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Columns > Patrick Buzby

Published: 2002/12/22
by Patrick Buzby

Derek Bailey & The Isolation Effect

Derek Bailey, a British guitarist, is an
intriguing case. I have been delving into his work
recently both because I own a few of his recordings
and because he wrote a book about the history and
practice of improvisation, an insightful, short work
featuring (in the second edition, released around 1993
and stubbornly elusive to me at this time) Jerry
Garcia as one of its interview subjects.
One of the recordings I own is The Sign Of Four
(Knitting Factory Works), a 3-CD set of live and
studio improvisations teaming Bailey with fellow
guitarist Pat Metheny and drummers Paul Wertico and
Gregg Bendian. Although not the sort of thing I (or
most others) would put on while unwinding after a day
at the office, these CDs got my attention particularly
for the contrast between Metheny and Bailey. Metheny,
though using a much shriller tone than his usual,
still seems to be dealing in melodies and musical
phrases while Bailey seems to be offering primarily
sounds. This isn’t meant as a negative criticism of
either of them, but it did point to an approach of
Bailey’s worth examining further.
Reading Bailey’s book and a few interviews, I got
some sense of his story. His progress in music (which
he began circa the 50’s) has led him to reject both
notated music and, apparently, most of the instincts
of conventional musicmaking. However, one thing he
encourages is collaboration – the idea of putting his
approach with, or against, those of other artists to
determine the results. He is part of the field of
what us music writers call European free
improvisation, a school which tends to harken back to
modern classical (if to anything at all) rather than
the blues, the source of most jazz and rock.
Armed with this information, I dug up one 1981 LP
of his, Views From Six Windows (Metalanguage), a
collaboration with vocalist Christine Jeffrey, at the
downtown Chicago library. Unlike Sign Of Four, this
set features Bailey on acoustic guitar, not a common
instrument for avant music. Shortly after getting
this record, it started to seem like a good candidate
for the isolation effect, something I have attempted
to pursue for the benefit of my listening abilities
(and this column) recently with occasional success.
A bit about the isolation effect: for the bootleg
collectors out there, remember getting your first set
of tapes or CDs? If you were like me, you listened
intently to each, and didn’t consider the possibility
that the Dead played five better versions of
China/Rider than at Chapel Hill ’93, and that everyone
else has that show as a SBD, anyway. I tried
listening to this Bailey/Jeffrey set with that same
intensity, playing almost nothing else for two or
three nights, as I have with some other strange stuff.
To be honest, listening to Bailey can be a bit
like tuning your radio somewhere in between stations
and trying to enjoy it, but that’s not as negative as
it may seem. One may just get static, or uncover
alien frequencies with their own interest. Views From
Six Windows consist mostly of Bailey plucking and
scraping while Jeffrey (somewhat more pattern-oriented
and reactive than her partner, but not by much) makes
high-pitched vocal coos and moans, and it’s all very
quiet, with enough silence that I needed to look at
the LP to determine where the cuts (five on side one,
three on side two) began and ended.
And yet, oddly enough, some order did begin to
emerge as I reached side two. On the second cut,
"Adrienne," Jeffrey actually does offer a repeating
motive, a series of high notes both girlish and
ominous. And on the extended finale, Bailey somehow
manages to produce sustained drones from the acoustic
guitar over which Jeffrey laments, absorbingly enough
that I was actually jolted when the side ended. The
cover of this set shows a set of windows, and
listening to it feels a bit like eavesdropping on a
couple, observing their strange personal rituals and
realizing that one’s own practices may be equally odd
to an outside observer.
To my knowledge, Views From Six Windows is not on
CD and may not be easy to find. (I believe
Metalanguage issued a few similar LPs around that time
before its owners retired to Florida with the
profits.) However, if interested, choose your own
candidate for the isolation effect, with Bailey or
someone else with equal depth. I would enjoy knowing
of the results, and may try the experiment again
myself when my schedule permits.

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