Improvising in Edinburgh #1

I showed up one rainy evening in March 2013 to a closed building in Nicholson Square, Edinburgh.

I’d brought with me what I thought would be the most useful gear I had: a Roland MicroCube, basically a practice amplifier small enough to fit into a shoulder bag; a multi-effects pedal, and a 2002 vintage Fender Standard Telecaster, Mexico-made.

I arrived at 7.15pm, 45 minutes early, giving me plenty of time to sit outside and brood about what I was doing and wonder if I’d get let in at all. About ten minutes later, two men about my age (but looking, to me, far older and more experienced) came out and one of them paused and looked at me for a moment.

‘Are you . . .’ he said.

‘I’m here for a rehearsal,’ I said.

‘You’re here for the Edimpro?’

‘Yeah.’

‘That’s why we’re here,’ he said. ‘We’re the only ones here. We’re actually just going for a pint. You wanna come?’

‘Uh, sure,’ I said, pleased by being invited but uneasy in that I didn’t want to drink anything in case it messed me up as a musician. (Amateur!)

As we walked to a pub around the corner and made polite chat, this came to seem like a good idea. I had spent my entire working day typing data about Scottish food producers into a computer. The other two guys had spent their entire working day making music of one kind or another. They were, well and truly, played in, in a way that I wasn’t.

There were two of them; I barely caught their names at the time, but I now know that they were Peter Furniss and Owen Green. Peter had short hair, stubble, a rather red face, and the manner of someone who was by nature quite shy but also friendly, and keen to make a new person at ease. Owen seemed more inclined to say whatever was on his mind without bothering to gauge whether or not I might find it off-putting. We went to a pub and they each had a pint; I accepted the offer of a drink but just had a Diet Coke, being nervous.

After about 40 minutes, we went back to the building and they let me in. We went up various flights of stairs to a lecture room which had the guts of a piano leaning against one wall. As I plugged in my gear, Owen began to set up his computer and he remarked casually ‘You might as well start.’

Peter had a clarinet and after a few adjustments he put it in his mouth and began to play. What struck me was how enormously powerful and assertive his tone was. I had decided in advance of my first ever rehearsal to play very quietly, so as not to come across like an incompetent jerkass. It had not occurred to me that to play so quietly that you can’t be heard was itself a kind of incompetence. I found myself playing very much in support of Peter’s playing rather than in any attempt to challenge him, especially as he was obviously a very, very good player in a way that I’m not, but after a few minutes of this I saw Owen making a gesture at me, which I (it turned out, correctly) interpreted to mean ‘Turn yourself up’. I was playing so quietly that even I could barely hear myself; the others couldn’t really hear me at all. Accordingly, I turned up a bit.

One of the things that I soon found was that my Zoom multi-FX pedal was not the pedal for this kind of situation. The way that I had decided to play, and the ways that Peter and Owen seemed to want to play, demanded split-second reflexes, and by the time I’d reprogrammed the Zoom to produce the tone I wanted, the moment had gone. I realised that for all its programmability, you’ve got to figure out in advance what you want because its natural state is to accept preset X or preset Y, not to be redialled on the fly. Nevertheless, we played some things and, no matter how tentative or uncertain or unsatisfying I may have been for them to play with, I found it an enormously challenging and satisfying playing experience. That it had been one of my only playing experiences with anyone else in years probably had something to do with that.

We finished a little after 9pm and we chatted, and I mumbled something about how nervous I’d been but that I’d really enjoyed it, and Peter and Owen each made encouraging noises and told me that I should come again, which is how I got even peripherally involved with the improvised music scene in Edinburgh. Since then I’ve only actually made it to six or seven rehearsals and played one concert with the group, but each time it’s been a learning curve. The group has never been as small as it was that first time — there are usually at least eight or nine people there, arguably too many for completely unstructured playing — but it remains one of the most rewarding and fascinating activities of my life.

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Improvising in Edinburgh #1

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