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International Society of Improvised Music

the forum of improvisers –from past to future

  by Roman Stolyar



Conference of the international society of improvised music

Denver December 5-7 2008.


Charley Parker’s, declaration: If you cannot live it-it will never come out of your horn."
To act outside ordinary stereotypes of behavior, conveys in his unique manner, that improvisation can sever as a unifying force for all influences that form personal social identification. From the class origin, culture, economy and ecology to gender, race, sexuality and spirituality –all these and others aspects of their life-musician-improvisers fuse spontaneously into one expressing this way their deep personal and collective essence. In our time, unprecedented superficiality, alienation and cruelty threaten to sweep away the true change of cultures and disciplines that makes importance of creative expressivity more important than ever.


That improvisation is not only distinct in this way, it is also –by creating spontaneous situations that require from an individual, the capability to prevent the spread of narrow-local and nationalistic tendencies, which separate communities and countries in our politically fragile world.  Improvisation, is  a superior looking glass, giving us insight and tools to contend with all vitally important issues of personality and society that require individual and collective efforts. This was a message of the annual conference of ISIM, arguably the youngest, but already very influential organization of its kind, uniting improvisers from 25 countries.

The founder of ISIM, Ed Sarath, defined the theme of the conference as “Improvisation and Identity in the transcultural epoch”. Such approach requiring a very serious selection of themes and presentations.-and the team of organizers lead by executive director Sarah Weaver handed this difficult task wonderfully. Three days of the conference were incredibly intense– every hour spent at the Lamont School of Music and Jazz of University of Denver was packed with two-three different events –it was a difficult situation for someone who arrived from a different side of the world tried to absorb all aspects of such an important summit.


When I was preparing to go to the conference, I looked at the list of participants and discovered that I know many of them. Some of them –a Michigan saxophone player Katharine Olson, Memphis pianist Michael Stevens and an alt player from Birmingham Alabama, LaDonna Smith, I already met before, other names, such Stephen Nachimovich or Art Lande –I have heard before. And of course, presence of special duets-a string duo of Joel Leandre and India Cooke as well as a legendary sax player Rosko Mitchell was quite an attractive plus.

The presentation given by the respected master of improvised music was a bit disappointing – instead an expected live performance, Roscoe Mitchell present to the public video recording of a cycle of his compositions called “Songs in the Wind. These works, created by Mitchell during the period from 1982 =1992, were a combination of music, dances and costumes, and moving installations. These black and white recordings made by some amateur by some reason associated with the beginning of the 20 Century futuristic experiments that became history long time ago. Music accompanying this happening also felt as self-conscious anachronism –sound for the sake of sound, pause for the sake of pause, experiment for the sake of experiment. It seems that the audience politely paid tribute to the achievement of the n aster than sincerely enjoyed his work Mitchell looked tired (maybe from music?) and all my hope to communicate with him personally were vain – after the end of his presentations, the master quickly packed and departed to the airport on his way to the next engagement.


The next live performance did not bring too much joy as well. It was a group with prevailing horns -brass instruments and reeds, -was playing super loud during the next 20 minutes absolutely excluding dialogues and preferring to play all together without pauses. Some technical exquisiteness( flute with a sax’s mouth piece, a trumpet with removed (kronas-don’t know what he means) as well as attempts of the leader Paul Skea to build a semblance of form and to lead the process with conducting gestures, did not save the situations.  The well-informed audience, which consisted exclusively of working improvisers, called the ensemble’s style “the children disease in improvisation (this is a hint to Lenin’s work “A children disease of leftism in communism}


But a chamber duo from the University of Denver gave reason for joy. Young musicians a pianist Conrad Kehn a vibraphonist Mark Clifford, performed a very subtle, fluid composition as if they did it contrary to what the previous ensemble played –almost extremely surf. Music developed smoothly, without rush, in waves, sometimes it had some shades of tonality, Often Kehn simply mediated on major/minor 3 resembling Morton Feldman, The vibraphonist -just like his partner-was subtle and inventive-the sounds of his bow gilding over the vibraphone weaved into the texture of the composition. Of the duo is at the beginning of their journey, but what these young improvisers do gives hope.


A big part of the conference consisted of presentations involving electronics. From that group I can distinguish to collectives, both are the duos. Jeff Morris and Eric Clark from Texas built their game on transformation of acoustic instruments’ samples –a violin-recorded in real time.  A sampler device created by Morris changes violin sounds beyond recognition with the player himself brings these changes using a hand controller. Because of such manipulations of samples, electronically produced sounds don’t come across as like something alien in combination with a violin but serve as complicated contra point.


Kaborg, a duo from San Diego, follows another path in its musical exploration. A saxophonist David Borgo and a trumpeter Jeff Kaiser combined live sounds of their instruments with prepared effects from their laptops and pedal effects. The performance of the duo was very musical –with plenty of nuances, a property often ignored by many electronics players. Somewhere in the middle of the composition suddenly there was a sound of a flute –and it sounded very organic. By the way, the flute was self-made with some interesting tunings, scales, and Jeff Kaiser trumpet had quarter-toners.


From electric acoustic music to pure acoustic, and that was the style that prevailed at the conference.  A wonderful pianist, Michael Jeffrey Stevens, played the role of a composer at that time and his quintet for brass and piano was presented in the University Hamilton Hall.  A composition combining in itself by the author’s words, seem to be more compositional.  That was indicated by the presence of a conductor and an abundance of sheet music.  The music of Stevens was well calculated, stern, with perfect counterpoints, dry and exact pauses, clear texture and was an example of the way an improviser who understood the form from inside can successfully use this knowledge in composition. 


The ethnic improvisation was also not forgotten, and that’s not strange because all traditional music, to some degree is improvisational.  A pianist and ethno-musicologist Phil James gave a narrative about subtleties of improvisation on the Japanese flute, Shakuhatchi – though masters of Shakuhatchi do not like to use the term improvisation but anyway they improvise within their canon.  A teacher from Massachusetts, Salil Sachdev, amused everyone with his energetic improvisation . . . on a metallic bucket that he found accidentally at some store.  After the concert, Dr. Sachdev confessed that despite his Indian origin he cannot play table, but for a long time he’s studied African techniques playing on percussion.  It was a true example of cultural fusion.  In the evening of the same day, Sachdev showed one more example of such fusion playing in a duo with Colorado vocalist Judith Coe.  Their program combined elements of African and Arabic rhythms with shrill vocalizations “in tongues.”  Judith improvised not only melodic lines but also words. 


This performance, as well as a few others, was a part of one of two big concerts which completed the first two days of a three day conference.  I was lucky to play in one of those concerns, in a duo with my old partner and friend, California harpist Susan Allen.  By lucky circumstance, our duo was the only collective that played twice.  Our 10-minute piece played in the first concert was some sort of advertisement of a master class we conducted the next morning.  We had a good crowd.  We decided not to stay within the frame of a master class and concentrated on live performance..  The first improvisation, where Susan played a Korean harp and I used a prepared piano, produced a stormy reaction.  A member of the audience came to the grand piano, asked questions, and wanted me to show them certain things.  There is a guy, Stefan Nachmanovitch, who questioned Allen about subtleties of playing harp, suddenly began singing.  I joined him and it gave birth to the next improvisation. A spontaneous in all senses dialogue among us and with the public accompanied our whole presentation, equalizing improvisation and life.  When our time was finished, the conversation continued in the foyer.  I must be sincere to be congratulated by Nachmanovitch, and Art Lande was incredibly pleasant.


Stephan Nachmanovitch is a significant person in modern improvisation.  His famous book, Free Play Improvisation in Life and Art, is an example of deep research of the role of improvisation in various aspects of human activities.  It exhibits a very broad scope of knowledge and expanded world view of the author.  After reading this book, I began to communicate with the author.  Later I gave lectures where I used improvisational models of Nachmanovitch.  But the first time I met him personally was at this conference.  Even more interesting was to hear how Nachmanovitch improvises, because books and articles about a musician cannot give you an idea about it.  And at last it all became true:  Nachmanovitch’s trio, with the intriguing name “Sixth Sense” came on stage.  They entered the stage playing and moving freely across the space.  Nachmanovitch was barefoot, moving his bow smoothly on a half dark stage.  His partners were as good as him, a Texas viola player, Stephanie Phillips, and a saxophonist and flutist from San Jose (Santa Cruz?), Carlton Hester.  Hester just turned upside down my concept of saxophone sound in improvisational music.  For the first time, I heard the sound of such purity and subtlety that it brought the feeling of something a long time forgotten, something you want to come back to.  Those words can be applied to all music of Sixth Sense.  It was reminiscent of Indian, Arabic, Medieval European or classical polyphonics.  At the same time, it was neither of all of those.  It was completely self-contained, although founded in illusions.  This music was enchanting, and what was most important, it touched invisible strings of the heart. 


A performance of The Texas Improvisational Ensemble produced not less emotional impact, resembling stylistically the Namanovitch trio.  Together with Stephanie Phillips, the students and teachers from Texas State University came on stage, and again emotions and beauty produced their impact.  People in the audience fell under the spell of classical and essentially gentle and subtle improvisations of this collective.  Violin, viola, cello, oboe, and two laptops – though all six played together only in the final piece, forming a trio and quartets before that.  Some of the people in the audience became so emotional that they sincerely cried tears of joy.  Very seldom does improvisational music affect people that way.    A confession made by Stephanie in our conversation overwhelmed me.  It became clear that the ensemble leader is absolutely unfamiliar with new and fashionable concepts of improvising.  And all her methods of improvisations were based on academic music of the first part of the 20th century.  In this case, is ignorance a disadvantage?  I doubt it. 

Violist Ladonna Smith and guitarist Misha Feigin were musicians with a totally different style.  The sound of Feigin’s guitar strongly reminded one of Derek Bailey.  The music they played was tough, sometimes poignant as a romance, sometimes a duo of viola and guitar became a real duel.  Especially unexpected was Feigin’s true non-idiomatic improvisation on . . . balalaika.  In this piece, Ladonna switched from viola to violin, playing it with not less virtuosity and ingenuity.  In this performance, Smith reminded some of a mischievous girl.  It seemed that she teased Feigin, who was concentrating on playing unbelievable chords on his instrument. 


Perhaps the only European collective performing at the conference was an Italian trio Forgiving July.  A forty minute long performance of the trio was a brilliant demonstration of a superb sense of form, deep knowledge of modern academic music and live wits.  A violinist, Stefano Pastor, a trombonist, Angela Continni, and trio leader, saxophonist Gianni Mimmo, played spontaneous improvisations so convincingly it felt like everything was carefully pre-prepared.  Of course, they had some rehearsed moments, but the music was predominantly improvisational.  The ability of the musicians to play together was remarkable in playing codas, abrupt and unexpected, which gave their music sharpness.  When the musicians began playing intricate polyphonic textures, consisting of a brutally dissected “Donna Lee,” the audience exploded with applause and cheers.


The audience was no less shocked by the performance of Californian virtuoso saxophonist Vinny Golia.  But the reasons for that were different.  A one hour long solo program is a brave thing to do for a horn player.  Golia’s program was more of a demonstration of exotic instruments than a meaningful musical performance.  You could hear absolutely unbelievable sounds coming from the stage, and those sounds came from unbelievable kinds of horns:  contrabass clarinet, bass saxophone, Hungarian tarogato, and a huge contrabass flute.  For dessert Golia played a virtuoso solo on a tiny soprillo – the smallest representative of the saxophone family.  In the beginning of his performance, Golia displayed this instrument and gave a warning, “If I begin my performance with this instrument, you wouldn’t want to hear anything else.”  And he was right.  The sound of soprillo, and its sweetness and beauty, really was incomparable with anything.


Everybody waited eagerly for special guests.  The fame of contrabass player Joelle Leandre in the world of free improvisation doesn’t require any comment.  And the violin player India Cooke perfectly fit as one of the headliners according to the theme of the conference.  She worked with Pharaoh Sanders, Son Ra, Peter Kowald, Cecil Taylor, and other famous performers.  Cooke was blunt in her interview:  “Nobody takes a black woman seriously in jazz or in classical music if she is not a vocalist.”


The duo of Joelle and India consistently contradicted that statement.  From the beginning to the very end of their program the duo increased in power and energy.  It increased energy to the level of a nonfeminine quality.  Leandre’s contrabass moaned and roared, and even the screeching of its stand while spinning, Joelle converted into music.  Unreal (there is no other way to call it) sounds of bass were joined by India’s violin, which wailed and signed like gospel music.  On stage, the performers played dramas and tragic comedy in which there is no place for man.  As a third partner, the duo has chosen not a man but inventive Ladonna Smith.  The choice was 100% right.  The duo’s performance had already peaked and couldn’t progress farther by the efforts of two players, so the appearance of Ladonna moved the concert to a new energy level. 


 Many words about all sorts of differences – from gender to racial and national – were offered as a discussion, the theme of which was “Improvisation and Diversity.”  The word diversity for Americans means much more than its direct meaning; the discussion covered the whole spectrum of possibilities and a vast field of options to effect those possibilities, both in music and in life.  In his opening words, Ed Sarath said, “All my judgments of everything that is happening around me are judgments of a white man who never experienced discrimination.  Other people might feel differently.”  In this case, others are evidently African Americans.  Perhaps there are racial problems in the world of improvised music as well.  Though some things were very strange to hear for someone who is not an American.


Our former compatriot, guitarist Misha Feigin, shared thoughts concurrent with those of the author of the presentation:  “The key to mutual understanding between representatives of different races and people is educating them together from a young age because young children are unrestricted.”  An even more simple thought shared by Memphis pianist Michael Stevens when he reacted to the question, “Why is improvisational music not popular among common people?”  Stevens exclaimed, “For the majority, all life is everyday toil from 9 to 5, and all they want after such work is a simple rest.  What music.” 


Another important discussion facilitated by a collective of improvisers from Boulder was called  “How Free is Our Play?”  This discussion was dedicated to the very same music discussed in the previous paragraph.  Saxophonist Mark Miller started the discussion with a touching statement, “We consider ourselves romantics of improvisation, perhaps the last romantics in this genre, because with sadness we notice that melody, harmony and rhythm are disappearing more and more from improvisation.”  Art Lande is a resident of Boulder and he facilitates improvisational sessions in this town for the last 35 years.    He said to his old friend and colleague, “I have a perception when the modern improvisers play, they depict a man with a tremor.”  And then he showed this tremor to a laughing audience.   Ed Sarath shared a curious anecdote.  Once he heard an opinion given by one improviser reacting to the performance of one non-idiomatic collective, “How beautiful it is, there is no rhythm, melody, or harmony – only music.”  A stormy but positive discussion showed clearly that improvisers don’t deny the rights to a historical musical heritage – classical and traditional music.  They clearly understand that they stand on the shoulders of those giants.  Summarizing everything, Stephen Nachmanovich said, “The diversity that we spoke about in the previous discussion is granted by the fact that we are reaching from a variety of roots.  The wars between African American and European musical traditions, between Classics and Swing, are outdated.  It was all left in the 60’s.  Now we live in a different time.”


A different time means different movements and different perspectives.  Members of ISIM had a serious conversation about the future of improvisational music.  They discussed how to increase the efficiency of annual meetings, how to make stronger contacts between improvisers of different countries, is there a need for an online publication discussing the society’s work, how to attract attention from governmental structures, universities and private foundations to the work of the conference.  All of these are topical problems for such a young organization.  But the very fact that such a society of improvisers exits, and successfully functions, bears witness that the art of improvisation should be taken seriously in all respects.


After the conference was over, Ed Sarath asked me an unexpected question: 
“What do you think?  Will it be possible sometime to have this conference in Russia?” 
And the thought surprisingly warmed me.  Actually, why not?  It’s always worth a try . . .


Roman Stolyar:
Member of  ISIM    Advisory Board

Denver – Vilnus – Novosibersk
December, 2008

translated from Russian by Misha Feigin