Writing Into the Maelstrom

The thought of writing a book on free improvisation had been on my mind for many years. At some point in the late 1990s I discussed it with guitarist Derek Bailey. His response, sent via letter, was hardly encouraging: “A book about the British imp. music scene would be a brave venture. Do you know any two people who agree about anything?”

Temporarily flattened, the desire resurfaced in 2005 when I was awarded a three year AHRC Fellowship to research digital improvisation. Cathy Lane suggested I run an improvisation option for BA2 students of Sound Art & Design (a course that I have taught every year since, more recently inviting students from MA Sound Art and courses from across UAL) and so ideas began to coalesce, essays were published and conference papers delivered. The motivation was strong, as was the potential of the material, yet I felt unhappy with my stilted, inhibited and ultimately boring writing on the topic. Instead I turned to the subject matter of my fifth book, Sinister Resonance.

The lit fuse that sets off a new book for me is usually an insight, misguided or otherwise, into some aspect of history that others have overlooked. In Rap Attack it was the closeness between contemporary hip-hop, the ageing entrepreneurs of R&B who released the first rap records and an enduring presence of African American oral traditions that connected these two apparent extremes; in Sinister Resonance it was the proposition that silent media such as painting and literature functioned as recordings of aural experience, particularly in periods prior to the invention of audio recording. Of course a degree of hubris accompanies such claims of new territory, counterbalanced by the need for humility. Writing beyond one’s competence can only invite demolition jobs from specialists. But the dominant, in my view simplistic narrative of free improvisation as a mid-1960s hybrid of free jazz and indeterminacy begged too many questions to go unchallenged. How and when did notions of spontaneity, the free flow of thought and action establish themselves in popular imagination? How was it possible for instrumentalists to develop such individualistic, non-conformist techniques, often from within commercial contexts, and where did free improvising vocalists find their seemingly unlimited material, given there was no intercessional object between music and audience other than their own bodies?

All of these enquiries and many others opened up tantalising research pathways to be followed but the main problem remained. Improvised music is a frustratingly difficult subject. Its history is largely unrecorded, elusive and anecdotal so there was a lot of digging to do. Then there is the problem of how to describe a collective and highly subjective dialogical enterprise that exists only in the moment, is perpetually in flux, eschews notation, often leaves no trace other than a fragment of memory. I recently read something on social media about two improvising friends of mine based in Cork – Danny McCarthy and Mick O’Shea. They never discuss what they are going to play before a concert, nor do they discuss it afterwards. This is fairly typical. Hardly surprising that I took so long to get started.

In practical terms the way I write a book is to make notes over a period of about five years. At the point of making a commitment to writing this particular book rather than something maybe more commercial or appealing I draw a mind map of as many names as possible and their complex interconnections. Once that’s done I say goodbye to a normal life, write the first sentence and then improvise all that follows, planning slightly ahead as I go, all the while hoping to be carried through by experience, research and tenacity, an internalised feeling for structure (learned from improvising and many years of journalism) and the increasingly obsessional mood that takes over once a book has begun to bite. Back in 2011 one of the methods I employed to kick start the writing was a series of interviews. After about five, particularly a long and extremely productive conversation with saxophonist John Butcher, I stopped, having realised that I was accumulating sufficient material for a book of terrifying proportions. The plan turned out to have its uses, however, because it suggested a structure, a sort of respiratory form in which the historical narrative could be interspersed with thematic interludes: solos, audience interventions, the voice, and so on. These opened up the text to contemporary practitioners, more importantly to voices other than my own. To my relief, they also made the book less male than a pre-1970s history would otherwise have been.

As for the decision to write two volumes, that came quite late on in the writing. I had reached somewhere around 80,000 words without quite arriving at 1966. Since my given word limit was 120,000 that presented a crisis. I either had to hack or compress. Neither option was acceptable. Unsurprisingly the publisher – Bloomsbury Academic – was averse to dealing with a 250,000 word book on free improvisation and so was I. Happily we were able to agree to a two-volume strategy. From that point I felt liberated by the freedom to go into even more fanatical detail, particularly on the emergence of free improvisation in the UK, and happy to park other subjects for later scrutiny.

In one sense I felt cursed by Into the Maelstrom – doomed to write a difficult book (or books) that very few people would read or take seriously and that many improvisers might dislike. On the other hand I felt fortunate that I have known and worked with so many of the story’s characters, whether central or peripheral. I have letters from Alvin Curran going back to the 1970s, many letters from Derek Bailey and five taped interviews with him dating from 1984, a revealing interview with Lee Konitz from 1987, interviews with all the members of AMM (conducted in company with Hannah Charlton, who very generously also allowed me access to all her interviews with improvisers from that period), a listening history that goes back to 1966 when I first saw AMM play live and personal experience of many of the venues, organisations and scenes that make up the music’s psychogeography.

Plus, and this is important, I’ve been playing free improvised music since 1969. That may not make it easier to articulate what goes on or how it works (if and when it does work) but over that span of 47 years I have learned a few things, not only about the music but about other musicians and myself. There is something terrifying about placing yourself in front of an audience, not knowing what is about to happen. Eventually you get used to it, enjoy it, come to be relaxed about it, and when that point arrives it makes a lot of other activities – writing a book, for example – seem far less daunting.


Into the Maelstrom: Music, Improvisation and the Dream of Freedom by David Toop was published by Bloomsbury on May 5th, 2016.