Improvising With the Instrument, Not Just On It – A Remembrance of Paul Bley (1932-2016)

In addition to being one of the titans of the free jazz movement, Paul Bley, in collaboration with his wife Carol Goss, was a pioneer of the music video. Carol Goss shares the story of how that collaboration began.

Written By

Carol Goss

[Ed. note: The Canadian-born, U.S.-based composer/pianist Paul Bley, who died at the age of 83 on January 3, 2016, was one of the titans of the free jazz movement and, together with his wife Carol Goss, was a pioneer of the music video. Their prodigious documentation of the work of many of the most important improvisers of the last half-century stands out, along with Bley’s own music making, as a pinnacle of his life’s work. Therefore it seemed fitting to ask Carol Goss to describe how their unique collaboration came to be, and she sent us the following excerpt from Driven to Abstraction, a book in process.—FJO]

Paul Bley and Carol Goss in 1974

Paul Bley and Carol Goss in 1974; photo courtesy Improvising Artists.

Paul Bley and I met January 1973 at his loft on Hudson Street in the West Village. We fell in love and began to travel together. In the winter of 1974, I arranged to bring him and his band, Scorpio, to my hometown of Miami to play at the Space Transit Planetarium for Jack Horkheimer’s show. He shipped the Arp synthesizer down and we recorded it. Right after we returned to New York City, his landlord set a fire in the hall of his building on Hudson Street. Paul managed to pull the Arp out through the back third-story window onto a garage roof. He arrived at my apt at 11 1/2 West 84th St. We put the Arp (which was fine) under the stairwell along with the molten keyboard. Paul then moved in with me.

Two months later, we moved to an apartment Paul had at 26 Jane Street. In the spring of 1974, I produced a concert and reading with Paul Bley and William S. Burroughs at Eisner and Lubin Auditorium at NYU. “Small” video cameras had just become available but were extremely expensive, so I went to Andy Warhol’s Factory on Union Square and tracked down Anton Perrich, who had a camera, and enticed him to record the event for us.

My background was in theater and art, so when I attended a screening of Nam June Paik’s work, I realized I was uniquely prepared for video art. After the screening, Nam June suggested I go to the Experimental Television Center (ETC), then in Binghamton, New York, where there was a Paik-Abe video synthesizer. Around the same time, Paul and I decided to create a company for recording music and video: Improvising Artists.

I began to do residencies at ETC with video synthesizers. I would create a piece in silence and then find a track of Paul’s music of the same length. In the case of “Rings/Lovers,” the music and abstract video were exactly the same length, but created independently of each other. When put together, they synched in an uncanny way, which led me to the realization that editing was counterproductive because everything synchs. “Rings/Lovers” was exhibited, along with “Topography/Please,” at the Everson Museum’s 1976

“New Work in Abstract Video” show. “Topography” was created on the Paik-Abe video synthesizer. The music is as yet an unreleased recording of Paul’s, “Please,” from an electric session with Bill Connors.

I made a number of analog video synthesis projects this way. Then I began renting cameras and recording concerts and studio sessions. I would take the video from these recordings to ETC where I could alter the parameters of the color and contrast, key in images, distort the image with oscillators and feedback. Because everything was analog, it was all done in real time. There was no rendering.

In a few cases, we were able to bring video synthesizers to concerts and improvise with the musicians, who could see the video output on screens—San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall (Bill Hearn, video synthesizer), Axis-in-Soho in New York (David Jones, video colorizer), Gunter Hampel/Marion Brown IAI recording session at Blue Rock Studios (Dan Sandeen, video synthesizer), etc. In 1979 I received a grant to make the first hologram of a raster scanned video image (Rutt Etra, video synthesizer). “Femophagy” was an integral white light hologram which displayed movement horizontally. It was exhibited at the Museum of Holography’s “Through the Looking Glass” show that year.

Paul had pioneered audio synthesis in the 1960s with the Moog and Arp in live performance, so it was a natural progression for me to continue this process of exploration in the visual realm. The fact that it was all analog made it fluid and intuitive. Analog electricity encompasses randomness and accidents. There is an interplay, a tension, between the artist and the instrument. It is truly possible to improvise with the instrument, not just “on” it.

In 1984, Paul sold his Arp synthesizer for $500 to Ralph Hocking, co-founder with Sherry Miller of ETC, so I could buy my first digital video synthesizer, the Amiga 500, thus beginning the next chapter and creation of the Not Still Art Festival, a forum for abstract and non-narrative video artists.

Paul Bley and Carol Goss standing together.

Paul Bley and Carol Goss in 1992. Photo by Jim Kosinski, courtesy Improvising Artists.