Martin Davidson responds to questions put by Ed Pinsent.
First published in Sound Projector 3.

Have you any views on improvised music vis a vis Jazz?

If one has to categorise music, and there are times when it is useful to, I think Free Improvisation should be in a separate category to Jazz. Although strongly influenced by Jazz, there have been other influences and subsequent developments, which have meant that Free Improvisation has dropped most of the characteristics that make Jazz Jazz. There are inevitable border problems whenever one divides an art form up into categories, but this still should not totally invalidate the categories.

Did it grow out of American Jazz music or evolve in some other way?

Most of the so-called first generation of Free Improvisers did start off listening to and/or playing Jazz. In some ways Free Improvisation can be thought of as an evolution of Jazz via the intermediate stage of Free Jazz. But there were other important influences from the worlds of composed (and, pace Cage, decomposed) music, and also from certain traditional musics. Some Free Improvisers, such as the first-generation Germans, retained considerable resemblances to Free Jazz. Others found non-hierarchical areas very unlike jazz to work in, notably, in their different ways, AMM and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble.

Is the pairing of Derek Bailey with Anthony Braxton (the Wigmore Hall concert) significant in this regard?

At that time, very few people (musicians or otherwise) were aware of the considerable body of Free Improvisation that was taking place mainly in this country and certain other parts of Europe. Braxton was one of the people who was aware, and he went out of his way to include Bailey in one of his concerts. It therefore seem natural to put these two exploring musicians from different backgrounds together as a duo, especially as both were keen to do so. Although Braxton is usually defined as a Jazz musician, he works in many areas, and some of his music would seem to have little to do with Jazz.

How did this music 'mature' in the 1970s?

By the early 1970s (perhaps, the late 1960s), a significant body of free musicians had found their own distinctive voices, and had developed several ways of making music together. Although there has subsequently been considerable evolution, many of these original discoveries are still being utilised.

Has it any more evolving to do?

I hope so.

How would you defend this music against critics who find it a terrible noise?

Tell them to listen with an open mind. Point them to areas that are less conventionally 'terrible'.

Why do you like improv?

It gives the musicians the best opportunity to express themselves. I find it to have been the most original and moving body of music over the last thirty years. Having said that, I by no means like everything in that category (nor dislike everything else).

What are your views on the scene today?

In many ways it is very similar to how it was twenty-five years ago. There are a lot of good musicians around, and a seemingly endless trickle of new ones turning up, but there is precious little money available. Two differences come to mind. Musicians now come from a far wider range of backgrounds/experiences than they used to, and there is much more electronic technology available for both making and recording music. Personally, I get very little enjoyment out the way this technology is used for making music. I particularly like the sound of unamplified acoustic instruments - if I want to listen to loudspeakers, I can stay at home. On the other hand, for recording, carrying a portable DAT machine certainly beats carrying two Revox reel-to-reel tape recorders and a mixer, especially now that I am not as strong as I used to be.

What is the 'Naked Charm of Music Realistically Documented'?

I like to have records of the music as it is performed, so that it is heard as if one was sitting in the best seat in the audience. I generally do not like to have artificial echo added - I think some music benefits from a dry acoustic - and I do not want over-dubbed string sections or choirs or synthesizers or whatever. (There has been some good use of over-dubbing, but I think it is the exception rather than the rule.) It is satisfying to have complete performances, but very often a performance has a good bit and a bad bit, so for repeated listening I am all for editing to leave just the good bit - not completely realistic, perhaps, but a technique that has produced many fine collections.

(As for the specific words of mine you dug up: At the time I was reading a book about particle physics - something I did every decade or so to try and keep up with the latest scientific theories. That was about the time that quarks were postulated - hence the 'naked charm' - a characteristic of quarks whose meaning I have long since forgotten. As for the rest - my middle name is Richard.)

Who did the original sleeve notes for Domestic and Public Pieces?

There were not any sleeve notes as such. Maybe you are referring to the 'File Under' sequence - a mini-comment of the world of music in general - that I compiled and used on other LPs.

There seemed to be a warmth and humour there (and in Bailey's vocal pieces on the record) which I find somehow absent from improv today - would you agree?

I think, then as now, there was a spectrum in the world of improvisation from humourless music to musicless humour. Sometimes people manage to pull off various degrees of mixing music and humour - sometimes the humour destroys the music, or the two simply do not mix. I often find warmth and humour in today's performances.

What was the Unity Theatre (and was it really destroyed by fire)?

Unity Theatre is a Socialist theatre company that goes back to the 1930s, if not earlier. They had an actual theatre in London between Camden Town and St Pancras. Starting around 1973, they let the Musicians' Co-operative use it on the off night (Monday from memory). The building was burnt down late in 1975, and has not been rebuilt. The theatre company still exists without a permanent base - my ex-wife Madelaine (aka Mandy, the other Em in Emanem) recently performed in one of their productions.

What other venues in London played host to improv music?

The Little Theatre Club was another theatre that let musicians use it when it was not actually used as a theatre. There were two important periods when this happened - 1966-9 and 1972-4 (approximate dates from memory). Also, before using the Unity Theatre, the Musicians' Co-operative used Ronnie Scott's Club on Sunday evenings (which was rather bizarre). Other venues came and went - as they still do.

What was the role of the ICA?

I don't think the ICA had any role in presenting improvisation - has it ever done so? (Maybe the music is too contemporary.) The late Jazz Centre Society did present some concerts of improvisation (such as SME 1974 and Bailey solo 1975), and sometimes used the ICA Theatre or Cinema to do so. Other people may have organised concerts there too.

The Emanem label - When did it start?

I started it early in 1974, although I had been thinking about it for a few years beforehand. I actually started recording with a Revox (very badly at first) about a year before that.

Why has it had so many international addresses?

That's a long story - probably not very interesting - combining situations both under control and out of control. Here's a shortened version: In 1975, I thought the label would be more successful if it were based in the USA, since there is a large domestic market there which does not like paying extra for imports. Unfortunately, the distributors there took so long to pay, that we ran into horrendous cash flow problems. We did not enjoy living in the USA generally, so we decided to come back, but by the time we were able to (in 1982), the Thatcher Winter was in full swing, so we decided to go to Sydney instead. We enjoyed living there very much, but found it a bit limited, so we came back here in 1988. (Although Australia had a Labor government for most of that time, it was run by the virtual Thatcherites Hawke & Keating, who complained that Thatcher was stealing their ideas. So Blair is very deja vu for anyone who lived in Australia in the 1980s.)

What is the label's 'mission statement'?

To help document and propagate good music, especially that which other labels would not touch. There are many areas of music that I am interested in, however it seems best that a small label concentrates on one area, or group of areas. Hence the (general) concentration on free improvisation, which is perhaps the area that has least documentation and propagation.

Do you have anything to say about your current CD sleeve art designs (which I think are excellent) or those of Incus record sleeves?

Top of my agenda for the CD booklets and inlays is CLARITY, as it was for the LPs. (This is also a quality I like in the actual music and the recording.) I do not go along with the current fashion of obscuring everything. As a long time browser of LP and CD bins, I find myself noticing items that have the most important information - the name(s) of the performer(s) and/or group - in reasonable sized letters near the top of the front. This is not always the most artistic of designs, but it sure helps browsers in record shops.

But then, record labels that far outsell Emanem obviously think otherwise. For instance, a sealed FMP CD has virtually no information visible, unlike a sealed Emanem CD which has all the personnel and track details on the back. And then there is Tzadik which seems to specialise in printing vital information in 6 point gold lettering on a busy silver background. Why do they bother? Can anyone read this, without screwing up their eyes and/or brain? (There are also certain magazines that also insist on printing text on busy backgrounds. I refuse to attempt to read such things. Do they really want to damage their readership? Or are they just puffing out the pages with rubbish that they don't want people to read?)

I have nothing specific to say about Incus designs - some appeal to me, some don't.

Please reiterate your views on 'original freaks' who have to own first pressings of these records. Do you have any views on this music fetching high collector's prices?

All collectors (including myself) are a bit irrational - some more than others. The original issue thing was particularly big in Japan when I visited there about ten years ago. One collector wanted to know which was the original edition of the Lacy solo album. I told him, but also told him that the pressing was much, much noisier than the second one - he still had to have the original. I saw some out of print Emanem LPs for sale in collectors' shops in Tokyo at quite high prices. Unfortunately, none of these high prices goes to me nor to the musicians!

Return to home page