Vitamin S
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Greg Malcolm and John Bell
20 Jul 2011

As of late, I have been struggling with the idea of 'extended technique': a means to an end, or a worthy pursuit of its own? It has seemed to me lately, that the latter has been applied all too often, that improvisation has come to mean extended technique, purely as an expressive form, to the extent of a performance in of itself at times. To a large extent I have been longing for a return to more conventional playing of instruments, worried that the music has suffered in the drive to be unconventional.

Unfortunately, the reverse also seems to come true. Losing extended techniques can mean falling back on the comfortable, the tried and proven, relapsing into idiomatic styles that lock people into a set turn of phrase. This comfy pair of slippers is not what improv is about. Vitamin-S via its format deliberately attempts to thrust people beyond comfort zones. It's not an open mic night – be prepared to discard what went on while practicing in the bedroom.

This was made apparent to me in two fantastic gigs seen recently at the wine cellar. Firstly Greg Malcolm appeared at the Wine Cellar a couple of weeks ago. It could almost be said Greg doesn't play improvised music at all, his set being rather chamber music-like. However, he uses an extensive palette via extended techniques such as prepared guitar, often playing several instruments at once. The result is a collection of highly idiosyncratic versions of tunes from his favourite composers, such as Steve Lacy and Eric Dolphy. Each tune is deeply based in improvisation yet carefully arranged, and completely unlike anything I have heard before. Here, the extended techniques flesh out the arrangements, adding textures you can't believe come from one person, supporting the musicians and enabling them to create a mountain of sound carrying the tune forward in front of it.

The second was our very own John Bell, who played a solo set at his T-Party last Tuesday (12th July). John Bell is a hell of a vibes player. He started his T-Party series as a way of forcing solo performances from people, musing to me that he had never really played a solo gig before, and wasn't sure if he would be comfortable dong so. This was quite a revelation from someone I know as an amazing improvising musician, who has been thrust into so many unconventional situations in the past. John Bell played vibes quite conventionally most of the time. Extended techniques again merely served to flesh out what was a completely improvised 30-minute solo set, providing textures for more conventional techniques to ring over – never taking over from them, but adding to them.

In neither performance was the focus on the extended technique, nor was the music based around extended techniques. They were merely part of a repertoire (including incredible musicianship), which was used to create pieces of music, through which the self was allowed to shine. Improv is not comfortable, but it is not noise. It often uses noise, but always the music must be allowed to come through; as Calvin and Hobbes said: "If you don't have anything to say just keep quiet! Provoking a reaction isn't the same as saying something significant. It's no good expressing ideas if you can't make them understood. You're just babbling to yourself!"