On the Edge parts I and III. 52:22 and 58:13 min., color, 1992. By Jeremy Marr and Derek Bailey. Ubuweb's description:
A series of four 55 minute films shown on Channel 4 TV in the UK in early 1992. To say this was the best and most intelligent analysis of improvisation to be screened on UK television is probably unnecessary: it has in all likelihood been the only televised programme on this form of music-making. Written and narrated by Derek Bailey, produced and directed by Jeremy Marr, it developed out of the first edition of Bailey's book on improvisation (the broadcast almost coinciding with the publication of the second edition) and attempted to provide a world-view of the subject, not being bound by country, musical genre or preconception.
1: Passing it on
Broadcast 2 February 1992 this programme featured: Douglas Ewart at Haynes School in Chinatown, Chicago; improvisation in Mozart with Robert Levin, piano and the Acadamy of Ancient Music with Christopher Hogwood; John Zorn and Cobra; improvisation in religious and devotional music and communities with: Naji Hakim - organ improvisations in Paris; Gaelic psalm singing on the Scottish Isles of Harris and Lewis; and Indian singing with Pundit Hanuman Misra.
3: A liberating thing
Broadcast 16 February 1992, concentrating on jazz based and free improvisation. With Max Roach at the Harlam School of the Arts; Butch Morris conducting (with, among others, Shelley Hirsch); Sang-Won Park and Korean music; Max Eastley's sound sculptures; Derek Bailey (solo and fleetingly with Phil Wachsmann, Steve Noble and Alex Ward); Steve Noble and Alex Ward duo; Nashville musicians including Buddy Emmons; Eugene Chadbourne.
File this one under "wish we had more TV like this today." Hell, maybe we do have more TV like this today; far be it from me to actually check. And while we're correcting, file not this one but these two under it. Ubuweb doesn't have all four episodes of On the Edge, but they've got the first and third, and from the descriptions they'd seem to be the most interesting.
The series opens strong, with a pro-improvisation polemic — I don't think that's too harsh a term — from Robert Levin, who's still a well-known pianist and composer. "To invent something is totally beyond the scope of the modern orchestra," he says. "It seems to be more technological, or, at least, Pavlovian." This is along the lines of what Brian Eno has been saying about scripted and recorded music for years; Alex Ross has more recently taken up the cause with very specific, needling regard to what has been labeled "classical music." These shows aren't entirely or even especially about classical music, but as a framing device it's a stark illustration of what happens to a genre when you suck the improvisation out. As Levin sums it up: "We have a terrible problem: these pieces have become museum pieces."
If Ubuweb's summary hadn't already pointed it out, I can assure you I'd be making a very big deal about how the show goes on to approach improvisation from a bunch of different angles and in a diversity of contexts. So you've got the maverick classical piano improviser, sure, but you've also got the ragtag, anything-an-instrument band improvising in an NYC loft; the classes of little kids improvising on Douglas Ewart's made-up instruments and Max Roach's drum kit, the untrained but impassioned choral improvisation; the improvisatory sonic sculptures alongside which Max Eastley improvises; the Korean flower shop owner who, in the improvisation of his homeland traditional music, finds solace from "things that make me different from what I want to be."
I guess what I'm saying is that the programs are successfully about a concept. This is rarer than you'd think; even books have trouble with it. Musical improvisation is actually one of the better examples I can think of of an idea that can't really be directly described, at least not with any great accuracy. You've got to find as many and as different examples of it as you can, and just let your audience experience them. Including unadulterated performances at length — at what passes for length on TV, anyway — is one of the many ways On the Edge gets this right.
Episode three even includes a segment on Butch Morris and his practice of "conduction," that is, a hybrid of conducting and improvisation where he, as the conductor armed with gestures both conventional- and unconventional-looking, "plays" a group of improvisers. That's pretty neat, but what's important is what he says to his improvisational orchestra between pieces. He demands of his players that they now entertain themselves here by playing something that they wouldn't entertain themselves with at home. He'd rather they not play at all than play something they wouldn't like were they in the audience. "I don't want you to play any old thing," he says. "I can get any-old-body to play any old thing."