Evan Parker
Evan Parker Credit: Caroline Forbes

British saxophonist Evan Parker, who plays a free concert with reedist Ned Rothenberg on Sunday at the Chicago Cultural Center, is one of the most instantly recognizable improvisers in the world. He’s developed an idiosyncratic vocabulary distinguished by mastery of circular breathing and polyphonics, and throughout a career spanning more than four decades he’s stayed open to new ideas. A committed sonic explorer, he’s had a dizzying variety of collaborators—he’s made pioneering music with the likes of Derek Bailey and Peter Brötzmann and he’s played in a swing band with Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts.

Parker has long had an interest in the intersection of live electronics and improvisation. From 1968 to ’70 he was a member of a quintet called the Music Improvisation Company, where his bandmate Hugh Davies generated slippery whirrs and hums on a homemade electronic rig. In 1990 he formed his Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, which for its first album, 1996’s Toward the Margins (ECM), featured bassist Barry Guy, violinist Phil Wachsmann, and drummer Paul Lytton, plus Walter Prati and Marco Vecchi on live electronic processing; Wachsmann and Lytton also manipulated their own output with electronics. Since then the group has steadily grown, and on its recent fifth album, The Moment’s Energy (ECM), the lineup is 14 strong. The acoustic players—Parker, Guy, Wachsmann, Lytton, Rothenberg, trumpeter Peter Evans, sho master Ko Ishikawa, and pianist Agusti Fernandez—are joined by electronicists Prati, Vecchi, Lawrence Casserley, Joel Ryan, and the duo Furt (Richard Barrett and Paul Obermayer).

As the group has expanded, its music has grown denser and thornier—with so many people processing and replaying the sounds of the acoustic instruments, it’s difficult to tell who’s doing what. The ensemble’s hybrid approach means its improvisations develop and mutate both in real time and on an odd sort of delay, as sampled phrases divorced from their original context are fed back into the music. Part of the album was culled from a November 2007 concert in Huddersfield, England, and other portions come from rehearsals a day earlier. The album also includes Parker’s most extensive use of postproduction—because he generally prefers simple, transparent mixes, even using Pro Tools to tidy up a set is a big step for him.

Parker has also released a stunning album called C-Section (Second Layer) with LA noise slinger John Wiese, who’s part of an underground scene that rarely overlaps with the saxophonist’s usual circles. Parker’s signature snaking lines find nooks and crannies in the onslaught of harsh electronic squalls, alternately burrowing deeper into it and wending their way out.

This Sunday’s concert is part of a short U.S. tour with Rothenberg, after which Parker will head to New York for a two-week residency at the Stone. I called him to discuss The Moment’s Energy and the use of electronics in improvised music.

Has it been a challenge to enlarge the group? From 6 to 14 is a pretty huge leap, especially with that many electronic components.
Let’s say the jump from 9 to 11, from 11 to 14 . . . these are all, in effect, players with conventional speeds of reaction to be expected from the instruments—they’re not dealing with processing, in other words. . . . Richard Barrett and Paul Obermayer . . . play live electronics via a sampling keyboard, so there are no latency problems there. . . . Peter Evans, Ned Rothenberg, and Ko Ishikawa, they’re all playing acoustic instruments. I sound a lot like someone who’s going to take over the world, but if the next thing works—which is a matter of negotiation with the promoters interested—the next three would also be playing acoustic instruments.

How did you structure the performance on the latest album?
It could very well have been just the live concert. In fact most of the players were expecting that. . . . There are so many ways you can work with Pro Tools-type recording systems, much more refined ways of editing, places where you can’t distinguish what’s an edit from what’s a mix and so on. Although I wouldn’t call myself an expert in Pro Tools, I do know that it signals a move to a different way of thinking about postproduction. I wanted to see what it made possible in this case. Where I could’ve just as easily gone for applying those same procedures to the live concert, I decided to go with material that we’d done the afternoon before the concert.

The structuring was in, more or less, six ten-minute blocks, and the main events to signal the start of the blocks were perhaps the most important thing. I’ve made this joke a couple of times, but I got Paul Lytton to play time, effectively. He was responsible for making sure that we stayed on course as we moved from card to card—the [instructions for each block] were on file cards. After that, the content of the cards was really about which were the lead voices, which are the accompanying voices, which are the tacit aspects, who’s processing who . . . there was very little musical structuring beyond that. . . .

There’s a part of me that would love to go in there play for an hour and see what happens, but you enter into a contract with the record company, the promoter, and yourself to try to be on top of things and not just hope for the best. There are still many situations where open, unrestricted improvising is my first choice, and there is a considerable part of The Moment’s Energy which is made that way, and those parts are embedded into more formal structuring elements as well. That seems to be the way I work with that band. It doesn’t get together enough to just go out there and see what happens. We did it once as an encore in Cologne and it worked fine . . . but when you’ve got the whole concert to play, you need a way of making sure that development and variation happens.

How do you see this project in relation to your entire body of work?
Listening to [The Moment’s Energy] recently on an iPod in a car, it came across as a cousin of Music Improvisation Company. That’s an interesting fact, because ECM also encouraged that group and released its first record. It’s a process of maturation, development, and evolution, but based on the original organism that that group represented—different voices with Hugh Davies, Derek Bailey, Jamie Muir, Christine Jeffrey—each of those people brought a specific voice to the music, and the total outcome was a certain kind of restless, energized music, which I hear The Moment’s Energy as having some relationship to. . . . The climate for listening to computer-derived music, that’s a new thing—but nevertheless there’s a kind of continuity, which pleases me enormously.

Were you keeping abreast of the changes in technology? It seems that the number of people using electronics in improvisation has really exploded. Back in the 70s Hugh Davies was very unique . . .
Back in the 70s the stuff in the studio was either too expensive or too fragile to take on the road, but people were working with [it],and the bigger the budget the more access they had to that kind of technology. I was aware of those things. Maybe an early sign was when we were having meetings in the same building where a group called Asian Dub Foundation were working, and there was a guy who suggested that I should get together with them—that was the beginnings of drum ‘n’ bass.

Everything that came out of the so-called Bristol scene—Massive Attack and Tricky—I’ve been aware of those things and enjoying the fact that they’re stretching the bigger audience’s ears and opening people up to sensibilities that in earlier times would’ve been considered noise or too esoteric. . . . Gradually, what is music has become much more an open question everyone’s interested in. That made it easier for me and people like me.

I’m thinking more specifically about improvisers using electronics—two decades ago there weren’t many of them. I imagine the proliferation of musicians like that has something to do with how you ended up working with John Wiese, who comes from a very different world. Was it also one of the reasons you got the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble going in the beginning?
No. If you go back to 1990, when the group started, there weren’t so many laptop players at the time. This whole approach to working with laptop—which is not necessarily of any great interest to me—some of it is, in effect, people playing things that could have fully well been played on a DAT machine. They’re not really exploiting the possibilities of the computer much more than bringing a library of samples, so it’s like a very flexible tape recorder—not to say that that can’t also be interesting. For the moment my team’s approach to those things is more represented by Furt and Joel Ryan, who sometimes throws in a few samples.

When you choose new members for the ensemble, I assume it’s a given that they have to be strong improvisers. But do you think of an individual’s sound? For example, I think the sho playing of Ko Ishikawa sometimes blends in with the electronics—it becomes hard to tell what’s acoustic and what’s electronic.
I think I want that ambiguity. If you work like this . . . there’s a kind of uncertainty about whether that was the first time that sound happened, or “Did I miss it the first time and that’s a replay of a sample of the first time?” . . . Don’t forget there’s a live equivalent of the postproduction in the work that Marco Vecchi does from the front of house, so he has a lot of power to mix the sound for the audience. It’s a very informal approach to music making, which in that sense carries on the informality of free improvisation in general. There’s so much going on, so I think the ideal mix is beyond anybody’s imagination because no one knows what is the total complement of sonic activity—you only know what you hear.

How did the project with John Wiese come about? Because he seems like he’s a bit outside your circle.
That came about from a much bigger group we did, which I think was called “Free Noise,” put together by a promoter and an arts administrator. We had the chance to work among ourselves to arrive at a program, which wasn’t imposed by the promoter and the arts administrator. They just facilitated the people coming together. John Wiese was one of the people, as was John Edwards. There was Yellow Swans—many different people coming from slightly different backgrounds. Carbon [of Metalux] was another. People who come from an area of music that I don’t know too much about. The idea with John was that he would come back [to England] and we would do some duo things.

It seems like you’re dealing with these musicians as improvisers regardless of their background,, and it’s all about making sounds together and what you do in a given moment.
Yes, that’s it. The more you look at these other traditions that run parallel chronologically with so-called jazz and free jazz and musique concrete and electroacoustic music, their traditions to a large extent involve improvisation whether it’s acknowledged or not. You can hear it. At this point I have no hesitation in saying a lot of what Luc Ferrari was doing was improvising. It’s also true of John Cage and David Tudor, and many of those parallel modern-music developments from the 40s and 50s onward were dealing with versions of music made by making decisions in the course of performance. Whether you present that as improvisation or indeterminacy or musique concrete, this is a question of cultural location and cultural preference. . . . But there has always been a degree of convergence.

I remember when Musica Elettronica Viva first came to London they gave a couple of concerts and I met Frederic Rzewski, Alvin Curran, and Richard Teitelbaum and it was clear that they were improvising. The “Viva” part referred to live electronic music, which implies improvisation, so they were coming from a different corner of the scene, but they were just as aware of the developments in free jazz as we were in so-called straight music. That meeting and intertwining between the various tendencies has gone on ever since. Back then people were less interested in risking being considered crazy, so we needed one another a lot more. Now the scene pulls the strands apart sometimes. I still see those guys, and I’m going to play with Richard at the Stone.

Was this the first record of yours where postproduction was so significant?
Yes and no. As I said before, we could easily have used the live concert just as well. The real answer is that it didn’t take two years in the studio. It took two days in the concert space and two days in postproduction, and that gives you a scale of things. It was significant in the sense that [producer] Steve Lake has been talking to me for years about spending more time and making it more than just a document—that there were possibilities that I wasn’t looking at. Now I’m looking at them, but I’m looking at them with the same attitude that I look at the saxophone: How can I improvise with this thing?

When I listen to the thing there may be occasions when I think, “If only that note or that phrase or that passage was mixed differently,” and there are a thousand ways of going back and thinking about details and things you would do differently. But I’m not somebody who worries in those terms. I can get something more or less right and then it’s done and I’m moving on to the next thing. It’s literally impossible to say when it’s finished with Pro Tools. . . . You have to make an arbitrary cutoff point, which can be about the budget, the time, or your temperament, and in this case I’d say it was a happy marriage of all of those things.

Do see yourself using postproduction more actively in future projects?
Yeah, it’s there. It’s affordable and it’s a fact of life. It would sort of be crazy not to work with what’s available. I’m thinking of using it more for its creative possibilities. The creative and the technological always have a constant kind of interaction, or a feedback relationship with one another. Your notion of what is achievable affects your intentions.