Neil Welch: How I Approach Free Improvisation

April 1st, 2012

Improvised music is at its best when all participants intersect by way of a personal, stylized approach.  Our aim as improvisers is to collaborate, and I find this to be true regardless of the context of the improvisation.  If two improvisers purposefully avoid any interaction with one another, attempting to create a kind of binary sound without any relationship between the two, the improvisation will still be influenced by ideas coming from the other player.  Avoiding another’s input elicits a response which was influenced by it.  The aim of any improvisation is plain if the focus of collaboration is always at its core.

Individual style is why I listen to music.  Whether it’s the writing style of a composer or the labored breathiness in a players sound, I’m always moved by the subtleties of a musician.  Much free music maintains the reputation of being overly intellectual and missing the soulful essence of good music.  This isn’t an intrinsic problem with free music, but it’s an endemic problem with many of the people who play it.   Much of the free music I love, music which makes me feel like I’m a different person—a more interesting and awakened person than I really am—is music most would classify as intellectual.  So many free improvisations are stale because players aren’t putting any blood into it.  They are unwilling or afraid to take a stand, lead others and have faith in their ideas.

My wife once read that selfish lovers make better lovers.  In fulfilling their own needs, their partner often receives the benefit of the elevated excitement and effort.  Though, if the selfish needs don’t come with a collaborative spirit, the pitfalls for the partner are obvious.  This illustration works well in the context of free music.  Many times I’ve been part of an improvisation where each member of the group thoughtfully tip toes around one another, trying not to interrupt and politely responding.   Even though the improvisation may turn out to be pleasing, there’s a deeper level of artistry that goes unfulfilled for me.  In collaboration there must be leadership.   In collaboration there must be moments where one musician takes the lead, comes to the forefront and pushes the others towards something new.

My current music puts me in opposition to many of the musical scenarios I find myself a part of these days.  This is exciting for me!  My own music has taken a shape which I hadn’t anticipated, and try as I might to fit in with the music around me, I often fail.  I’ve come to realize that how I play is how I play.  I must respond and evolve in the moment, but a fish out of water is still a fish.  I find that I contribute the best when I’m true to my own artistic notions, thoughts and gestures.  It’s crucial for my artistic growth to intentionally stray far off from my comfort zone, and to see the music through another’s eyes.

When I improvise with another person, I make an assumption they will meet me half way. Playing thoughtfully is a careful balancing act of the ego.  We have to keep ourselves and others in check.  Risk taking is at the heart of it, but so is balance.  Believing that an individual, stylized approach to improvisation will always lead to a great improvisation is unrealistic.  I maintain faith in myself to lead and to follow.  I must be aware that every improvisation is important and must come from the deepest part of myself.

—Neil Welch, March 2012