Workshop 2: Antti Saario, Free Improvised Music: Recording Perspective

Antti Saario (LICA, Lancaster University) opened his presentation by emphasising the importance of looking at particular challenges set forth by recording free improvised music. He described this in terms of a quest for a more tactile sonic experience: “the turning point from mechanical explosion to electrical implosion” (Marshall McLuhan, 1964). Saario followed by posing critical questions: Why do we want to record this magical event of improvisation? Why do we want a fixed perspective and what would it be?

Antti Saario started by outlining his background and perspective as a (fixed media) composer, recording engineer, consumer, educator, practice-based researcher and informed practitioner. Consequently, he defined Free Improvisation (FI) as:

  • Non-idiomatic
  • Non-syntactic statement
  • Non-experimental
  • Questioning of the “rules governing musical language” (Bailey, 1993)
  • Near-schizoid split between sonic and aesthetic-socio-political concerns
  • Spontaneous
  • Direct corporeal interaction with music/sound
  • Collective: deemed as a “property that belongs equally to everyone and the responsibility in the creation of which lies solely on its makers” (Alvin Curran, 1995)

 

Concomitantly, Saario argued that unlike, for example, jazz which has become just a marketed and sold signifier for ‘cool’, consequently integrating better with record making process and record industry, free improvisation is not corporate and money-making. Here, he referred to Bailey claiming that: “[p]erhaps the debate over recording improvised music keeps rearing its head because, unlike other recorded music, there is no apparent economic justification for it” (Derek Bailey, 1993).

Antti Saario proceeded by asking a fundamental question: Why Record Free Improvisation and Who Is It For Anyway? He acknowledged that it may well be that we shouldn’t record FI but if we proceed with this task we have an obligation to engage and understand what this FI recording brings about.

Saario began by outlining some common misconceptions about sound recording and emphasizing several crucial distinctions. Firstly, he argued that the difference between ‘record’ and ‘recording’ should be considered in terms of the consequent form of documentary or creative artefact. Secondly, Saario pointed to the distinction between ‘player’ and ‘listener’ in terms of their needs and economic standards. And thirdly, he contrasted external and internal perspective explaining how a recording should be made from a different physical perspective for different purposes: the stable set fixed perspective is the most degraded for recording FI as for the listener to get engaged s/he needs to be simultaneously drawn into both external and internal perspective. Antti Saario described recording as a tool and posed a question: Can recording act as a meaningful media extension to FI?

Next, Antti Saario presented the challenges of recording Free Improvisation in terms of: 

  • Extreme dynamics and complex timbres
  • Varying instrumentation, modes of playing and spatial relationships
  • Blurred boundaries of wanted and un-wanted sound
  • Soundscapes, textures, gestures, noise and other atypical morphologies
  • Unpredictability: how do you prepare for the unknown?

Consequently, Saario described the parameters of recording as the four mix domains: frequency, time, amplitude and space. He also emphasised the problematic of wanted and un-wanted sounds, and direct and in-direct sounds, relating them to modes and categories of recording, such as:

  • Social context – Technical Means
  • Live in concert / on-location
  • Live in studio
  • Either by:

(a) live-to-stereo (or directly to any other master-format)

(b) live-to-multitrack.

 

Antti Saario then proceeded to explain these in the framework of recording stages: pre-production, production and post-production, describing how generally recording includes planning, setup and testing, and finally recording, editing and processing (sometimes accompanied by mixing). Here, he referred to the problem of the impossibility of following these stages in recording FI, giving as an ordinary example a production of a recording of a Mozart symphony which requires approximately 150 edits.

Saario therefore presented the classical dilemma in terms of the illusion of ‘live’ :

  • Either ‘purist’ or very produced, with hidden production levels
  • Framed fixed perspective (and balance)
  • Passive spectacle
  • Idealised: from abstract to concrete
  • Reductive spatiality and scale

He emphasized that recording is never the same as the event itself, pointing again to the problematic of recording free improvisation in terms of ‘lost innocence’. Saario described recording as a reductive action where the production process is often seen as a tool of power, fuelling reactive anarchic movements manifesting their distrust to the process. Saario stated that the problem of the recording process affecting the improvised performance is a fact and questioned: How do we want to affect the musical unfolding of the improvisation?

Antti Saario offered following suggestions:

  • “Primacy of the ear” (Schaeffer, 1966)
  • Focus on corporeality of sound
  • Work from concrete to abstract: forms emerge from sound
  • Engineer-producer as an equal contributor in the collective noise-making process
  • Malleable networks: multiple recording and monitoring paths and perspectives 
  • Source isolation to as a reflective and creative tool and/or an ‘exercise’
  • Dynamic handling of perspective together with other mix elements
  • Multiplicity of simultaneous mix spatialities, where appropriate
  • Non-instrumental handling of instruments; equality of noise
  • Focus on the uniqueness of the moment and avoid architectonic processes and genealogies
  • Explore and play with the ‘minor’ role that free improvisation has
  • General aim for a non-end-gaining recording environment and process

In conclusion, Saario argued that we need to look beyond the obvious, aiming to develop new non-authentic artefacts by exploring the way of including recording as part of live performance in an aware manner. He presented the recording process as a research methodology and educational tool. He closed his presentation with the following quote:

“Improvisation is the art of becoming sounds. It is the only art in which a human being can and must become the music he or she is making. It is the art of constant, attentive and dangerous living in every moment. It is the art of stepping outside of time, disappearing in it, becoming it. It is the both the fine art of listening and responding and the more refined art of silence.”  (Alvin Curran, 1995)

 

DISCUSSION:

Discussion following Antti Saario’s presentation focused around three themes: unpredictability, caricaturing and political implications.

Firstly, unpredictability was posed as one of the challenges to recording FI, as a part of what goes beyond. A question was posed whether free improvisation would retain its character if it was to include a ‘normal tune’ (i.e. Chopin). Consent was reached that one should develop methodologies that are repeated when working, accounting for the novelty and creativity of FI.

Secondly, caricature of the classical perceptions was emphasized. The example of a pianist not playing with all the fingers, but thinking of how would an audience think about the sound, was considered. Debate proceeded in evaluating the extension of how this argument hinges on caricaturisation of the classic picture.

Thirdly and finally, political problems of how classical music is being recorded, were discussed.  It was pointed out that any change alters everything fundamentally and there is no work in it as such – either a success or a failure.