Sunday, September 20, 2015

James O'Sullivan 13 Questions

James O’Sullivan is a London-based electric guitar player. His work explores the relationship between improvisation, recording and performance. He has worked extensively within the parameters of song, in particular in collaboration, and his musical input on these recordings is far-ranging. His first solo album  feed back couple, available from the Forwind label, is an exciting kaleidoscope of extended techniques and game echoes on string, working simultaneously on several layers to generate and to record a sort of personal and surreal etching atmosphere.

James is a significant member of Eddie Prevost's Workshop, a London musical meeting running from November 1999, with O'Sullivan attending since 2004. His activities span the two poles from free improvisation to more 'composed' song forms, and he has collaborated with songwriters, improvisors, improvising songwriters and other permutations of these elements in an attempt to unpack ideas of terms such as 'free', 'composed', 'technique', 'melody', 'noise', 'rhythm' and 'improvise'.

He has also collaborated with, between others, the following musicians and groups: Found Drowned with Paul May, percussion, and Pete Marsh, Double Bass: a London based acoustic/electric improvising trio, mixing good old fashioned noise with free jazz skronk and introspective rumbling; Syneuma and other Aural Terrain projects with Thanos Chrysakis, Electronics & laptop,  Jerry  Wigens, Tom Mudd, Artur Vidal, Tim Yates, David Hurn Four Seasons Television’, and the improvisational quartet Clang Sayne...

What do you remember about your first approach to sound?

I was taken to a musical 'fair' when I was about 7, where children can try out instruments they might like to play. When handed a classical guitar, I started vigorously strumming with my right hand and was immediately asked to stop by the man in charge of the instruments. It is possible that not much has changed in my approach and its reaction since then!

I took classical guitar and cello lessons, but I don't think I really connected those technique-building activities with the sound potential of the instrument. In subsequent teenage 'indie/experimental' bands, I suppose it was all about gestural noise, trying to express angst through your amp and using sound as a barrier. In my twenties, I worked with quite a lot of song-based material, where my guitar operated on the periphery of the 'business' of the song- I started by trying to 'do' genres- country, jazz, experimental rock etc... and make a hybrid. This became less 'straight' over time and in my mid to late twenties, my playing was more about trying to disperse something odd, or subtly unsettling through the structures of a song, something unrecognisable as a guitar, something un-placeable by the listener. I suppose use of some effects at this time was instrumental at this point.

Around this time, I started approaching free improvisation more 'formally', through attendance of Eddie Prevost's experimental improvisational workshop and looking more at my guitar as a starting point for listening, not as the end point of the process, something the sound 'comes out of', which is probably a reasonable description of my current approach to sound and my instrument. That and the notion that listening is also playing, that it is a productive, and not a receptive act.

Which was the first and the last record you bought with your own money?

The first two records I bought with my own money were 'I'm Too Sexy' by Right Said Fred and 'Black or White', by Michael Jackson. Both 45s, bought in Our Price in Watford. The last record I can remember being recently with my own money recently is 'Whales Alive' which is a record of whale sound put to (some slightly dubious) jazz-inflected 80s instrumental music, with poems narrated by Leonard Nimoy. I would like to think that the path from Right Said Fred to 'Whales Alive' represents progress..?

How's your musical routine practice?

I play classical guitar for about twenty minutes a day, freely improvising, but in more of a 'straight' way than my approach to the electric guitar. I also do right hand exercises and sight reading from time to time. I consider my regular attendance of the London Bridge improvisatory workshop my most meaningful 'practice' and my weekly attendance (with some gaps) represents my most well-established musical 'routine', I suppose. I record myself playing solo free improvised electric guitar regularly, and listen to the 'results'.

What's the relevance of technique in music, in your opinion?

Technique is useful to me as a player when it enables me to pursue an intuition without concerning myself with the practical elements of its execution. Technique is only really impressive for me when it is 'invisible', and certainly not a feature of the sound itself. The 'look at how much practice I've done and how fast I can play' school of music holds no interest to me at all. I dip into classical guitar method books and do right hand exercises from time to time. I like how playing freely feels after I have done about an hour of technical, mindless practice.

Technique, though, is obviously relevant to music in that it develops musical fluency. I think that the term 'technique' can be applied much more widely to musical practices though, and furthermore that there is a view that some musicians free-improvise because they can't 'play', which could influence the more self-conscious free-improvisor to 'show off' their technique more in live situations. This is something I have perceived in less satisfying musical playing or listening experiences. I am drawn to the idea of developing a 'technique for finding', which involves all of you, not just your hands, eyes and ears.

Tell me one impossible project do you like to realize?

I am still interested in the notion of a 'free song'. My past work with Clang Sayne (Laura Hyland's song-scape project) reflects this attraction. The musical approach over my time in this band went from improvised parts to pre-written songs, to improvised parts to semi-written songs, to collective improvisation out of which came songs. There seems to be an inherent contradiction in the notion of an un-composed song that could be due to the language we use to define what a song is. I would like to pursue this more with song-writers open to free improvisation.

Recording of improvisation still remains important to my practice, in that I listen to recordings of my own live and studio playing a lot, and use it as a starting point for reflection in my musical practice. I know that this is not necessarily a popular approach among some free improvisors, and am aware of the reservations some have about the separation of the music from its moment of conception and its site-specific context, but I see recording as another fruitful environment for exploratory music making- I also love the creative environment of a studio and find it very conducive to creativity.

I guess that an, or possibly the, project I would like to realise is a truly accessible free-improvisation record, that can be enjoyed by those who do not normally listen to this type of music. I have seen this happen at live performances of free improvisation, when people 'accidentally' see this type of music and are drawn to the intensity and the fun of it all. I would love to try and capture that on a record.

Finally, the idea of duration and creativity is of interest to me, and I periodically discuss facilitating a 12 or 24-hour session of improvisation with like-minded individuals, but this is yet to be realised. I am curious to know how it feels to be many hours into free improvisation, and how that affects how 'busy' you are as a player, how 'silence' is employed, how you listen.

What special or strange techniques do you use?

The landscape of 'prepared guitar' seems well mapped. I don't really consider my techniques as strange, rather I see my playing as fairly conventional in many ways. I remember going to a Fred Frith concert recently and being struck at how we our 'languages' seemed to have much in common, although I came to know of his playing relatively recently.

My techniques generally operate around exploiting the magnetic properties of the bridge and neck pickups with metal objects, the feedback possibilities of the instrument and a small amp, the interaction of wooden and plastic objects on the body and strings, the intervention of my physicality and the physicality of the immediate environment. Occasional use is made of magnetic tape, through a dictaphone. My approach is not to find something new, but to breathe new-ness into a limited collection of well-established materials. I am not the sort of player who comes to a gig with a traffic cone or crisp packet they found on the way and start playing with those! Not that I am against this approach, of course...

Which is the main pleasure of the strings? What are their main limitation? 

I like the continuum available to the string-player between very direct finger to string contact and indirect, mediated string playing. Strings can be played through a host of things. I also like how strings are indirectly perceived, through a pick-up or the body of a guitar- this forms the basis of the fascination- trying to 'get to' the string itself, and I think my playing could often unconsciously be about 'finding' the string.

I suppose this representational aspect- that of the string itself not being the thing that you hear could be seen as a limitation, as well as the fact that string players do not require the physical totality in their engagement with the instrument that, say, wind players do. Guitar playing brings with it the possibility of more detachment, I suppose, but whilst that could limit a fully physical marriage between player and instrument, I think it also opens avenues for different types of listening in group situations, and affords the string player more objectivity, perhaps. I am talking here more as a, electric guitar player, who does not need to have his ear glued to his instrument in the same way as, say, an acoustic violinist. As a classical guitar player as well, I would say that it is much more challenging to test nylon strings sonically speaking, and avoid the history of the instrument.

Tell me one musical work which has provoked a change in your music.

I suppose that, in my youth, Sonic Youth was my 'gateway drug' (!) into the more documented world of experimental and improvised music. It certainly wasn't Right Said Fred. Then, I would say that the Velvet Underground's first album provided a model as to recording my music (four track tape recordings). As regards a particular musical work, it is hard to say, but I remember seeing Derek Bailey in the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden about 10 years ago, and that seemed to catch me at the right time. At the risk of sounding egotistical, recording my solo album has contributed to the biggest change in my playing, because it has required me to play solo live and in the studio, and expose my playing to greater self-scrutiny.

Where are your roots? What are your secret influences? 

My educational roots are in language. I have a degree in French and Philosophy, and have taught languages for about twelve years. I have taught French and Spanish in an inner-London secondary school for 9 years. I am currently undertaking an MA in Applied Linguistics. I can see a clear analogy between the process of language acquisition and use and the act of meaning-making with sound. I am currently influenced by the study of spoken discourse and how language users negotiate meaning through larger stretches of spoken language. this has raised my awareness the organisational processes that may be at play in longer, group improvisations, and how ethnomethodological concerns (status, national identity, gender, social status etc.) are interesting contributory factors in how we play what with who, and when.

What would you enjoy most in an art work?

I like an art work to tell me absolutely nothing, but to initiate a dialogue between myself and the work. I like art that is allowed to mean nothing , thereby forcing you not to consume it immediately, but stop what you are doing and deal with it. I like how good art only exists in the present, opening a rare space in life where the counter-factual has equal status to the factual.

I also like the fear, that some art can evoke, that you are wasting your life on this earth and must rush home and pick up your guitar after having seen or heard something amazing.

What quality do you most empathise with in a musician?

I empathise with any musician who worries that they are not listening hard enough to those around them, or that their playing is hindering that of others', because that is something that preoccupies me often in group playing, and would like to know that other people share that sentiment! That aside, I would say that what I admire most in those whom I consider to be excellent musicians is a calm, non-egotistical courage- to invest the entirety of yourself in a moment and share that with people- to pose that to them as a question and risk total failure.

What instruments and tools do you use?

At home, I mainly play my trusty classical guitar. I play a Japanese Telecaster (1968 I think). I have not used any effects for about 5 years or so, but I have a few beaters and metal preparations. From time to time I involve my broken and highly unpredictable dictaphone into the equation. The add-ons are more or less constant, or rather, it is a rare occurrence for a new item to make its way into the leather bag. Feedback is a prominent feature of my playing, as is the floor and furniture around the instrument. and I have taken recently to using my breath and voice to interact with the pickups, as well as extreme detuning of strings, which inexplicably has become quite frequent in my playing.

What projects are you working on now and what does the future hold?

I have some upcoming concerts that present the processes explored in Eddie's London Bridge Workshop. I am also currently playing in a few longer standing arrangements; I have worked with Thanos Chrysakis in studio and live situations for about 5 years now, and have been involved in 5 releases on his excellent and prolific label- Aural Terrains. The most recent disc came out this year and involves myself, Thanos and Chris Cundy on bass clarinet. I have recently re-connected with Pete Marsh and Paul May under the name of Found Drowned, to record material for a second album. I play regularly with Tim Yates, Tom Mudd and Artur Vidal in an as -of-yet unnamed quartet and we should be performing in a string of London dates in the Autumn.

Chris Cundy (bass clarinet), Jerry Wigens (bass clarinet), Julie Kjær (alto saxophone), Artur Vidal (alto saxophone), James O'Sullivan (guitar), Thanos Chrysakis (laptop electronics) at Oto Project Space, London on 31 May, 2014

Selected Discography

Aural Terrains 2014
Thanos Chrysakis, Chris Cundy, James O'Sullivan 

Aural Terrains 2014
Thanos Chrysakis, Ken Slaven, James O'Sullivan, Jerry Wigens

2013 Skip All Recordings
Four Seasons Television is David Hurn and James O'Sullivan, in collaboration with other (experimental) musicians/improvisors

James O'Sullivan, Pete Marsh, Paul May

Aural Terrains 2012
Thanos Chrysakis, James O"Sullivan, Jerry Wigens

 Aural terrains 2012
S. Branche, Thanos Chysyakis, Tom Soloveitzik, J. O'Sullivan, Artur Vidal, Jerry Wigens

Forwind 2012
James O'Sullivan

2009 Aural Terrains
Thanos Chysakis, James O'Sullivan, Dario Bernal-Villegas, Oli Mayne, Jerry Wigens