By Marcus O'Dair

I have an affinity and an appreciation for anything that comes out of ... nothing! Especially in the field that I majored in and was able to explore with many actors, which was theater and film.

For 35 years, I have intuit'd that a lot of this experimentation existed and it was also used in many other ways and forms, from David Bowie using mime and other forms of theater in his own work and presentations, to other things that might be considered more unusual and experimental or theatrical in rock music!

Theater acting classes and workshops, normally work around improvisation as a way to teach any actor some kind of an internal process that helps them figure out how to say things and how to move and how to interpret and learn how to work any character from any script or play. These exercises will often change, as the same exercise might be good for Harold Pinter, but horrendous for Shakespeare! In music, the notes and a staff on a piece of paper would be an equivalent, with one exception ... in general, not that many musicians, learn to work with a director and a person that is giving them what would normally be more objective suggestions about the notes, the playing, and the music. Rock and jazz, is about the "attitude", not the music, so to speak, and this has a tendency to prevent anyone from experimenting a lot.

There is one other side of all this, that is the part that a lot of people have a tendency to not enjoy doing ... and most of the reasons why is because, you endup entering an area that is called "unknown", and be it music, theater, film, or any other art, this has a tendency to throw off our thinking minds, and a lot of us are afraid of trying that, for fear that we will lose ourselves, or not do what we have to do -- which is a concern, and we do not have to fool ourselves here, when it comes to a live audience, for example! But to say that the "Living Theater" was a stupid experiment, is also wrong!

If there is anything that you will want to take a look at here in this book, it is, more than anything else, a study about a man, that is more concerned with an imaginary continuity to the work at hand, and that has absolutely nothing to do with our imagination, music, or anyone else's thinking and ideas! The result, is something that scares the living heck out of most artists ... it's the wrong key ... it's the wrong scene ... it's the wrong color ... it's this or that ... and from experience, I will tell you that there are just as many "successes" in this area in rehearsal, as there are "failures". With one HUGE exception ... these failures have a tendency to show you something, that you eventually use and work on sometime down the line in your experience, or it will show up ... where did that come from? And you learn to "identify" your inner signals FASTER than those around you.

The book, is a continuous exercise in the mind of a man doing nothing but trying different things all his life! Can I say ... plain and simple? And what makes all this interesting?

Sometimes, we can say that he was too drunk to know the difference, or something of the like, but would that create comments by folks saying ... that was an outstanding gig, or amazing concert ... but when you look at over 40 years of drunken-ness, you and I would think that is probably a bit too much ... there is something else at play. And you will find examples that are wonderful in here, from Syd Barrett (the best of all examples!!!) to many others that suggest that if there is one thing that scares a lot of folks is the very idea of them not knowing what to do, or what they are doing! And then Robert makes a joke about the improvisation that is not an improvisation!!! KABOOOOMMM! Wake up time!

Like he wouldn't know what an improvisation really is!

The book is written almost exclusively on quotes and the order of the quotes. It is not a sentimental book , in many ways, and you get to see the good and bad of many folks, although some of us might suggest that we want more about Mike Ratledge, but sometimes, there is nothing else to add ... and that's the way it is! I remember an improvisation that was 2 hours long that we did on the theater, and for over an hour of it, I sucked my thumb and watched, and towards the end of it, someone came back and laid down next to me, and I became their friend and pillow, so to speak! There would have been nothing to say, tell, discuss, about my "childish" example ... I just did not want to do the silly bs that everyone else was trying to invent as a way to "create" a character ... I thought it was all unfocused! Or at least focused on a mental idea ... and the point of the exercise was to break that mental barrier, and enter into the much more subtle area of pure feeling ... not ideas ... and the likes of Peter Brook work on this all the time and have shown it many times. Improvisation is not a joke ... but it can be for music!

A lot of the music and work that Robert has done, is considered "jazz", and my take on it, is that some people think that only within a jazz context, can someone go nutz and do his/her own thing. And if this is the case, then Robert is a winner, despite many people thinking that a lot of what he does is not about music at all ... but funnily enough, not many people seem to complaint about what he does, and the likely reason is that it is so different and far out there, that regardless of ryme or reason, it makes no difference whatsoever, what anyone thinks about it ... there is no one else that can do anything like this and that makes it really hard to compare and put together a concensus as to what it all is. Let's face it ... most rock music just is not that "free" at all, and the attempts to get improvisational are all hidden and promptly dismantled in favor of a song. We can find exceptions in the late 60's and 70's of a lot of European music, and specially German, but in general, most rock and jazz music has lost its freedom a long time ago.

There are two parts in the book that are ... just outstanding for me. The 1st one is that this book is absolutely incredible in the story of just about all that went into making "Canterbury" and that group of folks, and the number of names and folks that have spent considerable time with Robert is inspiring to say the last ... it also makes you want to go listen to all that stuff again! By the time you get comments from Charlie Haden later on, all you can do is not hold your breath at all ... you start thinking ... there is something here after all, regardless of Robert believing that he had to have a political motive or not. It happened and it was done. And I think this is the most endearing part of the book, hearing so many folks comment and appreciate so many of these moments and how they turned out!

The second, is the one that rock music does not admit, and has a tendency to ignore and spend their time putting the persons down. it has been said, many times, that behind every man is one woman that makes a difference, and I have to tell you that the care and strength that comes out in this book from Alfie, is just as important as anything that Robert does ... you just do not see that a whole lot, and even reading comments by their friends about her is inspirational to say the least. As to how much, she has inspired him to do what he has done ... is hard to say, but knowing that he was not going to have someone try to trash and downplay the desire to turn something inside out as wrong and sometimes irreverent and not politically correct, is the part that helps the most ... and it's here all the way through it, even though one might say that too much drink might have hidden some of it, which I do not actually believe, in the end, the results are phenominal and exciting, and the collaboration is just as valuable as anything else. There probably would not be a Robert without an Alfie, or vice versa, as you have never read anything like it before or will ever again!

As the cover notes state by Bryan Eno, this is a massively nice look, as well, at the history of a lot of music in England from the early 60's all the way through the 70's, when it was not as big and wide as it became by the 80's of last century. And, as stated earlier, having a better idea about the history of a lot of music in those years, aside from The Beatles and Rolling Stones, the stories of which rarely tell you anything that is not about the stars themselves. And that is a serious treat! Listening to many of the other groups within the Canterbury era and also Gong ... will help understand the music a lot more than otherwise. Funny enough it is not all "accidental", but the comments going way back to the famous writers and artists, will give you an idea, that there was a lot more here to work from ... than just some musical material or other. By the time you grasp that, the book will aleady be on page 250 for you!

It is an easy, breezy and wonderful read, albeit it has to have pauses here and there where the alcoholism or this or that put a slight stop to the train, but in the end, it arrives safely, and healthily to a wonderful and enjoyable trip.

All in all, you're not going to find juicy details about anything ... except people's musical ideas, which, even Robert tends to be extremely soft on. But some comments, mostly "asides" one would think, seem to be extremely interesting and provoking ... and that is the part of the book that stands out, and makes you want to go listen to the pieces again ... is that what I heard?

Classy study, and probably one of the best and most enjoyable books about one of the best "free form" and "improvisation" studies ever written, because you can go listen to the results. Only Peter Brook in his theater studies has done something like it or better.

Highly recommended for anyone wanting to learn something about experimentation ... in a medium where ... there just are not that many of them!




email.gif (12916 bytes)
Please email me with questions and/or comments
Pages Copyright 2009/2010/2011/2012/2013/2014/2015 Pedro Sena -- Last modified: 09/02/2015