I’m attracted to improvisation because of something I value. That is a freshness, a certain quality, which can only be obtained by improvisation, … It is something to do with the “edge.” Always being on the brink of the unknown and being prepared for the leap. (Steve Lacy)

Alister Spence. Photo by Brett Boardman

Over quite a long period of time (possibly the whole time since beginning to improvise at the piano when I was 16) I have come to realise that ‘accidental’ occurrences in my work and in collaborations with others are of foundational importance to me. These events act as a mechanism to introduce new ideas, fresh ways of responding, and consequently enable previously unimagined ways of progressing in music.

Associated with this realisation is a more recent awareness of the importance of sound in a general sense, and sound interaction, in/as music, beyond pitch and narrative associations. These recognitions have led me to investigate the history and processes of contingency in experimentalism in order to gain insight into my own intuitions, and seek to consolidate and develop my practice.

Stylistically I find my music to be straddling a variety of practices and processes, beginning with improvising for its own sake (and enjoying the consequences and possibilities of sounds, at age 16), to jazz study, to minimalist practice, to free improvisation: exploring ambient and rock connections, cuban and brazilian music, and more.

This has seemed at times to be too wide a spectrum of influences and interests! The key for me has been to continue to follow my intuition, to stay with my ideas, and see where they lead me, and what eventuates in terms of musical output. In this regard I receive a lot of inspiration from many friends and colleagues both here and overseas, such as (Japanese pianist/composer) Satoko Fujii who adopted advice from her mentor (US pianist) Paul Bley. Bley encouraged Fujii to play recordings of her practice and performance to her friends, even if Fujii didn’t like what she heard, in order to develop an appreciation and ‘ownership’ of, her own sound. Fujii says of this period

If you record your music and listen [to it] carefully, you will get a beautiful influence from your playing. I became more like “me” after I studied with him [Bley] because of that experience.

Initially I undertook jazz study at the Sydney Conservatorium (1985/86) because I wanted a more extensive, informed language of improvisation and an understanding of harmonic possibilities in improvisation and composition, rather than to become a jazz performer. Of course I did go on to work very hard within the jazz tradition, but I find myself these days going back to my initial impulses and simply playing the piano and following the path or associations of sound that seems good in the moment.

I am very fortunate to have two long-time friends and collaborators in Lloyd Swanton and Toby Hall. For the last twenty years and more we have been exploring musical possibilities together. Right from the beginning I have viewed the Alister Spence Trio as providing an opportunity to follow my/our musical interests, and to stay with those as they develop and change. Toby and Lloyd have supported this approach constantly!

The Trio

Several extra sound-making ‘instruments’ are utilised in the trio’s music. Sampling technology (pre-recording events and introducing the music on recordings and in live performance) has been employed since the trio’s first album Three is a Circle (2000). Sampling was also used in Clarion Fracture Zone (formed by Sandy Evans and Tony Gorman and myself in 1988). With the trio I have made a conscious decision to only sample/record instances of the trio’s instruments. The sampled events are almost always short events, pitched or unpitched, and often repeated constantly or ‘looped’. They are stored on a computer and activated by a small midi controller keyboard that I operate during performance and recording. The introduction of sample loops enables juxtaposition through layering of sounds and musical phrases, and also acts as a means for highlighting peculiar sonic details in the music.

One added benefit of introducing pre-recorded loops is the phase shifting that occurs between the tempo of the band and that of the loops. The trio doesn’t use a click track (metronome) in performance (and rarely in recording) in order to allow these shifts or re-positionings, and to welcome the consequences. Through sampling, real time and pre-recorded events are able to interact sonically and this also creates perceptual possibilities for the listener: different ways of apprehending the musical outcome.

The glockenspiel has also enabled possibilities. When Flux (2003) was recorded the glockenspiel was introduced in the trio’s music on the track Languid. Played by Toby Hall, this also allows for extra layers, and perhaps acts as an echo or abstraction of the piano’s sound? In the composed pieces the glockenspiel, like the samples, is generally employed in a short phrase repetitive manner. I am by no means a singularly focussed minimalist, but I am definitely attracted to repetitions in music and the sonic and perceptual possibilities that stasis-due-to-repetition allows.

A more recent addition has been the use of a ‘programmable’ music box, a music box that is activated by holes that I punch into a cardboard strip, in order to match the key and patterning of the piece. As with the sample loops and the glockenspiel, the music box is employed mostly repetitively, and occasionally sampled so that it can be reintroduced as a layer in the piece.

Another area of musical interest and sonic exploration has been to investigate the results of playing our instruments in unconventional ways, or ‘preparing’ our instruments. Of course this practice is not new! The interest for me is that it provides the trio with a way to access non-pitched as well as modulating or morphing (timbrally changing) pitched (and non-pitched) sounds. This approach can throw up interesting and intriguing sound combinations and enable an ambiguous ‘music-within-the-music’ (or meta-music) environment. The results are used either as stand-alone pieces or as layers in other works.

Since the album fit (2009) the trio has made recordings in two stages. The first stage involves recording improvisations, both free and within guided parameters (simple word scores), using a variety of non-prepared and prepared means. Then, some time later (a year in the case of fit and Not Everything but Enough, 2017) after I have sifted through the session one recordings, we record more thoroughly pre-determined structures including pre-scored compositions with their associated improvisation.

As a consequence of this variety of approaches and sound combinations the works that are recorded or played live have evolved in a variety of ways.

Some works are improvised ‘in the moment’ or at the time of recording or performance either with or without suggested parameters (e.g. Room 1 to Room 21 on Not Everything but Enough).

Some works may be transcriptions I have made and possibly adapted from a ‘first stage’ recording, or solo exploration, or trio rehearsal, such as Mullet Run from Far Flung (2012) or As True from Not Everything but Enough. These are then rehearsed and either recorded or performed in concert.

Some works may contain a pre-composed melodic structure followed by an undetermined improvisation to be realised collectively in real time by the trio and brought to a conclusion. Works such as Not Everything but Enough and Luminescence (from Mercury, 2006) are of this type.

Some works have a more conventional jazz or ‘improvising-on-song-form’ music approach with a pre-composed melody/harmony followed by individual soloists and a return to the melody/harmony to conclude.

Some works are assembled from details of recordings made either in rehearsal or stage one in the album process. These ‘sound collages’ can be made by combining pitched or un-pitched sounds, from either the same or different recordings. Tumbler from Far Flung and Omega from Mercury are examples of this process.

In all of these approaches and outcomes the action of contingency or indeterminism is key to the recorded, composed, performed, and perceived (heard) result.

Of course in the Alister Spence Trio, with our history, there is an extensive understanding of each other’s performance repertoires. Nevertheless there are enough mechanisms in place in the recording and performance processes to enable continually surprising associations. I am by no means a radical employer of chance procedures, however without indeterminism as part (or whole) of the process either in the formation or realisation of the work, for me personally the music would lose its allure.

Satoko Fujii says regarding listeners

There’s two kinds of people who listen to music. Most people would like to hear something that they’ve already heard before. They expect something to happen that they know. But other people, when they listen, look for something that they have never heard before.

It’s a simple statement but nevertheless resonant I believe. The same is true of musicians.

Alongside the Alister Spence Trio over the last ten years I have been very fortunate to perform and record in a chance-related, mostly free-improvised, setting with other extraordinary musicians such as Raymond MacDonald (Scotland: sax), Satoko Fujii, Myra Melford (US: piano), Joe Williamson (Sweden: bass) and Christopher Cantillo (Sweden: drums). I have also enjoyed finding a way to extend my sonic explorations on the Fender Rhodes electric piano, with Sensaround (MacDonald, and Shoeb Ahmad from Canberra) and Satoko Fujii.

It still seems as though there is a lot to consolidate and integrate in my practice, but I’m definitely enjoying the exploration!

Pianist and composer Alister Spence is acknowledged as a significant contributor In contemporary original jazz and improvised music in Australia.

The Alister Spence Trio with Lloyd Swanton (the Necks) and Toby Hall (ex Mike Nock trio) has enjoyed critical acclaim both nationally and internationally, being nominated twice for Best Australian Jazz Album at the ARIA Awards (2004/2007). The trio’s most recent CD, Not Everything but Enough was voted in ‘Top 10 Jazz Albums 2017’ in Music Magazine, Japan, and also received an ‘Honorary Mention, Best of 2017’ in the New York City Jazz Record.

He is a founding member of Clarion Fracture Zone, Wanderlust and The Australian Art Orchestra.

Alister has toured extensively over the last 25 years, performing at major festivals and clubs in Australia, and also in countries such as U.S.A., Canada, Japan, U.K, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, France, Italy, Spain, Finland, Russia, India, China and Taiwan.

Since 2008 Alister has toured and recorded with fellow pianist/composer Satoko Fujii. He has performed and recorded duo projects since 2009 with Scottish sax player Raymond MacDonald (Stepping Between the Shadows, Rufus Records, 2012). Everything Here is Possible, recorded with US pianist Myra Melford, was awarded an APRA/AMCOS Art Music Award for ‘Excellence in Jazz’ in 2014). In 2014 Sensaround (Spence, MacDonald, Ahmad) launched their electro-acoustic trio and released Isotropes: followed up byTravelogue in 2016. In 2015 Alister released Begin with Joe Wlliamson and Christopher Cantillo (double bass and drums, Sweden). Begin was nominated for an APRA/AMCOS Art Music Award 2015.

Alister Spence in a Lecturer in Music at the University of New South Wales.

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