When I’m asked to give some blurb about myself and my work, I generally include something like ‘design and making are simultaneous’. What does that mean, and why do I work that way?
For some people, the word improvisation just means ‘fudging it’. That’s not what it means at all.
JS Bach often left room for improvisation in his work – this meant to make variations in the music in the same style as if he had written them out. In a more general sense, one could say that much of ‘classical’ music is a kind of formal improvisation in the mind of the composer, written down in a form that can be reproduced again and again. In Jazz, improvisation on a particular theme might be based on chord progressions or modes. Either of these requires considerable musical knowledge and skill.
There is also ‘free improvisation’, and ‘free jazz’. This is not tied to any kind of musical theory, and any kind of sounds, or silence, maybe part of a performance which has no prior planning. Even then, any performer who often takes part in free improvisation, alone or in public, is inevitably developing a range of sounds/sonorities which arise from the way of using an instrument, often beyond its normal musical range – it’s impossible to be completely free of that – so one can often recognise the performer by the instrument and the range of sounds, even in free improvisation.
Why play that way at all? Saxophonist Evan Parker made a recording of two pieces of continuous playing using circular breathing, called ‘the snake decides’ – the ‘snake’ in this case being the energy of the player and the energy of those moments in time. That is truly free spontaneous improvisation.
In what he’s doing, composition and performance are simultaneous – at least the speed of conscious and subconscious decision making on what sound is produced at any moment, is beyond measurement. It is ‘spontaneous’ in the sense of being performed without prior planning. It means in effect that rehearsal and performance are essentially the same. In the moments before starting a performance, there is no thought, ‘I’ll start by doing this, and then see how it develops’ – instead there is something more like a focussed wiping the slate clean, a pause, and then a commencement.
I can remember very clearly what happened when I went to my school pottery workshop for the first time, and started to make a coil pot with basic instruction from my friend who took me there – I made a base, added coils, first going outwards, then adding the coils inwards, and then outwards again, and suddenly I had a classic pot shape – it seemed the natural thing to do it that way. Only then did the teacher discover me, and showed me how to make handles to complete that classic form. Inadvertently, my very first pot was the product of spontaneous improvisation.
Then I as I continued making pots, I made concrete decisions to test my skill – in making a tall cylinder, a sphere, a four sided pot, a six sided pot, and so on – but having set off with a goal in mind, the decision when to change direction was never planned in advance. It would become apparent as the pot grew, at what point to change direction inward, outward, or vertically – and in effect I found myself observing the relationship between the diameter of the base, with the maximum girth, the diameter of the neck (if there was to be one), and the diameter of the rim. Sometimes I could visualise the form that the pot would take, but even then the limitations of the clay or my skill in making, could make a different outcome, maybe even in some sense a more satisfying outcome than I had seen in my mind’s eye.
Even now, 50 years later, perhaps it is not really true to say that for me, ‘design and making are simultaneous’, it is perhaps better to say that they are ‘very closely contiguous’. There is a constant to and fro between the physical act of manipulating the clay, and evaluating the shape and direction of the piece. This process is also in some way informed by every pot I ever made before, as much in the memory physically stored in the hands and arms as in a mental image. At the very start, there are decisions made about the type of clay, shape and size of the base, and there can be some inner dialogue ‘today I want to make a large piece’ or ‘I want to make a group of smaller pots’. Also over the years I have developed a vocabulary of forms, recurring themes, but these are not particularly overtly conscious – rather, may (or may not) be simply referred to as a point of departure. They are not precise variations on a theme in the manner of Bach, but closer to the free jazz styles which begin with a theme, then treat it to the point of disappearance – or begin in chaos out of which something emerges …
Things I do not do, which are conventionally required, or at least recommended, include: not drawing an anticipated or required result; not drawing; not taking commissions, again where some desired specific result is required; not pre designing in any way other than as imagined in non-binding visualisation or dreaming. I recently learnt that, in a period of time when Barbara Hepworth was taken up with care of babies and toddlers, she did a great deal of what could be called ‘sculptural drawings’ - that is drawings of three dimensional objects – but these she considered not as preparations for future sculptures, but works in their own right, the nearest that she could come to making sculptures during that period of time. I don’t even do that.
Twice in my life I’ve had to set out to copy one of my own pots - either to replace someone’s favourite that was broken, or once when the same piece was sold twice at a single event – so it is possible for me to do that! But it does not come naturally to me! (Also at school I did a project to make a precise copy of a bronze age collared urn in Devizes Museum – I was given access, did take measurements at key points and was asked to make a template to refer during making – but I did not use it – still it was found to be an accurate copy.)
Taking this, pictured, recently made (as yet unglazed) pot as an example; I began with a thought, to begin with two separate bases which would be joined further in the making process – this I have done before over the years. While pinching the first base and first 4 inches of height out of a single lump of clay, I decided that one side would be more vertical (to adjoin the second piece) and one more flaring – so then the second piece developed in a similar way. Each was on its own 5 inch tile, so then I placed them in relation to each other on a board, and it felt good to place them in a spreading stance, adding a coil to each before bridging between the two, as the outward flare developed in its own way on each side. If I want to move straight ahead, I use an electric heat gun (replacing the gas blow torch I used to use), to give enough stability and strength to the lower part, which is quite thin, compressed by pinching. Observing the direction, allowing one side to flare more than the other in a balanced assymetricality. (Otherwise, I may leave the pot to sit and firm naturally, putting plastic on the rims to keep the rim soft - so always joining soft to soft, no slip or water needed - and returning some time later, something different may develop). Reaching 10 inches in height, it becomes clear that this piece will reach the full height and width of the kiln (a physical restraint which I must needs respect). Becoming familiar with amount of shrinkage of a particular clay, it means one can tell how much bigger the green pot can be, yet still fit the kiln when dry. It sounds very prosaic, but the height at which the full diameter of the kiln is reached, predicates the steepness or shallowness of an inward curve, and thus to some extent also the size or even existence of a neck and the final aperture. These all exist as constraints, which one can perceive as assets to the creative process, as is the size of the canvas to a painter or the size of a block of stone to a sculptor. I have no wheel of any sort, only a high stool, a low stool, and a table on which to work at a comfortable height for each stage of making. On the stools, the pot is static while I move around it to see from every direction, paying attention to the form and line from every point of view. So to making and designing, one can add ‘evaluating’ – which means opening oneself and considering one’s response to the shape as it develops, to the lines, masses and space which are arising, so that at any point one can introduce edges, contours, indentations, by pinching, stroking, striking, persuading, the soft clay.
In this way a pot is born, a partnership between clay and maker.
That is the making, there is also glazing – that is a topic for another day!