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London Calling

Evan Parker

By Published: March 9, 2003
AAJ: ... slippery, isn't it?

EP: "Slippery" is a good word. Yesterday I was using "minefield," which is perhaps overdramatic. I think "slippery" is good. It is a slippery beast. You try and grab it and whoops! It's gone. Like the fox in the Goethe story, Reinecke Fuchs, [translated as Reynard the Fox] who covers himself in grease at the end of the story, very slippery. We wanted to call a piece that with the Schlippenbach group. He changed it to "Fux" rather than "Fuchs Geffetet"—the fatted fox—because he thought it sounded too vulgar. ["Fux" is the last track on Elf Bagatellen (FMP CD 27) by Schlippenbach Trio.] It is a slippery beast, improvisation.

AAJ: Which isn't to say I won't keep probing you about it! But it is a good place to start, to recognise that it is slippery.

With the recording with Spring Heel Jack, one of the things they did was to have control over which bits they would pull out of the collective improvisation. There is one notable example ["Maroc" on Amassed ] where they just pulled you and Jason out.

EP: Well, they didn't have the complete separation to tracks. There was a lot of bleed through from one track to another, because we weren't recording one track at a time. I'm not sure of the technical circumstances, but there must have been enough separation (even though we weren't looking for complete separation) for them to have some rather radical control over what happened. In fact, Han is a good deal quieter in the mix than he was in the studio. That is very often the case with drummers. It is one of the ways you can domesticate music so that people can play it at home. The last thing people really want is Han Bennink in their living room. You know that, Han! [Laughs.]

AAJ: I was wondering how you felt about that process of manipulation. Going back fifteen years, it would have been anathema, wouldn't it? There was much more of a focus on the recording capturing as faithfully as possible what it had been like to be there. Did that shift start with Process and Reality ? The idea that it didn't have to be a faithful capture of the circumstances.

EP: I can't think of a prior example. It allows me to speak a little about Steve Lake who was always on the side of the music and loved the music but was always disappointed that we weren't braver in respect of studio technology. I think now he must be sitting there quietly saying, "Yes. I knew that they would have to deal with it eventually." But the truth is partly to do with defiance. "OK, we can't afford it so we'll pretend we don't want it anyway." That may have come into it. That may not be quite the whole story. But also sensible amounts of multi-track technology like 24-track are now affordable. It comes as the basic entry level for any halfway decent studio and is affordable in a way that it simply wasn't fifteen years ago. When the documentation, warts-and-all, this-I-how-it-was, of a gig has been done often enough then perhaps you do start to wonder what it would be like to overdub or edit. To be fair, there were people all along who were interested in that kind of thing. Tony Oxley was always very interested in the studio possibilities and, at the time, was given quite a hard time for that by the so-called purist elements. And I might have been one of them.

But when the stuff is there and you are at ease with the situation, which really means that you are no longer watching the clock like someone in the back of a London taxi—anyone who is not a millionaire in the back of a London taxi!—then ideas come and a use arises. So, yes, I think you are right to identify a change and that it is significant. And I hope that the studio possibilities and the creative interaction between improvising musicians and the studio has become another part of the story of improvisation. I like to think that when I am using that technology that I am using it as an improviser. I work very fast with the technology. That is not to say that I am a technological whiz, I'm not. I try to work with people who respond very quickly to my ideas, running back and forwards from the control room, if I'm involved in overdubbing. I'm learning how to work with that technology. The problem with building up lots of layers is if you are doing it with real-time playing rather than with Pro Tools, the possibility of moving samples around and not necessarily working for every bit of track that gets overdubbed. That is still a technology that is fairly new to me and one that I am quite unresolved about whether it will have beneficial effects for my way of making music.

But the old tape drop-in style of overdubs, gradually finding ways of avoiding stupid repetition, stupid hanging around, the best example of that would be the four-minute piece I did for the CCA four-by-four series of commissions, a couple of years ago. It will probably be a track on a Process and Reality type follow-up that is about three-quarters done. The process of overdubbing is still interesting to me.

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