This post is courtesy of Birmingham-based bass player and improviser Chris Mapp. In it he describes two performances: a real gig that took place at Centrala, and an imagined gig that happened in a dream. In recounting these gigs, Chris meditates on the nature of events in musical performance, how we remember them, how we control them, and the value of taking a back seat.
My dream gig
by Chris Mapp
I haven’t written about playing for a while. Partly because I haven’t been doing much playing and partly because, like the act of playing itself, there are long stretches where I just don’t want to do it. Any writing I’ve done recently has been purely functional: emails, applications, lists, reminders and the like. My last gig was a month or so ago in July 2022, playing solo and then in a trio. It was a lovely experience, working with great musicians performing to an appreciative and attentive audience. However, nothing at the time sparked an urge in me to write about it and I had barely given it another thought until this morning. Last night I dreamt that I played a solo gig to what appeared, in the dream at least, to be a very real audience. This wasn’t a moment in a longer dream, or an anxiety driven nightmare about performing, but a near-complete event that I experienced through dreaming. One of those dreams that feels like it’s actually happening, even though you know you will soon wake up. And when you do wake up, you can recall the details just as vividly for a few moments more as they merge into conscious thought.
The dream began abruptly and with a sense that things had already begun. I was sitting in a room with a small audience, holding a bass guitar plugged into a small delay pedal on the floor in front of me. The pedal resembled one I own, a Boss DD-7, although it was a little out of focus to my eyes. I didn’t recognise the bass. A larger, more populated pedalboard was pushed under a table behind me and just out of reach. I had apparently set it up with the intention of using it, but not at this moment. I was talking to the audience about how I wanted to use the pedal in front of me to create infinite, evolving loops; something I’ve attempted to achieve outside of dreams too.
After my last non-dream solo performance I was chatting to some of the people who had stayed behind, most of whom I knew or had talked to in the past in similar situations. I had played first, followed by a duo between Petra Haller and Mark Sanders. Finally, all three of us played together in a trio. Most of the conversations were about the integration between the dance (Petra) and the music (Mark and me). A couple of people wanted to talk about what I had just played in my solo set although my memories of it were already feeling ungraspable. I could recall some of the details but not all. A sense of the general shape of the performance and some of the things I had played were still floating around my head but much of it had become inaccessible through my adrenal comedown.
It was clear that the performance hadn’t yet started, even though the event had begun. When I decided to start performing I put the bass down and instead turned to a mechanical type-writer-like device to my left. It was a large, black object with rows of keys that required decisive force in order to operate them. A firm press on each button seemed to reveal their purpose as capturing and triggering a series of loops. The sound source for these loops remained ambiguous although I had a sense that I was generating the sounds in real time, but not through any extra physical effort, only thought. The sounds were not unlike those I associate with the solo bass performances from my past. There was also one large lever which seemed to control multiple parameters instinctively and as I needed them: pitch, loop length, reverb decay time and more.
Someone remarked that they felt my performance had been “different” from when they had seen me play solo before. I knew this person well enough to know that they didn’t simply mean that the individual notes and sounds were different, but that they were referring to something less identifiable: my approach, something about the overall direction or a feeling that it gave them. Obviously, I knew I’d just played a gig but I was still struggling to remember the details and formulate an intelligent reply. “I think I might have played less” was the best I could muster.
I was able to shape the performance as I might when I am awake and I had a real sense of coherency and duration. At that moment I felt totally immersed in the music remembering every detail until I decided to stop playing and the sounds disappeared almost instantly. It seemed to go down well with the audience who gave a short but vigorous round of applause. As I began the transition back to consciousness, one of the audience members started to ask me a technical question about the neglected pedalboard left behind me under the table. This often happens after gigs. Lying in bed in the moments after, I experienced a very familiar and very real sense of having just played a gig; something I’ve known hundreds of times before.
Not long before my non-dream gig I’d been facilitating one of an ongoing series of music workshops with a group of young people. One of the staff members from the place where the workshops take place hadn’t been to the sessions for a few weeks and was returning that evening. The progress the young people had made in that time was fantastic, going from effectively singing karaoke to writing, recording and performing their own material. “I can’t believe it” the staff member said “what the young people are doing is fantastic and you’re not really doing anything at all!” They meant it as a compliment. Music facilitation is most often successful when you are able to take a back seat and respond to the needs of the session and the participants, which can seem like you are doing very little. The comment made me laugh but also made me think about the implications of “not really doing anything at all” in the context of a solo performance. Not exactly ‘less is more’ or ‘playing less’ but a careful consideration of the impact of each musical event—in dreams or otherwise—on my past, present and future.