- The purpose of music
- The experience 0f improvisation
- What makes for a good improvisation?
- Practicing improvisation and preparing for a solo gig
- The Importance Of Free Improvisation
Jakob Pek is a virtuoso and extremely creative free improviser with the spirit of a poet, and a keen sense for sound, space and silence. Jakob is mainly active with the Bay Area’s creative music scene, playing solo or with other musicians such as Nava Dunkelman (in DunkelPek), and with Andrew Jamieson and Joshua Marshall (in El 3). During this interview he spoke with a beautifully eloquent and thoughtful slowness (often also humorously) about the importance of improvisation for human life: how it fosters being in the moment, awareness and human community. Another part of the interview was dedicated to reflect on what it takes to become an improviser, how is improvisation tied to practice, and the manner in which he has been practicing as of late.
(As a multifaceted artists, Jakob is also a poet and a painter. All paintings shown interview are has, and as of February 2016, they are being exhibited at VAMP: Art & Music.)
The Purpose Of Music
Diego Villaseñor: I don’t know if you remember but when we first met you asked me what was the purpose of music. I perceive that you have a very philosophical and spiritual way of being and doing music so I would like to ask you the same question.
Jakob Pek: I would say it is multifaceted. At a very essential level it has to do with fostering human community and just being together with our fellow humans. I think that is a very essential aspect of it. And I think another aspect of it is to deepen and expand our capacities for pattern recognition. That is another potential purpose it can serve.
Diego: How do you realize this two purposes through your work? How do you develop them? How do you focus on them when you are doing your work?
Jakob: If some musical expression seems to not make any sense, I would try to listen closer until it makes some kind of sense . If it makes some kind of sense then I’m assuming some sort of pattern or intelligence that has been recognized. If you happen to be doing this with 30 people in a room, all together listening to something that seems like a lot of nonsense but it is not nonsense, it is just a lot of information to deal with, that can create a communal experience of… hanging with your brothers and sisters [laughs].
Diego: So for you for example, maybe when you improvise, you start with some kind of random pattern which you can’t grasp in it’s entirety, and then try to explore it on the site?
Jakob: I guess so. You know it’s funny because leading back to the purpose thing, the whole pattern things seem kind of cerebral and soulless. Another purpose of music is to make experienceable aspects both of human life and those that lie beyond human life. It’s as if music can be a very potent dose of the species’ history or the planet’s history. It is a way of making knowable aspects of reality that can’t be known in any other way.
So as I am beginning to improvise, I am not really thinking let me make a pattern or some shit like that, I am just trying to tune into my organism and, well, I suppose I conceive of music as an autonomous thing that exist even if I don’t, so I am considering myself as trying to engage with some sort of something of the other, this music of the other, and to see what it wants to do. I am more interested in what music wants me to do then what I want to do. Sometimes they are the same thing and that is really great when what I want and what the music want are the same thing, but sometimes what the music wants I don’t want and then I have to say, well, forget what I want.
The Experience Of Improvisation
Diego: There is some kind of relationship between you and your body and this other thing and the music that emerges in an improvisation is like this interaction between those two things. Is that what you mean?
Jakob: Yes, I mean. What is happening when you improvise? You are tuning into the whole lineage of the species and then you’re doing something that is so old that it has been around from before-before-before; you are doing pre-historic things when you improvise. It is “primitive”, it is the oldest way to make music, and every time you do it, it is something completely new. It is a living paradox because it is always the newest thing. Every time you improvise you are making the newest music that has ever existed. It is also the oldest musical way ever. So you are tapping into a very expansive time stream and that’s cool and challenging and sort of ridiculous. I think maybe part of the reason why free improvisation is not readily accepted by a lot of people, or easily accepted, or even done by a lot of musicians is because it is challenging… to open yourself up to that time stream and deal with what comes out, because it is not necessarily pleasant or beautiful, I mean it’s hard stuff a lot of time.
Diego: And somehow people would talk about free improvisation as something that has a history of 60 years or so.
Jakob: Which is not true, that the free improv thing has only been around since Coltrane decided to do that or whoever decided to do what. It is not true…
You know, another important thing is that the word improvisation arose from improvisus, the Latin word for unforeseen. There is also this essential aspect of improvisation that is mysterious. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You have to be willfully unknowing about how things are going to unfold, and to fully engage with that chaos and mystery is essential to actually creating improvised music that is of potency or importance. I would say.
Diego: What do you search for when you’re listening and when you are playing? Which aspects of sound, of the whole sound that’s being generated attract you the most and lead your exploration, or engage you the most?
Jakob: This is one of my secrets. The secret is I am always trying to listen to the contextual silence of what is happening. So I’m not necessarily engaging directly with any of the content or any of the material, but I’m always trying to allow my attention to dissolve into silence. As in the bed of nothingness in which the music is happening. And from that place I feel like I can be everywhere in the music because, you know, the empty space is everywhere. So I’m trying to listen as that, I am just trying to be that and trust my autonomous responses from that space. When I’m listening to an improvisation, I am allowing my attention to dissolve into nothingness. I am trying to be empty silence and let the music happen and whatever happens through my organism I just let that happen.
Diego: Don’t you think that there might be certain recurring things about how you engage with that?
Jakob: Yes and I don’t think it is the only way to engage but it is what I have sort of gone through to sort of put the emphasis on receptivity and openness as opposed engaging or directive attention. Instead of this directive attention, more of this dissolving attention into emptiness. Instead of a tight focus. Just giving the gift of listening to everyone who is playing or not playing. Let me receive what they are doing. Let me really receive whatever sound they are making so I can’t really respond to them in an intelligent, honest, and heartfelt way.
Diego: Would you say that that characterizes your style of playing?
Jakob: Yes. It is a deep openness to the present moment and creating from what the present moment is calling for. And that makes for a hard sell getting gigs. It is like “what do you play?” It is not a musical thing or a musical context but a quality of consciousness that characterizes my approach to improvising.
Diego: And how do you feel about connecting with the audience?
Jakob: I think it can connect in a really deep way because in a weird way I am listening like they are and curious about what is going on. I feel like it helps me to be really receptive to the space. I am also receiving, I am feeling the vibes of the listeners and that is undoubtedly informing what I’m doing. I am trying to be with them as much as possible, be with my fellow players as much as possible, be with the space as much as possible. So it is very informing. All who are present are taking part in what is being created.
What Makes For A Good Improvisation?
Diego: How would you define a good improvisation?
Jakob: It is a lovely thing when the improvisation feels complete and whole and comes full circle in a way. It is a deeply satisfying feeling. But I don’t think that an improvisation necessarily has to be satisfying or wholesome to be successful. I guess at the end of the day, I just want it to be honest and truthful. So if I can portray something truthful then it is successful.
Diego: And an excellent improvisation?
Jakob: An excellent improv is not truthful but The Truth. [laughs]
Diego: In that sense, who would you say is the prophet of improvisation?
Jakob: When I’ve seen Roscoe Mitchell live it is very profound. It becomes so much truth that it’s just overwhelming… visceral…total. It’s something very deep going on. I have been deeply moved by my teachers and seeing them perform… there are many prophets of improvisation. Roscoe Mitchell and Fred Frith, those are two of many.
Diego: Do you think that improvisation can transcend the live circumstances in which it was created?
Jakob: So, like I recorded piece of music? I mean, yeah, it can. The thing is to experience it live is a very different thing. I mean, it is not like you can’t learn or have a beautiful listening experience through a recorded improvisation but to be there live, there is something very vital about that. It is just important to notice that certain people who won’t engage with a recording of improvised will engage with it live, because it is right there, there is the visual and somatic and the here and now of the emotion, everything is there in the live setting. I do think it transcends the live context but at the end of the day, that is where it is at for me, just live, sharing the music live with others. It is the deepest way to experience this music.
Practicing Improvisation And Preparing For a Solo Gig
Diego: So how do you prepare for a solo gig?
Jakob: I would not say I prepare for an improvised gig, what I do is try to keep an emptiness around the evening that is coming. If there are ideas about what could happen, I almost try to abandon them and not attach myself to them. I have no idea what the space would want.
It’s just the willingness to be vulnerable and open. It is also such a joy to have complete freedom. There is a freedom when all I have to engage with is the space and the listeners and myself. There is a freedom in that that is very lovely and also a profound challenge and responsibility for the music at the same time, that you aren’t going to find while playing in groups or even a duo.
Why do I like to play alone…? Because there is a core aspect of freedom to it. I like the challenge and responsibility. It is on me, I have to meet that, so it is a lot of fun. It becomes a way to be with the moment. It is a lovely way to be with the moment and to share that with people and to share being spiritually naked in music with whoever dares to be with you or is willing or happy to be with you in that space. As far as preparation I think it is willingness to be deeply vulnerable,
Diego: When did you decide you had the abilities to do that?
Jakob: Well I have been doing this since I’ve been 15 or 16. I’d go to those open mics and started to play solo improvisations. When I was younger there were a lot of solo guitarists that had a big effect on my playing, acoustic fingerpickers and jazz guitarists such as Ted Greene and Lenny Breau. So it has been there from the beginning as far as my loving to play the guitar by myself. As the years went by the music just got a big odder and outer…
Diego: How do you practice your instruments? How do you practice your techniques?
Jakob: As far as practice is concerned, I think it is about creating ways through which the creative spirit can have autonomy over the organism. It is like learning some sort of chordal pattern to the point of unforgettability and then in the moment of improv there isn’t even a trying to do, it just happens. So with practicing, I am just trying to condition my organism to the point that I have these tools that can be utilized effortlessly without any sort of conscious engagement, because all the conscious engagement that is happening from practice when, I’m really taking the my time to integrate whatever I am doing, so that when I am playing, there is none of that overt cognizance. It is just a surrender to the creation and to the flow in that moment. So preparing instrumentally and practicing techniques and patterns with my hands and with sound very carefully and quietly and precisely and effortlessly, you know, just tip toeing, gently through whatever I am working on, to really settle it into my body. Then when it is time to create it is just there. It is something that can be used if the creative spirit so wishes to use it. So I am just trying to give the creative spirit more things to use.
Diego: So you completely separate practice from creation?
Jakob: Not necessarily, but if I am practicing there is more cerebralness going on, there’s conceptions around what I am doing, and A to B to C, and a diligence of paying very close attention to the intricacies of what I am working on, so that I know I am really setting it into my organism so when it is time to play, it is just there. There is no trying to do it. It is like Charlie Parker said(and he was a Virgo like me) and he said you practice music, practice it until it is perfect, and then when you play you forget about it. I agree, that you practice it until it is so embedded into you, whether it is a tune or a scale or whatever you are working on, you practice it quietly, carefully, and gently and perfectly until it is so embedded in you that if the creative spirit wants to use it, it is right there. There is no strain at all. It just flows right out of you and you’re like “oh wow that was cool!”
Diego: And how do you structure your time with music, do you practice and then improvise or…
Jakob: It just depends on what I am working on at the time. Sometimes I essentially have a stack of things I am working on so I just go through the stack and that’s it, just go through the same stack for months and then ok, that’s been practiced enough, so what next.
Diego: How do you decide the elements in that stack?
Jakob: It just depends if I want to learn a song so I would pick that song, write arrangements of it, and improvise through the harmonies. How do I know that I really don’t know? I just wrote a little tune and I’m just playing to the tune like a million times. I’m trying to play it all these different ways and play the chords in all these different ways and I know someday when I have a performance, it will all just be there. All the little things I did will just be there to play with.
Diego: An about improvisation, do you do that before you practice or after you practice?
Jakob: I don’t know. My way of life is not very organized or scheduled, which I think is part of it. I was thinking that if you really want to play freely improvised music, you can’t really know much of how things are going to go in your day. You have to live in a way, like you don’t know where you’re going to be in a hour. It’s is crazy in some sense to live in a world where you are engaged with life and moments in such a way that, the planning almost seems absurd, but that helps inform what I’m doing. I used to be very organized spending a half hour here and another one there, and I wanted everything to be scheduled and everything in some sort for preordained time slot, but then it became so superficial and it was not honest. My way of life is very, not chaotic, but a little bit. Chaotic enough that I can play with chaos and not get overwhelmed. It is not ordered in any sort of obvious way which I believe helps me with improvising, and so maybe it helps me improvise.
The Importance Of Free Improvisation
Diego: It is an interesting point. The importance of the coherence between “form and content”.
Jakob: However you live your life is going to inform your music. It is going to make your music. It could be that there are a lot of people that want to make a certain type of music but because of the way they live they will never make that kind of music. They should be trying to make the music that their life is or live the life that is the music that they want to make. Sometimes I wonder how possible that is. People live in this divide. For some reason a lot of musicians don’t want to make their music. They want to make something else, like they want to make jazz, or they are trying to represent something that has already been done, or to simply be accepted. What I see is a lot of musicians don’t make the music that is their life.
Diego: Would you say this is one of the essential things that an improviser must know?
Jakob: Yes, I would think it is important and inevitable because if you were to improvise you would have to do that. It is just the way it is.
Diego: It is much more powerful when your life is in tune with whatever you are doing.
Jakob: Yes. It is the capacity to listen and to receive the vibrations that is so important because it creates coherence and understanding around what is happening. If you want to say anything musically with meaning and truth you have got to be listening deeply so that you know what you are responding to, whether you are giving a question or offering an answer. You just make the music of your life and listen, receive the vibrations as deeply, and then the music knows what to do because the organism is receiving information, but if you are not receiving openly, you can respond in any sort of real way?
Diego: This is not only for music but also for…
Jakob: …every fucking thing in life!
Diego: That’s why I feel that improvisation is necessary, at least for me, as a spiritual practice, to be constantly in touch with whatever is given in the moment, and being creative with the ways I have to respond to it.
Jakob: For real.
Diego: What would you say characterizes the music scene in the Bay Area?
Jakob: What I see in the experimental music scene in the Bay is a very strong intention on changing the injustices and idiocies of our current world. There is a will to change the absurdities and the criminality of the way things are in this world right now. I also see a very strong will towards fostering a human connection across wide divides. It is a beautiful thing to make music with people much older that you or to play with someone who might not seem to have obvious connections with you, but because there is this openness to improvise music here, a cross-cultural dialogue can happen in a very profound and beautiful way that allows for human community to form across wide divides.
It is there, but it’s also… it is not nearly there as much as one would wish, but it is trying to get there in a very real way and seeing it in the scene just reveals how absent it is in the common culture, like this honest communication with your fellows and when you’re seeing it to to happen in the music scene, you can see its importance and how lacking it is in the daily affairs of the status quo. So yeah, a push to transform the status quo and a push to create togetherness among humans. I see that. I have seen lots of beautiful things ,and with the beauty tragic things, so…
Diego: What do you think is the most relevant feature about making this kind of music?
Jakob: That it requires that you engage fully with the present moment. It calls for that, that you have to give the whole of yourself to the present moment. And why is that relevant? Because then you can get into timelessness, by something demanding or requiring that you to engage with the present moment you can glimpse realities that are timeless, and having a glimpse of things that are timeless teaches you how to live in the world of time.
Diego: Do you think that it is important for humanity?
Jakob: Yes. Yes I do.
Diego: I agree… That was the last question.
DunkelPek’s Soundcloud (With Nava Dunkelman)
El 3 (with Andrew Jamieson and Joshua Marshall)