Experimental Music, Improvisation
Psychopajama Records #PJ 4911/ PJ4911CD
Reviewed by Eugene Ball, May 1st, 2015
Giraffe Solos is a collection of wholly improvised pieces performed on a prepared steel string acoustic guitar. To help contextualize this, the latest release from John Encarnacao, it may be helpful to consider a little background on the link between the practice of preparing musical instruments and free improvisation.
Since the middle of the 20th century composers have interrogated the limits of musical sound, including the sources with which sound used to create music can be made. The practice of preparing musical instruments grew from this inquiry, and is exemplified and perhaps best known through the works for prepared piano by John Cage.
Not long after, jazz musicians began to seek means of expression more open than the structures of hard bop. As the free jazz movement systematically deconstructed the fundamental systems of organization in music, they too began to search for new ways of creating sound. For many of these musicians, extended techniques and manipulation of timbre became fundamental. It is easy to understand, then, why improvising musicians began to explore the possibilities of preparing their instruments.
Engaging with free improvisation can be demanding, for performer and listener alike. For those who find the experience perplexing, it may be helpful to consider that improvisation can be understood to be a process, not a product. Each moment in free improvisation is both dependent on what has preceded it, and influential on all that follows. In other words, the particularly ‘successful’ moments can only be arrived at by working through those that are less successful.
Interestingly, I had intended to include here some examples of what I felt to be the most successful moments on Giraffe Solos. However, I have come to realise that the moments that most resonate with me change with each listen.
Whilst there are undoubtedly some very successful moments in Giraffe Solos, there are aspects of the album that some may find contentious. Encarnascao’s press release tells us that Giraffe Solos was recorded on an iPhone at his kitchen table, in the ‘Lo-fi’ tradition. Though the recording has been treated with miraculous post-production, some my find the sound quality more distracting than beguiling. It also states that the recording was not intended for release, but was meant instead to serve as support material for a lecture Encarnascao was to deliver. This raises all sorts of prickly questions about performance and intention that, while beyond the scope of this article, may haunt some listeners.
Part of the excitement of improvising on a prepared instrument is that, due to the volatility of many forms of preparation (ie, because the objects used to prepare an instrument often move as a result of the vibration of the instrument), the player must adapt in performance to an instrument that is in a state of flux. Thus, the prepared instrument is constantly generating new materials for the improviser to engage with. There are, in essence, two ways of approaching the mutable nature of a prepared instrument. One is to engage the instrument as a ‘found object’ and explore it without pre-knowledge or expectation. The other is to develop a working relationship with each facet of the changing instrument, and know its capabilities and limitations. Some listeners may expect the latter, more informed, practised approach of a commercially released recording.
The press release also informs us that this recording would have been very different had it been intended for release and recorded in a studio. I for one would be keen to hear a release from Encarnascao made in this way. However, if you’re curious to hear the journey of a man, a guitar and some common household objects in a kitchen on the evening of the 29th of July 2013, you will encounter some moments that excite and challenge.