Interview with Evan Parker

Used by permission of the Publishers from ‘Evan Parker’, in The Ashgate Research Companion to Experimental Music edited by James Saunders (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), pp. 331–336.  Copyright © 2009

parkerKnown for his fluid development of multiphonic aggregates to produce a constantly changing patterning, Evan Parker has evolved an instantly recognizable sound. Despite the flux of the music’s surface, he talks of his recent exploration of limited interval types to underpin his improvisations, emphasizing the reduced nature of his approach. Here practise and memorization are important, allowing the development of sequence-building methods which inform subsequent performances. The impact of group work is also of note: specific developments in his technique arose from the necessity of responding to the musicians around him, leading to the possibility of working as a soloist. Recently, his exploratory work with different groupings of musicians, taking on ‘the specifics of time and space’, has allowed the further development of the research ethos that lies at the heart of improvisation. Finding new things in new or old situations is central to experimentation. There are moments which leave an indelible mark on your memory, and hearing Parker perform live for the first time was, for me, one of these. At the beginning of a workshop in Huddersfield whilst I was a student, he talked a little about what he did, and then played for five minutes: I was completely unprepared for the complexity of the sound, and the shape of the resultant performance, and it has stayed with me since then.

The interview was conducted by email between 24 February 2007 – 4 August 2008

There is a clear identity to your playing which makes it instantly recognizable, and I wanted to begin by asking you how you have worked with this definition over time. Do you see the language you have developed as a positive constraint?

The idea of having a ‘sound’ has always been a key part of the work but in free improvisation everything is up for re-negotiation including the notion of everything being up for re-negotiation! In other words there are situations in which my ‘sound’ would not be the best contribution I could make, but there are others where it is the only thing that is needed. Maybe the key to it is to have a ‘bag’ (another venerable jazz term) from which you can pull the right stuff at the right time. Some players you meet don’t want to negotiate much, others are very mutable; it really is ‘site-specific’ work as our fine art colleagues put it.

How do you tend to respond in those situations where your sound is not what is needed?

A glib response would be – ‘improvise’. Some people emphasise the etymology of the word in the notion of the ‘unforeseen’ and might anyway have the view that it is only such situations that are truly conducive to improvisation. In practice it is extremely rare to find myself in a situation where no aspect of ‘my sound’ can fit, so it really becomes a question of deciding when to lead when to follow, when to determine an approach and when to accept one that has been determined elsewhere. Given that all of this happens at the speed of thought or – even better – intuition and is not really subject to rational analysis until after the event, there is a danger of the theorizing running away with itself.

How does this work with musicians with whom you have a long history of playing together, potentially where your sound might fit too well? Clearly each encounter will be different, but there are, I expect, shared experiences which inform a practical knowledge of each other’s approaches. Do you have a way of addressing this situation, if indeed it is a problem, or is it just intuitive?

If an analogy is made with a conversation with old friends then several questions arise. Why are we still friends? Have we discussed this subject before? Where were we? Is there any mileage left in that old topic? and so on. Since the topic ‘improvised music: what is it? how’s it done?’ is the subject under discussion , as with philosophy, religion, politics, education, the state of the world, read any good books lately? – in such conversations, many points and topics will be approached over and over with the same vigor, rigor or sometimes rigor mortis then there will be much that is redundant when seen from the vantage point of a lone composer working with notation and all the options of revision, changes of mind and the chance to scrap everything and start again. What comes instead is a sense of immediacy, of collective effort and a unique music made for a particular time, place and people. Each particular occasion will, like each new day, have much in common with the one that went before. There are two important considerations, each of which is a partial reflection of the other: from the listeners’ points of view it may not matter how the music arrived at its specific acoustic reality, it just has to be a worthwhile listening experience but it is nevertheless clearly not appropriate to expect to find the formal qualities of fugue, gagaku or serial music in collectively improvised music. The two polar mistakes are therefore: on the one hand to think that because it is improvised there can be no qualitative estimation and on the other that a background in formal musics of one kind or another is the sole requirement for understanding improvised music.

Personally I don’t see repetition in this context as redundant and agree with your comment on immediacy: much of the music I find interesting, whether it be notated or improvised, deals with site specificity, and the fact that aspects (often major ones) are not predetermined or are somehow provisional. I like your comparison with daily rates of change in this regard. Have you found that changes in your own playing happen very gradually, or have there been sudden epiphanies which open up new ground for you?

There seem to be layerings of different rates for different elements. Crucial factors are the frequency and intervals at which a particular combination of players works. There is a marked feeling of starting where you left off, even if the interval between is measured in years in some cases. There is also a ritualized aspect to identity-building where a certain shared set of assumptions about what a group stands for acts both as guide lines and as traces to be kicked over. One group might work very much with the idea that the group has no clearly defined modus operandi but that becomes a meta-modus operandi as soon as it is articulated. In solo improvisation then the rates of change are determined more by the work pattern. The best circumstances for development are in a concentrated series of concerts or of practise in periods without concerts. These will only arise if I plan ahead and for the moment my approach is to take things as they come. Until I have solved some technical problems to do with learning the characteristics of a new kind of synthetic reed I will not have many ‘epiphanies’. This is my plan for the next fallow period.

Given the variety of ensemble situations in which you have worked and the kinds of networks of relations which inevitably emerge from this, have any particular combinations of players or ensemble formats encouraged specific developments in your playing?

This is really a very interesting question and one to which a short answer can only scratch the surface. I have often cited the example of working with Hugh Davies and Derek Bailey in the co-operative group Music Improvisation Company. Their use of controlled feedback in order to sustain pitches indefinitely made it essential for me to develop the circular breathing technique. Once I had this technique under control it led to the approach which made solo playing attractive. Other examples would be working with John Stevens in the early SME [Spontaneous Music Ensemble] made it necessary for me to learn how to play at a quiet level appropriate for a group with unamplified double bass, John was emphatic about the need for everyone to hear everything at all times. Playing with Peter Broetzmann made it necessary for me to learn how to play louder, in Peter’s bands the bass players had to fend for themselves! Working with Misha Mengelberg encouraged me to think about what the thinking behind my playing was, Misha was very nervous about what he called ‘mood music’ – I’m still not sure that I have solved that one. Playing with Schlippenbach and Lovens has given me the opportunity to revisit the same combination year on year for 35 years now. The question of when repeating tropes and patterns passes from investigation into ritual and/or redundancy is a constant in a group of such long standing. The almost equally long-standing trio with Barry Guy and Paul Lytton raises similar issues but results often in completely different music. The chance to play once a month at the Vortex with groups of my choosing is an opportunity to try different combinations in the same space. This has something in common with research where one element is constant while others vary. There is a whole book to written in response to this question.

I’m interested in the analogy you make here with research. Do you view your work in that way? This is perhaps a central question within all experimental music.

The fact that the final outcome is a performance in real time in a particular place for a specific audience has relevance. The ideal of going somewhere new is always there but it is shaped by the sense of what is appropriate in a given time and place for a given set of listeners.

If all is going particularly well the sense of limitations/possiblities imposed/suggested by these elements disappears and you are in a place where only the musical imperatives exist – a kind of ‘transport of delights’. It is not a simple act of technique, wishing or wanting that gets you to that place. Steve Lake has spoken of ‘the higher magic’ alluding to this I think. Magic may very well be the right word. But as the Sufi dictum has it, ‘Trust in God, but first tether your camel’. This amounts to being in shape, the way to Carnegie Hall etc. Practise for an improviser must consist in part of research.

Could you explain how you practise, and how this fits in with the patterns of your work?

I am slowly memorizing the tunes of Thelonious Monk. This is in part a result of thinking about Steve Lacy’s work with that material stretching right back to the early 60s and partly to do with Schlippenbach’s more recent ‘Complete Monk’ concerts where they play all the tunes in three long sets. I had known a few of the tunes for years but now I try to be more analytical about the specific structures. There seems to be a concern on Monk’s part with limiting the interval types in many of them.

In fact everything else I do is also about memorization and analysis too. I think I wasted a lot of time learning to play written etude material fast when I should have been working from memory more slowly. I am developing a system of pattern and note sequence building that relates to the Slonimsky-type patterns but develops on an additive or you could say catenary method. Note sequences based on only two interval types and so on. I don’t practise much in the investigation of multiphonics although I do have some notebooks full of fingerings from the time when I did do that and I sometimes poke around in old notebooks. The Top Tones book by Sigurd Raschèr is a constant stimulus. It is not completely clear how all this feeds back into performance but I am sure it helps.

How does this patterned note-sequence construction work in practice? Could you give an example of how you use it when playing?

There needs to be an equivalent of the ‘Chinese Wall’, in banking parlance, between material consciously memorized in practice and the state of mind aimed at while improvising. The risk otherwise is that it will sound like running memorized patterns. George Lewis told me that the older players he met when in the Count Basie band referred to such things as ‘riff books’. There is a short recording between tunes on one of the Charlie Parker recordings made by Jimmy Knepper where he plays such a pattern and someone asks him where’s that from and he says Rudy Wiedoeft. I think Wiedoeft was a popular saxophonist who had a ‘riff book’ on the market at that time. Obviously Parker made a very clear demarcation between practise and performance. The aim of my practise is to run pathways that would otherwise be unused and consequently unfamiliar to my brain and fingers with a view to making the line from my imagination more fluent. The obvious place to look is when the music slows down and then there are often passages which are clearly based on the kinds of interval sequences I’ve described but by the same token when the music is moving slower there is time to embed and disguise such sequences. I have used the analogy of a sculptor’s use of an armature to support an otherwise instable structure.

So how do you erect this wall? How do you effect the separation between technical preparation and performance: is it something that you consciously attempt, or does it just happen?

It is something like a moral imperative, ‘Thou shalt not play out of the riff book’. Where things get really complicated is that there is, especially in solo improvising, an element of something like practise going on, in the sense that you return over and over to the same situation, problem, problematique, challenge, namely: ‘I’m here to give a concert of improvised music’. The sense of own voice, own language, own style, a responsibility to make sense of own past through coherent, logical, consequent, satisfying, communicable efforts connected to previous attempts at the same self-imposed task is filtered through a tangled mass of memories, habits, weaknesses. The dialogue with the past is presented in a permanently unfinished state which nevertheless seeks to arrive at a sense of statement however provisional it is in reality.

It is unlike the attempt in notated music to deal with a particular set of issues, themes etc. and then write Fin, close the book, give it an opus number and send it out into the world. The distinction between improvisation and notation as compositional methods is not always so neat. There is a statement by Busoni about the essential musical idea starting in the imagination and whether it is written down or played directly on an instrument is secondary, something to that effect – I’m afraid I don’t have time to look it up. For the improviser there remains an aesthetic necessity for music to reflect , sound of , adequately its philosophical foundation. Why improvise? Music is time based and sequential, it has that much in common with life itself; to seek to ‘fix’ music in a permanent form, the opus number, is to deny time’s arrow. An improviser could be said to ‘go with the (Heraclitean) flow’.

If it were to be seen in the way you outline in your question it would be like the injunction, ‘Don’t think about an egg’. In other words I don’t think I can answer this question!

For me, all of your first paragraph is applicable to composing. Even though the score is notionally permanent (regardless of the relative indeterminacy of the performed results), it is only provisional from the perspective of the composer’s ongoing attempt to make the same statement. You write the piece and move on; you improvise and move on. Everything else is a trace of those acts, as Busoni says. How do you feel about recordings in relation to this?

In your question you use ‘composing’ and ‘improvising’ as if distinct methods – perhaps a slip, perhaps a provocation or a test of my resolve! I repeat: my whole argument is that this is bound to lead to apparent contradictions – or even false analogies at the other end of the spectrum. Since both notation and improvisation involve turning the mind to the construction of a sequence of sounds, notes, rhythms, pitches or other imagined events (what we can perhaps agree to call ‘composing’) there will be an overlap in the techniques used to order the material.

Using an instrument designed to play the chromatic scale in tempered intonation offers the improvising instrumentalist the choice of working with the patterns derived from that gamut. There is also the option of dealing only with extended techniques or unconventional ways of playing that render such materials irrelevant. I am of course interested in such possibilities but also in the conventional materials that a conventional instrument, saxophone, was designed to produce.

There are clearly fundamental differences between the two methods. The possibility of revision, the possibility of writing works on a scale that means they may never be performed or of a complexity that means they will never be accurately realized are all distinct qualities of notated music.
Improvised music that seeks to take on specifics of time and place nevertheless has much in common from performance to performance by a given group or individual.

On recording: Celibidache refused to make records of his performances saying that, ‘The Holy Mystery of music cannot be pressed into the form of a pancake.’, however since he died they have issued dozens of his recordings originally made for radio broadcast only.

For me the question of surviving as a performer and making recordings are inextricably linked. There is no doubt in my mind that because I made records as soon as it was practically possible I have survived as a performing musician. With the repeated listening that a recording makes possible comes the learning of a musical language and the kind of analysis that makes qualitative assessment possible. This was true for my musical ‘education’ and it is quite evident that recordings of improvised music have made for the rapid expansion of the community of both players and listeners. The idea that recording somehow contradicts the ethos of free improvisation carries no weight for me. It is simply a time shifting device in the first instance and the purist is welcome to listen to a recording just once.


  1. Superb questions (and answers, of course!).
    As someone who has spent the better part of his playing career as a free improvisor (and a fan of Mr. Parker’s), this dialogue crystallizes for me the essential aspects of free improvisation remarkably.
    Having said that, I personally have “run the well dry”, and the concept of free improvisation as incremental instrumental research and time/place-based ritual doesn’t really have much appeal to me anymore (cue the violins). As can be seen from my “personal site”, I am these days much more interested in “long-form” structures, and as much in immediate dialogue-based interactions.
    However, Evan’s considered remarks have given this “apostate” some great pleasure in revisiting past self-reflection…

  2. Correction to the last couple sentences:
    As can be seen from my “personal site”, I am these days much more interested in “long-form” structures, and NOT as much in immediate dialogue-based interactions.
    However, Evan’s considered remarks have given this “apostate” some great pleasure in revisiting past self-reflection…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.