Walking a tightrope blindfolded without a harness and no safety net

Ahead of their performance at LSO St Luke's on Saturday 11 November as part of BBC Open Ear, Elaine Mitchener and Neil Charles discuss why free improvisation isn't for the faint-hearted.

Walking a tightrope blindfolded without a harness and no safety net

That is the experience of working within free-improvisation. Within any instant there are a myriad of choices to be made and each decision will take you to a space you did not expect to inhabit. In that split second: how do you avoid repetition? How do you not be afraid of silence? Know when to stop? How to dig yourself out of a musical ditch filled with detritus and what do you do with it all?
Trust your instincts. Speak out. Be fearless. Be bold.
I am looking forward to throwing down some musical ideas with Neil Charles on Saturday 11 November. We work together in a quartet with Alexander Hawkins and Stephen Davis and therefore have that kind of familiarity and trust borne from an experience of exchanges. However, as a duo of voice and stringed instrument we take on other challenges: the 'walking a tightrope blindfolded without a harness' bit … We can really push ourselves and each other. Double bass and voice isn’t an uncommon pairing particularly in the realm of jazz or so-called ‘free-jazz’ and of course in free improvisation. Peggy Lee and the song Fever popularised it but a quick listen to vocalist Shelia Jordan reveals a lifelong interest in mining creative ideas which she did successfully with Harvie S, Steve Swallow and Cameron Brown. For many years, Maggie Nichols & Joëlle Léandre have been taking listeners on a roller-coaster ride throwing up all kinds of questions and ideas, whilst also using their craft as voice for political ideas.


IPic love the monstrous physicality of the double bass – the effort required to not only create a distinctive sound, but to master perfect intonation whilst bowing the musical tug-of-war which transforms it into a percussive resonating machine. It’s a great instrument and what particularly thrills me with this combination is the possibility of entwined snake-like voices encountering each other as duo, as separate entities, in coalition or opposition, totally responding to the moment and with a total creative trust. A free-fall that is not for the faint-hearted.


As for Neil why on earth have you agreed to work in this way with me?
(Neil) Working with a voice allows me as a bassist to pick up on many elements in the sound. A voice can be percussive, then arrive at obvious tonal centres before moving through to the avant-Garde free sounds then back to the obvious. All of these musical ideas can happen in a five-second passage or a 50-minute arrangement. It’s tense and liberating all at the same time, and it gives me a wonderful platform of creativity to build from.


There you have it. And here’s what inspires us:


Sun Ra


Taylor Ho Bynum


Jack DeJohnette


Kim So-hee


Rahsaan Roland Kirk


Archie Shepp

 You can hear Elaine Mitchener and Neil Charles perform at BBC Radio 3 Open Ear on Saturday 11 November at LSO St Luke's. Click here to find out more and book tickets


Header image by kevint3141, creative commons license, image modified.