Saturday, September 15, 2018

Two years later...

A lot has happened since I reposted "Group improvisation".

My (and I still find myself at a loss for a concise explanation, but I settle for now on) experimental music trio, LCW, had just begun to find its purpose and direction after eight years of striving toward the goal established at the ensemble's inception in 2007 and never ammended: to figure out how to create music extemporaneously.

By the time of LCW's founding, Joe, Stephen and I had all been making music for decades. We already knew how to improvise within a framework in which we could anticipate the next change; the next section. We knew how to write tunes. We could even do some arranging in the moment.

We had no clue how to get from there to where we wanted to be...

When you don't know what you're doing, do something. Anything. The more, the better. Study, practice, play, listen, watch, read, think, write, ... whatever it takes to answer just one question, improve just one line, understand one more piece of the puzzle w.r.t. composition or performance or tech or production or whatever you need to do to fix a problem or scratch an itch.

And listen. It should go without saying that you listen to your collaborators. What I mean is that you must listen to and appreciate the result of your collaboration.

All three of us have remarked that the experience of listening to a session's recorded tracks is surprisingly different than the experience of having performed those tracks, live in the studio. Each performance involves, born of the desire to musically create something from nothing without a moment's preparation, multiple concurrent threads of conversation. Those threads weave together to form a bit of tapestry. In the moment that bit of the tapestry hangs in the air, we react.

When one embarks upon a study of improvisation, one particular chestnut of wisdom pops up almost as if it had a staff doing full-time SEO: "You must know the theory, but the masters never think of theory."

I've encountered that in various forms, and have always agreed. Then I'd go right back to wondering whether I'm playing the right thing while I'd improvise. Over time my focus evolved from note choice to a constant stream of microdecisions involving composition, arrangement, tone, timbre, production, etc. I think about how what I'm playing fits within what I hear in the room.

LCW records everything we do, using a semi-automated studio. At the end of a session, we have a bunch of tracks ready to go. I discard a few tracks (usually just chatter or noodling; occasionally an impromptu romp through a bit of some cover tune), then title and upload the rest for group review, normally within a few hours after the session ends.

When I hear the recordings, it's with a different mindset than when I was performing, attempting to navigate the piece as it emerged. Listening to the playback, I hear threads -- parts of the tapestry -- which I either never heard because of room acoustics or missed because of my attentional focus.

I think it's fair to say that LCW wouldn't exist without the "record everything" approach. Over time (a long time) the session recordings taught us, first, how to record. And believe me, that's not at all obvious. It took more than four years to evolve our current approach. Simplicity presents its own challenges.

Nowadays, the technical aspects of recording LCW are long since settled. I've had but two reasons to adjust the mixing board in past years: I adjust the trim on Stephen's channel when he brings a different pedalboard, and I opened a new channel when Joe started using a sampler and looper.

Our next challenge is what to do with all this material. We're mastering and pushing sessions to Bandcamp as quickly as we can. It's all free except for Uncharted vol. 1. The 47 sessions there today are about half of LCW's current catalog.