To “Iceland”: On Improvisation During The Fall

Robin Purves

for Mark Gilroy

This essay attempts to find a means to comment usefully upon a song, “Iceland”, by a group from Manchester, England called The Fall, the tenth track (of eleven) on their 1982 album, Hex Enduction Hour.

        The initial approach to the song, via theories of improvised music, was selected because “Iceland” apparently incorporates sound elements which derive from group improvisation. Accounts of the recording session from which “Iceland” emerges suggest that although a proportion of what we hear when we listen to the song may well have been worked out in advance by certain members of The Fall, significant parts of it were not, some or all of the lyrics could have been generated on the spot, and no-one on the recording knew quite what the other members were going to do. Most importantly, what the recording records is the first time that the musicians in The Fall had heard the singer (and group leader) Mark E. Smith’s contribution to the song, and it is likely to have been the first time that he had heard theirs.

        The attempt to say something about “Iceland” takes a detour through many of the available writings on improvisation and if I want to establish what I can use from those writings, I first need to dispense with some of the more problematic stories that improvisation’s practitioners and fans tell about it.

        First, that improvisation is the fundamental, inaugural process of music-making, which was catastrophically ousted from its historical prominence by the evils of the written score and recording technology.

        Derek Bailey, perhaps the most well-known and celebrated musician of the improvisational tradition until his death a few years ago; Cornelius Cardew, composer and musician; and Eddie Prévost, drummer with veteran pillars of group improvisation, AMM, have all provided variants on this first claim in published books or essays. Bailey, in his book, Improvisation, makes the claim that, “Historically, [improvisation] predates any other music – mankind’s first musical performance couldn’t have been anything other than a free improvisation.”[1] The first part of this assertion is only weakly supported by the second’s uncorroborated insistence on the lack of alternatives – the insistence, however, has to be qualified or withdrawn if we question whether or not there could have been, or had to be, one single and generative “first musical performance” and whether or not the notions of music and performance could have developed out of a take on rhythmic (or otherwise expressive) behaviour which, like Bailey’s, eschews repeatability and concerted action in favour of singularity and the merely simultaneous articulations of individuals as they refuse to play in concert.

        It would be easy enough to demonstrate the vulnerability of the theorists of improvisation to the operation Derrida performs on Rousseau in his Of Grammatology, since improvisation’s discourses are often startlingly Rousseauesque. For example, both Bailey and Cardew attempt to forestall accusations of élitism in their field by claiming that ‘free improv’ – as it is often called – is a democratic space open not only to the highly skilled (Bailey claims that from its practitioners it demands more “skill…devotion, preparation, training and commitment”[2] than any other musical genre) but open also
to use by almost anyone - beginners, children and non-musicians. The skill and intellect required is whatever is available. It can be an activity of enormous complexity and sophistication, or the simplest and most direct expression: a lifetime’s study and hard work or a casual dilettante activity.[3]
Cardew, in his essay “Towards an Ethic of Improvisation,” states in the same vein that his ideal performers would be a “collection of musical innocents.”[4] The demand made by both writers is either to know everything (in order to transcend your knowledge) or to know nothing whatsoever, one of the most familiar themes in the aesthetic ideology which claims the summit of art to be artlessness. The theme is implicated in the alleged primordiality of improvisation: the child and primitive man are united in their enviable and aboriginal virtue and simplicity, and are united in turn across what would normally appear to be an impossible gulf with the superlative musical creator who can in his or her mastery utilise it to dispense with it, effortlessly achieving the deathless qualities of honesty, purity and clarity. The inclusiveness of these gestures is suspect, working as it does to exclude anyone falling in between the categories of virtuoso and ingénue or pygmy.[5] Bailey’s description of the characteristics associated with “ethnic” instruments, even as it critiques the patronising Western musicians who make a show of adopting them, appears to agree that these instruments “have a fixed, very limited capability and that very little instrumental skill is needed to play [them]”[6] but that nonetheless authentic ethnic music has an aural “directness and dignity”[7] which Western imitators could never replicate: we are not far here from the troubling ethnological concept of the noble savage. At other moments, the regression to early stages of development touches base with the wellsprings of the life-force itself, stops, turns and squints ahead, along the flightlines of Darwinian adaptation: “Improvisation is a basic instinct, an essential force in sustaining life. Without it, nothing survives.”[8] No doubt this point is true if we take ‘improvisation’ in the broadest sense but if we narrow that focus by choosing any particular example of ‘free improv’ to test the thesis, it is difficult to see what the evolutionary advantage might be in the ability of someone skronking away at the ‘wrong’ bits of a cello, or simulating a difficult flatulence with the detached mouthpiece from a tenor sax.

        The connections with Rousseau multiply since, like Rousseau, many writers on improvisation claim or assume that the music first produced by means of improv is a linguistic phenomenon, “born of voice and not of sound”[9] in Derrida’s words, an unadulterated vocalese hobbled later on by the encroachments of grammar, and writing in general, which, most damagingly as the score in music, artificially impose on what ought to be a natural and passionate effusion. Ben Watson writes that free improv is a kind of “repartee,” but should you listen correctly, it divulges “glimpses of a world where pure intuition could speak, transcending vocabulary and grammar.”[10] Can anything be said to speak, without recourse to a vocabulary or a grammar (of some sort)? When it comes to establishing what, if anything, is being said, free improv seems to say much the same sort of things as more conventional musics, or would do if it could. Watson describes a particular recording of a group improvisation in the following way:
On ‘Improvisation >>5010<<,’ Guy answers Rutherford’s trombone snuffles with a brilliant vocabulary of bass rattles and plunks. ‘Improvisation >>5020<<’ is again a miniature, but like a copperplate by William Blake, it has a concentrated energy lacking in the gestures of public art. There’s a resigned and haunting section of bowed-bass harmonics, Salvation Army brass melancholy, the guitar notes strained and scrapy. Notes are sounded with drama and decisiveness, but linger strangely. The listener has an edge-of-seat intimation that the musicians have broken into new vistas of emotional resonance with no plan…and no route back.[11]
With a “brilliant vocabulary” at their disposal, all the players are apparently able to do is allow the listener to guess at a rough idea of how they feel (resigned, haunted, sad or decisive) though we cannot know why they feel that way and why they have chosen this oddly indirect way of letting us know. This seems to be the musical equivalent of autism, not because free improv is inherently self-absorbed or withdrawn but because the insistence on the music-is-language metaphor inevitably makes it appear as such.[12] If free improv was a language, it would be one inflected by the infantilising or primitivist assumptions of its enthusiasts, for example Bailey describes the goal of one of his assemblies of improvising musicians as constructing “a language that would be literally disjointed, whose constituents would be unconnected in any causal or grammatical way.”[13] This model of deliberated inarticulacy, which tries to ‘get back’ before the effect of grammatical order in order to explore pre-grammatical energies, doesn’t stop Watson considering Bailey’s interactions with his fellow improvisers to be nothing less than Socratic dialogues during which his grey eminence would appraise their “musical utterances” – a characterisation which surely takes for granted that these exchanges are intelligible in significant ways.[14]

        The third claim in many treatises on improv that I want to distance myself from is the notion that it is politically significant. The idea comes in a variety of modes including the tentative and vague suggestion that improvised music has a content which do not correspond to or revel in the prerogatives of the present day philosophical/political hegemony. This claim, that a radically ambiguous, sometimes utterly disarticulated and ad hoc ‘language’ is oppositional in a progressive and meaningful way requires more proof if it is to be convincing. To say that it doesn’t reflect or celebrate dominant ideologies suggests only that improv, in its own opinion, stands serenely apart from them. Ben Watson’s admirable avoidance of the tentative and vague sweeps him along to a more unhinged set of slogans, that “Free Improvisation…is the manifestation of socialist revolution in music,” or that it is “no more recuperable by class society than revolutionary Marxism.”[15] Class society may well be as interested in recuperating revolutionary Marxism as it is in recuperating the act or sound of someone dropping metal washers onto a piano’s strings while someone else hits a harp with a plastic golf club: it doesn’t mean they amount to the same thing. On one page in the same volume Watson claims that free improv is like a polite and interesting conversation;[16] if there is a discordance between the overweening claims for improv’s seditious potential and the more mundane comparisons Watson sometimes reaches for, they come together most remarkably in the claim that “the kind of virtuosity proposed by Bailey is so shockingly physical that the listener is forced to think of such acts as armpit-scratching and nose-picking. Its return of music to the physical act debunks civilization itself.”[17] We can only speculate just how much more debunked civilization would be if Bailey had walked onstage one evening and actually picked his nose. With his guitar.

        One of the elements I want to take from the discourses on improvisation, in order to begin discussing “Iceland” by The Fall, emerges from Derek Bailey’s differentiation between what he calls “idiomatic improvisation”[18] and his own, preferred brand of non-idiomatic or ‘free’ improvisation. Bailey’s references to idiomatic improvisation condemn it because it is alleged to be too attached to a pre-established sound world, any sound world which can be identified with a particular genre, whether it is jazz or anti-folk or bashment or anything else, and bound up also to the institutions associated with their genre, so that they cannot embody all of the advantages which writers commonly associate with free improvisation. Free improv’s advocates tend to consider generic markers and any acknowledged formal musical inheritance as restrictive and/or disciplinarian and thus are free to represent their own practice as protean, evanescent and liberating, though in practice, since performers such as Bailey are constrained by the need to avoid all conventional or familiar idioms, they are inclined merely to select their gestures from a different set of sequences which advertise their permanent (idiomatic) evasion of melody, harmony and narrative. At some point during a gig, for example, a guitarist will rattle his house-keys or some other object round the rim of his guitar’s f-hole, if it has one; a violinist will stroke or strike her bow against the tuning keys or ignore her instrument altogether and whip her bow through the air, &c. It is odd that there is hardly any recognition in the world of free improv that before you turn up to a gig and enter this sound-world of sheer risk and limitless potential, you know exactly what is going to happen and what the gig is going to sound like because the circumvention of the obvious always takes a set of obvious routes and because players have an uncanny knack of making most instruments, no matter how different, sound indistinguishable from one other.

        For me, “Iceland” is an example of idiomatic improvisation concerned with expressing the idiom of rock music in a remarkably beautiful and conflicted and valuable way; the song assumes its identity by unapologetically representing recognisably ‘rock’ sounds without being particularly reminiscent of the noise any other band tends to make.[19] Its hammered two-note piano motif carries an extraordinary amount of variation inside its relentless repetition by slight fluctuations in the pressure applied to the keys and by minute discrepancies in the rhythm of the repeats which make the intervals between the notes fluctuate by audible microseconds. It could conceivably bring to mind something of Can’s “Mother Sky” or, more distantly, the introduction to “All Tomorrow’s Parties” by The Velvet Underground or the musematic repetition of riffs in “Black Angel’s Death Song” or “European Son to Delmore Schwartz” by the same band, but none of these comparisons are remotely persuasive enough to take any of the songs as a model for “Iceland.” I borrow the term “musematic” repetition from Richard Middleton[21] who uses it to describe the extended repetition of short musical units – in “Iceland” by piano and to a lesser extent by bass and drums – and which he associates with trance-inducing, ego-dissolving hymns to desire and death. Middleton discriminates musematic from ‘discursive repetition,’ which is “the repetition of longer units, at the level of the phrase”[21] and is said to be identified with “the ego and the self.”[22] “Iceland” incorporates discursive repetition by the refrains in longer sequence of banjo, electric piano and voice, and the interplay of musematic and discursive repetitions along its course provides a kind of ground or backdrop for the differently elaborating variables which come in and out and move around this dubiously supportive surface. In free improv terms, however, “Iceland” is not ‘free’ because it has a fairly “regular pulse”, the polyrhythmic percussive piano riff and its interactions with the rhythm section would be said to be confined by “the dogma of the beat,”[23] to borrow a phrase from Tony Oxley, a drummer who has worked alongside Bailey. The idea that its syncopation might count as sufficient grounds for the dismissal of a song such as “Iceland” is a strange one to have to come to terms with; perhaps it is enough to point out that its rhythms are actually far from inflexible, especially when compared to the arbitrary authoritarianism that would elevate the bypassing of regularity to the status of an article of faith.

        The aim now is to go a little deeper into the interior of “Iceland,” to try and say what it is about and why I think it is good, bearing in mind what we think we know about the way it happened.[24]

        The music begins and proceeds, initially at least, liberated from the necessity of accompanying any particular lyrical content but in the expectation that something will happen. The first moments of the song are scoured by crudely recorded and replayed wind noise and fragments of unintelligible speech. The wind sounds like feedback, but signifies the condition of exposure to the elements. When the music takes over as the noise from the cassette fades out and stops, the dominant mood is ominous, tense, expectant. The irresolution of the initial sounds and the sounds themselves are fittingly baleful, as it turns out, since the first spoken line speaks of an omen, signalling the out-of-jointness of this particular time: “A plate steel object was afired.” “Afired,” if that is the word used and it’s not simply Mark E. Smith’s idiosyncratic pronunciation of the word “fired,” is perhaps a coinage so that the meaning would be that ‘A plate steel object had been on fire.’ The spoken opening runs in its entirety as follows:
A plate steel object was afired
And I did not feel for my compatriots
Hated even the core of myself
Not a matter of ill-health
It was fear of weakness deep in core of myself
The fact attainment was out of…

        If we take Richard Middleton’s categories and their connotations seriously, the interplay between the instruments on the track, including the cassette recording, already writes “Iceland” as a song which concerns and enacts the struggle of a threatened and singular first person, the ego or self encountering the possibility of the loss of self. The words as they come confirm this reading, as the ‘I’ disappears after the spoken opening to the song in order to be therapeutically recast or submerged in the “you” that emerges now and then throughout the rest of the lyrics. The spoken section, as it replaces the instrumentation as the focus of attention, introduces the need for a different kind of listening attuned to the reception and evaluation of information: the voice-over arrests, but nevertheless also takes its cues from and prompts, for a short while, the development of the instrumentation. It immediately confesses to a pathological lack of fellow-feeling for those who are of the same country: either the English people in general, or their immediate representatives, the rest of the band who have accompanied him in this trip to a Reykjavik studio. His numbed alienation is a consequence of the speaker’s self-hatred, which arises in turn from his awareness of a lack of resolve or ability making it impossible to achieve what he can nevertheless tormentedly envision. If the spoken words describe a previous condition, the bulk of the song, delivered in Smith’s very casual take on Sprechgesang indicates a current condition and it is notable for my reading of “Iceland” that the shift from speaking to (almost) singing is prompted by the vocals borrowing the shadow of a melodic arc from Marc Riley’s banjo refrain: at this point the lyrics can no longer be considered independently of the music, as sense and sound will echo each other and therefore, to a certain extent, generate each other.

        Two brief accounts of “Iceland” have been written by the music journalists Simon Reynolds and Mark Fisher. Reynolds suggests an inappropriate metaphor for the sound of the song, lazily derived from a picturesque detail of its production: “The track ‘Iceland’ was improvised in a Reykjavik studio with lava walls, the band oozing out a drone of two-note piano cycles and banjo that sounded like sitar, topped with incantations from Smith about casting ‘runes against your self-soul.’” And his brief interpretation is seemingly clinched by a comment which more or less labels the population of Iceland as superstitious cretins.[25] Mark Fisher’s reading is more sustained and inventive, focussing on a reading of the track as a frozen warning of the impending disappearance of manifestations of what he calls the Weird: goblins, Krakens and whichever creature (“What the goddamn fuck is it?!”) might have played “the pipes on aluminium:”
‘Iceland,’ recorded in a lava-lined[26] studio in Reykjavik, is a fantasmatic encounter with the fading myths of North European culture in the frozen territory from which they originated. […] The song, hypnotic and undulating, meditative and mournful, recalls the bone-white steppes of Nico’s The Marble Index in its arctic atmospherics. A keening wind (on a cassette recording made by Smith) whips through the track as Smith invites us to ‘cast the runes against your own soul’ (another James’ reference, this time to his ‘Casting the Runes’[27]).

        ‘Iceland’ is rock as ragnarock, an anticipation (or is it a recapitulation) of the End Times in the terms of the Norse ‘Doom of the Gods’. It is a Twilight of the Idols for the retreating hobgoblins, cobolds and trolls of Europe’s receding Weird culture, a lament for the monstrosities and myths whose dying breaths it captures on tape… [28]
To read the song in this way, and only this way, as partaking of an exotic or otherwordly landscape, ignores the immediately familiar occurrences and locations, thoughts and sentiments, that populate the song too: falling over in a café aisle, drinking coffee, underpants – it might even amount to doing what the singer of the song does himself, that is, submitting to a mixture of shame and mystification in the presence of an unfamiliar but appealing milieu. If the peculiar force of the Weird arrives with the realisation that, in Fisher’s words, “there is no World. What we call the world is a local consensus hallucination, a shared dream,”[29] we can go along with the statement as long as we bear in mind its indispensable contrary position: in truth, that there is a world.

        Some of the song’s lyrics conform to conventions associated with the travel writing genre such as the speaker’s bafflement at the alien environment he finds himself inhabiting, and a perceptible admiration for the attractive appearance, self-possessed behaviour and well-organised culture of the indigenous population:
Sit in the gold room
Fall down flat in the café aisle
Without a glance from the clientele
Good coffee black as well
Hair blonde as hell
Cast the runes against your own soul
Roll up for the underpants show
And be humbled in Iceland

        But a productive line of enquiry with respect to “Iceland” might chase up a more troubling aspect to the humbling that the protagonist undergoes, by way of the crabbed note to the song provided on the album sleeve, which reads: “Valhalla brochure bit White face Finds Roots, boys don’t even notice - & look for games machines.” The note mischievously suggests that Smith finds his own racial equivalent to the recently televised Roots tv series (from Alex Haley’s bestselling books) among the Viking complexions in Reykjavik bars and streets. The liberal-baiting is more overt in Colin Irwin’s contemporary Melody Maker interview where Smith is careful not to say that he likes or supports right wing Oi bands though he does declare a preference for them over the Marxist group, Gang of Four.

        The boys [in the band] who – much to their credit – are more interested in playing Space Invaders than in conjuring their own epiphanies of ethnic fraternity, are key to the song and to its success. The sound of the song exactly characterises the relations between the singer and the rest of the band; the lyrics comment upon those relations; “Iceland” is about the intra-group relations in the band and it enacts them in a way that is immeasurably more nuanced than the familiar descriptions of Smith as a martinet and the rest of the group as hapless drones.[30] When his lyrics borrow a fragment of a tune from Marc Riley’s banjo, they are no longer independent from the music that the band perform; the meaning of the lyrics is altered and, if some or all of the lyrics are being improvised in real time, their sense may well emerge from the dictation Smith hears in the performance of his fellow members.

        There are uneasy undercurrents to the song, but the ambivalence of the attachments between singer and band also introduce the remote possibility of a therapeutic side to the performance. What I mean by that is, that the intense and novel kinds of concentration involved in the activity of group improvisation lead to a performance that is more than just collaborative, more than just keeping your head down and playing your own part. I think that the music is alert and inventive and dynamic at every phase of its course and the act of listening and playing – the listening that I can hear when I listen to “Iceland” - for example at the line “Make a grab for the book of prayers” where the banjo exactly mimics Smith’s vocal pattern (which had more crudely taken its cue from the banjo when it first began breaking towards song) - signals the potential rediscovery of fellow-feeling in the actions and reactions of the group. The process of being “humbled in Iceland” might have to do with the apprehension that the island’s inhabitants have much to be admired about them, but when the speaking voice steps out of the wind at the beginning of the song and, with the encouragement of its accompaniment, moves into a sheltered space to sing, and when, around halfway through the song, everything suddenly accelerates and gets louder and more discordant, what sounds like self-assertion turns away from this purpose and will announce itself as abnegation: “What the goddamn fuck is it/…/That induces this rough text?” What brings this turbulent, discordant, unfinished text into existence? “Iceland” half-solicits an answer to this question and half-states its own singular existence in the moments where melody tentatively becomes a function of harmony even if never quite enough to suggest or speak of resolution. Shortly afterwards, the singer recedes back into and out of the precinct of improvising musicians with some fading sibilance…whistles… If the I of the spoken opening is self-condemned, rocked by its alienation, it is momentarily rocked back towards a new condition in humility and sent on its way. The singer is granted the opportunity to weather the risk of exposure in the act of improvisation and then to slip almost unnoticed from the track, as the group begin to conclude their agreement to improvise a new ground in an extended instrumental passage of harsh beauty and sensitivity unlike any other in the entire corpus of The Fall.[31]


[1] Derek Bailey. Improvisation: its nature and practice in music. New York. Da Capo Press. 1980; 1992. 83.
[2] Bailey. Improvisation. xii.
[3] Bailey. Improvisation. 83-84.
[4] Cornelius Cardew. “Towards an Ethic of Improvisation.” Treatise Handbook. London; Frankfurt; New York. Edition Peters. 1971. xix.
[5] Cardew’s essay illustrates this exclusivity neatly when, at the end of a tortuous piece of reasoning, he comes to the conclusion that his “most rewarding experiences” when recruiting players to perform his work Treatise has come from working with “people who by some fluke have (a) acquired a visual education, (b) escaped a musical education and (c) have nevertheless become musicians, i.e. play music to the full capacity of their beings.” (xix)
[6] Bailey. Improvisation. 101.
[7] Bailey. Improvisation. 102.
[8] Bailey. Improvisation. 140.
[9] Jacques Derrida. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore and London. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1976. 195.
[10] Ben Watson. Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation. London and New York. Verso. 2004. 192.
[11] Watson. Bailey. 165-6.
[12] For a salutary discussion of the limitations of considering music as a language, see Theodor W. Adorno. “Music and Language: A Fragment.” Quasi una Fantasia: Essays on Modern Music. Trans. Rodney Livingstone. London and New York. Verso. 1992.
Music resembles a language. Expressions such as musical idiom, musical intonation, are not simply metaphors. But music is not identical with language. The resemblance points to something essential, but vague. Anyone who takes it seriously will be seriously misled.
        Music resembles language in the sense that it is a temporal sequence of articulated sounds which are more than just sounds. They say something, often something human. (1)
Adorno points out that music can have a syntactic extension amounting to something like a narrative but goes on to explain that “the identity of…musical concepts lay in their own nature and not in a signified outside them” (2) and that to “interpret language means: to understand language. To interpret music means: to make music. Musical interpretation is performance, which, as synthesis, retains the similarity to language, while obliterating every specific resemblance.” (3) His argument is not that musical concepts have no “signified outside them” but that, in some way, they bear their signifieds inherently, that in the sounding of a chord in its sequence, or in the sequence itself, there is no useful distinction to be made between signifier and signified, because instrumental music has no demonstrably necessary relation to what it might signify. It is no doubt this condition which permits critics to intuit a severe attenuation of reference in music and rush to fill the void with their impressionistic and rhapsodic perorations. Adorno’s final point begs the question of where the listener to music might find a place in this scheme, and what she might be doing as she listens, if the activity is to have nothing to do with interpretation as Adorno conceives it. If listening is to be allowed, perhaps it could be considered a type of performance itself which makes music mean some thing, as long as that thing is able to resist its comprehension in linguistic terms (by a persuasive verbal paraphrase)?
[13] Bailey. Improvisation. 107.
[14] Watson. Bailey:
        Like a truly interesting conversationalist, Bailey’s guitar-playing does not flatter the musicians he plays with, or attempt to make them sound good in a facile way: he attempts to understand what they are playing by contradicting them. He ‘tests’ their musical utterances just as Socrates tested the statements of his contemporary Athenians. (137)
[15] Watson. Bailey. 143.
[16] Watson. Bailey: “As when listening to a conversation, one discovers that level tones and polite pauses can actually convey concepts of pressing import.” (163)
[17] Watson, Bailey. 149-50.
[18] Bailey. Improvisation. xi.
[19] Bailey’s utter indifference to virtually all music except whatever he himself happens to be playing at the time becomes an issue in his book, Improvisation, when the sole authority asked to give an account of improvisation in rock music is Steve Howe of the abysmal prog band, Yes. Howe’s story of how the virtuoso player’s pretensions coincided happily with the commercial exploitation of the market for albums towards the end of the 1960s was submitted for the first edition of the book, assembled in the mid-70s and published in 1980, and appeared again in the second edition in 1992, without revision or expansion by any other voices despite the intervening years producing the punk and post-punk movements and bands who did much to extend or productively narrow the possibilities for guitar-based rock music, The Slits, Black Flag, Bad Brains, Sonic Youth, Boredoms and The Jesus and Mary Chain to name just a few.
[20] Richard Middleton. “In The Groove or Blowing Your Mind?: The Pleasures of Musical Repetition.” The Popular Music Studies Reader. Eds. Andy Bennett, Barry Shank and Jason Toynbee. London and New York. Routledge. 2006. 16.
[21] Middleton. 17.
[22] Middleton. 20.
[23] Oxley in Bailey. Improvisation. 87.
[24] From Colin Irwin. “The decline and Fall in Iceland.” Melody Maker. 26 September 1981:
Mark then announces they will try a new song. Craig patters out a tune on the piano, Marc Riley starts to play banjo, making it sound like a sitar, and you suddenly recognise the abstract tinkering they’d done earlier. “Is he going to sing?” asks the engineer. Kay didn’t know. Grant goes to find out. “He’s going to play a cassette first, and then he’s going to sing,” says Grant. The engineer scarcely blinks. “I see,” he says. “A cassette. I do like these easy sessions.” […] Mark plays his cassette – of the wind howling against his hotel room window – and launches into the verbals… […] “No, we didn’t know what he was going to do either,” says Riley, in a state of euphoria later. “He just said he needed a tune, something Dylanish, and we knocked around on the piano in the studio and came up with that. But we hadn’t heard the words until he suddenly did them. We did ‘Fit And Working Again’ on ‘Slates’ in exactly the same way. Yeah, I suppose it is amazing really…
[25] Simon Reynolds. Rip It Up And Start Again: Postpunk 1978-84. London. Faber and Faber. 2005:
        The culmination of The Fall’s fascination with the supernatural came with 1982’s Hex Enduction Hour, half of which was recorded in Iceland, a country where most of the population still believes in elves. (196)
[26] The repeated references to this aspect of the recording studio’s interior decor might finally be of use in elucidating the lines of the song which go
And the spawn of the volcano
Is thick and impatient
Like the people around it
If the “spawn of the volcano” is its lava then the third line here could be a barb aimed at Smith’s “compatriots”, the need to conform to the song’s imposed, improvised metrics forcing the people to stand “around” the lava, though the lava actually surrounds them on the studio walls.
[27] The short story referred to here by M.R. James concerns a writer, Karswell, who passes a highly effective runic curse to reviewers and readers who express negative reactions to his work. The protagonist can manage to avoid and return the curse if he can get Karswell to accept it back willingly, even if Karswell does not know what he has accepted. In “Iceland” however any runes cast will be “against your own soul,” and it would, of course, be impossible to send a self-inflicted curse ‘back’ to another party.
[28] Mark Fisher. “Memorex For The Krakens: The Fall’s Pulp Modernism, Part III.” Accessed 22.09.08.
[29] Mark Fisher. “Memorex For The Krakens: The Fall’s Pulp Modernism, Part I.” Accessed 22.09.08.
[30] For a typical example filtered through the author’s pulp science fiction frame of reference, see Part III of Mark Fisher’s “Memorex For The Krakens:”
By the time of Grotesque, it was clear that Smith was as much of an autocrat as James Brown, the band the zombie slaves of his vision. He is the shaman-author, the group the producers of a delirium-inducing repetition from which all spontaneity must be ruthlessly purged. ‘Don’t start improvising for Christ’s sake,’ goes a line on Slates, the 10” EP follow-up to Grotesque, echoing his chastisement of the band for ‘showing off’ on the live LP Totale’s Turns.
Fisher’s mishearing of the line – Smith actually says/sings, “Don’t start improvising/For God’s sake” – masks a marginally more serious misreading. On the song in question, the band have been playing a murky and furious locked groove for several minutes and there is no audible evidence that anyone has tried, is trying, will try to improvise. Smith’s comment comes after the line “How would you describe the slates?” and is delivered in a new and neutral intonation implying the voice of a different character, to which his “Don’t start improvising/For God’s sake” is an internalised rejoinder, making the line a wry memo by Smith to himself and definitely not a command aimed at the rest of the band.
[31] I like Ben Watson’s statement on the central bet of free improv: “The wager is that any roomful of humans can find community, whatever their linguistic or musical systems, simply by the act of listening and playing…” (375) though my own interpretation of the tensions and temporary rapprochements between human beings across the duration of “Iceland” doesn’t find anything as stable and supportive and long-lasting as a community here.

I came late to this essay, but with much delight at seeing Derek Bailey and The Fall discussed in proximity and with erudition. It was disappointing, therefore, to find Bailey somewhat misrepresented. This also blunts the quite pertinent criticisms of his writing which the essay also contains.

I offer a few thoughts (in no particular order!): Bailey did not aim to work with musical innocents in the ways that Cardew describes. He was much more interested (and increasingly so during his career) in working with what one might call "improvisational innocents"; that is, musicians of great accomplishment in fields often far removed from free improvisation. The process of developing a shared music (a process carried out in performance and via improvisation) could then become the focus of the music. One might cite Bailey's work with the pipa player Min Xiao-Fen, the Japanese duo the Ruins or the bass and drums team of Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Calvin Weston - not forgetting of course his Company Weeks, which were specifically designed for this purpose. Non-idiomatic improvisation, although a problematic term, is not as foolish as it seems at first glance. Bailey said in an interview with Jean Martin in 1996 that "you can see freely improvised music as being made up of an apparently endless variety of idiosyncratic players and groups. So many in fact, that it's simpler to think of the whole thing as non-idiomatic." The kind of situation referred to in the article (where "the circumvention of the obvious always takes a set of obvious routes" and "players have an uncanny knack of making most instruments, no matter how different, sound indistinguishable from one other") Bailey would fully have acknowledged as idiomatic, and would not have had any interest in engaging with as a player. This also qualifies the discovery of undertones of patronisation in Bailey's references to ethnic musics. I would submit that his references to "directness and dignity" could also have been applied to many other idiomatic improvisational traditions, such as flamenco or jazz. The point being that, as he notes in the introduction to his book, most improvisers do not separate out improvisation as such from other aspect of making music: rather they "'play flamenco' or 'play jazz'". For Bailey, a focus on improvisation as an end in itself was what characterized non-idiomatic improvisation. This is very different from claiming that it is the only activity where "real" improvisation occurs, a claim I do not think he ever made (though he did believe that there was "more of it", so to speak, in non-idiomatic than idiomatic playing).
Bailey developed his own vocabulary scrupulously, paying great attention to the resources (including pitch) of his chosen instrument: while it might be the case that in many performances "a guitarist will rattle his house-keys or some other object round the rim of his guitar’s f-hole", that guitarist would not have been Derek Bailey! His description (admittedly logically dubious) of "a language that would be literally disjointed, whose constituents would be unconnected in any causal or grammatical way" importantly refers not to his goal for a group music but to the construction of his own personal resources. Bailey desired such an open language precisely to enable him to engage with all sorts of other musicians without prejuding the outcome. Of course this usually involved the absence of a regular beat, but that it did so, and that in relation to the historical development of jazz an improviser such as Tony Oxley could come to see the beat as a tyranny, does not at all have to imply a blanket dismissal of all music that employs a regular beat. In proof of which I shall now listen to Bailey's record with Tacuma and Weston, follow by a bit of the Fall!
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