Philip Gibbs interview
by Paul Dunmall

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Q: How did you get started ?

A: I started playing guitar at age 13, no formal musical education, my brother-in-law was already a good player and gave me lessons, and from the start I was pretty obsessed, practised incessantly and before long we were working things out together and playing as a duo. At that time I was into blues/rock….Cream, Sabbath, Zeppelin,Deep Purple and of course Hendrix. I would slow speed the records and gradually work out the riffs, licks and phrases. Then I heard the Mahavishnu Orchestra and…John Mclaughlin. I was both amazed and disturbed, I couldn’t work out what was going on musically at all…..but gradually I started to grasp it. I also tried to get any information I could, interviews with Mclaughlin especially were very revealing and it was through that, I began to listen to Coltrane, Miles etc. I worked back, listening to jazz guitar players, Jack Wilkins, Jim Hall, Pat Martino, Kenny Burrell, Barney Kessel, Tal Farlow, Jimmy Raney, Wes, Django, Charlie Christian……trying to work out (not always with much success!) what they were doing and how it had developed and connected with the playing I loved most…..Mclaughlin. I would also just study anything that included a guitar…….I loved funk/soul rhythm playing, folk, flamenco……anything with a guitar, I‘m a guitar nut!

Q: And you were playing in bands?

A: Yes, in school at first, then afterwards in various bands…..rock, soul and jazz and fusion groups, Bristol had a very fertile jazz scene in the 70’s/80’s and I was lucky enough to know (the late Tenor Sax player) Jerry Underwood very well and played with him in several bands one of which also included Andy Sheppard. It was around 79/80 that I first heard Paul Dunmall play, and a little later Paul Rogers, both of whom had a huge effect on me……to this day they are still musical gods, They represent the ‘Everest’ of instrumental accomplishment. Through the late 80’s I began to get very interested in classical music and…. composition. Classical guitar had mostly seemed a bit boring to me but one day I heard a piece by the great Russian guitarist/composer Nikita Koshkin on the radio, and was totally amazed by what was going on. At about the same time I also heard some piano music by Sorabji and again was utterly demolished! Thus began an intense, renewed study, particularly of contemporary classical music. I was so inspired by Sorabji’s work that I completely immersed myself in it and consequently eschewed improvisation for several years. In 1991, inspired by these recent studies I composed two lengthy pieces for solo guitar, which I recorded and released on CD (20th Century Malady) the following year. One piece was played entirely with both hands on the fretboard, utilising a tapping technique I had developed in order to better facilitate the larger two-part, independent register playing and intervallic leaps I was after. Harmonically it opened several doors for me. I then adapted the technique to include microtonal playing and later, prepared guitar sounds, all of which I now utilise in my free improv playing.

Q: So have you now reconciled your free improvising, and compositional style?

A: Yes, for my own purposes I have squared the circle. For me, improvisation is NOT spontaneous composition…..it is however, the spontaneous generation of music and indeed, a way of producing the raw material required for composition. Composition is not an instinctive reflex, it requires a thought process, it employs what musical brains the composer has to transform and develop over a period of time, his existing raw material, it has the advantage of ensuring there are no weaknesses in the finished article (notwithstanding performance vicissitudes) at least in as far as the composer is willing to take pains to FULLY satisfy himself. It (for me anyway) necessitates form, and the perfection of that form, in order to best facilitate the artist’s expression. That form doesn’t just ‘happen’. It comes into being after much craft, practise and study in the artists musical foundry…….it develops in answer to an individuals OWN particular call, impetus, compulsion or inner urge, (hence, the holiest of holies an ‘original voice’) until eventually it resolves and satisfies, something deep within the artist. This is the same satisfaction I can get to, in the course of an improvisation, the working out and development of musical ideas, lines of thought, previously experimented with in the practise room or in performance, formulate the personal ‘original’ language available to, and utilised by, the player in the course of an improvisation. The musical result is necessarily more haphazard or ‘hazardous’ because it is reliant upon the providence of so many factors, its success is placed entirely in the performance and therefore of the moment, which may be creative and inspirational, or may not. An improvisation will often (at least for a mortal like myself) include repetition, imitation of self or others……on a bad day it could be completely devoid of anything creative ie. new. Now in one sense it is true that there is nothing ‘new’ under the sun anyway, but on a good day, there are ‘new’ juxtapositions and transformations of material, new ways of presenting old ideas, to give a fresh perspective and produce something ‘new’ in the whole effect of the work. I’m convinced improvisation facilitates a way of getting to things you would not be able to get to in any other way, this is especially true when playing with people you have a great rapport with. That’s what is so exciting about improvising…..you don’t know what is going to happen next, but you have trust, faith, a belief that something wonderful will happen and you share that with an audience and/or your colleagues. With composition the thrill happens in the study, first some discovery, invention…….then gradually developing the ideas, refining them until the whole thing is completely nailed and ready for performance at a later date, it’s a different process but equally satisfies a creative need.

Q: You mention craft, and I know you are an advocate of ‘mastering your instrument’. What do you think about artists making music at the ‘flick of a switch’ or by a chance noise making device etc.?

A: Well…….of course its each to his own, I can only speak for myself! It is the way I have chosen…….but there are many path’s to god! From experience, I can say that my own concern with achieving some kind of control over the instrument, has opened certain doors……the guitar has been my own particular ‘Open Sesame’. The discipline, work ethic required is proportional to the love and desire I have, to more readily access the creative spirit, and greater technique enables a more sustained, controlled intensity. The more work I put in, the more successfully and subtly the instrument yields to that expression. It represents in essence ‘my search’ seeking the infinite, a constant impulse and effort of self-exceeding, a greater self-becoming, expressing more and more from the inner worlds, to the point where you are the music…..you manifest the divine, if only for a split second……..an ecstatic moment, a forgetting of the unreal, and a revealing of the true self (the holy grail). For me this ‘self-revelation’ is the purpose of art. Also the craft element is important to me…..music making implies the engagement with, to some degree at least, the use of musical elements ie. rhythm, melodic line, harmony, counterpoint etc. not necessarily all or any at the same time! A series of ‘gestures’ or a yard of silence broken with a ‘strain’, as representing the totality of the work, doesn’t do much for me, generally speaking. Nor does a random generation of notes/sounds, nor any other trick-of- the-trade, which effectively bypasses the artist.….artful dodgers! What I’m interested in, is hearing the creative expression of the spirit, with all the energy, power, emotion, vision, courage, passion and ideas..…..an individual’s unique perspective and the technique with which they communicate it……endeavour is inevitably the agency for that. But ultimately music is in the mind of the beholder! I’m sure there are many ways of producing a masterpiece, though whether it can be done with a minimum of effort or action, (not necessarily in the work itself of course, but specifically in finding a personal voice, and what to say with it) by following the path of least resistance, getting something from nothing……..I seriously doubt. A supremely gifted, supernatural talent may be creative from birth granted, but that being is after all, a very rare, splendid and exceptional thing. So I believe for most of us, the creative joy is manifest through the labour of love…… the great adventure.

Motive, is of prime concern in the creative act. It ruthlessly and fatally casts the work, and ultimately it is this that distinguishes noise from sound from music……the intention of the artist will always permeate his creation.

Q: But isn’t there a large degree of ‘chance’ in the freedom of a group improvisation?

A: Yes of course. But that is a starting point, not the end in itself. Raw material is constantly thrown up for development. Potentially it can be chaotic, but not if the performers are focused, have a life or death commitment to the work, concentrating, listening……and above all, disciplined. This may seem to contradict the notion of freedom, but individual self-indulgence is merely a tyranny and has to be transcended.

Q: You are in the realms of misty’cism here aren’t you?

A: Well if you are talking about a spiritual aspect to music then yes! For me, at its best, it is a sacred act. A communion with my ‘higher self’…….a communication with, and ‘grounding’ of spirit in matter, or the physical world.

Q: Does this happen often, or does it depend on the medication you…..

A: Ha…ha. No it doesn’t happen very often, but once tasted you never forget it, and you are bound to seek more…….cursed by the hounds of heaven!

Q: But how do you know what is a good improvisation? Because it feels good at the time or it sounds good when you listen to it later, or in 10yrs time?

A: For me, its not a question of good or bad, but whether it satisfies/fulfils you or not and only you can be the judge of that as performer or listener, at the time of hearing it, or indeed in 10yrs time……..actually I do believe every work of art has stamped through it, a greater or lesser ‘power of revelation’ which can be tapped into by anyone. But that ‘tapping into’ may or may not be achieved, (or to varying degrees per each and every individual) as reaching/discovering ‘that power of revelation’ also can require a lifetime of effort. That power, instilled consciously or not by the creator, must in some way be determined by his talent/skill/effort/motive.

Q: If you say, got a chimpanzee, and stuck some sweets on to your guitar strings, would the chimps efforts to remove the sweets end up sounding like some free improvised music, and would you be able to tell if this is real music or not? Because music is sound, after all.

A: Yes I’m sure the chimp’s efforts would sound like some free improvised music, and that music would contain the creators (in this case the chimp) stamp. For some listeners the result would be perfectly satisfying and for others not. I think any ‘musical’ events in this case would be accidental (and all the more apparent as the piece progressed) and as such, it would be divorced from the higher aspect of creative consciousness I have alluded to earlier. Whether anyone could tell or not isn’t necessarily the point (unless they are writing a review!) its whether or not it quenches your particular thirst. Having said that, if large expanses of my work could easily be confused with that of a chimp’s, I would seriously reconsider my options! For me music is ‘made up’ of sound, it is in a sense sound PLUS craft…..hence the ‘art’ of music. It’s a subtle difference.

Q: Are there any do’s and don’ts in free improvisation?

A: I think the only do’s and don’ts are pretty much determined by the artists aim/intentions and/or his own limitations.

Q: What are limitations and how do you get beyond them?

A: Well to begin with, sheer physical limitations…..facility etc. but mainly that of the imagination, mental outlook, and the psychology of the artist, which is a huge subject of its own. Getting beyond them is a matter of desire, will and perseverance, and a healthy tendency towards boredom with the ‘familiar’.

Q: Does this free improvisation music have any benefits for society?

A: I think it can have both positive and negative effects on society, like all art, but it is very hard to quantify. But at the basic human level, if someone can come away from a performance having been moved in some positive way, then that can only be of benefit to that persons environment, and to society as a whole.

Q: Improvised music has embraced ethnic music, and has dispersed harmony and rhythm…..gone into complete abstraction. Where is there left to go, and what of the musicians of the future? Can they find even more abstractions?

A: If only I knew the answer to that……….historically artists have always found new ways of expression. Each time a particular style is perfected, a cul-de-sac is reached, it is in creative terms ‘dead’, then some artist comes along, who is intensely dissatisfied with what to him is now overly familiar and through much searching, fashions a new door and revitalises the music with his fresh perspective……..technology obviously has played a huge part and will continue to do so, broadening the palette all the more. Also pretty much all world music can now be assimilated by anyone who cares to take the trouble, and this has certainly had an effect. Art like life tends to go in cycles, up the helical staircase, things come back around in a revitalised form, so perhaps artists will soon begin to mix abstraction with form to a much greater extent. There is already a slow but growing ‘meeting of minds’ between contemporary classical musicians and improvising musicians and this I believe, will prove to be very fertile ground.

Q: How is music affected by the ‘state of mind ‘ you go into it with?

A: The state of mind determines everything. Everything is in your mind! All options/choices/reactions are affected by thought……the thousands of bias, prejudice, limitations, imagined or otherwise. In that sense we operate for the most part ‘in the past’. All thought IS the past. But at the very point of creation, you are free of thought and therefore the past. You can’t possibly think AND create at the same time. To create is to bring in the ‘new’, and thought is of the past (old). You are in the moment…..outside of time and therefore the ‘unreal’. Exactly how you get the mind to that state, is a mystery…….but I believe it is in some way inextricably linked to dedication, rather like the lamas and saints who spend a lifetime in meditation and contemplation in order to glimpse enlightenment.

Q: What makes a great musician?

A: Well……..what makes a great chimpanzee? It’s a moot point. Hendrix and Coltrane were ‘for me’, great musicians…..Mclaughlin and Zakir are. They have in common the power to resonate something deep within me, to inspire and uplift…..above all to communicate something from the beyond, and indeed beyond what could be described in words. For someone else though it could be some one who gets through a lot of session work!

Q: You don’t make your living from music though?

A: No I don’t. I’m an amateur in the best sense of the word. Not having to equate music making, with making money, has had the singular advantage of allowing me to only play the music that I absolutely want to play. This is important when considering what I believe regarding the importance of motivation and the creative act. A professional musician may come in and do a good or indifferent job, get paid, and go home, rather like a plumber would, but an artist constantly aspires to the highest ideal…..they may not necessarily be one and the same thing.

Q: What do you think about critics?

A: Well, I agree with what the critic Ernest Newman said many years ago ‘most critics tell us far more about themselves than the music they write about.’ The worst culprits are as dangerous as they are moonstruck….out of their depth, they reveal only too cruelly, how little they know, not only about the particular piece being reviewed, but sadly about music in general. What a bizarre fix it all is………to have your hard won creation tried (and sometimes hung-drawn-and-quartered) by some executioner who has probably listened to the work only once or twice, and has little idea of what you were aiming to achieve in the first place, let alone to what degree you were successful at it or not. And to be honest how could he know? By what authority does he cast the final judgement, and hoodwink the CD buying public? Is he a great artist/musician himself?….does he have an intimate knowledge of the artist/material he is reviewing? He must have studied the type of music he is reviewing for many years in order to have acquired the perspicacity to be able to ‘lay bare’ the inner nature of the work. And if there is a weakness or flaw, how often do we read a critic who can put his ‘finger precisely’ on the problem. A keen interest is hardly enough…..I may have a keen interest in medicine, read about it for years, watch all the programs etc .but if you suffered from chronic headaches you would probably consult a GP for his opinion about a diagnosis, rather than ask me…..and quite right too! Having said all that, there are of course many exceptions to the rule…..and they all know who they are!! A constant nuisance though, is the predilection of writers (who in theory, should know better) to hail mediocrities as the ‘new messiah.’ One by one they are pronounced, much to the detriment of the true prophets who naturally enough go unrecognised.

Q: Would you like to ‘name’ names?

A: Ha.ha…….well not the mediocrities obviously! But for example……..Tony Marsh, Neil Metcalfe and John Adams to name but three, outstanding figures of our time……artists of the very first rank, and yet how often do we read/hear anything about them………Marsh has had a long career and yet has had little if any recognition from the ‘establishment’ throughout that time……..its absolutely scandalous he’s one of the all time greats, and there are others who suffer the same fate……their anonymity is a shameful indictment of the state of musical/artistic appreciation/journalism/criticism, in this country. Of course in another sense that’s all irrelevant. The true artistic ideal is a lofty one, and free of the shackles of fame and material rewards…….the act of creation is the ultimate fulfilment and blessing……and the creative life is truly a quest of faith.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: Well……..I have some exciting recording projects lined up with Paul Dunmall. And I have recently recorded a CD with the group Present Tense, together with the ‘legendry’ keyboard player John Serry, and the legend that is Dunmall. Also in the near future I would like to compose and record a large work for ‘several guitars,’ which will also include improvised parts.

Q: Name your 10 desert island discs.

A: In no particular order…..

Shakti – Handful of Beauty
John Coltrane – Expression
Jimi Hendrix – Best of
Sorabji – Opus Clavicembalisticum
J.S.Bach – Mass in Bminor
Beethoven – Late Quartets
Paul Dunmall – Solo Bagpipes 3
John Mclaughlin – Live at Montreux
Cream – Best of
Dunmall/Rogers/Gibbs - Nimes

Q: If Mclaughlin and Hendrix were playing their farewell concert on the same night, which one would you go to……or would you stay at home and watch the telly?

A: Bastard!! That is the impossible question, there are only wrong answers to that one!!

Paul Dunmall (July 2004)

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