Improvisation, both on the live stage and in the studio, isn’t as easy as it might seem. While it’s tempting to think that your band can just jump up, start jamming away, and produce pure gold – it’s not always that easy.
Sydney outfit Tangents, however, are a band that effortlessly toy with rhythm, melody and space, the constant improvisation and free-composition among the members one of the band’s distinguishing features. It brings a spontaneous energy not only to their live performances but also their recordings, with new album Stateless revelling in a similar process.
To learn more about the art of being a mostly-improvised band, we had a chat with Shoeb Ahmad, Evan Dorrian and Peter Hollo about their work, and how a band can can inject a bit more freedom into the sometimes-rigid structures of modern electronic music.
To witness their freeform style for yourself, you’ll be able to catch Tangents this Friday at Melbourne’s NGV as part of the new NGV Friday Nights series, with bands like Gold Class, Olympia, NO ZU and Amanda Palmer turning the National gallery of Victoria into one of the city’s best music venues each week.
How do you feel the principles of jazz and free composition can fit into modern music production and performance?
Peter: No doubt jazz and free composition are very much alive in contemporary times. There are also lots of artists merging these styles (including traditional composition) with electronic production – digital processing, electronic beats and so on.
Merging and mashing of genres is something we love to explore in Tangents, and something our audiences always respond to. But we’re just as likely to sound like math rock or drum’n’bass as glitchy free Debussy.
How much of your work is improvised, both when recording and when performing live? What makes improvisation so important to your work?
Evan: For the most part we are entirely improvised. When it comes to recording we have our producer wizard in Ollie Bown to cut things together and create compositions from the improvised source material.
Live we improvise entirely with the occasional framework that usually gets abandoned before long… Improvising is the best way for us to get to unexpected places – I also think it puts an energy into the music that can’t be brought out in any other way. (Evan Dorrian)
I read that you were hoping to teach yourselves to leave more space in the music. What made you come to this realisation, and is it something you feel you’ve been able to achieve?
Evan: Because there’s five of us we have to be conscious of leaving room for one another – both in terms of ideas and also sonically. For me, on the drums it’s a challenge to stay disciplined enough just to play one part of my kit for 10 minutes – which is what’s needed sometimes.
Because all the other members are playing rhythmically and there are electronic drums and samples coming from Ollie we often sound like one giant drummer – so I think leaving more space is about listening to the whole organism and staying conscious of the fact that individually we only need to do so much.
Is one of the harder parts of improvisation knowing when to hold back despite a free rein?
Evan: Yeah for sure, but also knowing when to really go for it. The most important thing and (probably the hardest) is being in the moment for the largest percentage of the time you can. If you are in the moment and listening then it’s kind of obvious and instinctual when to leave space or take the lead or just support. When all five of us are in that space the best stuff happens.
How did your processes have to change in the shift from a live recording on the first record to the more heavily-processed work on Stateless?
Peter: The first album is composed of studio edits from our first live performance, and the intention was to showcase the live improvisation. The second album does showcase our individual styles and musical connection, but was very much digitally constructed by Ollie. It’s about as far removed as you can get from the first, process-wise.
Even more interesting is where we’re going with the follow-up, with a massive day of studio improvisations are being pulled apart and re-constructed. Our live performances have been informed by the aesthetic of Stateless and that in turn has fed into our new album. The more hybridised the better!
How have you found the reception to the new record?
Shoeb: We have been privileged that the album has made its way into the listening paths and streams of more people than ever before – the first album was very much a glorious DIY process from start to finish. It’s unexpected that the people who have written about the album have been generous in their kind words and it goes to show that sticking to what you do best musically will always be the key.
Have you noticed bands like yourselves becoming more or less prevalent in the local scene since you started playing
Shoeb: As a group, I think we would have outliers 10 years ago as much as we are now because as it is, Tangents’ music really comes from the nexus of our individual creative aesthetics meeting the collective approach and it’s quite a dense thing to sift through. We’re in a unique space that, musically speaking, we choose to push and pull against each other and the energy is equally inspired by the complexities of jazz as it is by the pulsing metrics of techno.
Who are some local acts pushing boundaries?
Shoeb: I’ve been really excited by Melbourne groups Jaala and No Sister lately, both of whom are bringing great approaches to their skewed avant pop models, one rollicking along with feverish intensity and the other blistering in its wiry attack.
Peter: Talking Melbourne, Perth ex-pat Tilman Robinson produced a gorgeous album this year informed by icy Icelandic post-classical and some deep electronics, and the incredible Friendships dropped an album of grime, drum’n’bass and surprising ambient spoken-word that cuts hard. (Peter)
You’re about to perform with Tortoise, which seems ideal – what are your thoughts?
Shoeb: The thing that impresses me most about Tortoise is how they continue to shapeshift and reconfigure their sound to stay relevant with each album and not shy away from taking the music on the road, even though the records are wonders of the studio.
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t excited about seeing them live on stage – in fact, they were a band introduced to me by my first high school-era girlfriend and I first said hi to Peter after seeing at a Tortoise gig all the way back in 2005 so it really does go beyond the music for me!
With some pretty unique events having taken place there recently, what can we expect from your performance at NGV?
Peter: Tangents shows are never anything but unique… Stage theatrics are perhaps not our thing, but instrument swapping isn’t out of the question. There’ll be electronic beats in conversation with live drums, most likely glistening piano chords intertwined with cello melodies or basslines, almost certainly pulsating guitar figures and krautrocky rhythmic lock-in.
We’ll find out the same time as you – so it’s probably best you come along.