Free improvisation and its (if existing) boundaries have been the topic of ongoing theoretical and practical discussions. Yet, more than the recognition than even the freest, most skilled, most eclectic improvisers will at some point stick to the clichés of improvisation itself is often a shared conclusion – one that, to be clear, does not prevent the enjoyment of a nice improvisational session. Now, with the release of Mind Fiber’s latest double record, Hello Balcony, one wonders if the real danger of free improvisation today is not the reliance on some unavoidable clichés but the worsening of the situation with drastic attempts to escape from them. Let’s proceed in order: Hello Balcony, with its almost two hours’ worth of material, is a mastodontic collection of five improvisational sessions recorded by China’s foremost experimental music couple 李剑鸿 (Lǐ Jiànhóng) and 韦玮 (Wéi Wěi, also known as VAVABOND). While the two musicians join forces as Vagus Nerve when dealing with liquid drones and layered psychedelia, Mind Fiber is the name under which they record and perform “environmental improvisation”, Li Jianhong’s latest aesthetic statement. In fact, Hello Balcony has been reportedly recorded between the evening of May 1st (disc two, PM) and the morning of May 2nd 2012 (disc one, AM), in Lijia, Zhejiang province, and it is dedicated to a balcony. As the booklet recites: “[this record] is the brief memo of a balcony. Before early this year, the second floor of my parent’s house had a balcony. As most of the children who had ever owned a balcony of their own, my childhood seemingly became a little bit miraculous because of the balcony. While to other people, of course it is only a simple balcony”.
While the record revolves around this very specific balcony in Lijia village, there’s more in it than the balcony itself or the sounds that can be heard from it during the day. The first element to stand out is Wei Wei’s glitchy laptop synthesis and, although I have to admit that her solo output rarely impresses me, the first minutes of AM function quite well, with the sparse bleeps and rattles merging with and emerging from the field recordings of a distant countryside morning, reverberated granularities maintaining their ambiguous resemblances and contrasts with the ambience backdrop, sometimes sounding like slightly displaced agricultural machinery, cutlery or fireworks, other times spurting out in their full-blown digital coating. Unfortunately, as soon as the serendipity and the novelty of the first few minutes wear down, the generative patches lapse back into their stark aleatory functioning, and the isolation in which Wei Wei put herself during the recording of these sessions (she “isolated herself into her own environment by using small earphones. Therefore, during the improvisation, I could not hear her at all”) does not help restraining the obnoxious repertory of clicks, hisses and stutters that plagues most of the remaining tracks. I understand the fascination with isolationist improvisation, and sometimes appreciate its results, especially when the sensory blindness is selective and involves only the melodic content, but not the rhythmic, or the other way around – a beautiful example is Hymn for a Fallen Angel by Tetuzi Akiyama and Jozef van Wissem, in which the latter improvised over the former’s recordings by simply looking at the clusters of notes as they came up in the audio file waveform. I also appreciate the reasons that drive the choice of a total isolation of the performers, a compositional device that puts them on a par with the unconcerned third element (the environment), enabling unrestrained self-expression and freeing the musicians from any residue of interactional temptation. Yet, as much as I like the theoretical underpinnings of this improvisational set up, I am disappointed with the results. At least for the laptop’s contribution, the absolute isolationist blindness results in very quickly predictable, almost transparent sounds faltering around in hesitant clusters and tentative modulations, enclosed in a very small range of variability, with an impressive lack of sense of space, amplitude and exuberance, a collection of rattles and snaps unconsciously frightened by the possibility of not fitting into a larger picture from which the performers have deliberately withdrawn themselves.
The semi-acoustic guitar, entering the scene subtly, as if already part of the ambience itself, is definitely more interesting. Abandoned the signature delays, fuzzes and amps, Li Jianhong goes unplugged and lazily delivers his signature Derek-Bailey-without-Derek-Bailey move: all that is left of free improvisation are skeletal shades of harmonic progressions, uprooted scratches and muted plucking. Sometimes he even drifts into the remote echo of slanted jazz chords, as in the tenth minute of 9:07, the second track of PM; here, the fractured remains of low key melodies float for a while on a barely perceivable hiss, like fluffs of mist forming undecipherable letters while rolling down steep cliffs. In general, while the homely sound of the atonal picks and strums soothes the listener while maintaining a weird, ephemeral tension, the improvisations in themselves suffer from an absolute lack of progression, both at the level of interaction between the elements (which is sort of predictable, given the preconditions) and of individual invention (which is less predictable and quite disheartening). Everything seems in the end to bear little relation to anything else – the balcony, the morning or evening sounds from Lijia, the guitar, the laptop’s bleeps, the occasional rattles of found objects, all of them float around tirelessly without actually moving as a whole; five slabs of monotonous, inscrutable remembrance end up revolving around sparse lumps of motifs or moves that continuously fade back into indecision.
Interestingly, it is in the rare moments in which the guitar halts for a while and the laptop rarefies into bare presence that the environment itself, the third protagonist of this record, emerges and speaks in its own right: kids at play, dogs barking without urgency, the paroxysmal crow of a rooster, a truck’s horn – lessons in contingency that seem to unfold unnoticed by the self-absorbed improvisers. But there are exceptions. The ending of AM’s first track, 8:16, is a case in point: the synthetic crackles hover gently over the voices of passersby, while the guitar punctuates space with courtly slides and unfinished phrases. This, along with other sparse fragments, could work as a three-minute piece on its own, as a single episode part of what would be a much more varied and much less dispersive record. Being this not the case, Hello Balcony mutates quickly from a pleasing concoction of caressing tones and low-key field recordings into an desolate jumble of recurring tropes and missed opportunities. When the next interesting moment, buried in the track x of disc y, comes up, it becomes difficult to summon up sufficient attention to imagine how that specific intuition would work on its own, were it not buried in a gargantuan thirty-minute suite of nothingness. As an instructive case of emptiness of content rather than form, Hello Balcony reveals how directionless and isolationist improvisation, frozen in its ultimate struggle to free itself from clichés, ends up silencing and neutralizing what it proclaims to be its very core – the environment. I wonder if improvisation is even a valid denominator for this kind of music anymore: instead of taking cues from the improvisus (the unforeseen, unexpected) it instead prolongs a single moment of worthless freedom for its own sake and flattens the surrounding environment into a mere canvas for the unrelated gestures of self-centered improvisers. Should we call it eternization instead?
It is not hard to imagine the pleasure of a kid playing on his country house’s balcony in a country where leisure space becomes a luxury and reckless urbanization widens the gap between the public and the private with intensive forests of high-rise buildings and homogenized closed surfaces. Yet, the biggest problem of this record is precisely that, for most listeners, it will remain only a simple record, just like the balcony will remain only a simple balcony. In fact, Li Jianhong himself believes that “environmental improvisation has nothing to do with others” (环境即兴无关于他人) and so, despite the cooperation of three distinct protagonists – Li Jianhong and his semi-acoustic guitar, Wei Wei and her laptop, and Lijia village with all its rural ambience – Hello Balcony ends up being more of a stubborn experiment in isolationism than a heartfelt selection of locational childhood memories: children, after all, like to play together. Instead of fighting against itself through conflicts, games, challenges and provocations, improvisation here objectifies itself, fragmented into the versions of individuals that only care to “be more concentrated on our individual environment and universe […] instead of musical conversations between the two of us”, and becomes the “intentionless invention of regulated improvisation” – a beautiful phrasing that Pierre Bourdieu uses to describe the distancing of expressive dispositions (the “honest and the most accurate recording of musicians’ subtlest emotions” described in the booklet) and the intuited means of expression (the unavoidable improvisational motions amplified by regulated solipsism). An improvisation of this kind, free only in the sense that each individual is carried away by his own train of emotional epoché, renders improvisers mere spiritual automatons overtaken by their own sounds, uncertain at every step and yet eager to legitimize uncertainty itself as the only reminder of nostalgic institutions. Should we agree with Li Jianhong that “there is no need to worry about the consequence” （不用担心这样的结果会不会糟糕）?