for some reflection
I think it has a lot to do with being able to listen and respond.
There are so many different ways that listening, and responding, come into play with music-making, whether or not the music is improvised. For example, a pianist accompanying a singer; or orchestral musicians responding to a conductor; or a jazz pianist knowing when the sax solo is coming to an end; or a bass player locking in with a drummer in a rock band.
However, in the case of these duets with Matthew Barley, the capacity to listen and respond is much more refined because the music is totally improvised, outside of any fixed melody, chord sequence, rhythm, scale or mode. Every note, every musical phrase, every dynamic twist and turn in the textural flow of sound, is totally improvised from moment to moment.
Allow me to give some context to how the Night Journey album came to be made – Matthew and I have played together actually very few times since we met. I think we counted only seven times over 15 years. We actually improvised together the very first time we met, in the lounge of a friend’s house back in 2005. All the other six times we met have either been in live performances, totally improvised with no rehearsal, or in recording sessions, again without any rehearsals. We’ve never rehearsed or practiced anything together, only having the most basic conversations about what to play next … for example, which flute I will play and which note is the basic tone of a particular flute.
The capacity to listen well as a musician is a gift that can be cultivated, and it involves listening to one’s own inner, intuitive flow that is translated into sound.
Maybe all artists, whether musicians, writers or painters are always learning how to tune in more deeply and more subtly to their own inner, intuitive flow – the deep streams of creative wisdom, awareness and invention that are always alive within us but sometimes veiled behind a screen of conditioned responses, or deeply buried behind a wall of unexplored assumptions.
Listening in this sense also refers to the capacity to be open to the other musician’s intuitive flow – to be able to tune in, almost telepathically, to where the music is coming from and where it is headed, and and to allow these two streams to merge and weave together, dancing in delight as partners of expressive explorations in sound, melody, harmony and form.
The capacity to be able to do this depends on several elements …
Firstly, a solid foundation of musical technique that is built on years and years of dedicated practice so that the instrument is able to do what you want it to do, and the sounds in your head can actually successfully come out of the instrument. Both Matthew and I have serious music practice regimes built into our lives so that we are (hopefully) always at the top of our game in terms of technical control over our instruments.
The second element is to have a certain kind of expansive, adventurous, risk-taking spirit together with a kind of curiosity as to what might happen and a willingness to try things even if they don’t work out. For example … Matthew plays a particular musical phrase and in my minds ear I hear a possible accompanying phrase, but then when I play something, it sounds ‘wrong’ to my ears, so I instantly change direction and try something else … its like dancing on stepping stones that are moving around as you dance …
The third element, relevant to the music that Matthew and I play, is the broad range of different musical styles and genres that the two of us have been immersed in at one point or the other over the past 50 years of our musical lives. We have some cross-over in our musical interests as well as many areas where one or other of us has specialized for a while in something or other .
A list of some of the different musical styles that Matthew and I have been involved with at one point or another is as very long list! It includes:
Classical symphonic and chamber music.
Contemporary and avant-garde classical music
Trad. jazz/ Swing jazz / Big Band Jazz /Modern jazz / Brazilian jazz
Baroque and Renaissance music
Japanese shakuhachi music
Japanese Gagaku court orchestral music
Japanese Minyou (folk music)
Celtic and Northumbrian folk music
Colombian and Peruvian Icaros
Brazilian forest songs
Devotional Chants from India and Tibet
Eastern European Folk Music
Rock and blues music
Brass bands and processional street bands
Chanting and meditation music.
Environmental and Landscape music
The list goes on….
All of these musical experiences combine to make a big melting pot of experience from which different melodic and timbral shapes are taken as threads to weave the tapestry of sound that is emerging in each moment.
Matthew and I are both musical magpies that have been fortunate enough to have made a career from these musical explorations and the resulting collaborations, whether in new compositions, concerts, recordings or other creative projects. Alongside this we are both adventurous souls and thirsty for as much life as we can drink down in our time on this planet. And somehow…all of this comes through in what happens when we sit down together wth our musical instruments in our hands.
But I suppose the fourth element, and most important one, is the condition of the heart. Because no amount of musical experience and no amount of careful listening will amount to much if you are not in tune with what you are feeling, and if you are afraid to express those feelings with unconditional love and with a fierce prayer. This might be expressed in one moment as a great swooping melody, and in the next moment as a filigree wisp of sound on the very edge of silence, opening through the portal of sound into a world beyond from whence all phenomena rise and fall.
I can also add some more reflections on the solo improvisations I play on shakuhachi, which have a different context from improvising with Matthew Barley or another musicians.
I’ve been practising the shakuhachi every day now for over 30 years now, and for most of that time there has been a lot of frustration at even being able to make a sound, as we know it’s a notoriously difficult instrument to play. But perseverance has its own rewards, and so now after thirty years I am the enjoying fruits of that persistence as the music flows.
My practice has always involved a creative, improvisatory side as well as the more disciplined aspects of Honkyoku study, and this is something i would emphasise to shakuhachi players wanting to learn how to improvise on the instrument – you have to build elements of improvisation and free-flowing explorations into your daily practice.
Also, just as with the performance of Honkyoku, there are many challenges and obstacles to be overcome with an improvisatory approach to playing. Not all is plain sailing … the very long flutes in particular cause a lot of strain in the fingers that travels all the way up the arm, across the shoulder and into the neck and back, as anyone who has played them for a long time can testify …. and it can sometimes be quite an ordeal to get to the end of the piece, even when improvised. But if a piece is totally improvised you might ask why don’t you just bring the piece to a close if you are not feeling comfortable? Well, the answer is that once I get in a real good flow the music seems to take on its own internal dynamic and I can’t get off the train until it comes into the station of its own accord. So this means I can’t stop the piece anywhere I like, simply because my arm is hurting, or because I feel like I ran out of ideas, or because the things I wanted to play didn’t come out sounding like I intended them to sound. I have a stronger feeling of being in service to the music, of being a channel for the sound that wishes to manifest in a certain way, and I find myself as something of a facilitator for that process, almost as if I am observing and witnessing what is happening as the sounds come out of the flute.
And, a solo shakuhachi performance can never be far removed from the associations of Hokkyoku. This means that apart from purely musical considerations about melodies and scales, there are other aspects to this music that help determine what is manifesting, and those aspects are linked to the context of zen meditation, and the way that the beginnings and endings of notes, the shape of notes, and the shape of silence are influenced by a certain mental attitude or intention. Best expressed in a phrase coined by my shakuhachi teacher, the great Master Yokoyama Katsuya to describe the piece Koku – Purposeful Unhindered Inaction.
And above and beyond all, the fifth element, is the question of silence.
Because at the end of the day, I have come to understand that even the most beautiful and beguiling musical phrases, whether improvised or composed, are simply ways of articulating the silence that follows. And all the effort to master the shakuhachi and to control the myriad tonal inflections and subtle dynamics, are really efforts to create a portal through which one can enter into silence. This silence could be said to be all around us and within us, if we really knew how to listen, but perhaps music in its highest form for me, is not about the melodies, harmonies, timbres and phrasing … it is about the capacity of sound to lead us beyond the senses, into an internal and a cosmic dimension where silence reigns supreme.
The biggest gift I received from my teacher Yokoyama Katsuya was the understanding that each musical phrase, each single note, should be played as if one’s whole life depended upon it. He said that learning an ancient instrument of Zen is not to imitate something as a holy scripture, but rather to awaken inside oneself the fresh living spirit that lies at the heart of the tradition, for this shakuhachi music is far deeper than the pieces themselves, it is a way to penetrate something true within the depth of being.
Here is the link to the Night Journey album.