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Derek Bailey Interview: September 2001

By Published: March 24, 2005

AAJ: But it was always about putting very disparate elements together, wasn't it? Company always encompassed something bigger than people from the improvising scene.

DB: After the first two or three years, it was necessary to do that, starting with the Company before Epiphany, starting in 1981. The first Company concert was a single concert with a quartet who all knew each other, although they didn't play together regularly. It wasn't easy to get one of the musicians to play with the other two. It wouldn't be their choice, which was OK. In the early stages, they were all single concerts but there was always some sort of overarching agenda to it, which culminated in the first Company Week. And the first two or three years, I only ever intended doing one Company Week. But the funding body was insistent. It took me so long to get the money for this kind of thing; the struggle to get it was ridiculous. It would be an interesting study of their attitudes in those days. It might still be the same; I don't know. That's one of the reasons for not doing it, so that I don't have to deal with those bastards any more. But I was quite persistent about getting the money for this purpose. It had to be. They would say, "Why don't you write a piece for them? It doesn't have to be anything, just some pieces. We can fund pieces." And I explained that I didn't want it for that, I wanted for free playing, which they eventually gave me. But having found out that the first week was successful, they didn't want me to stop it. I had no intention of doing more than the first week. And they were saying, "Well you'd better take this money; we don't know what else to do with it now." They didn't actually say that, but that seemed to me to be the case. I found after about two or three years that it was necessary to start looking around for other people, outside of the usual area of free improvised music, because at that time the main way of organizing improvised music was to set up regular groups, something I was already somewhat disenchanted with. I found that you couldn't use the same people anyway; there weren't that many people, so you'd be using the same ones over and over again.

I've always liked the effect of having somebody in there who hadn't the faintest idea what was going on. Nowadays, it would be much more difficult to do that, I suppose. It seems to me that the general scene that free improvisers work in now is a kind of goulash of different musics; it is much better. For instance, this All Tomorrow's Parties, which is quite a good gig, I can do on it what I like, except I'm supposed to play solo. I am getting an electronics guy in to play with, who I wanted to play with anyway. Gigs like that would never come up; you would always be working in the area of free improvised music, which was economically totally defunct - not defunct, it just never happened - or you were working on the fringes of jazz, which did not want to know about you, never did and doesn't now. So this is a big improvement, this goulash where you suddenly find yourself one amongst a whole bunch of fringe type activities. So, there were at least two players, I think, who claim not to improvise in this last Company in New York. Jennifer Choi, a brilliant violin player, said to me when I invited her that she didn't improvise. I said that was fine, by the second night she would be improvising. The thing is, now they all know about it; they know what it is. When I curated The Tonic last year, I thought that some of the most interesting groups weren't freely improvising but they were all playing in a way that assumed it existed. So, it was somehow built on that assumption. It is strange how this way of playing has become a basis of a lot of people relating to each other, as opposed to a strictly jazz way of relating or maybe even a rock way, although the rock thing is much more influential than it used to be. So, it is not a strange situation to them now, not like inviting Ursula Oppens to come and play [to Company Week, 1982]. Although she knew what it was, she'd never done that kind of thing before. And there were lots of people during that period, during the 80's, that I invited who I had to kind of introduce them to each other at the first gig. Well, that couldn't happen now; mainly the difference is that it's an accepted way of going on, so it's not something completely alien.

AAJ: So, even if they're not used to it, they know what to expect? They're not taken by surprise.

DB: Personally, I've found one of the more stimulating ways of playing in recent times has been to kind of move outside the free improvised area and work with people who are probably improvisers but they have a particular way of working. For instance, one of the people in this Company is a woman I've worked with occasionally, a Chinese pi'pa player called Min Xiao-Fen. I asked her to do it, and she is very eager to do it; again, she claims she doesn't improvise but I think she's always improvising; she's a Chinese classical player and her performances are usually in that type of context although she sometimes works in Western classical situations; people write pieces for her. Before I played with her, she had worked in situations where she'd been required to improvise for a certain period; in somebody's piece there was a space and she'd do something in it. But she'd never been expected to improvise all night and so she was a bit daunted, but she's a very good musician. So you can see there are two or three out of this bunch who are not primarily improvisers. Now, I don't think it matters in the way it would have done twenty years ago.

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