Free-Improv Case Studies:
Bret Hart's Duets Series

by Jerry Kranitz

From Aural Innovations #18 (January 2002)

[Since 1988, I have increasingly inserted obstacles into my work. In so doing, playing and performing music has remained enjoyable and sporting. I think of interactions with other improvisors and 'style' players as tennis matches, or some time on the links or on a pinball machine. Sometimes, I get my butt whipped.]
- Bret Hart

My step-daughter's little boys (3 ˝ years and 15 months old) often stay with us and I recall an incident when the older boy, Nathan, was drawing with crayons and a coloring book. After drawing quietly for a little while he became agitated, started smashing his crayon into the book, and saying "Stay in the lines!! Stay in the lines!!". The way he said this freaked me out a little and I half expected his head to spin around and spew pea soup. I was surprised to see him so concerned about staying in the lines, but no matter... common sense (in lieu of parenting skills) told me to chuck the coloring book in favor of some blank paper and encourage him to let the creative spirit lead him where it would. And indeed it did. After spending quite some time completing a multi-colored glom of scribbles and doodles he went into great detail identifying everything in the picture (which was some family outing featuring each family member, their home, the highway, and their destination). I told his mom about this and we later discovered that one of his uncles had been giving him a hard time about having to stay in the lines when drawing in coloring books.

Of course Nathan had clear images in mind while drawing on the blank paper, but the point is that once free of the rigid guidelines set out in the coloring book, he let the images in his mind come flowing through his arms, down to his hands, and guide the crayons on the paper, which he did quite freely and fluidly, and without any concern for whether the results would be an accurate visual representation of the scenes he imagined. Is there any purer form of art?

Improvisational music is in some ways the equivalent of the scribbles and doodles that Nathan drew, though there isn't necessarily an image or thought that prompts the improvising musician. But it is the result of something that emerges from the musicians hands or mouth. Something that begins in thought, or comes straight from the soul. It can include various levels of structure or even have guidelines laid, though not in the restricting sense of the coloring book.

There are a number of reasons, most of which I'm not really clear about, that I've long enjoyed the more abstract, or "difficult", forms of improvisational music. Like many people I discovered improvisation when bands during rock concerts would take an extended period in the middle of a known song to freely jam for a while before returning to finish the song. It was these jams that often made concerts so special, in part because they offered something worth going out for than just hearing the same songs I knew from the albums rehashed live. When I discovered the Kosmiche music of the late 60's/early 70's this opened up a whole new world. Bands that would do entire albums of freeform cosmic jams, music that seemed to come from their souls, and certainly touched mine. And jazz of course offered endless opportunities to experience this free form of expression.

I've never been able to articulate why I enjoy these abstract musics so much. They just, as guitarist and improviser Greg Segal says, pass my "taste test". Musician Bret Hart (who we profiled in AI #16) is a long time improviser who has actively sought out musicians to collaborate with. The result has been the Duets series of CD's released on his InstrumenTales label. There are a number of reasons for covering Bret's series of Duets. First, I dig his music and enjoy diving into a huge pile of CD's sent by an artist or label. Second, Bret collaborates with lots of talented musicians and this is an opportunity to give exposure to several artists within a single article. And third, it's an opportunity to do something a little collaborative myself. This is less a "review" than a collection of impressions and thoughts from both the producers and a consumer of an art who have communicated informally with one another. It's not an attempt to get to the bottom of this improvising thing. I feel no need to analyze the creative process or the spirit that drives it (nor am I qualified). I am, however, fascinated by what I hear, knowing that the sounds somehow emerged from someone, producing something that pleases me. It's that simple. And with that simplicity in mind, I think it's interesting and valuable to explore improvisation as an art form, using the Duets series as our "case study", in the hope that readers will be intrigued and want to check it out for themselves. The rewards for taking the plunge and listening with an open mind and ear are many. And.... who knows what future articles this may lead to?

I labored over how I was going to organize this article. Finally, I just let intuition, simplicity, and what I hoped would be an enjoyable and informative read decide the results. What follows is a discography of the Duets series, including notes by Bret about most of the releases that I think helps the reader get a feel for the artist's perspective of the process, impressions from myself as the listener (I haven't heard all entries in the series), and answers to some questions I threw at several of the participants. Uncredited italicized paragraphs are Bret's notes about the entries in the series.

[I trust my body. I am aware of its slowness and insufficient articulation in certain environments. I sometimes lapse into generalized trance-states, possibly induced by the music I am making, which limit variation and cause my playing to become horizontal and patterned. These periods are analogous to 'cleansing breaths', allowing other strategies a moment to ferment before I execute them.]
- Bret Hart

InstrumenTales Improvisational Duets Series

[NOTE: The name appearing first in any title is that of the musician who contributed sourcetracks (the 'initiator') to the other. The 'finisher' did final mixdown in almost every instance. I already reviewed Hart/Ernesto Diaz-Infante Vol I, Hart/Mark Kissinger Vol I, Don Campau/Hart Vol I, and Hart/Alonzo Phillips Vol I as part of my profile of Bret in AI #16, and therefore will leave it to readers to circle back and read that article and interview with Bret.]

ITIDS#01: Bret Hart/Ernesto Diaz-Infante Vol I

I sent Ernesto solo dobro, stringed-instrument (Vietnamese 'moon-lute', electric saz, mandolin), E-Bow, ballpoint pen, and fuzz-pedal flour sifter performances. To these he added prepared guitar. Overall, more 'song-y' than most of the things he and I create together.

ITIDS#02: Bret Hart/Ernesto Diaz-Infante Vol II

Ernest sent me unaccompanied prepared guitar performances, alongside which I added electronics and signal-processed tape collage layering (using a process I call 'musique cement', in tribute to the musique concrete experiments and compositions of the last century). Many of these sources were non-musical (conversation, experiments, ambiently recorded material from nature). The cussing is my Grandfather.

Vol II of Bret's duet with Ernesto Diaz-Infante explores different territory than the first, this outing again featuring Ernesto on prepared guitar, but Bret contributing electronics and tape manipulations instead of instruments. A series of guitar manipulations are accompanied by drone electronics and not unpleasant levels of noise. The electronics get pretty heavily into the space-drone/noise realm, with Bret exploring some of the coarser corners of the cosmos. There's even some parts that reminded me of old 1950's sci fi flick soundtracks, though much grittier than the standard ooh-wee-ooh sounds. Pairing this style with Ernesto's avant-guitar improvs is certainly something different and results in some fun and intriguing contrasts. Ernesto plays in his classic improv guitar style, playing and manipulating the instrument's strings and body in a variety of ways, though I also detected some fairly rocking rhythms on some of the tracks.

ITIDS#03: Mark Kissinger/Bret Hart Vol I

Mark sent me a number of his unaccompanied guitar performances. To these I added 'low sounds' - improvised performances on sound sources sent through an octave-dividing processor. These sources included: mandolin, keyboard, hairbrushes and comb, Strum-Stick, bass-banjo, toy telephone, Taiwanese 'harmonica', rainstick, scissors, and a Bible; all sounding quite different than you'd expect because of the radically dropped pitches.

ITIDS#04: David Wortman/Bret Hart Vol I

David is a saxophonist who used to teach Band at my school and we eventually began playing together in the group Rockingham County Recyclers (with Scotty Irving). For this project, David recorded himself improvising and playing adaptations of Classical 'covers' [Dm Etude, Aria] and standards [Take the A Train, Fly Me To The Moon]. These source recordings were manipulated significantly; some having been sent through gigantic (20-30s) delays so that David often sounds like he's being followed/accompanied by another, very distorted, horn-player. To this I added dobro, controlled line-noise, feedback, VSO'd guitar, house-sounds, and homemade instruments.

Vol I of Bret's duet with reed player David Wortman features Bret playing "other"... the other sounding like guitar and some electronics. The music features Wortman's jazz style of playing against Bret's avant guitar improvs which include both quiet and noisily aggressive styles, and lots of trippy swirly sounds that give the music a nice freaky feel. A little psychedelia looming in the background doesn't hurt now does it? With this set the Duets series has scored another hit in the wild and wooly contrasts department, incorporating "almost" standard jazz stylings into the avant-garde free-improv realm. The pair take such classics as Ellington's "Take The 'A' Train" and "Fly Me To The Moon" (Tony Bennett?) and run them lovingly through the grinder to produce interpretations that would scare the bejeezus out of most jazz fans.

ITIDS#05: Don Campau/Bret Hart Vol I

Don sent me eight pieces he had recorded on steel-string, classical, and electric guitar. These, too, have a nice 'song-iness' which were enjoyable to improvise with. Don digressed enormously from the guitar approaches I have come to expect from him. I used only (often seriously tweaked) dobro on this project. An EP-length project.

ITIDS#16: Bret Hart/Don Campau Vol II

In response to criticism that the pieces on our first duets CD were too short and didn't take time enough to develop, Don and I went for length and thickness. I sent him the very same sourcetracks that Ernesto tackled on our first duets record. Don accompanied these solo tracks (dobro, Strum-stick, Can-Jo, saz, flour sifter) using electric, acoustic, and classical guitars SIMULTANEOUSLY.

I reviewed Vol I of Bret and Don's Duet earlier, and while I overall enjoyed it, my main criticism was that many of the tracks were begging for further development. Well on Vol II we hear the duo answering that call, having produced a follow-up that is lightyears ahead of the first. The guys grabbed me right out of the starting gate with a bit of drone and noise psychedelia that includes free-improv guitar ("Howl"). Is it avant space rock? Perhaps so. "Kessel/Crumbs" is another standout track with very cool dual guitars, one playing somewhat jazzy patterns and the other strumming in a style that straddles the line between jazz and avant-rock. I dig the variety of string attacks and the stylings develop through a variety of patterns and sounds, continuing to explore drone and noise territory. I'm really enjoying this sound that's rooted in free-improv guitar, but explores spacier realms as well. Overall, there's loads of excellent guitar ideas throughout that really grabbed me with their artful use of noise, drones, and FINE creative playing.

ITIDS#06: Fred Hall/Bret Hart Vol I

This was the first duets project which was recorded by two people in the same room. Source duets were recorded at Fred's Toilet Bowl Studio. He performed on guitars, using a broad array of pedal effects to shape sound. I played electric guitar (rare), drum machine, The Howler, and 'pseudo-bass' (octaved guitar). The descending riff from Led Zeppelin's 'Dazed and Confused' crops-up several times as a theme on this project.

ITIDS#14: Bret Hart/Fred Hall Vol II

Fred gave me a CD-R full of his guitar mania. To these I added E-Bow resonated objects, percussion, and ambiently gathered environments (solo sourcetapes since lost!). We chose a theme for this collection - the work of Constantin Raudive, who wrote the book Breakthroughs about tape-recording the voices of the dead ('electronic voice phenomena'). Pretty scary overall.

ITIDS#20: Fred Hall/Bret Hart Vol III

This project spun out of several soundsource acquisitions: a DeArmond Ashbory electric bass, some Magik Wands (resonant metal), and the discovery that my old Casio SK5 sampling keyboard still worked! Solo tracks recorded on these were taken by Fred and 'alchemized'. As always, Fred's guitar takes on a timbral life of its own. Thanks to his considerable talent in signal-processing his guitar.

Fred Hall has been known to me for some time as a member of Automatic Music (see review this issue) and also records under the moniker Gentlemaniac. Vol I features oodles of rumbling guitars that build a wall of feedback and drones, and are accompanied by layers of varied guitar patterns which include chaotic and noisy takes on traditional styles. I love all kinds of traditional music, and Bret and Fred succeed in creatively destroying a parade of styles including country and Blues, giving it all a crazed acidic blast of energy and pure sonic thrust. Just when you thought there was nothing more that could be done with a basic Blues-rock configuration... check out these chord patterns combined with brain-piercing FUZZ and general radio waved turmoil. But there are also some really nice melodic pieces that are truly instrumental "songs", though they also have waves of noise looming in the background. Vol II takes a different course, being a more minimal work. Repetitive, slowly developing patterns are a trademark of this set, though the attentive listener will hear that Bret and Fred are producing as much variety as heard on Vol I. The music has a strong noise-ambient quality. Atmospheric and image-inducing, Bret and Fred invite all adventurous cosmo-rockers to join them on their voyage through space and sound.

ITIDS#07: Bret Hart/Alonzo Phillips Vol I

On this record, Alonzo played acoustic guitar and I accompanied him on dobro. Very folk-y/Blues-y, which is in keeping with the spirit of this record: My Grandparents' hometown of Hornell, NY during the 1960's. The song titles functioned as meditations to guide us emotionally through our improvisations. Phillips used to fish in that part of New York State in the 50's and 60's. Uncommon entrainment and synchronicity. Very idiomatic.

ITIDS#08: Ben Horrendous/Bret Hart Vol I

Ben sent me a slew of great bass and slide/distorted electric guitar sourcetracks to have at. His style is very Captain Beefheart-y, which made accompanying him particularly enjoyable. I tried to maintain the implied spirit of what he offered in adding solidbody mandolin, banjo-ukulele, and electric saz. Very song-y (idiomatic).

While noise has a prominent and intentional place in many of these works, Bret's collaboration with Ben is one of the less noisy entries in the series. Ben plays electric guitar, slack-string guitar, and bass, and Bret contributes solidbody electric mandolin, banjo-ukelele, and electric saz. The recordings sound like the two were recorded live in a studio together, so bravo on a well done mixing job. Chaos takes a backseat on these tracks to a more quietly considered approach, each note standing out as an entire phrase. Like so many of these collaborations, the variety of sounds the musicians produce is a highlight of the listening experience, and the duo include a mighty long list of creative earcandy. One of my favorite tracks is "Set Sun", one of the more sonically intense tracks on the disc. It includes fuzzed slide guitar and a combination of freakout runs on the fretboard and the slower subtle stylings heard on the other tracks. The result is a glorious marriage of contrast and cooperation, and the superior sound quality helps bring each element to forefront. Definitely one of the stronger entries in the Duets series. When I first put on the CD I went directly to the last track as a penned note from Bret on the tray card mentioned that a bread machine is heard on it. Sounds cool... I would have never guessed.

ITIDS#09: Steve Blake/Bret Hart Vol I

Steve is a multi-instrumentalist/producer who has engineered or produced several of my song writing records since 1996. We have performed together in bands, and he's brought me in to add strange things to records he was making. On this project, Steve sent me guitar parts extracted from extant tape. His chameleonic way of tapping into all sorts of 1970's Rock idioms blows me away. To his electric guitar performances I added Can-Jo, Strum-Stick, and dobro accompaniment. Idiomatic.

Whooooo-eee!!! This sucker opens up with some sonic space blasts á la Space Ritual-era Hawkwind, the guitar rumbling and screaming as it does it's brutal space magic. But of course it's accompanied by free-improv guitar (Bret's dobro I believe), though even that has a harsh acidic edge to it. But the next track does a complete 360, veering off into a guitar combo of contrasting traditional styles, only to return to the more rockin' psychy stuff. The variety is to be expected as the sourcetapes for these recordings date from between 1983-1992, with Bret playing the Finisher role in 2001. The duo offer up a nice variety of melodic improvs and heavier rockin' music, so this is a good candidate for anyone wanting to get their feet wet with the series by starting with some more rockin' tripped out music. There's a lot of familiar rock structures and sounds for the curious who wish to tread lightly. Check out "The News" for some cool Hendrix-jams-with-the-folkies mayhem. Fun!

ITIDS#10: Scotty Irving/Bret Hart Vol I

Scotty (Clang Quartet) Irving has been a friend and collaborator since we met in 1998. He is the inventor of The Crutch, The Electric Stapler, and other creative electronics. For this project, Scotty gave me a series of slide guitar, E-Bow, and Crutch performances. I pulled one of his live Clang Quartet performances out and added that to the sourcetracks. To these things I provided accompaniment with a variety of E-Bow resonated stringed instruments and E-Bow resonated desk stapler spring.

Scotty Irving is one of the few collaborators in the series who is local to Bret, and some of you may know his recordings under the name Clang Quartet. For this Duets, Scotty contributes lots of avant-traditional guitar bits, including some enjoyably creative slide work and Bluesy styles. Bret put the finishing touches on Scotty's recordings with E-bow, the result being yet another one of the Duets series' interesting union of contrasts. The E-bow provides ambience, noise, and orchestral sounds. At times it's almost like a dark theatrical symphony. Some of the highlights of the set are the varied E-bow manipulations played alongside Scotty's Bluesy acoustic parts. Very nice. I also enjoyed the quiet melodic moments that again mixes slide Blues guitar with the spacey atmospherics of the E-bow, some of which sounds like pure electronics. Things get a bit clashing and banging at times, though the noise levels are very controlled. I'd say my hands down favorite track is "Knitting Factory" which consists of fiery jazz/ethnic percussion alongside the E-bow atmospherics. I never cease to be amazed by the variety of sounds that can be wrenched from stringed instruments and the Duet's releases are genuine case studies of this phenomena.

ITIDS#11: Phil Kellogg/Bret Hart Vol I

Phil is an incredible improvising slide guitarist - heavily influenced by Captain Beefheart - from Northern California. He sent me a tape containing numerous acoustic meditations, many in a Delta Blues vein. Like the project with Alonzo Phillips, this one waxes very idiomatic and 'song-y'. Ironically, this record sounds (to me) quite similar at times to the work of John Fahey - who had just died on us. Phil organized a great tribute concert in San Francisco for Fahey after his demise.

ITIDS#12: Bret Hart/John Jasnoch Vol I

Bret and British guitarist John Jasnoch offer up 28 short tracks of Frith/Bailey styled improv guitar, but add lots of extra textures like electronics, dashes of noise, and percussives to keep things varied and interesting. Many of the tracks are less than a minute, but everything flows so seamlessly from beginning to end that I was oblivious to the fact that this wasn't one continuous performance. The subtlety of the playing is striking, and only attentive listening reveals some of the most proficient musicianship of the series. The musicians dance like ballerinas across the fretboards, the shred guitarists of free-improv. Yet exploring, discovering, and sharing a range of sounds, tones, and textures is as much a part of the adventure as the splendid playing. Jasnoch kicks out runs that are both frenetic and considered, and played against Bret's harsher guitar and electronics at times sound like the afore-mentioned Frith and Bailey teaming up with the electronic trip pioneers of early 70's Germany. But there are also tracks where both do the serious guitar thing, each dueling furiously with the other to create some of the most impressive improv guitar works I've heard in some time. Bret warned me that Jasnoch is a monster musician and indeed this disc is one that fans of avant-garde improv guitar will surely enjoy.

ITIDS#13: Bret Hart/Tom Nunn Vol I

I sent San Francisco instrument designer/builder and author Tom Nunn a gathering of improvisations for homemade instruments and percussion. To this he added his self-designed instruments: T-Rodimba, Bug-Arp, and Nailboard. Extremely non-idiomatic and quite like good movie soundtrack music at times. When I listen to this one I keep being reminded of the work of Ennio Morricone. Tom is the author of the excellent improvising text Wisdom of the Impulse.

Like so many of Bret's collaborators this was my introduction to Tom Nunn, and it's a marriage made in heaven for these two creators of homemade instruments. Tom's instruments are as visually artistic as they are aurally pleasing, as I could tell from the photos on his web site of the T-Rodimba, Nailboard, and Bug-Arp that he uses on the Duets album. Atmospherics are prominent on this collaboration, the stringed instruments often sounding like an avant-garde chamber orchestra with plenty of wind instrument sounds like flutes and whistles. Percussive sounds are equally in the forefront, and at times I thought I was hearing vibes... a strange Caribbean feel... VERY nice. There's also lots of mind-numbing drones and pulsations that crop up throughout that add a mechanical deep space feel to the proceedings. And here we have yet another disc with superior recording and sound that enhances every minute bit from each player. Beautiful sounds... creatively conceived and executed.

ITIDS#15: Ian Davis/Bret Hart Vol I (UNFINISHED)

Ian came to my home in October and we set-up an improvising environment in the living room. He had a sparse kit and a slew of hand percussion, wood and metal. I used the Banjoto, The Howler, E-Bow, and assorted preparations. We've gotten about 25m recorded and are discussing a follow-up session.

ITIDS#17: Funkmeister G (Graham Halliday)/Bret Hart Vol I

From realms down under, Graham Halliday (aka fUnKmEiStEr G) has ties to the killer Aussie band Vocabularinist. Graham is credited here with anarcho guitars and piano, while Bret adds to the mix with low sounds, tape manipulation, and 'musique cement'. Yeeeessss... well there's plenty of anarchoism here, with lots of fun guitar and industrial chaos. It's like hearing an improv performance in a working machine shop, a setting that works quite successfully. Ripping guitar leads blaze alongside measured industro-noise beats, and all manner of free-improv guitar stylings cohabitate with harsh electronic fuzz tones and sonic swirls. The music is raw, but mucho BUSY, and there's a lot of varied interplay between Bret and Graham that keeps things interesting throughout, and extra little tidbits reveal themselves with subsequent listens. I particularly enjoyed tracks like "Drum Origin Myth" on which we hear crazed saloon piano dueling against guitar improvs with body and string attacks that are miked to produce an ambient chamber music effect. And "Solo2001a-x2" is a total sonic mindfuck with shred guitar leads and a non-stop parade of frenetic sounds and Vas Deferens Organization styled studio manipulations. It's difficult to describe but the result is simultaneously raucous and relaxing, and is yet another entry in the series with lots of ROCK that rolls along with the avant-improv elements.

ITIDS#18: Bob Jordan/Bret Hart Vol I

Opening with a funny David Greenberger comedy-bit (which reminds me of Bob and I), this collection says what he and I have been doing together for six years. This is followed by a tribute to (Treat Her Right/Morphine) bassist/songwriter Mark Sandman [RIP], and passes over too many genres to enumerate. Bob sent me cheap keyboard/guitar/looping/ring modulator/sewer pipe/and clay drums tracks, to which I added stereo electric guitar/chorus/E-Bow/and Boss BR8 treatments. Some of Bob's tracks date back to 1974! (He didn't like how I approached his 'Crossroads Theme', so I did a 2nd take with that piece.) Bob and I played together in B's of Sunrise (Jazz), The Wormtown Rounders (big band acoustic), The Bones (Rock), Invented Thing Quartet (homemade instrument improvisation), and many times as a duo. He's on some of my CD's, I'm on two of his. We've also recorded, as The Oxy-Morons, with Dick Metcalf.

ITIDS#19: Bret Hart/Bob Jordan Vol II

More overlap, as Bob wrestles with the same sourcetracks of mine as heard on the duets project with Tom Nunn. To these, Bob added electric guitars, crow call, mbira, 'piano forte', loops, voice (a chilling reading of John D. MacDonald's story 'Slam the Big Door' - about head-on auto accidents), ring modulator, drumhead. Bob also did the mix.

I haven't heard Vol I, but Vol II includes enough instruments and toys to make a two-man improv and found sound orchestra. For example, we hear sleighbells, xylophone, Korean drum, slide whistle, tube-flute, marimba, Vietnamese moon lute, hosebone, guitars, loops, electronics... it goes on. And these guys are using all this stuff, though the resulting music and sound collages are more sparse and thought out than you might think. Playful toy instrumentation duets with angelic New Agey melodies, noise blasts spar with slippering whistles and swirly electronics, minimal (still playful) percussive and electronic tones... the variety will keep any listener alert. There's also several tracks that include spoken word discourse/poetry, most of which seems to have a social/political message (except for the one with disturbing details about head on collisions). For pure sound and creative diversity this is one of the highlight discs in the series.

ITIDS#21: Bret Hart Rotcod Zzaj (Dick Metcalf) Vol I

I sent Dick some percussion and drum solos. He added his keyboards. It's interesting for me to listen to what we sound like now (almost 2002) doing almost precisely what we did when we met (1988), but with infinitely better gear. Dick and I go way back and it's so refreshing that we're still pushing each other. Some of his bits on this release sound like they were played and saved into his synth's memory, then that file played alongside my parts, like two strangers having adjacent conversations at a bus stop.

Bret and Dick Metcalf (aka Rotcod Zzaj) first met and began collaborating in 1988 when the two were stationed in South Korea in the employ of Uncle Sam. This was one of the Duets I was especially looking forward to as I've heard a fair bit of Zzaj's music and he has a distinct keyboard sound that I was hot to hear teamed up with the feedback, line-noise, percussion, Korean 'Fuk' drums, and reeds that Bret is credited with. Zzaj has his own unique interpretation of jazz, and on this Duets he offers up sounds I've heard from his other albums, plus other, still Zzaj-recognizable, but more avant free-improv keyboard stylings. And to accompany the Zzaj keys, Bret adds completely contrasting but beautifully complementary sounds. One of the standout tracks (and at nearly 9 minutes one of the longest in the Duets series) is "Yeah, My Eye!", which features quiet, but very busy Zzajy keyboard runs plus all manner of ambient electronic tones and percussive sounds. I love hearing such seemingly divergent sounds parallel and blend so naturally. "Another Flight Of Stares" takes this style a step further with Zzaj taking off on a more overtly free-jazz jam on piano while Bret creates a mini symphony of bangs and bells. If given a title I'd have called this album "Symphony For Alterna-Jazz Keyboards, Cosmic Tones, And Cool Bangin' Shit".

ITIDS#22: Bret Hart/Ben Horrendous Vol II (UNFINISHED)

ITIDS#23: Bret Hart/Mark Kissinger Vol II

Mark took solo Dobro performances of mine and added slide guitar and guitar sounds. This EP-length release feels (to me) like a longer record owing to the richness and breadth of the components. The 4-track master tapes turned up under a bunch of stuff in my studio, having languished there for months. Unlike most duets record, the 'initiator' (me) did the mixdown, where further manipulation occurred.

ITIDS#24: Phil Hargreaves/Bret Hart Vol I

I love the stringed instrument Duets, but it's nice to hear Bret teaming up with other instrumentation too. Phil Hargreaves brings sax and flute to his Duets entry, to which Bret adds guitar, pan-jo, prepared guitar, hose-bone samples, and organ. Phil has a minimal style of playing on some tracks in which breathing techniques seem to be key to the resulting sounds, though sax and flute mostly have their traditional sound throughout the set. One of my favorite tracks has Phil off on a sax rant accompanied by Bret playing what sounds like avant-ambient Japanese koto music. But Phil's sax, which is traditionally a high volume and imposing instrument, is played in a frantic but quietly subtle style. He's busily cranking out his jam, but with a restraint not often heard from a saxophone. There are also more jazz rooted tracks where we get to hear what a fine musician Phil is, and to which Bret adds his stringed manipulations. Some of the flute tracks remind me of Sun Ra's old cool jazz sounds, though Bret's additions give the music an edge that Ra would have surely considered mental therapy.

ITIDS#25: Larry Marotta/Bret Hart Vol I

Bret's duet with Larry Marotta was a unique listening experience for me among the discs in the series as Larry is the one participant that I've seen play live. Larry is local to me (Columbus, Ohio) and I've seen him perform about 4 or 5 times now, each performance being quite different from the other. He's done solo acoustic guitar, a duet with an accordion player, and an electric set with his trio Schtick, who did a cover of Pink Floyd's "One Of These Days" that stands as a model for taking a classic and truly making it your own. And a few years back he played with a local band at a sci fi film marathon performing the soundtrack for the silent classic, The Lost World (I didn't know who he was at the time but remember the performance well). In addition, Larry has been instrumental (no pun intended) in bringing improv artists to Columbus and organizing shows giving Columbus avant-garde artists an opportunity to perform.

So this, and having been made privy to Bret's track-by-track notes to Larry, made this an especially fun duet to listen to. Larry provided the acoustic guitar source tracks to which Bret added banjoto, dobro, ScIrving, prepared guitar, electric mandolin, looped guitar, and samples. In most cases I was able to distinguish Larry's parts which are very much in the style of the solo performances I seen him do. Some of the best moments are the most sparse... percussive attacks on a string or the guitar body, often with several seconds between each, allowing each note or sound the opportunity to make its statement. String manipulations that produce harsh or ambient sounds, and run an impressive range of tones and textures. Some tracks even have a dark orchestral sound to them, like an avant-garde symphony performance. Getting to see a musician perform this type of music live is a fascinating experience (particularly for us less than clueful non-musicians) because you gain an understanding of how the range of sounds heard on the recordings are actually made, not to mention the thrill of seeing the artist at work. Larry is definitely a guitarist that free-improv fans should check out, and I hope to hear him contribute additional volumes to the Duets series.

ITIDS#26: Jeff Mills/Bret Hart Vol I

Guitarist Jeff Mills records under the moniker Tragic Bunny and is a member of Automatic Music (see review this issue). Jeff comes to this Duets armed with electric guitar and a big toybox full of effects, to which Bret adds his own guitar. The aptly titled "Birth" opens the set with playful and tuneful guitar strumming against dark, rumbling, and somewhat anguished wails and drones. But with the next track, "First Punch", we go into early Hawkwind styled space territory. Intentional or not, this is like avant-improvisational space rock, with lots of sounds that recall the glorious early 70's sonic rock explorations of bands like Hawkwind and Guru Guru, not surprising given some of the music I've heard from Automatic Music. The music is acidic to the max, but the multiple layers are clear and distinct rather than being a wall of noise mish-mash. Subsequent tracks further explore space and psychedelia, and I hear some Fripp styled soundscape guitar as well. Another highlight track is "Femurs", a tripped out tune with some tasteful Manuel Göttsching styled guitar soloing, but of course accompanied by more off-kilter avant-guitar sounds. There are lots of recognizable rock elements throughout the set, though it's all in a free-wheeling improvisational context. But the familiarity makes this another entry in the series that would be a good start for the timid but curious.

ITIDS#27: Bret Hart/Greg Segal Vol I

This was another entry in the series that I was particularly excited to hear, due to my having been immersed in a great deal of Greg's music lately (see reviews/interview this issue). Greg is a Portland, Oregon based guitarist who had four albums on the SST label in the 1980's with his improv band Paper Bag, and more recently has released recordings by his duo improv project Jugalbandi. I'm going to take a shot and guess that Bret is playing the slow-paced clattering percussive parts while Greg is playing the ambient guitar notes that opens the set. The focus throughout is on atmosphere and sound textures, as well as individual notes and phrases. Greg is a guitarist who is equally adept at both ripping rock guitar and ambient textural playing, and we're treated to both on this set. Of course this provides plenty of fodder for Bret to throw in contrasting bits, which he serves up in healthy doses. Ambient guitar, both meditative and aggressive, is accompanied by more abstract improv guitar to produce an enjoyable and always interesting combination. There's also some Frippoid guitar and rumbling acid-space work that gives a cosmic edge to the music, and waffles tentatively around the noise line, without ever crossing too far over it. A varied and interesting entry in the Duets series.

ITIDS#28: Bret Hart/Steve Blake Vol II (UNFINISHED)

ITIDS#29: Bret Hart/Amy Denio Vol I (UNFINISHED)

ITIDS#30: John Jasnoch/Bret Hart Vol II (UNFINISHED)

[Music, I think, is unimpressed by the Cult of the Soulless Hand, the Church of Nepotic Alliances, and does not kneel at the Broken Obelisk of The Haughty Misanthrope. New instruments destroy habit and memory. New instruments develop and strengthen intuitive gesture and archetype. New instruments remove Ego and deepen listening. New instruments develop kinetic intelligence and teach hands techniques often applicable on other instruments. New instruments cement original melodies into my memory, and infer possible orchestration and future arrangement in other contexts.]
- Bret Hart

Commentary From The Participants

Q: Tell me about your experience doing this project. Were you the "initiator" or "finisher"? If you were the finisher, were you surprised or feel challenged by what Bret sent you? If you were the initiator, were you surprised by the results after Bret finished it? If the result was something very different from what you're accustomed to could you offer some comments or thoughts?

Rotcod Zzaj: In the sense that it was "different" material than I'd heard him play before (particularly the percussive orientation), yes I was surprised. In the sense that it was "challenging", no, as that's what these collaborations (the ones between Bret and I, anyway) have always been about... creating something new and different!

Steve Blake: I was surprised at how cohesive the tracks were. I sent him mostly early material culled from four-track tapes. A lot of it was somewhat abstract. Bret is not afraid of abstract material. So he was very able to add appropriate content. I also think he did a lovely job in choosing sounds to apply to what I had sent. The process was a bit more outré than most of my working procedures. However I have done previous experiments in found sound and audio sculpting, so there was a context that I could place the process within.

Charles Rice Goff III: I was both. Bret contacted me out of the blue to collaborate with him. While I'd heard a few pieces of his music here and there, and while I'd read some of his reviews, he and I had never communicated directly. I understand he got my contact information from a mutual friend in Australia! Anyway, after he "initiated contact," I gathered some materials from among a few unreleased improvisation sessions to send to him as source material. Our final product "Fondling Giblets" doesn't really fit into his "duet" category, because my source material included me playing with three other groupings of musicians. I was pleased by the results that Bret produced. It's always fun to hear others mess around with sounds that I helped create, and Bret displayed some dynamite musicianship and recording skills on this effort.

Phil Hargreaves: So far I've sent my solo stuff to Bret, and started on the things he sent me. Some of these are raw loops which I will need a little time to work on to produce a larger backdrop - I know what I want to do with them though, and the job is pencilled in for next month. I wasn't especially surprised (or haven't been so far) by the results, but that will probably be because I came into the project (and I try to go into any project) without preconceptions, so there was nothing to subvert. I've found that if you do start to play with preconceptions, the first thing you have to do is to get over them before any decent music starts to happen, so it's best to expect nothing other than what you get. That way you can get going quicker.

Phil Kellogg: On this first pass (Volume 1), I was, technically, the "initiator", as Bret supplemented some of the guitar solos that I provided him (on CD-R) with his unique improvisations. Our next project (presumably Volume 2) will reverse the roles, and I will improvise my parts onto Bret's recordings. I had become quite familiar with Bret's work over the preceding year or so through a mutual exchange of recordings. We each liked what the other did as a solo artist, and shared these recordings for the other's listening pleasure. So I cannot accurately use the word "surprised". However, Bret is an artist of such originality that virtually everything he does contains an element of "surprise". This surprise arises mostly in the context of Bret's larger body of work, which knows no stylistic boundaries. I once jokingly accused Bret of doing "country music" because a small part of his work actually does incorporate some elements of that style. The recordings that Bret has supplied me so far (with he acting as initiator) have already been "finished" when I receive them. That is, the arrangements, to my ear, were already complete and suggested no input on my part.

John Jasnoch: I have recently been the finisher and am in the process of doing what's necessary to be the initiator. I was initially approached by Bret. When I heard Bret's half of the duo for the first time I could not hear in my head what I might do. It was only when I sat down to play my half of the music that any response came up (and what is on the recording is my unedited first response). I am not accustomed to working in this way although I have from time to time performed live with people who come with material already worked out on sequencers, samplers, tape loops etc. Oddly enough, when I sat down to play my half of the music, it did not seem that different to playing with a live person (that probably says something dreadful about my approach to this music!).

Ian Davis: As I'm "local" to Bret, I drove to Eden on 9/29 and played with him in the same room - ear-to-ear. The primary surprise or challenge to me in improvisation with new people is based in an ongoing assessment of their ideas and the space/time they co-create to house them. I found Bret's ideas very complementary to mine - and those ideas are fairly commodious - and I found his ears to be large and accepting (not that his head is a jug or anything ;-) ) Bret and I are both doing mixes, but as it was a two-mic recording and I like to conserve the original as much as possible in my mixes, I expect mine to be "au naturel" and his to be - I don't know yet (I've been too busy with other projects to finish my mixes which I expect to be the key to hearing his). But the original performances - in his living room - were just fine as they were performed (they were an engaged process by two astute - if I may be forgiven - performers and listeners). Can't comment on the mixes yet, but the performances and listening were very much within my existing range. I don't know whether I stretched Bret or not.

FunKmEiStEr G: So far one volume has been released where I was the initiator, and I'm working on more of that and Bret is threatening to send me his now too. I was maybe a little surprised how electronic/sci-fi/spacey it sounded as I made the assumption Bret was more into blues tradition. Then again he was reacting to what he saw as my anarchism of sound and had to take it further out, and I'm more than pleased with the results.

Ernesto Diaz-Infante: The predominant aesthetic for me in this project is to maintain sensitivity to the interaction between the instruments, their timbres, and the form of the collaborative pieces. As a finisher, I usually have these discussions in my head following my response to Bret's initiated material about the overall composition and its effectiveness as a listening or performance experience. As initiator, I look forward to being surprised with the final result (a captured environment of haiku-influenced static music, noise, instrumental extended techniques, spontaneous methods, and vocals) for the new perspective it will provide, and the new connections and intersections that I will find in our collaborative efforts.

Amy Denio: Finisher. It had lovely, noisy things, and felt quite open, so I treated all the tracks as a single piece. I didn't pre-listen to it, so it was a very fresh experience of improvising. When I recorded my bits, I just did one take, and lots of wonderful synchronous things occurred with tonality, rhythm, natural dynamics, etc. I felt like we were together in the same room, having conquered the time/space continuum!

Don Campau: For "Duets Vol. 1" I was the initiator. Bret had mentioned the idea so one day I whipped out some guitar solo tracks. I'm into a variety of approaches so that's what I did. Both acoustic and electric. On Vol. 2 Bret did the original tracks and they sat on my to-do list for a long time. I just didn't know how to handle it I guess. Finally I hooked up 4 guitars, some effects and some microphones and played them all at the same time. The results really pleased me. I felt liberated and charged. As initiator, I was delighted of course that he would take the time to work on them all and design a nice cover and pleased mostly with the outcome. I think Vol. 2 was actually preferable, it is freer. I think I might have handcuffed him a bit with some song oriented material. Some of it is successful but some things are disjointed (of course that can be a good thing too).

Q: Some of you have done two or more volumes in the series, one as initiator and the other as finisher. Can you offer any comments or thoughts about the difference in the experiences and the results?

Rotcod Zzaj: I've (to date) only been on one of Bret's "Duet" series, but he and I have done many tapes together (via remote) before... the experience involves a high level of trust in the other player/players... whoever the "initiator" is has to feel (before they even send the material out) that those who are going to layer on top of their material will "respect" it... will "contribute" to the sounds that initiated it... will not "step" on it, but at the same time will not be afraid to add their own thoughts to it. With Bret, I have NEVER had any fears like that, since I met him in the late 80's (in Korea).

Ernesto Diaz-Infante: The process of 'initiator' and 'finisher' both encompass sonic influences from music and art, a playful spirit of innovation, intense listening, and new perspectives and revelations that come from collaborating with each other.

Ben Horrendous: I have done two Duets CDS with Bret. The first was a lot of fun. I improvised some things on guitar and bass, and Bret added other instruments. I was pleased with how it came out, thinking it pretty good for a 'first effort'. The second was a lot harder for me. This time, Bret supplied the 'source' tape, and it was not what I was expecting at all. In fact at first I thought he'd sent the wrong tape by mistake. It was mainly tinkling wind chimes, with conversation in the background. After Bret had assured me that it was the correct tape, and that he was indeed a lot weirder than I had thought, I still had no idea as to how to approach it. Eventually, after more encouragement and cajoling from Bret, I just plugged the instruments in, rolled the tape, and recorded what happened. I'm pleased with my playing, and there are some magical moments of interaction, but I still think the best Hart/Horrendous collaboration has yet to come.

Don Campau: They are such different experiences for me. It's good to be on both ends although I think I actually am better and prefer to be the finisher. I like to hang things on the framework.

Q: Most of the Duets projects have been done by snail and email. Was this a new experience for you? Can you offer any thoughts about what it's like to collaborate on a musical project this way?

Rotcod Zzaj: Hardly a new experience... I've done 100's of tapes/CD's this way (with Bret and many others). Actually, tho' I'm (still) a proponent of musicians (including myself) getting out and playing live every once in a while, I believe there are some distinct advantages to collaborating through the mail(s)...

1. If you are the "finisher", you know that you have been "entrusted" with someone else's music. This serves to make you much more aware of what you are doing with their material. If you "hold" this awareness, good things usually happen...
2. You don't have to "smell the sweat" of a road/gig band. This strips it down to "just the music", if you will. The petty things that bother musicians/people are not a part of this process; at least, it's much easier for them not to infiltrate the music/art, because player focus is usually limited to that. Also, on this score, when you're doing things via mail like this, the sense of "deadline/pressure" is much less severe, since you're not having to pay for studio time!
3. Once you have established yourself as a player who will "add" to the creative process, you never need fear being "out of projects". Folks (many times) come to you with material or requests for you to work with them. That is a REALLY cool thing... not in any sense of being a "star", either, because folks who think like that won't add very much, and will ultimately be eliminated from the network.

1. It is easy to become (too much of) a "hermit". The only rescue for this is to get out and play live somewhere with some folks every once in a while.
2. There is a danger of overextending one's self... in the early days of networking, I saw a lot of players spend more on their art than they had in their bank accounts... it is important to remember that these collaborations are for fun and expansion, not for "making it in a big way".
3. The sense of "detachment" from normal processes and hassles can become a delusion... one must always remember that it is important to stay connected to the reality around us (no matter how much it sucks).

Steve Blake: I have worked with Bret by mail before, both as assistant engineer on two Hipbone albums, on Blind Pineapple Philip's "Bee Spit Architecture" and Kudzu's "Incest Is Bad." So I am used to the snail mail process. There is obviously an element of Zen imagination applied to the proceedings, i.e., one imagines the performance taking place in real time and tries to anticipate the curves.

Scotty Irving: Being in the room with the person is nice but sometimes you play with fewer restrictions if they are NOT there with you. You may even play BETTER. In Brets case, I know he likes his "co-pilots" to be themselves, but to not be afraid to change their way of playing from time to time.

Charles Rice Goff III: This is my only such project with Bret so far, although we plan to do more, including one that is just underway involving Bret, myself, and home recording hero Hal McGee. I have been collaborating with other artists in similar ways for the last twenty-plus years. This year I've sent my voice to A101 Usui Tadashi in Japan to include on his latest CD: Red Sky. I've been also exchanging materials with Das of Big City Orchestra this year for a similar project. Everyone works differently, but an entertaining result seems to be the rule rather than the exception. The potentials for new and interesting rhythms, noises, atmosphere, etc. seem to multiply dramatically as new and different brain paths intersect their various visions.

Phil Hargreaves: This is, indeed, the first time I've collaborated by mail. Yes, I'd say that it would be preferable to be physically in the same place, and that the main advantages are the obvious ones of organization and travel. These, however are not small advantages. I'm quite busy at the moment, and working this way means that I can fit Bret into the quiet bitz. But one of the things I enjoy about improvisation is the negotiated quality of the structures: If there's a sense that someone doesn't like where an improvisation is going, well, move it somewhere else. This means that most of the participants are doing what they feel happy with most of the time, and that the quality of the music can turn on a dime, in ways that would take months of rehearsal for a through-composed piece. The mail collaboration takes that away, of course. At that point, textures become more important, I think.

Larry Marotta: This is not an unusual thing at all, at least in the history of rock music. However, this is typically taken as a sign of a bad musical relationship. Late in their career, the Beatles would each take turns doing overdubs, usually independently in the studio. I also remember reading somewhere that the band UK would send tapes around with each person making overdubs. As far as mail recordings go, I know that Derek Bailey and Han Bennink have a series of two CD's where they both play along with - and sometimes verbally comment on - each other's playing. I think this is an interesting idea for a few reasons, the most obvious being that it allows people to make music together who might not otherwise be able to connect for economic or geographic reasons. It also limits the improvisation to the aural sphere. When performing or recording, you are going to be aware of how your partner looks, acts, smells, etc., and that is going to have some bearing on how you respond as a improviser. This project is mostly about pure sound. This is especially true in my case having never met Bret face-to-face.

Phil Kellogg: Yes, it was a new experience for me. I am typically locked into my computer for many hours a day, and email is an integral part of my life. However, I had never viewed the artistic process as being served by such a "non-organic" methodology. In retrospect, this was terribly naive on my part. The technology (I suppose like anything in life) is exactly what one makes of it. In fact, technology can be used specifically to improve upon the means available for communication in this type of setting. Bret and I live on opposite coasts of the country; yet through technology we have shared the same creative space. This is a remarkable feat.

John Jasnoch: This was a new experience for me. My main thought about working this way is that it is a great method for overcoming the fact that, owing to this music not being a successful commodity and thus having no money behind it, face to face international collaborations are very difficult to facilitate.

FunKmEiStEr G: It's not entirely new to me. I've been on either end of a remix situation like that a couple of times. I actually haven't done a lot of band stuff. Unfortunately free thinking creative types are thinly spread across the globe or even different ends of a city.

Ernesto Diaz-Infante: I've been working with this method of collaboration for the past 5 years with various other artist like Rotcod Zzaj, Chris Forsyth, Aioi Usui and others. From this type of exploration, means not only the chance to interact with a totally new challenging creative environment, and the time to compose vital new works, but also the chance to immerse myself in a unique mail-art culture and explore its intersections and connections with my work, and share our discoveries with others.

Any Denio: I've been collaborating with a few people like Mike Hovancsek through snail mail and email through the years. It definitely takes improvising to a new level! Destruction of the Time Space Continuum!

Ben Horrendous: It's not an either/or choice. It's fun and rewarding to make improvisational music with people you haven't met. 'Duets' just happened the way it did, uniquely. As I haven't recorded any similar music with Bret 'physically in the same place', I can't I draw conclusions as to advantages/disadvantages benefits/drawbacks.

Q: Is it correct to assume that it's always preferable to be physically in the same place when collaborating, or did you find advantages or benefits to collaborating in this manner?

Steve Blake: I don't think it's consistently an advantage to be in the same environment when collaborating. The newer technology has made this especially true. There are advantages and disadvantages to any and all creative situations. This process allows for an interesting "blind" reading. The results are less influenced by outside criteria and slightly more true on spontaneous improvisation.

Charles Rice Goff III: Both have their positives. The subconscious communication that takes place during a particularly inspiring interaction with other musicians is a life-enhancing experience and often that feeling is carried to others who listen during the session or hear a recording of it later. The methodology of "treating" someone else's sounds is also a wonderful world to explore, similar to solving a puzzle. In treating someone else's work, an artist has time to refine concepts before executing them.

Phil Kellogg: No, it's not "always" preferable to share the same physical space. A different type of collaboration emerges when physical separation is a part of the equation. It is not a "better" or "worse" type of collaboration, but it is one that, for me, took some getting used to. Bret and I have never physically met, and yet I think we would both agree that we are consummate friends. In the same way, we have now "played together" despite never having "played together".

Ian Davis: Although I don't know what it's like to collaborate at a distance, I do know that there are many advantages to being in the same room, although there can also be great advantages to working with the distillate. Primary among these is that a room is not always a friend to listening (but Bret's was). Secondary is that taking breaks and letting new frameworks for improvisation bubble up in your head can be very good, particularly if you have a nice porch like Bret does.

Ernesto Diaz-Infante: I'm comfortable with both environments (physical and the non-physical) of collaboration and I find it necessary in the development of my work.

Any Denio: I guess the act of improvising was freer in a way, because I was alone when playing. When I'm playing together physically with someone else, there are countless variables which affect the interaction - facial expressions, smells, eye contact, and pheremones. All of these things affect the intellect somehow. Without those, the experience of playing to a recording is somehow purer, because my actions are more intuitive.

Don Campau: I do not think one has to be in the same place as someone else to make good music. I just close my eyes and pretend the person is there in my headphones. Live collabs can be fun but rarely does the end result sound as good to me. I am not a perfectionist but I do like a certain amount of tweaking and re-writing and editing. These are keys to a good work for me. All improv is fine but like a roll of film, one is lucky to get one good picture.

Q: Do you have a specific thought(s) or image(s) in mind when improvising? Or are you really just freely "letting ‘er rip"? That is, do you typically apply any rules or guidelines to the process or does the music come straight from the soul?

Fred Hall: Well obviously you're sort of structured as soon as you receive a piece from someone else because they've already layed down some process or something that you have to fit in. My approach it more from the seat of your pants. Get up there and just perform and play. I used to play in a band called Dookey. We chose the most infantile word we could to describe the band because our intention was to just get up there and completely improvise, but with vocals also. We put a mic out in the audience for someone to sing if they wanted to. And we'd take requests. And we'd see how we could change the request. I don't intentionally try to put structure in things. Gentlemaniac is where I structure myself. That's where I write little pop tunes that are just whittling around in my head. But it's a lot of fun working with Bret. He leaves a lot to the imagination for you to play with, because he's very open about his playing.

Rotcod Zzaj: In my case, I generally have "nothing but the energy/music" as my focus. This sometimes means colors (warmth, cold, tropics, tundra), others it means emotions... (sad, happy, high on the energy of the music). I never really feel like I'm "letting it rip"... it is more often a matter of not realizing how much it was rockin' until I listen back through. IF it doesn't "feel right", in a 4-track situation, one can always go back over the sections that weren't quite working. Most of the people I've played with are ones who understand this dynamic and usually I'm able to "get it from the soul" on the first round! The only "rules" I've operated with are that if either/any players don't feel comfortable with a composition (after they've given it a try, of course), they don't have to feel obligated to work any further with it.

Steve Blake: Yes. It is all dependant on mood. Sometimes one imagines a film and that soundtrack is being provided. Other times there is such a sense of emotional urgency that the act is transcendent in and of itself. I don't see this as an "or" scenario. Think of the two ideas as ends of a spectrum. Each time I record or perform I am usually traversing from one end to the other. I may apply a specific set of self imposed limitations to create parameters. But then once engaged allow myself the freedom to be lost in the work. The parameters allow a very specific musical stream to be explored fully.

Charles Rice Goff III: Improvisation depends a lot on environment. The participants themselves, the moods that each brings with him or her to the session, the setting for the session, the instrumentation available, the acoustics, the weather outside, etc. All are parts of the experience. Each of these can have either a positive or a negative effect on the session. Free "let 'er rip" improvisation brings all of these elements into play. While the free form allows truly new sonic territory to be discovered, the potential also exists for that territory to be somewhat unstable. Most of the completely free-form sessions that I've been involved in contain elements of genius and moronity. However, there is something positive and inspiring about risking everything on the moment - a Turkey Makes Me Sleepy show I was involved in a few years ago was completely free form and very entertaining for the musicians and audience members. I think the "risk" element helped us succeed.

Charles Rice Goff III: Because of all the variables involved in live performances before audiences, however, it sometimes helps to have a few parameters to guide the musicians toward some familiar ground. For instance, while working with Herd of The Ether Space, we performed an entire show based on the Persian Gulf War. We had several themes that we wished to express and some audio clips to present during each thematic "illustration." We rehearsed a few times and eventually became comfortable with one particular collection of instrumentation and an overall musical atmosphere and/or progression for each "piece." Within those vague parameters is where the improvised "music" was created. The one thing usually missing when improvising within parameters is the potential for a completely new idea to come into existence. Most of the live shows I've done have been a mix of both free and parameter-driven improvisation. While working with Turkey Makes Me Sleepy, we combined these two approaches by asking the audience to yell out themes for us to sonically illustrate. In this case, the musicians worked with an entirely unfamiliar set of parameters and paved some new sonic turf in the process, a refreshing bit of dada logic and noise about alien abductions and mad cow disease.

Phil Hargreaves: I see improvised music as a chaotic system (as in chaos theory), which is to say it always starts from the same state, i.e., a finely aware silence, but tiny differences in the initial stages move it in drastically different directions. So if I'm an 'initiator', and this could be in a live situation as much as a mail collaboration, then I'll usually start with an idea. "Do slap tongueing" for instance, or "play loud with gaps". But once someone else comes in, then the ball game shifts, and that decision has to be reviewed constantly in the light of whatever has been added to the stew, and the immediate future is, of course, conditioned by the immediate past. Sometimes I pass into a trance-like state while playing, where I exist only in the present moment, and I lose all awareness of self, but this doesn't always happen, and I don't know if it's necessary for good playing, as I can never remember what I was doing at the time. The pitfalls of memory...

Larry Marotta: Ideally, improvisation should be a direct channel from the performer's subconscious mind to the ear of the listener. In that regard, I think having a thought or image in mind can hinder that process in that you are censoring the free flow of pure ideas. Then again, if something is bothering me in my personal life, I will sometimes meditate on it while I'm playing and playing becomes therapy for me. I would like to think that everything I play comes "straight from the soul," but that is not always completely true. For example, if in an abstract improvisation my partner and I are falling into familiar harmonic or melodic patterns, I will deliberately push things in a different direction. Likewise, when I am freely improvising, I am not playing reggae or hip-hop or jazz standards, so I am coming from a place where what I play is being determined by a general operating principle.

Phil Kellogg: Different scenarios suggest different approaches. It depends largely on my familiarity (or lack of familiarity) with the material at the moment that I take pick to strings. If I have some advance knowledge of the song structure, there is by definition no way that I can perform without "some" pre-conceived thoughts in mind. This is taken a step further if I have actually heard the music beforehand, as opposed to having been told what it's format is. Having said that, my approach is to "let 'er rip" from whatever the starting point may be. If I am dissatisfied with the result, I "let 'er rip" again; with each iteration there is less of an innocence to the performance, but at the same time a better song emerges from it. In the end, it's possible that I would re-listen to the first take and decide that its innocence overshadows the more "learned" approaches of the later takes. All in all... it's pretty much a crap shoot.

John Jasnoch: The latter or, "letting 'er rip" as you so colourfully put it! As far as I can make out, there are no conscious processes operating, these have all been bypassed. The wellspring from which all this material emerges is connected directly to the fingers.

Ian Davis: I have specific thoughts in mind, but no images. My thoughts are almost completely tied up in the following non-verbal process that I will simulate verbally... "there is new sound coming in from *X* and my sounds are an appropriate and measured response as far as I can tell in the moment. My hands and/or feet seem to be doing things that I can continue experimenting with for the forseeable future (which may be short, so I better keep my ears open)." I actually try to turn my eyes and conscious mind off during improvisation, but there is no doubt "in my mind" that my mind is where the combinations are occurring. "Freely 'letting 'er rip'" can be very self-serving in improvisation, sort of like a person who has a thought they want to express and it doesn't matter whether anyone else is expressing themselves or not. Rather than conversing, I'd like to think that Bret and I were singing in some off-world choir where the musical conventions are less constrictive than our own.

Ian Davis: You don't really want me to start talking about the soul, do you? What I will say is that Bret and I worked from no preset rules, but I generally try to perform ANY idea I come up with in individual improvisation or with others until I believe it is (1) pretty well exhausted or (2) it is no longer appropriate. I think that this gives improvisations a coherency and integrity that often gets lost otherwise. Now, back to the soul... My philosophy of the soul is that I am too ignorant to designate the presence or absence of such an entity, responsible or not for improvisation. I am in complete awe as to the complexity of the human mind and am constantly being dragged about by its capacity for beauty. It is enough for me, knowing as little as I do about my own mind and the universe it lives in, to engage in improvisation with people who know how to be honest in the moment. Bret is honest in the moment and we had a great time. Where it came from? Our minds (and, therefore, I don't know).

Ernesto Diaz-Infante: While in the 'zone' of improvising, I try to focus my mind in responding to the influence of a challenging environment through drawing from my daily practice of composition, including other observations of art forms and constructions; but naturally exploring all the possibilities of making art in real-time.

Any Denio: Usually I try not to, unless a specific structure has been set up. I judge the experience of improvising music to be best when I'm not thinking or rationalizing or justifying or controlling or depending. The less I remember from an improvised session, the better I feel about tapping my intuition. We gotta go with the fo(rward) mo(tion) flow.

Ben Horrendous: No thoughts or images. Rules and guidelines? Well only in the sense that the notes and phrases you play should have SOME kind of relation to each other, i.e. not just random. ...Although that has it's place too.

Don Campau: A very good question. I don't think I have visions but just feelings. Sometimes I just get a huge rush and know that it is just right, that the collab flowed and made sense to me. Improv is like any other type of music in the sense that a lot of it is wasted, predictable and unmotivated. A lot of improv I have done has followed the unwritten rule of starting out slow and quiet, developing, breaking out loud and then a quiet coda. I think that is becoming cliche in the improv world but it takes many years usually for me to be with someone and have it click. Still, I cannot deny the fun and enjoyment of new experiments.

For more information you can visit the InstrumenTales web site at:
The Duets CD's are distributed by Homemade Music. You can visit their web site at:
Check out the profile and interview we did with Bret Hart in AI #16 at:

Many of the participants in the Duets series have their own web sites which you should pay a visit to:

Ben Horrendous:
Amy Denio:
Don Campau:
Ernesto Diaz-Infante:
Graham Halliday (aka Funkmeister G) and
Ian Davis:
John Jasnoch:
Phil Kellogg:
Larry Marotta:
Phil Hargreaves:
Charles Rice Goff III:
Scotty Irving:
Steve Blake: and
Dick Metcalf (akak Rotcod Zzaj):
Tom Nunn:
Jeff Mills (aka Tragic Bunny):
Fred Hall: and
Greg Segal: and

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