Exquisite Corpses from the Bunker
By Matthew Ostrowski
Free improvisation, sometimes referred to as “spontaneous composition,” is a musical approach in which virtually all musical decisions are made in the time of performance. The pioneering guitarist Derek Bailey describes it in his 1980 book Improvisation: “It has no stylistic or idiomatic commitment. It has no prescribed idiomatic sound. The characteristics of freely improvised music are established only by the sonic musical identity of the person or persons playing it.” Because it is a form in which anything can happen at any time, free improvisors have always put an extremely high value on listening. For an improvisor, having an attentive ear to what is taking place around you musically at any given moment can be even more important that having brilliant instrumental skills. Improvised concerts are often compared to a conversation between the players – any utterance is theoretically possible, but for the conversation to have meaning and move forward, an utterance must make sense in the context of previous utterances. To those new to the form, free improvised music might sound chaotic, but for the players, it is anything but random.
Free improvisation had its New York heyday in the 1980s, when it was often to be heard in a number of venues mostly concentrated on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, at such locations as the Knitting Factory, Neither/Nor, and many others. One of the primary venues, and the only one devoted exclusively to the form, was a basement on E. 9th Street known as the A. Mica Bunker, which shared the space with an anarchist bookstore that operated on weekdays, and a Sunday music series that ran for well over a decade. Hosting musicians from all over the US and abroad, the space was run by a loose collective of musicians who themselves performed there on a regular basis in an ever-changing set of musical constellations.
In the fall of 1987, one member of the group, guitarist Will Sternberg, proposed a collaborative recording based on the concept of the exquisite corpse. Rather than visual information being concealed by folding over a sheet of paper, multitrack recording technology and overdubbing could be used to conceal parts of the performance of one musician from another. What if our most treasured ability as improvisors, that of hearing what our fellow musicians were playing, was thwarted? By bringing only one musician into the studio at a time, and limiting what they could hear from what had been previously recorded, we could create a musical exquisite corpse
The Surrealist concept of the exquisite corpse combines the idea of spontaneous expression of unconscious symbols in the form of any individual artist’s drawings, and that of the psychically liberating power of radical juxtaposition of those symbols as exemplified in the final product. Although some improvisors (notably those associated with the Glass Veal and Fresh-Dirt collectives in Birmingham) directly associate spontaneous musical composition with Surrealist strategies of accessing the unconscious, this recording used these techniques to a somewhat different end.
Radical juxtaposition as a product of chance operations took on a very different flavor in the musical world, where composer John Cage, influenced by his studies of Zen Buddhism, had been using techniques of indeterminacy since the 1950s as a route towards reducing the active role of the composer by “letting sounds be themselves.” Cagean and Surrealist techniques both aimed at erasing the boundaries between art and life, but music, the structuring of sounds which in themselves have no symbolic content (and in which the Surrealists had therefore very little interest), with its complex historical relationship between score and performer, was inevitably engaged with a different set of issues.
In 1980s New York, there was a great deal of interest in developing open musical works in which no specific instructions were given to musicians about what to play, but used systems specifying when (and sometimes how) to play. John Zorn’s game pieces, in which the players themselves could redirect the structure of the piece in real time, were developed around this time, as were Butch Morris’ strategies of conduction (conducted improvisation). The Exquisite Corpses project aimed to use the recording studio as a medium to create a dynamic tension between Cagean indeterminacy and rhe real-time rigors of free improvisation. All in all, 22 musicians made the trip to Doug Henderson’s studio in Harlem to record their slots on an open-reel four-track tape recorder. From the liner notes of the original album, which was released in 1988 on the Heartpunch label:
The musicians were recorded in the order that they arrived in the studio, and fitted into whatever openings in the corpses
their arrival time dictated. There was a mechanical sequence for placing a musician in any given piece. All this was in
order to keep the music firmly in the hands of the musicians and chance, reducing to a minimum the roles of composer
and producer. There were some problems with this, notably in the mix-down: directives of clarity and balance were greatly strained when, for instance, four indistinguishable screeching guitars or blaring saxophones occurred at the same time.
The works use several different approaches to the concept of the exquisite corpse. In corpses #14 and #16, one musician would lay down a solo track, the second performer would record on track 2 while listening to track 1, the third performer would record on track 3 while only listening to track 2, and so on. In corpse #9, a ‘seed’ track was recorded, and three other musicians would individually improvise listening to only the seed, not hearing what had been laid down by the others. Finally, the seed track would be erased, leaving only the three accompanying tracks. Corpse #6 adheres more to the traditional notion of the exquisite corpse: Structured loosely as six overlapping duos, each pair of musicians would only hear the last few seconds of what the previous duo had recorded. Diagrams of the scores are shown with each piece.
Below are several excerpts from the album, together with approximate scores illustrating their structures.
Listed in the order of their appearance in the studio, the participants were:
Matthew Ostrowski: analog synthesizer
Paul Hoskin: contrabass clarinet, reeds
Judy Dunaway: nylon guitar, balloons
George Cartwright: tenor saxophone
Ikue Mori: drum machine
Nancy Campbell: alto saxophone
David Watson: guitar, banjo, drums
Guy Yarden: violin
Fred Lonberg-Holm: travicello
Chris Cochrane: guitar
Doug Seidel: home-made things, guitar
Kiku Wada: guitar, bass
Mike Sappol: 6-string bass
Bob Lipman: guitar
Doug Henderson: voice, peckhorn, bass clarinet, urhorn, power tools
Will Sternberg: bass, guitar
Sue Ann Harkey: guitar
Steve Peters: violin
Linda Austin: guitar
Leslie Ross: bassoon
Evan Gallagher: cornetto, toys, conducting
Jack Wright: tenor saxophone
From the original liner notes:
This is, first and foremost, a collective project. Everybody chipped in for the pressing costs and meetings
were held to talk about the project, draw exquisite corpses, figure out ways to raise money, etc.
Sue Ann produced the cover from photos taken during the recording sessions, Guy got grants
from Meet the Composer for Matt and Doug H. who put that money into the pot, Mark Russell
from PS 122 offered space for a benefit concert and all the musicians on the album who were in
town played, Paul put the pieces in sequence, Will came up with the original notion and pushed
it, and Doug H. got people together, did production and engineering as well as managing the
finances and dealing with record manufacturers. Ideas for the project flowed freely from all participants.
In 1990, a second volume of this project appeared, Exquisite Corpses from PS 122, which featured many of the same players.
Matthew Ostrowski uses digital tools and formalist techniques to engage with quotidian materials -- sonic, physical, and cultural – to explore the liminal space between the virtual and phenomenological worlds. His work, which has been seen on six continents, ranges from live electronic improvisation to installations incorporating video, multichannel sound, and computer-controlled objects. He was an active member of the A. Mica Bunker collective from 1983 to 1993.
Presently, he develops interactive technology for artists, and teaches at NYU and Trinity College in Hartford.