One Thing Follows Another

More information on Evan Parker’s LP ‘Vaincu.Va! Live at Western Front 1978′ can be found HERE.

By Alex Varty

The first impulse, on revisiting this extraordinary concert from 1978, is to hear the music in terms of natural phenomena. It does not take a great intuitive leap to describe Evan Parker’s roaring, squealing, frothing, grinding soprano saxophone as a kind of braided river, brimming with mesmerizing channels and currents. Nor is it entirely wrong to compare Parker’s song to that of the less melodious birds. There are moments here that bear remarkable timbral resemblance to the alarmed honking of the Arctic snow geese that winter on the Fraser River delta, just a few kilometres south of the Western Front.

On closer inspection, however, this music can’t be seen as anything other than linguistic, and thus deeply human. In fact, Vaincu.Va! is a key document in Parker’s development of a unique saxophone syntax. In the ensuing years his approach has been influential, and not only on reed players. Nonetheless it remains his singular discovery—and this recording catches, in exquisitely detailed depth, a high point in that language’s early development.

As of 1978, Parker had been working without accompaniment for about four years. Saxophone Solos, from 1975, documented his first solo recital, and the bones of Vaincu.Va! were already present. But when this later album was recorded, he was at the end of a 29-city North American tour, and at a creative peak.

That’s clearly audible in this recording.

In the greater sense, Parker’s musical journey really began in 1962, on a visit to New York City that included hearing a concert by the Cecil Taylor Trio. Something of the legendary pianist’s penchant for long, unbroken improvised phrases is still evident in 1978 but, as Parker tells it in 2013, his solo style derives far more from his thorough investigation of the soprano saxophone as physical object.

“Having some control over the circular-breathing technique opens up other things to do with cyclic phrasing and looped patterns,” he explains, referring to the process of simultaneous inhaling and exhaling that allows for the creation of continuous sound. “One thing follows the other. And then because you hear the music emerging from the technique, the technique is solidified, and then new techniques emerge, or new musical possibilities emerge, one after the other.”

On a more theoretical level, Parker was also intrigued by the process-based and tape-recorder-enhanced explorations of Steve Reich and others, and by such early minimalists’ “openness to not being fixed to any music system as such”. Parker stresses that his process, though, allows for and encourages improvisation.

“There was a little exchange of views in the early days of Steve Reich, I guess when he was first coming to be known,” he says. “The tape pieces, which I still find to be among the most interesting part of his oeuvre, were very much concerned with the same kinds of slow development. And in fact he wrote a piece about it called Music as a Gradual Process, and I slightly objected to his commandeering the concept of process as referring only to processes which were fixed in advance—processes which were, let’s say, rigidly predetermined. I thought there were also processes which could be subject to modification in the course of their realization.”

Some of the extraordinary sounds he achieves here are again rooted in the physical facts of air being blown through a tube. “Those bends and quarter-tones will emerge naturally from the separation between the left and the right hand,” he explains. “You have keys in the left hand that are opening while keys in the right hand are closing; that automatically produces bends and quarter-tone inflections.”

Parker’s ability to vary these effects—to make aesthetically gratifying music through modifying the process, as it were—is also a function of the performer’s psychological state. The idea that his music derives from some kind of trance state is one that he dismisses: “I don’t hyperventilate,” he says, “and I don’t really go into those kind of states.” Part of his practice, however, does involve stepping back from judgment and control. In performance, the “rational and analytic” mind fades away, allowing the “intuitive and holistic” to take over.

“I think there is something that happens on a good night, when I sort of leave the analytic behind and start to deal with the whole story,” he contends. “That might have some kind of correspondence with an altered brain state, or an altered consciousness state. It’s certainly an altered brain state in relation to the brain as a control mechanism.”

In performance, does his perception of time slow down enough to give him greater control over his sonic effects?

“Time doesn’t really exist any more, until the switch comes and says ‘You’ve done it.’ And then something switches you off,” he says, laughing. “And it’s usually about the time that you said you would play. It’s like a light switch: it’s on until it’s off.”

Curiously, on this recording—as well as on the long-out-of-print Beak Doctor release At the Finger Palace, cut in Berkeley the night before the Vancouver performance—that switch was triggered at around the 40-minute mark. Parker isn’t sure why that makes for just enough music to fit comfortably on two sides of an LP, but he does suggest that duration was one of his primary concerns during his 1978 concert tour.

“Nowadays, I’m a little bit more user-friendly, I would say,” he adds. “I wasn’t that concerned with user-friendliness back then.”

This listener begs to differ, though. If being friendly to users means taking them on a thrilling and sustained journey of adventure, opening their eyes to the mutability of sound, and startling them with the seemingly impossible, Evan Parker’s 1978 self has nothing to apologize for. In this era of sound bites, sampling, and digitally degraded audio, Vancu.Va! is nothing less than a luxury.


Alexander Varty, 2013

Alexander Varty is a Vancouver-based musician, arts journalist, and former Western Front music curator. He was in the audience when Vaincu.Va! was recorded, and remains amazed.