Tuesday, December 23, 2014

When I was alone. And then suddenly more alone. Reflections on Derek Bailey. And playing with quanta..

Derek Bailey remains something of a myth. Of what? He was, for me, one of those great legendary guitarists, a basilica on a gigantic toadstool outside of time, like a titanic Hendrix or faustian devil-may-care Robert Johnson or Manitas de Plata (atonal albeit), even while he, the good Derek of Sheffield, was yet breathing among us, even when -- after I had met players like Jack Wright & Daniel Carter -- I started to learn that musicians were (some of them, anyway) approachable human beings. But I never approached Derek Bailey, despite his tremendous influence on my life...because it was indeed after listening to him that I tried to depress notes with my toes, to bend feedback without touching strings, to avoid "scales", to interfere with and otherwise try to "get different sounds". Why I never contacted him depends less on my own awe-struck Lampenfieber (which certainly existed) or some sensation of being out of my depth, than it does upon the simple fact I never had an opportunity to see him play live, to meet him, which is pretty bizarre, now to think on it, since Oxley and Parker, I have, numerously. 

There is one other element involved in my inability or failure to reach out to him -- not to mention that I entered "the game" a bit late in life-- but there were certain tectonic shifts in the aesthetics (and therefore the politics) of the younger musicians I was associating with during the time when lower-case, onkyo (as quiet school) & so-called reductionism were fresh and ascendant blooms. While I am relatively certain most musicians in these schools or streams would never denounce Derek Bailey-- who was arguably one of the most cracked, brilliant & fertile musical imaginations of his generation and in my opinion an undisputable influence upon and even a necessary study for anyone who plays improv guitar (prepapared or unprepared)--  it also seems clear that of these many players he impressed a few of them wanted perhaps to get over this influence and establish new musical identities & explore another vocabulary. Rather famously demonstrating my point is Taku Sugimoto's distancing himself from Derek after what appeared to have been some happy years. That Derek's playing might have become symbolic of the fast-paced, bristly and busy, grand-central-station-on-fire-alert school of super-chops improv sqwonk is however for my own sense of things almost un-noticeably without severe import because he was after all a master of great compressed silences that he fit into, that gapped, the space, between. Notes. Which he seemed to know when and when notOddly enough, as I mentioned, I never caught him live, although I've never heard any album of his that did not sound 100-per-cent-live-performance, period. I've not really paid much attention to the album of the songs and ballads probably because I also tended to enjoy Derek's work most in the confused context of other players (like that first massive impression made by Music Improvisation Company,1970) where I-- maybe differently or the same as tomorrow-- felt he was somehow most clever and unpredictable and perhaps just because I too started to listen differently and became more concerned with what I had to say myself, on my own, with the instrument, and without it. Which brings me to the day that Derek died, 9 years ago, when I was in Berlin, on Christmas Day, when I was alone. And then suddenly more alone. I read the news. I closed the web-browser. I went to the guitar on the table and picked up a violin bow, pressed record, and started a great throbbing drone chord that tapered and thinned as I bowed back and forth gently detuning until the sound ultimately dissipated into vapor. When I returned from my trance, I looked at the time-line and saw 59 minutes had elapsed. And I had had no idea. That was my ritual prayer for his travels through the chiasmos of the bardo. Or any better opportunity.

On the issue of the prepared vs. unprepared guitar I do believe Derek Bailey weighs in, at least for me, for one who plays the guitar, you know, all "two ways," sometimes at once: because Derek's deconstructive maneuvers did involve almost every imaginable creative abuse (aka extended technique) of the instrument and about the only thing he didn't do a great deal of remains in the field of protracted buzz blanket click drone and Tammenesque processing, for which the guitar on the table seems quite logically placed. There are perhaps also, I must admit, many things that I imagined that Derek must have done first and better because, as I said, he's partly a myth. Mythical beings have the capacity to do things most other people can't do but they also are the site for the projections of the polymorphic magma inside our psyche. So, every once in a while, when I'm playing, entering into some kind of deja vu (as when you look at you hands and see them acting almost without thought-control), I stop myself and I say, ah, that's something Derek would do. But I am never actually sure he did anything even remotely like that. In this sense, however, Derek was always playing with quanta, has always been right by my side. Like my fingers' fingers. Perhaps always will be. Until I'm too late, one day. 

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