Improvizone

M3M, Freedom of Expression with Steve Lawson/Lobelia, and audiences

Andrew Booker 2007-09-04 22:23:24

Besides the Improvizone gig last Tuesday, I've been to two other gigs in the last week or so. Why don't I tell you what I thought. Why don't I upload some bloody recordings from the last couple of Improvizone gigs, dammit?! I will, I will, all will be revealed and availed and unveiled and, I expect, reviled, in the next few days. But first...

Just over a week ago was Mark Jenkins's Music for the 3rd Millennium at the Swiss Church, Endell St near Covent Garden. This was the opening gig, and opening the opening was Jim Lampi. Whom I missed. Bugger. He was an important reason for turning up at all. Then there was CJ Wray, who I caught the end of, then Alquimia and Mark Powell doing folk songs with a bit of electronics, then Mark himself with a solo ambient techno set.

I like electronic music because people who make it have a taste and a good ear for beautiful sounds and textures. As opposed to other genres where the idea seems to be to make music which is ugly, you will always find nice noises somewhere in an electronic musician's output. I love listening to this stuff on records, from mid 70s Tangerine Dream up to modern day dance music. The Swiss Church was a pretty good setting, its puritan decor not distracting from or clashing with what was going on. And the whole thing was free, which we like. (Or do we?)

I am afraid that having to keep my own monthly gig running makes me much more aware of and attuned to the mechanics and aesthetics of a gig like this than I might normally be. So much as I liked it, I started thinking along the lines of what I would do differently, and if that makes me seem overly critical in the following paragraphs, it is only what I think about what I saw. And I'm warped.

First, I should say I don't really like solo music. I believe there is always richer music to be had from a bigger gene pool than from individuals. I know this from what I listen to and from my own experience of making a solo album.

Second, I hate backing tracks. I believe there is always better live music to be had from real people playing the parts. Even if they're just twiddling filters. This is not just because it sounds more real and fun. It's because when I go and see live music, I want to see people play. That is the whole idea! Having missed Jim Lampi but seen him before, I can only assume that at least he was looping his own orchestrations, whereas the two other solo acts all used prerecorded/sequenced backing. Call me old fashioned, but when everyone can reduce all their sounds to a single 2-octave keyboard and an mp3 player in their back pocket, what exactly am I here to watch?

Third, Jim Lampi and CJ Wray were both part of the Open Channel section of the evening, where a selection of acts introduce the gig with 10-minute slots each. Speaking as a performer, 10 minutes would be great on the Jools Holland show. For an electronic musician with a carload of stuff at a small gig, it's not so great. Speaking as a member of the audience, 10 minutes isn't much cop either. Assuming I caught the end of CJ Wray set, I can only have got there 20-25 minutes late at the most, which means I'd still have seen a bit of Jim Lampi if he'd had a decent half hour to play.

Fourth, almost the whole playing area was obscured by lights, camcorders, projectors and enormous people with enormous cameras taking two pictures per minute. It was Mark's first M3M gig and he will have wanted the publicity shots, but seated at the back as I was, I could hardly see any of the performance. I know what you're thinking. Sit nearer the front, you idiot. Great, now I can read the label on the back of the projector really easily. Seems it can run off 100-230 volts. Wicked. Where I was, I had a clear view of the visuals, but they were hardly visible in the glare of the stage lights pointing directly at the screen. For a gig like this, involving music techies with their heads down in synths, one idea might be to focus more on the visuals, with a bigger screen in a prominent and darkened area, with the musicians in a separate lit area so people can watch them too.

Anyway, I did enjoy the music, I'm glad I went, and despite being averse to the soloists-with-backing-track staple of this particular episode, I would pay to be able to see more of an organic version of this kind of gig. Free gigs are great, but paid-for gigs encourage the audience to invest a bit more into their evening, and not come in and then leave after 10 minutes, which I saw a few people doing.

A week later in the upstairs room of a pub in Marylebone was last Friday's Freedom Of Expression gig, this one featuring bassist-looper Steve Lawson in a duo with vocalist Lobelia. They were really good. The pair have clocked up several months on tour together in Europe and America recently, as their confidence and the chemistry between them showed. Both musically skilled and intelligent, they were funny too. Steve had come to the gig without his pedals... phones went off in the audience... merriment prevailed. And having greeted me in the audience, Steve also spent a minute or two plugging Improvizone. You can watch it on the video on his blog. What a gent.

Afterwards, we talked in the bar, joined for a bit by FoE organiser Tim Eveleigh, who also plugged Improvizone to his web audience. Never met me before in his life. What a gent. Steve and Tim's thoughts about gigs and audiences were all good for helping me think about what to do with Improvizone, specifically what sort of a venue works best, and how to build up an audience.

What we do in Improvizone is improvised gigs. So far we've dipped our toes into two different pools of audience. Actually... more like puddles. Anyway. One is the ambient bar music thing, where we sit in a corner and play stuff to whoever happens to have come to the bar, plus a few people who knew about us and came especially to watch. The second is more like a real gig, where we only play to people who have come especially to watch us. There are differences in these experiences, as I began to observe from the last gig.

In a music room, you have the instant worry that there will be nobody in it. That a few people came to watch us at The Plough is a major reason why the gig went well. Assuming there is anyone at all, let's call this kind of audience the watchers. All of the watchers' attention is on us, and we have to keep it. That's OK, because with everybody paying attention, we don't need to stick to ambient music that people can talk over. We can play a bit more busily and stretch out and rock out a bit. Yeah!

But I like the ambient bar thing too. Bars contain people who are there to socialise. We'll call those the chatters. Playing improvised music to chatters is easy, because they're not necessarily listening. And although there is a danger you will upset the chatters because they were not expecting you and you're spoiling their chinwag, this almost never happened at Imbibe. Usually the opposite. Whereas in a music room you only get watchers, at bar gigs you get watchers and chatters, and that means more people, which is good if you're a small gig establishing itself. (Or is it?) I think this is why I still see better potential in the ambient bar approach.

The problem with chatters is that they are not a sticky audience. They probably won't come back, because if they were that taken by new small-scale unadvertised non-mainstream music, they would not be in the bar. They would be out watching little alternative gigs in Stoke Newington. My idea of handing out free CDs was nice and fun, but was ultimately futile because chatters weren't the kind of people who would respond. The other problem with playing in a bar is that watchers and chatters don't mix very well. People who are trying to listen to music don't like other people talking, unless the venue handles the separation well. Imbibe was good like that, one bit for watchers, the bit further in for chatters.

Dum dee dum. Enough theorizing about the best kind of place we could possibly play. I'm off to get the final adjustments to techy bits of work I've been doing on the site, and then book the first Central London venue that will have us.

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