The following is the first part of a gathering of statements and interviews on the topic of improvisation. We have in no way tried to be encyclopedic; we have instead been selective, providing material of historic interest as well as illuminative of the range of current practice, to enliven as well as enlighten.
Interviews were transcribed directly from tape, this transcript then being sent back to the originator for editing. What appears here, therefore, is what composers/performers wish to have appear. The interviewer's words are italicized. ... --BARNEY CHILDS, University of Redlands; CHRISTOPHER HOBBS, London Drama Centre, September 1982.
Summer, 1963, was the beginning of the New Music Ensemble in Davis, California, experimenting with free group improvisation through that year, giving many concerts, demos and making a record. The next summer I went to Rome, and being very enthusiastic about the new way of improvising we felt we had originated, carried its concepts to Europe. I came to be associated with a number of composers in Rome, chiefly Franco Evangelisti, Aldo Clementi, Ivan Vandor and Cornelius Cardew, as well as American expatriates Frederick Rzewski, Bill Smith, John Eaton, Allan Bryant, and Alvin Curran. In the fall of that Roman sabbatical year, I began to receive tapes from the Davis NME. "Here's what we're doing now! Here's the concert we just had!" I played these tapes and the NME record for my new composer-friends in Rome. Evangelisti, especially, embraced our improvisation concept totally.
Q: Was there already an improvisation thing going on there?
No, ... at least not in the free sense we felt we were practicing. In terms of primacy of idea, then, I may have brought this influence to Europe. My expectations were innocent enough. I thought it would just be interesting to them, or boring. They would ask me what was going on in Davis, California, and I would say, "Well, we're experimenting with free group improvisation. No scheme, no format, no pre-conceived concept but the group dynamic itself." Hearing the tapes or the record, they--mostly Franco--would say, "Ahh...but what process are you using?" "Nothing, except how we feel about one another's playing and responding to it in the moment." They'd say "Impossible!" And I would go on to say, "No, I swear it's stand-up composing," instead of sit-down composing, my differentiation between the two ways of making music, the two kinds of composing. Improvisation is stand-up, and "real" composing is sit-down.
Franco, who claimed he had given up composing, calling it a contrivance, a manipulation, embraced this concept of improvisation, because it fit perfectly with his non-composing stance. He told me, later in 1967, that composition was dead, that the whole "act" of sitting down to contrive a piece of music was decadent. For Franco, this came from a very strong ideological motivation. He was a Communist and, when thinking as a composer, felt totally at odds with himself, his culture, and his socio-political beliefs. In improvisation he felt that music and ideology could be reconciled. I think that was probably the case with Cornelius Cardew as well.
Anyway, back to the story. I played my "tapes from home" for them. Franco was fascinated saying, "This is it. I really believe!" and he wanted immediately to form a similar improvisation group. We did form the group, an international one. For instance, Ivan Vandor, a Hungarian, was the tenor saxophone player, that is, a composer who also played tenor saxophone. We were all composers who also played. That was how you got in. In the Davis group, there were people who never declared themselves composers (Jon Gibson, for instance) but who were, actually. In the Italian group, being a composer was requisite and more important than "just being a performer," an elitist attitude that Franco conveniently overlooked.
The day came for the first session of the Italian group. I retain a vivid impression. Cornelius Cardew came to observe, heard the group and, in the later part of the session, joined in. Franco was an ecstatic priest of the session. We had lots of keyboards ...pianos, organs...it was a huge ensemble. I played flugelhorn and string bass. There must have been ten people. ...Clementi, Vandor, Evangelisti, Smith, Eaton, John Heineman, Cardew, Curran, Mario Bertoncini, myself. In such a huge ensemble you can't reconcile the differences in approach among the performers who, as composers, are all trying to shape the piece in their own compositional image. The anomaly--funny now-- was in what Franco named the group: IL GRUPPO IMPROVISAZIONE DA NUOVA CONSONANZA, the new consonance improvisation group. To me, it had no consonance as a group, but perhaps that was what was "new" to the Italians.
The concept for GINC was very idealistic, very romantic, and it seemed right in tune with what everyone wanted to do: very Italian, very anarchic, very diverse. I don't think we could have ever come to an agreement about anything, which was maybe its main charm. We had weekly sessions, which was about all that any of us could, I guess, abide. (Aldo and Franco argued a lot, and Aldo, frustrated, dropped out.)
Q: Was there any leader in the group, or was it just where everybody sat down and played?
Like the Davis group, there was no recognized leadership. The group dynamic was the thing to sustain: individuals coming together to make music and react freely to one another.
Q:Wasn't it during that period in the 60s that the whole idea of group-ness began to take over in our society? Not only corrective consciousness-expanding groups, but also the reaffirmation of a group feeling in rock music?
Yes, we were group-oriented. In fact, a psychologist named Harry Aron followed us around, writing about us and analyzing our behavior. I commented on that phenomenon in an article in the late '60s in the "New York Times", called "Music Is Dead, Long Live Music." I talked about groups being the wave of the future.
Actually it was a wave of the past. I had finally realized what it was we had been doing: "Oh! So this is a 'group thing' we're doing!" So GINC gave a debut concert, and it was outrageous, which meant it was successful, well attended and supported by the state, the best thing you can do in Italy...be supported by the state. We had a whole concert to ourselves on the Nuova Consonanza Festival in the spring of 1965. Evangelisti was the festival entrepreneur, so it was no surprise that we were included. Since he had stopped composing, this improvisation thing was just right. He could sit out there and wail and not feel guilty about not composing. I've never thought of it in the political context until now, but Cardew certainly had to cope with the contradiction of elitist composing and ideological beliefs....and his Scratch Orchestra and AMM were, I've since learned, manifestations of that political stance. If you embrace a kind of musical anarchy, pretty soon you begin to think politically. I'm not sure that what he was doing then--what either of them were doing--directly gave rise or confirmed certain ideologies, but maybe there was some of that at work.
Frederick Rzewski, Alvin Curran, Allan Bryant and others who were members of Electronica Viva--formed a year later--were also present, not during the first sessions however. They were in Rome and they came to those concerts; I can't believe that they weren't influenced by what we did. It's marvelous to think that a California outfit had something to do with influencing Europeans and expatriate Americans as early as 1964.
Q: After you'd been in Rome a year you cameback, and the New Music Ensemble continued.
Yes, they had made a second record while I was in Europe. When I came back, it seemed to me to be a changed group, but, then, I had changed as well. ...full of new influences...had a lot of new scores.
A little side story: when I first met Cardew in Rome--at that first improvisation session--I knew who he was but didn't know his music very well. I asked him if we might meet. We did, at the American Academy. He brought along his process pieces, mainly. One was "Memories of You." It was done at the concert, in fact, that you did in Davis the next year, right? I played him some tapes of my music, he played tapes and showed me scores, mostly one-pagers like "Octet", which were marvelous to me. He seemed to be sitting down, inventing these schemes which caused performers to do some of the same kinds of things we were improvising standing up. A good relationship started there. But a touching moment happened in that encounter. As he kept giving me those mimeographed pages, I would say, "Oh, thank you! This is fantastic!" At the end of our meeting, he said, " I wonder if you wouldn't mind paying me a dollar for each one?" He was destitute. Of course, I paid him. That stayed with me a long time, the fact that this man was so dedicated to his music and to a kind of social consciousness that was important not only to music but to the way we live.
At any rate I brought back many of Cardew's pieces, as well as many other composers' works. We began to perform many of them that season, 1965-66. You were part of that, the series Edna and I had in our Davis home, a monthly living room concert for 75 invited friends of new music. The main focus was experimentation with process and new materials.
SOURCE was born at the end of that season, also partly because of the unpublished scores I had brought from my travels of the year before. It was because of the awareness that none of this important new music was being seen or heard very much that Stan Lunetta, John Mizelle and I came up with the idea of SOURCE. It wasn't a magazine at first. It was to be a catalogue of scores that were going to circulate. At first, we envisioned a cheap format for the company catalogue. "Well, we ought to have excerpts." "No, not excerpts, we have to have the whole piece!" "That means we actually publish several pieces.""That's something more than a catalogue."And it began to control us, fascinated with the idea of doing something that wasn't a journal, but some other beast...music as art...SOURCE. So, about nine months later...
Interviewer: Proper gestation time.
Right, exactly.In January, 1967, we came out with the first issue of SOURCE, Music of the Avant Garde, with its brazen sub-title that we gave it to attract attention. But I don't want to give you a history of SOURCE. What is relevant is that we were improvising. SOURCE was improvised: it came out of the music we were making.
Q: How many times a week were you getting together?
Well, at the beginning in '63, almost every day in a little house we rented in the middle of a field near Sacramento. It was like a string quartet. You simply rehearse every day. We devoted ourselves entirely to the project; we'd spend sometimes as much as six hours per day together, exhilarated! I think that's what you really have to do to begin to feel like you're really making music. But in 1965, when I returned, we were thinking more in terms of concerts and preparing ourselves for tours and other appearances. I believe that was the time when we started to be less interesting, musically. We had begun to distill these wild ideas of '63 into the schemes and processes of '65...we began to sit as we improvised, becoming more sit-down than stand-up composers.
Q: How many of the players had jazz experience?
If you mean, "How did our jazz experience affect us?", I can't, objectively, say too well. I'll try to answer in two ways. First, we consciously ruled out any overt jazz expression. That's not to say we succeeded with that conscious exclusion. Second, when Lukas Foss first heard tapes and records of our work, in 1968 I believe, he commented to me: "Oh, this has such a jazz flavor," which says something about his ear and taste and also something about our innocence about our cultural heritage.
It's interesting too, perhaps, that Foss had an influence on me in terms of forming an improvisation, ensemble. I think he formed his improvisation ensemble in southern California in 1956, at the same time Art Woodbury and I were experimenting with free jazz. The Foss group worked from schemes and formats, graphic roadmaps to guide the performers, and they were intent on creating stand-up, classical contemporary music. I was really impressed by their late '50s record, by the skill and inventiveness in that neo-classic genre. I don't think anyone could have mistaken it for jazz.
So Foss was influencing me, and Gunther Schuller was influencing me with his third stream notions, and Darius Milhaud was admonishing me to "let the jazz come out", and John Cage's ideas and music were changing me. Milhaud, Schuller, Foss, and Cage, I say to myself now, had an important influence on my work at that time. Actually, the idea of improvising as a way of making music had always been with me, but I had never connected it with my work as an art music composer. They made that connection for me.
Q: When did you get into electronifying NME?
In 1966-67, the year after I returned from Europe. Stockhausen and Tudor had come to teach that year at Davis. Stockhausen seemed to ignore the NME, except to note that it was some kind of side activity. He also ignored a thing called the Buchla Box that we got that year, and he almost ignored Tudor's presence that winter. But David didn't ignore us. We electronified with him, not Stockhausen. Stockhausen's work in electronic music, was, at that time, primarily in making tape pieces, instruments and tape, little or nothing to do with live electronics of the sort that Tudor was working with.
We collaborated with Tudor in the performance of a variety of live electronic compositions: Cage, Ichiyanagi, Behrman, Kagel, von Biel, and many others. That year made the NME diffuse, probably because of our preoccupation with SOURCE and electronification. But the main thing was that Tudor taught us about the electronic continuum.
Q: And then there was the First Festival of Live Electronic Music.
Yes, which was in fall, 1967.
Q: First and only festival.
We figured it would be.
Q: You were improvising when you were electronic.
Ah, I guess that might seem anomalous. Actually, we never noticed the evolution into electronification. It was still all improvised. We improvised SOURCE too. All those conversations, for instance, were improvisations. Rather than sit-down-and-write you stand-up-and-talk.
... This relates to your hint that one might not be improvising when one is electronifying. You see electronic music was born without a folk, an orphan... . It didn't have a language, it made funny sounds, seemed incoherent. All it could do was imitate other musics, but that and the weird sounds made it silly and childish.
Q: Themes for cheap science-fiction movies.
LA: Exactly. We didn't know what to think. Was it only good for giant spiders? I was attracted to it because of the sonorities you could create, the subtle inflections (like jazz), and the orchestral textures you could create in the privacy of your own studio. "OK. So no orchestra's playing my music. I've got my own." All that helped electronic music thrive, even though it had no folk...a music in search of a folk. Meanwhile, there were plenty of musics with folks, thriving and becoming legit: improvisation, chance, process, theater, stochasticism, computer composition...So, here are these two musics, one with new legitimacy, the other--seductive!--but without a folk, illegitimate. They begin to get together....
This is how another pattern developed: the "electronics" began arriving and settling down in institutions in New York, Illinois, and California, "making music without writing music", which we formally called improvising or "having a good session". The "electronics" practice and practice and practice (without music, remember) until their personal language evolves. They then start to expose their music, be unsuccessful, mostly, and sometimes it's extremely successful (e.g., Subotnick). So....I think that the notion of making music without putting notes on paper happened both with improvisation becoming important since the late '50s and the emergence of electronic music as an important genre at about the same time. In both, nothing important is on paper. Merging, these currents brought forth other forms: performance art, experimental music, and a new attitude that instant music is important. Instant, non-lasting music is part of our mass culture. Since younger artists don't consider what they do as composers as "lasting," the idea of making instant music with minimal materials becomes meaningful and fulfilling.
I think these are healthy developments. I can't imagine decrying them. I'm sad, of course, to see some things that I cherish fade, but that's the way it goes. The new composers seem intent, then, on the essential things: of creating a personal art and of paying attention to working with the immediate materials at hand, what they've found...and ritual. To me, ritual is the least important. In the '60s we were intent on inventing new rituals too, but mainly to say that the ritual we were given was wrong for our music. We threw it away. Today, new ritual making has become an old ritual. Most are throwaways. ...though some have value. I thought twenty years ago that these things might be happening now and become very important. I guessed right.
Typed by Barb. Golden, Dec. 27 '95.