Urpa i Musell / Spain / 2023
The Devil, Probably is Patrick Shiroishi (saxophones), from Los Angeles, Àlex Reviriego (double bass) and Vasco Trilla (percussion), both from Barcelona, altogether in a long-distance correspondence. The three of them are key figures of the youngest generation of their respective free improvisation and avant-garde scenes, where they develop an unstoppable and vibrant activity, deeply involved in reconfiguring its boundaries with unforeseen references and sounds. An exercise of freedom and rapport, marvellously grating and sweet at once; pure devilish bliss!
“We as artists and human beings have an important task, that is, I think, to create ourself under every day’s new situation and new relationship with others without tying up oneself with old things, trying to challenge, to make oneself new and encourage others to. If not, I think there is no real meaning of being an artist.” –Takako Saito
In 1968, pianist Frederic Rzewski approached saxophonist Steve Lacy and asked him to describe the difference between composition and improvisation. He gave the American jazz musician 15 seconds to complete the task, and pulled out a tape recorder to document his response. “In 15 seconds the difference between composition and improvisation,” Lacy answered, “is that in composition you have all the time you want to decide what to say in 15 seconds, while in improvisation you have 15 seconds.”
This anecdote arrives at the tail end of Derek Bailey’s landmark 1980 book Improvisation, acting as a capstone to various musings on the titular activity’s meaning, function, and development across history and varying musical styles. “In all its roles and appearances, improvisation can be considered as the celebration of the moment,” Bailey summarizes. “It exists because it meets the creative appetite that is a natural part of being a performing musician because it invites complete involvement, to a degree otherwise unobtainable, in the act of music-making.” These words assert that improvisation requires at least two things: 1) complete immersion, and 2) an element of time. The “moment” that Bailey describes is that of real-time, of the sort of magical conjuring that arises when musicians improvise.
Such a description of improvisation, as broad as it may seem, is problematized when considering the work of The Devil, Probably—a trio made of Patrick Shiroishi (saxophones), Àlex Reviriego (double bass), and Vasco Trilla (percussion). The six songs on their debut LP were not created simultaneously. Instead, these works involved long-distance correspondence; the artists sent audio files to each other and they improvised afterwards. There is a certain energy that arrives when musicians improvise together in a particular space, and recordings, of course, cannot capture any such atmosphere exactly—the multidisciplinary artist Dieter Roth once compared concert recordings to “heating up leftovers twice.” There is nevertheless a specific intentionality at the heart of any improviser’s practice, and this doesn’t require any sort of concurrent playing to be felt.
I often think of the French composer Éliane Radigue and her words: “Time is of no importance. All that counts is the duration necessary for a seamless development.” When applied to the context of improvisation, the question becomes: what is being developed? The answer can be as obvious as: the music. But there exists something else, too. When I interviewed Shiroishi in 2020, he expressed his gratitude for being able to improvise with musicians across the United States and around the world. “I’ll play something that I’ve never done before that will lead to something I can develop further on my own,” he said. Improvisation, for him, serves as a way for growth. Time is of no importance because this progression is perpetual, bound only by the first and last breaths that determine our lifespan.
As a high school science teacher, I have often been asked what it is like to work with students. My response is always the same: it requires, more than anything else, patience and flexibility. I see my profession as one of constant improvisation; I may have lesson plans and an understanding of students and their accommodations, but each day requires sharp awareness of multiple people’s moods, personalities, and interests so that I can adapt to new circumstances, all with the purpose of collective learning. Musical improvisation isn’t so different: people commingle and begin to learn of each other in ways that go beyond spoken or written language, and there is an agreed-upon objective that involves being part of something bigger than our individual selves (and if one is improvising alone, there is still a space that they are interacting with, too). In Forces in Motion, Anthony Braxton says that “the significance of improvisation is for each person to find his or her own relationship with ‘doing’”, that it is essential to self-realization. He also notes that knowing oneself requires knowing others, likening improvisation in a group setting to being in a family unit. “I try to get out of their way and make sure everybody has a chance to express themselves [...] each person brings their own emotions to the moment.”
While listening to the music of The Devil, Probably, I was reminded of the 1977 Robert Bresson film of the same name. It would be a surprise for many to learn that the French director, ascetic as his process and presentation may be, deeply valued improvisation. “For me,” he once declared, “improvisation is at the base of creation in cinema.” It is this delicate balance of knowledge and ignorance, however, that grants an artist their vitality. We are, in some sense, always coming into our own, but that must be matched with an understanding that what we can become is anyone’s guess. Improvisation, thus, is merely a conduit for tapping into this continual expansion of self.