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Artist Profiles

Evan Parker: Deciphering the Noise

By Published: April 19, 2012
Parker has been asked a similar question a thousand times over, no doubt, yet the response is disarmingly passionate. Parker's concentrated enthusiasm remains undiluted by a stream of enquiring minds; his do not seem like stock answers.

Back to the history lesson: Parker would remain with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble or thereabouts (the lineup, aptly, was unpredictable) whilst pursuing a number of other associations and solo projects. Amongst others, these included the formation of the Music Improvisation Company with guitarist Derek Bailey in the late' 60s and co-founding Incus Records in 1970.

Despite lacking the obvious monetary rewards of more conventional genres, Parker's talent has enabled him to travel the globe for both ensemble and solo performances. Having taken in most of Europe by the end of the '80s, Parker subsequently spread his music further afield, including performances in America, New Zealand and Japan. Yet in a world where achievement is judged by the conventional trappings of success, is musical freedom sufficient payback for a career dedicated to such a specific discipline?

"Well, there aren't any other rewards," Parker gestures around the room. "There aren't any material rewards, the money's not enough to keep you where there's no qualitative assessment." The mention of riches and reward necessitates an almost Pavlovian assessment of Parker's house. Modest in size, the Parker residence is undeniably cosy but not in the double-speak of the estate agent. It has genuine warmth, each room heaving with the weight of books, records and knowledge.

Whilst the lower half of Parker's house is at best, charmingly disorganised, the upper half that constitutes Parker's office—is immaculately arranged. The duality of mayhem and organization provides an obvious but not inappropriate metaphor for Parker's music, but what role does structure play in music that appears to lack form?

While the lack of familiar musical devices and the absences of guiding musical "lanes" might alienate less familiar listeners, Parker passionately disputes that free improvisation lacks familiar, structure aspects. "Days have a lot in common with one another; life involves a lot of repetition, why should improvisation exclude itself from these constrictions? It's part of what being alive is all about. If you play as much as I do, basically it's a miracle if you can't find one thing you've never done before."

But if repetition is possible, then artists must also be victim to accusations of selling out or performing a brand of mainstream improvisation? "I've been accused of it," Parker says, laughing. "I've been accused of having 'slipped'; this is especially true of my solo performances. However, I hope it's based on a slightly superficial assessment, because some things are fixed, some things are variable." Once again, Parker's answer flatteringly assumes real familiarity with free improvisation, yet once again he accommodates the need for a more detailed answer.

"Look at The Rolling Stones
Rolling Stones
Rolling Stones

band/orchestra
," Parker says, "they've been playing songs like 'Satisfaction' and 'Jumping Jack Flash' for almost as long as I've been improvising, over the same historical timeframe. Everyone knows the structure of their songs, but when they perform live, if you're listening, really listening, you'll hear things that have never been done before." Parker's performances represent the other side of the musical coin; whilst the perception of perpetual experimentation is understandable, it is incorrect; the lanes do exist, they're just harder to see.

Guitarist Elliot Sharp once said: "No improvisation is ever truly free, excepting the unlikelihood of amnesiac improvising musicians," suggesting that both familiar devices and a degree of planning exist in an improvised performance. "You can plan an improvisation," Parker confirms, "but something else usually happens when you're playing solo, because it's a very focused situation, very controlled in the sense that the only things that are going to happen are the things that you're going to try."

At first the answer seems counterintuitive. Yet to fully appreciate Parker's point, it is best to attend one of his performances. Artists appear so caught up in their delivery, their 'other little lives,' that any preconceived ideas seem unlikely to linger, erased by a mass of swirling tones, obliterated within the musical chain-reaction. It begs the question—how on earth does a group performance survive within a maelstrom of free expression?

"When you're doing collective improvisation," Parker responds, "then the more chance there is that someone will do something that cancels out an idea you had anyway, you have to adjust immediately-but that, for me, is very exciting. It's not a presentation of something that already exists, it's the presentation of a process"


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