Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

Intriguing improvisatory performances by Robbie Duncan and Bernard Wells at St Andrew’s

By , 21/03/2018

St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts
Sonic explorations – original music for guitar and piano

Robbie Duncan (guitar, effects) and Bernard Wells (piano, keyboard)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 21 March 12:15 pm

This is a belated, ‘sort-of’ review of the St Andrew’s concert on Wednesday 21 March. So I have filed it out of date order for a few days so that it will be noticed.

I didn’t arrive at the concert till after 12.30; the first few minutes were spent tuning my head to the sounds and to the character of the playing, and trying to sense the players’ personalities and that of the music, so I lost further time before my receptors were working properly. Nevertheless, from the start, I felt in the presence of genuine, serious and imaginative music making. For one who has neither been gifted with nor been able to cultivate improvisatory musical abilites, these gifts in others have always seemed to be a kind of magic making.

Improvisatory talent is not especially rare, but as with every kind of art, the degree of talent varies hugely.

Being rather unfamiliar with the language of jazz commentary, I had initially decided that I couldn’t offer any kind of sensible review. But I gathered that guitarist Robbie Duncan had spoken interestingly and perceptively at the start of the concert; and because I had found the performances more than commonly interesting, I decided to ask whether Robbie could send me an outline of what he (they?) had said. The indirect email messages between us took some time to get through however, and so this is two weeks late.

Robbie began by remarking on the sound qualities of the church, noting that for many years he had used digital emulations of a natural reverberation in recording music. “Now at St Andrews we get to play with the real thing – a beautiful natural reverb, and a real Steinway piano.” Now they could play into and work with the natural reverberation, “allowing silence and space be part of the music”.

Then he touched on the nature of extemporisation as it is more commonly called in classical music. “Not all music has to be written down”, he said. “Jamming is what some musicians do purely for fun – it can be a social activity that those with the language and the interpersonal skills can do simply for fun. Listening is as important as speaking.”

“The scary thing is taking it into the public domain”, he said, likening the process to quantum physics where the observer (the audience) changes the outcome.

“I was initially introduced to improvisation in the 70’s by a Wellington band named Highway, and was then was inspired by Keith Jarrett’s solo piano playing where he would just make it up –  the music has a flow and a trajectory of its own.”

Then he turned to the music that they had played in the concert. “The first piece we played was to settle us down and to tune us into the sound, the acoustic space and to each other. The piece East Cape originated from a back injury I had sustained.” He found that through being in constant pain his guitar playing would speed up, and East Cape was composed with the intention of slowing himself down, with pauses, “where I could remember my breathing and reset myself tempo-wise”.

“The second and third pieces were totally improvised; we knew the start point – that is, the guitar tuning – but from there the music has a life of its own.

Improvising is all about the present moment, he said: relying on both the conscious and the subconscious mind. But more, he suggested, by the unconscious, “for by the time you have analyzed what the other musician is playing the moment has gone – for me, I just have to trust my fingers will know what to do”.

“For me this is extreme sport for musicians – there is no pre-planned structure, It’s like surfing  – you catch the wave and flow with it – sometimes you fall off but that creates the space for the next wave and the next wave.”

Another analogy would be like a dance, Robbie remarked; “sometimes one leads and sometimes one follows”.

Then he touched on his role as master of ‘effects’. “I used the ‘Empress’ echo system for the guitar effects – I believe our brains subliminally like the subtle tensions which can be created both rhythmically and harmonically.”

And unorthodox tunings also featured. He is exploring alternative tunings.
“Creating a new tuning means you can’t play your usual chords or scales,” meaning the fingers don’t instinctively go to the right places on the finger board. “It forces me as a guitar player to develop a new vocabulary, and each new tuning creates a constraint within which to work.”

Bernard responded a bit later to my approach, offering comments on the art of improvisation, and specifically on their own approach to it. He stressed that they practise together to make ‘composition in the moment’ a conscious process, “a dialogue that can continue in conversation long after we have stopped playing! There is however, always an unconscious or intuitive element entering when we play”.

All sorts of different music can be their point of departure, and he mentions everything from Gregorian Chant, through Renaissance and Baroque music to dance traditions, popular songs, jazz….

The process of improvisation “can begin with a meditative, spiritual aspect, a sense of listening to something outside ourselves (the music of the spheres or sensing a ‘potential for music’) that is always there, waiting to manifest through musicians in the physical world”.

The spiritual element begins, he says, “with musicians and the audience in silence and involves trust that we will somehow begin and honour this creative process through to its completion”.

Bernard then described the different or additional challenges with collective improvisation: “We adapt our individual styles to the fact that we are often improvising together and we thus play perhaps fewer notes, e.g. single finger piano lines to make space for the other. This approach leaves us open to invite others to participate in an expanded lineup and yet preserve our transparent musical texture where every voice is heard. We play together with an awareness for transparent quality in the combined musical line and dynamics and pitch register allowing the different qualities of the piano and guitar to be heard (timbre, attack, dynamic, sustain etc.).”

Bernard referred to listening and intuition in exploring “the unspoken communication between musicians improvising as we listen, react and respond to one another in the moment”, which involved practice and the development of intuition, “to sense who is leading at a particular moment and where the music is going (taking us)”.

So although I had missed the first 20 minutes or so of their performance, I found these perceptions by the two musicians retrospectively illuminating, and they resonated with my impressions of the ways in which the two reacted and interacted in the process of spontaneous creativity. Though one has heard improvisation of all kinds over the years, I had the feeling that these two were, more that is often the case, allowing themselves to be genuinely inspired by what had been played by each other, and by what felt like some kind of inevitable elaboration of what had just fallen from their fingers.

There was no question of trying to identify consciously just what was happening in the shape of shifting tonalities, of contrapuntal moments, elaboration of melodic fragments and all the other musical processes that musicians have devised and practised over the centuries. The resultant music had simply left the impression of something that was aesthetically attractive and emotionally rewarding.

I’d certainly like a chance to hear Wells and Duncan again in this environment.

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