Some thoughts on solo performance

photo: Justin Snow

Solo performance has a long history in improvisation and free jazz, and as a format for an instrumentalist it presents many challenges: How do I sustain “interest”? (Do I “sustain” “interest”?) How do I communicate structure/form? What is my attitude toward the work? The audience? With only one person playing, what does silence mean?

As a young saxophonist, my heroes/models were Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell, both formidable players who among the pioneers of solo improvised performance. I’d always admired that work, but felt that my strengths lay in interactive group playing. That was likely good cover for the intimidation I felt in the face of their examples.

On Braxton’s 2 LP Alto Saxophone Improvisations 1979, he documents ten solo alto compositions, along with solo (and characteristically unconventional) performances of three standards. In constructing his solo compositions, Braxton breaks down his personal language into constituent parts and focuses on one or two language components in each piece, developing them freely over the course of four to seven minutes.

Even more influential to me was Roscoe Mitchell’s ‘Solo’, a 5' 34" piece from his 1975 Nessa LP Old/Quartet. [This album was reissued by Nessa in 1993 in the now-out-of-print-and-difficult-to-find 5 CD box set The Art Ensemble 1967/68.] On this performance, he constructs a line which flows amongst a variety of instruments: alto saxophone, celesta, gong, B-flat clarinet, bike horns, harmonica, percussion. The multi-instrumental approach of the AACM players was always something that meshed with my proclivities, so ‘Solo’ had a profound impact on me.

My friend Dave Gross has always been interested in and comfortable with solo playing, and has prodded me to try it on several occasions. In the Winter of 2009, he finally succeeded in getting me to book a solo set at The Outpost in Cambridge. Despite my initial trepidation, I was very pleased with the results: a half hour structure of reed instrument improvisations linked by percussion and prerecorded sound and text pieces entitled Mute, which is documented on this page.

Shortly after that performance, Dave talked me into undertaking a solo tour with Vic Rawlings in May. We drove a loop basically out to Chicago and back, playing eight shows in as many nights. On a couple of stops I collaborated with local musicians, and Vic and I finished the tour in Pittsburg with our first duo performance. (This performance ultimately developed into our regular duo, Symptomatic.) The rest of the evenings were solo performances, over the course of which I developed a modular piece, retroactively entitled Road Trip ’09, which integrates the wide variety of my chosen sound sources—several reed instruments, game calls, percussion and cassette tape loops—into a single cohesive performance.

A video of my performance from the first night of our tour—in Easthampton, MA—is up on YouTube, below.

Video & audio by Ted Lee

In this instance, I am just beginning to develop the piece. However, it contains essentially all the elements I was aiming at, and forshadows nicely what was to come over the next seven nights.

The photograph at the top of the page was taken by Justin Snow at a performance of Road Trip ’09 shortly after the tour, in Cambridge, MA at the late, lamented Weirdo Records. Justin also wrote about the show on his blog, here.

Two years later, in the spring of 2011, having procured a celesta, I undertook a project to transcribe and perform Roscoe Mitchell’s ‘Solo’. The story of that project is here.

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