Tim Fairhall has played on many of the most significant stages in Britain and internationally, playing in a diverse bank of musical situations that appear, even from a distance, to explore the convergent nature of contemporary jazz, free jazz and ‘improv’.
Tim performed with his Keskeverya Quartet at a Stillpoint Spaces London anniversary event on 24th March 2018, and to learn more about what it means to play improv in the dynamics of a music ensemble, they invited him and his band members to take part in a discussion with the audience. I asked Tim a few questions in an eagerness to understand more about his practice, ahead of his appearance there.
K.H: Before studying your MA in Jazz Performance [at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama], you studied philosophy. How had this influenced your subsequent career as a musician? (or is this too big a question?!)
T.F: It’s a big question! My study of philosophy remains an essential foundation for the person I am, and the music I seek to make is, obviously, an expression of that person. I can’t say that my music is an exploration of philosophical concerns or anything nearly so straightforward, and I’m wary even of positing a direction of influence; my interest in philosophy informs my enjoyment of certain kinds of music, and equally the music that most resonates with me often prompts me to consider certain philosophical issues. A selection of the issues that interest me might be; the relationships between gesture and form, improvisation and composition, agent and authority; the emotional expressivity of sound; the politics of improvised decision-making; the nature of creativity; the social anthropology of art. Ultimately, I find my study of philosophy helps me to be alert to profundity in the world, and I appreciate it also in art.
In my view art and philosophy may usefully consider similar questions, but it’s important to recognise that they utilise different means and operate with quite different criteria of success. Though it makes sense to talk of the aesthetic value of an idea, or indeed of a musical logic or argument, here we are more or less using metaphor. They are different activities with different ends in mind, exploring and emphasising different qualities of human thought. I’m not inclined toward a simplistic, hard separation of reason and emotion, but philosophy and music definitely connect with different places in the continuum of human capacities!
“We are constantly listening, to ourselves and to whoever we may be playing with; assessing the state of the music and judging what an appropriate contribution might be. We need to have developed the discrimination and technical means to make and carry out those decisions.”
There are also some more or less pragmatic consequences of a philosophical training, in so far as my ease with analytic thinking has been of use in my musical practice. It’s definitely relevant for effective teaching.
More importantly, in order to develop as an improvising musician, it’s essential to cultivate a capacity for self-interrogation, both in one’s practice (identifying which elements in one’s playing warrant/require further attention), and in the flow of performance. In this approach to making music, there is a devolution of responsibility for decision-making to the individual players. We are constantly listening, to ourselves and to whoever we may be playing with; assessing the state of the music and judging what an appropriate contribution might be. We need to have developed the discrimination and technical means to make and carry out those decisions. It is sometimes thought of jazz musicians that ‘they’re making it up as they go’, said in tones either of wonder or dismissal. In both cases, the implication is of a free flow of intuition, which is misleading. Yes, musical intuitions are important, but we facilitate improvised intuitive exploration with an understanding, through analytic practice, of what is best going to get us to the musical space into which our intuition is drawing us.
“Improvisation as an approach emphasises the fact of music as a present creation, a sum of contemporaneous decisions. One can take extreme steps in pursuit of an ideology of spontaneity…But most jazz musicians are always playing in relationship to the history of the music.”
K.H: Looking at numerous reviews and descriptions of your past projects, I have discovered it is difficult to limit the influence of various genres on your work. For you, is this about alluding to a past (or multiple pasts), or creating a path for something new?
T.F: It’s both; it’s the utilisation of models of musical organisation from the past which I find to be fruitful in providing for the creation of something new. Improvisation as an approach emphasises the fact of music as a present creation, a sum of contemporaneous decisions. One can take extreme steps in pursuit of an ideology of spontaneity, as far as possible eliminating prepared vocabulary, rehearsal, an established group, conventions of any kind. But most jazz musicians are always playing in relationship to the history of the music. Depending on the context, we accept a set of conventions which allow us to improvise coherently together, which may commit us to certain idiomatic constraints derived from a particular period. Modern vocabulary will simply not sound good when playing with an old-time swing band, because they’re incongruent. (However, it’s worth noting that some contemporary players are interested in subjecting historically situated styles to a post-modern critical scrutiny, and creating art based around that investigation. My brother, Adam, who plays accordion in the Quartet, has a long-standing performance and academic interest in this.)
Bearing in mind that a majority of my work is as a sideman in other bandleaders’ projects, the most important lessons I have learned from my playing experiences are not to do with generic influence but address the role of the bass in an ensemble. As a freelance musician I’ve played in a very wide variety of musical contexts, and especially as a bass player, a key professional skill is the ability to understand and best support another bandleader’s vision – in most genres, bass instruments have a particular set of responsibilities. (One of the many reasons improv as a genre is interesting is because the responsibilities implied by the relationships between the instruments are distributed more evenly, as extended techniques expand upon the natural ranges of the instruments.) A high level of technical accomplishment is a wonderful thing, but the pursuit of technique has to be complemented by a deep understanding of the role of the bass, of how the instrument relates to others, and how different approaches influence the musical choices of the other musicians – asking not so much ‘what should/could I play’ as ‘why play this, now?’. Thinking in this way helps to develop a more well-rounded musicianship; musical study can sometimes concentrate too much on the details of construction, rather than the broad-scale architecture.
A final note on influence, specifically in reference to the upcoming concert, is that the music I wrote for Keskeverya attempts to incorporate the soundworld of the classical chamber tradition, alongside contemporary jazz and improv. I like the idea of a chamber quartet piloted by improvisers; I have tried to combine the particular sonic resources of the former with the inventiveness of the latter.
“…any improvised act involves an embrace of the unknown to some degree. I’d prefer to talk of ‘indeterminacy’…And it is of course a key concept.”
K.H: What role do you think mystery plays on your process of improvisation?
T.F: ‘Mystery’ is a rather loaded word! A sense of mystery might be a perfectly vali element of a listener’s response, but I think the term is probably unhelpful when discussing my working practice, as much of what might be considered ‘mysterious’ about an improvising ensemble is actually perfectly explicable in terms of experience, shared language and intention, formal points of reference, and hours of practice. Describing the process as ‘mysterious’ tends to obscure the effort that has gone into the preparation for the performance.
That said, any improvised act involves an embrace of the unknown to some degree. I’d prefer to talk of ‘indeterminacy’, a rather drier cognate of ‘mystery’ which doesn’t have quite the same connotations. And it is of course a key concept. By choosing to write for improvisers in the first place, I am seeking to engage with the excitement and unpredictability which vivifies this approach. I’m interested in the dialogue between musical personalities, in creating a framework which allows them to speak, and hopefully find expression; and inherent in my facilitating that is the ceding of control. An important part of my role as bandleader in the Quartet, therefore, was simply to select the personnel, to bring these particular musicians together. The musical content was composed afterward, with these players and the potential of their combinations in mind, the guiding question then being, ‘How can I write in a way which makes the most of these voices?’.
K.H: Why “Keskeverya”? How does the culture and particular atmosphere of Cornwall influence the work of you and/or your ensemble?
T.F: ‘Keskeverya’ means ‘to converge’ in Cornish, and so reflects both the drawing together of different traditions and different voices into this project, and also a key principle of interaction within the Quartet. I was also keen to acknowledge the inspiration I find in the landscape and culture of Cornwall. There’s a definite spirit of place there which connects deeply with me – I grew up there, my parents still live in my home village, and apart from time away for university, I lived there until my late twenties, when I moved to London. Since then, I have always felt an unresolved tension between the pace of my urban musical life, and the contemplative space I find in the wild landscapes of the far west.
“So how inspiration percolates through a personality, from source through response (aesthetic, emotional, spiritual) to creative act, is far from transparent – veritably mysterious!”
However, though it’s tempting to read something of that opposition into the music, it’s misleading to think of it too literally. I’m certainly not attempting to represent anything. For a start, it’s a big question how an abstract form such as music can carry meaning in the first place. The philosopher in me can’t resist a nod toward an answer – a possibly universal gestural language derived from the prosodic elements of vocal communication, combined with a mix of culturally specific signifiers – but I think it clear that music is not descriptive of the world, that its power lies elsewhere. So how inspiration percolates through a personality, from source through response (aesthetic, emotional, spiritual) to creative act, is far from transparent – veritably mysterious!
I had opportunity to consider in depth the relation of music to place, when in January of 2016 I travelled to the Isle of Eigg, off the west coast of Scotland, with Tom Ward, a flautist and bass clarinettist with whom I have a long-standing improv duo. We stayed in a tiny bothy for a week, looking out over the mountains of Rum; playing together and alone, walking in the hills, absorbing the place and meditating on this process of inspiration. I found then that to try for explicit reflection in my playing of the landscape/soundscape/environment of the island generally proved unsatisfactory. It was more about inhabiting in the music the same emotional space as I’d found in my engagement with the island; trying to play in such a way as was consonant with my state of being when out on the hill. With regard to the Quartet then, I may not have tried for any kind of overt reference, but I have allowed the emotional resonance of my attachment to Cornwall to colour parts of the writing.
“Massed attention creates a framework of significance, in which each note played matters. Commitment is crucial to make any kind of music really get going–“
K.H: Finally, how do you relate to the act of performing in front of a live audience, especially as an improv player?
T.F: Performing is a very comfortable space for me. Of course there is a risk involved with improvising in a live situation. Musicians commit to certain explorations, reaching for something of value we may not yet even have a clear conception of, and we don’t always arrive where we’d hoped – we fall short, stumble, make mistakes. But that is a necessary concomitant of the improvised approach, and I would always rather hear someone trying for something new and strong, than someone half-heartedly traversing familiar, safe territory.
It is certainly true that there is another definite energy available from an attentive audience, which supports the musicians’ exploration. Massed attention creates a framework of significance, in which each note played matters. Commitment is crucial to make any kind of music really get going, and that commitment is much easier if you have a room full of people attending to everything you do. Obviously the responsibility involved is greater, to justify that level of attention, and to deal with that you have no choice but to commit. If you really feel that an audience is with you, you are compelled to find something worth saying! The unique character of any one improvised performance is partly a function of this multi-lateral web of receptivity; musicians listening to each other, the audience attending to the music and the musicians receiving and channeling that attention.
Tim Fairhall has performed on many of the most significant stages in Britain and internationally, including the Barbican, the Royal Festival Hall, the Royal Albert Hall, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Cologne Philharmonic, Gulbenkian Grande Auditorium Lisbon, and many others. In 2008 he graduated with distinction from the MMus in Jazz Performance at the Guildhall. Since then he has played widely on the UK jazz scene and worldwide, in a notable diversity of musical situations including (amongst many others); free jazz and improv with the London Improvisors’ Orchestra, Julie Kjaer, Ma/ti/om, The Markov Chain and the LUME Collective; songs in the Sephardic tradition with world music superstar Yasmin Levy; piano/laptop-led post-classical with Piano Interrupted; and contemporary jazz compositions with the Tim Fairhall Trio, the John Martin Quartet and Madwort’s Menagerie.
Interview with TIM FAIRHALL
by KATE HOLFORD
Originally published MARCH 2018
Artwork by KATE HOLFORD