Jason Bivins on Taking the Dog for a Walk

Point of Departure, Issue 51, June 2015

You can probably count on one hand the number of films about improvised music that don’t focus on particular individuals. From Imagine the Sound to Jazz is My Religion, few are the filmmakers who get the collaborative, longue durée shapes that scenes and communities take, with the indelible changes these entail for music-making.

Luxembourg’s Antoine Prum makes that very shift, following up his spotlight on Sunny Murray with this marvelously entertaining documentary about British improvised music, from its beginnings in the mid-1960s London scene (coalescing around John Stevens and the Little Theatre Club) to the present, in all its varieties. Shaped by the historical knowledge of artistic advisor Tony Bevan (who also plays and speaks) and ace interviews by the British comedian Stewart Lee (whose spot on Celebrity Mastermind, where he chose Derek Bailey as his category, is a highlight), the two-hour film alternates between conversations and performances, history and anthropology, all focused on delineating the impressive range of aesthetic sensibilities taking shape across generations, all held together in a community that not only tolerates such different sensibilities but invites clash and contradiction in the name of possibility.

It opens with a fabulously exemplary scene, in which drummer Marc Sanders interacts with a Bingo caller until trombonist Alan Tomlinson enters with some raucous hog-calling. It’s a nice way to capture the immediacy, the prankishness, the everyday concerns of this scene. The film lingers over the recollections of Richard Williams, Victor Schonfield, and others talking about the radical collective, egalitarian ethos emerging around Stevens, Watts, and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, which proved so attractive to young improvisers like Maggie Nicols (whose recollections are marvelous here) and Veryan Weston. You get a clear sense of how fast-moving the “movement towards diversity” was in these early days, through SME and Evan Parker, Derek Bailey and AMM. The shared focus, and the greatest subsequent influence, was on purity, authenticity, and developing your own language, testing its limits in extreme situations and familiar ones, one-off chance meetings or units of long standing.

Much of this is known to fans of the music, though this is as good an account as any (and is so very much worth it for the documentation and the posterity). But what really connects about this film are the detailed, compelling accounts of development and differences in aesthetics from different improvisers. So many key figures on this scene – from Roger Turner and Phil Minton to Johns Edwards and Butcher – get considerable time to convey their sensibilities in detail that you come away with a very much clearer understanding of what makes this particular constellation of musicians so distinctive. (And there is an entire second DVD consisting of the entire interviews with key figures, a fabulous archive that is a very nice touch from the producers.) Turner describes how the second generation was “promiscuous in their interchanging of musical partners,” and notes how the quiet “insect music” was in many ways a response to cramped apartment living in the city (this is a fascinating pre-echo of Tokyo’s Onkyo scene). Steve Beresford talks about the entertainment factor, the roots of “extended technique” in R&B bands and Spike Jones soundtracks.

In each case, the interviewees are shown in performance as well, and more than just a perfunctory few seconds (there’s also a terrific CD included here, a vivid trio of guitarist/clarinetist Alex Ward, drummer Steve Noble, and Edwards, also excerpted here and there in the film). For example, after discussing how he began to develop his technique by imitating family members and environments in Wales, Phil Minton performs with Beresford, Eddie Prévost, and horns. Bassist Edwards recalls his baptism moment, seeing a Barre Phillips “solo” consisting mostly of Phillips chatting with the audience. This kind of intimacy, always possible at the small gigs improvisers play (alas), certainly makes possible a kind of reflection on audience and motivation. Edwards recalls a student asking “What do you aim to get from a gig?” His response, on camera, problematized the very question: “One of the important things is being able to accept failure … The whole point is about doing it.” This kind of self-abnegation, combined with vivid good humor, also gives the film its title: the old joke holds that improv audiences typically consist of three people and a dog, and so if you wonder what can be done for such an audience, well at least you can take the dog for a walk.

And yes, there is a dog shown outside a studio, standing before younger musicians like pianist Matthew Bourne, bassist Dominic Lash, harpist Rhodri Davies, and saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, who now have to confront this music as its own kind of lineage, scene, or even tradition of Britishness. The closer you get to the present, with its complex weave of different generations and influences, the wider both the questioning and the music get. The late Lol Coxhill and Alex Ward play a juicy, overtone-rich  soprano-clarinet duo, after which they debate whether improvised music is a shared music (and Ward describes the shift from a focus on purely non-idiomatic playing to an improvised music comfortable in assimilating absolutely everything). This much is consistent with the spirit of what Prévost calls the music’s “permission to disobey,” seeking to find your own music on your own terms.

The scene has regularly investigated organization and even institutionalization, as with the London Musicians’ Collective (housed briefly in a former railway workers’ canteen in Camden Town), remembered vividly by Max Eastley and others, or the salons regularly sponsored by Incus’ Karen Brookman Bailey (who speaks eloquently about the relation between orthodoxy and recorded documents). But for the most part, as Noble conveys, musicians simply ride along from gig to gig, following their own idiosyncratic course across the conceptual geography of multifarious London. There is action painting, poetry, performances on boats. There is Thurston Moore talking about the shocking resonance of Bailey across idioms. There is Adam Bohmann building and playing his own mad scientist’s instruments. These musicians think deeply about their art. Trombonist Sarah Gail Brand finds value in what she identifies as the fragility, vulnerability, shyness, and humor of the British scene, saying that you can’t affect the language of free playing, because if you do this you’re inevitably not actually playing it – “you’re working it out as you go along, and if it doesn’t work, there we are.” Saxophonist Caroline Kraabel talks eloquently about the “foolhardy ambition” to integrate all aspects of your life. Guitarist John Russell talks about how visceral the music seemed to him, not just cerebrally interesting. And Butcher describes the challenge of creating your own music but also cultivating on-the-spot flexibility: “it’s the only time when I feel like I’m physically in time, as part of the time.”

There are more highlights of interviews and performances and vintage footage than can reasonably be noted in an already-long review. Suffice it to say, this is an essential document that should be investigated by anyone with even the slightest interest in this music. But I would be remiss if I didn’t note how regularly moving it is, at least to this writer. It consistently sings the praises of a defiant scene committed to individual aesthetics in a world that turns away from strange beauty. While the din goes on, musicians dream up and work on and play back to each other their own sounds of possibility in the room above a pub, a bingo parlor, or a rustic country stream. Give thanks.