Curated by Julie Kjær on behalf of Sound and Music using the British Music Collection.
This exhibition explores the life and work of 10 female improvising musicians on the London improv scene. Each musician has been answering different questions about their music, work, career and thoughts about improvised music.
When moving to London 7 years ago I knew very little about the London improv scene. I started going to different concerts and meeting musicians and a whole new and exiting world opened up to me.
The women chosen for this exhibition have all inspired me in some way and have been very important to me and my career as an improvising musician in London. There are so many other great and important women on the improv scene in London that I could have included if only the space and time allowed me to.
This has been a great opportunity to dig deeper and to learn more about these women and their music and what brought them to where they are today. I hope you will enjoy the exhibition!
Chapters: Beginnings, On Improvisation, Life and career, The Instrument, The Work, Inspiration and other thoughts.
CAROLINE KRAABEL - saxophone
I started improvising, mostly by myself, when I was a busker in the Paris Metro, aged about 21. Then I returned to London and formed a punk/indie band in which improvisation played a big part; this and meetings with improvisers such as Maggie Nicols, Thebe Lipere and John Stevens led to playing completely improvised music.
MAGGIE NICOLS - voice
I used to sing sort of soul and then jazz in pubs and at different gigs. When Ronnie Scotts in Gerrard Street closed and the new club in Frith Street opened, there were lots of free jazz players playing there. That’s where I first heard free jazz players like Mike Westbrooke and John Surman. I remember sitting there and thinking ‘I can hear a voice’ - ‘I’d like to use my voice’. I went on and on about it and somebody said ‘John Stevens uses voices over at the little theatre club’. This was in 1968. I was very shy and too scared. One night I was at some sort of album launch for somebody. There was hardly anybody there, but Trevor Watts, was introduced to me by Val Wilmer, who’d invited me to this press thing. I said to Trevor that I’d really love to try singing more freely and he said well come up to the little theatre club this Saturday. I was terrified. It was up 5 flights of stairs and I got there and there was John Stevens, who was one of the major pioneers of free improvisation. Trevor, John and me set up this piece. John just said - it doesn’t matter if your voice wobbles or croaks, just sing any note and just keep repeating it. He played this incredible sound on the gong and Trevor played another note on the alto. My voice was wobbling, I was so anxious and nervous. Then after a while my voice settled, my nerves steadied and I was just listening to this overall sound, which was so beautiful and because I wasn’t expecting to improvise, when the improvisation happened, it took me by surprise. Just the the sheer repetition but also because it left you free to listen to the subtle changes that happened with us breathing at different times. There were always a different combination of sounds, even with 3 people, sounding different every time, even in spite of the repetition. It just morphed into this beautiful free improvisation. I’d never experienced anything like that in my life. It was so intense and so sublime. I was singing in a strip club around the corner and I remember running to the club and it was raining and I literally was singing and dancing in the rain. I was ecstatic and I sort of ran around to my little gig doing you know ‘The sky was blue and high above the moon was new…’ but I was hooked from that moment on. That’s it. It was such a powerful experience. And then they asked me to join the Spontaneous Music Ensemble and stayed with them for about a year.
ALISON BLUNT - violin
My first experience playing improvised music was when I was 18 years old - it happened in a music college audition. As everyone who has undergone the college audition process knows, the repertoire choice has strict guidelines. I found it pretty boring intensively practicing for and performing the same 3 pieces at each audition. In my final college audition I was in the middle of performing the required Mozart violin concerto movement, but on arriving at the ‘grand pause’ that marks the start of the cadenza (where most students including myself usually trill and move swiftly on with the score), something happened. I started making stuff up and got totally caught up in the experience, then I found a way back to where I’d left off in the score and continued as usual. I’d never done anything like this before. I remember feeling really exhilarated and ‘high’ walking out of the ordeal, thinking ‘What on earth happened?” At that point in my life I had no frame of reference for improvised music, and because of this and various other reasons, the experience disappeared from my thoughts until years later.
RACHEL MUSSON - saxophone
I have always had an interest in free improvisation. My first experience of it was when I was a teenager, studying on the Glamorgan summer school. Steve Arguelles was there for a day running a workshop and he chose me to play a short duo with. I remember jumping straight in and loving the freedom, and from then on I always hoped I’d manage to find that kind of freedom in music again.
SYLVIA HALLETT - violin, bicycle wheel, electronics etc.
When I was a small child my sister and I would play "foot concertos" on the piano - you lie on the floor and play the piano with your feet, very different from piano practice.
I have always been interested in being a creative musician, wanting to compose music, ever since I was 9. Also interested around that time in the possibility of making music with found objects. As a teenager I explored other sonic and compositional experiments, getting interested in tape recording and cutting up tape and changing the speed and playing it backwards, while at the same time playing folk music, running a folk club, studying classical music at the junior Royal College of Music, and being interested in Pierre Henry, Stockhausen, and all things electronic.
When I was 17 I met Clive Bell and we improvised together in my parents garden, me on guitar and him on flute. It was sort of tonal, but punchy too.
HANNAH MARSHALL - cello
As a girl I dreamt of being part of a community of artists who, though all different, had a common purpose to push boundaries, and encourage each other to do so with no limit. I read about Paris at the turn of the 20th century, about dada and surrealism, where musicians, visual artists, performers and philosophers got together and collaborated. I wondered if it would be possible to go back in time?
SUE LYNCH - saxophone & clarinet
I started playing improvised music, when I was at Coventry College of Art,in 1979, as I had learnt clarinet at school and had recently purchased a tenor saxophone. The art college put on workshops run by Steve Beresford, Max Eastley and other improvising musicians and sound artists. I also went to Bracknell Jazz Festival and Lol Coxhill was running an improvised music workshop there.
KAY GRANT - voice
I remember one balmy summer night’s rehearsal when I was singing with Connecticut Opera. A rock band started playing in the adjacent building. I was loving the thrilling din of the combined soundscape when several singers ran hurriedly to slam the windows shut. At that moment I realised I was in the wrong place, that I wanted to make open-minded music with open-minded musicians, and make my own music too.
I moved back to New York and started going up to the library at Lincoln Center, listening to a back-catalog of contemporary music. I met more adventurous artists like Shelley Hirsch and David Shea, who were working in electro-acoustic and improvised contexts. They inspired me to find new techniques and begin using my voice in more playful ways. In free improvisation I discovered a world without limits, in which I could use my classical experience as well as embracing a wide spectrum of vocal styles and exploring an evolving array of sounds. I first started improvising in a duo with Matthew Ostrowski processing my voice live through an old Arp synthesizer. I went on to collaborate with many others in New York including John Zorn, Elliott Sharp, Nicolas Collins, David Linton and Fred Lonberg-Holm.
SARAH GAIL BRAND - trombone
I began playing improvised music in 1994, whilst at Middlesex University. I was there from 1993 – 1996, aged 22 – 25. I had previously been on tour in pop bands and/or running record shops in Birmingham (my home town) before going to college and I wanted to see if being a trombone player was the job for me. I got onto a music degree course at Middlesex, transferred to the Jazz degree course for my 2nd year and met pianist/composer Veryan Weston, who was my composition teacher. He encouraged me to freely improvise with him in our lessons. He then invited me to play with him on a gig at the Red Rose Club, Finsbury Park in London for the Christmas Mopomoso (which was based there in the 1990s). In the audience were very significant musicians from the London Improvised Music Scene at that time, including Evan Parker, Maggie Nicols, Phil Minton, Phil Durrant, John Russell, Chris Burn, Roger Turner, Lol Coxhill, Paul Rutherford and many more. Alan Tomlinson was also playing and I played an impromptu trombone duo with him to fill in time as another ensemble was late arriving. I had so much fun and felt so at home in this music – and seemed to be good at it - that I knew immediately this was a music and I scene I wanted to be part of.
At the same time as this event, I heard Albert Ayler, Evan Parker and John Stevens recordings in a lecture at college. I was also going out a lot to gigs in London. Although I was enjoying listening to jazz, I was enjoying the more unpredictable elements of free playing. I also came across guitarist and composer Billy Jenkins who I am proud to have since worked for, and I really enjoyed his combination of composed jazz with free improvisation.
CATH ROBERTS - baritone saxophone
I have played jazz music of different kinds since I was at school, but in the last ten years I have become more and more interested in free improvisation. I listened to it and went to live performances for a long time and then finally began to experiment playing free myself about five years ago.
Improvisation is life at its most alert and heightened. Living is improvising.
I think free improvisation has made me a better singer and a better composer. I love all music basically, but I think free improvisation is the source of it all for me.
To me free improvisation is such a vast source - it’s almost like a collective unconscious source, an universal source.
For me, improvising in performance is a kind of Glass Bead Game, a la Hermann Hesse. I find it sharpens the heart, soul and mind for the Glass Bead Game of life.
Immersing myself in free improvisation has given me a route back to myself.
Today, for me, improvisation is about energy. How does the environment change when a sound is placed into it? How does it animate the space?
I have to keep questioning and working with the energy of another person’s sound, creating an awareness of a relationship, a compliment.
It is important to be committed to any sound we make, to be totally immersed but at the same time have an overview voice in my head that can say ‘that’s enough of that now, time to to move on’. Tomorrow I might give a different answer.
Improvisation: Play. An exploration of the moment through the relationship between an artist, the medium, they use and the others she/he is playing with. Defining features: serious playfulness!
'Improvisation to me, is a journey each time, that is followed by a memory.
Breath and energy or lack of, play an important part in improvisation.’
When asked about free improvisation, I often say it is in some ways similar to sport, where for spectators the story unfolds as they watch/listen. But in performance it is actually most like having a conversation: one never knows exactly what the next person is going to say, but comes up with some sort of reply. There are always times – in conversation as well as in improvisation – when the best response is silence, and to me having some space creates the most enjoyable music, for both performers and audience alike. In either case it is active listening that makes for rewarding experience.
I see improvisation as instant (usually collaborative) composition....an important form of musical communication...and a group making totally improvised music can be like an egalitarian, non-hierarchical social organisation in miniature
I grew up in Seattle USA and came to London as a teenager in 1979, drawn to the punk scene. This is where I started playing a sax borrowed from the Swell Maps. I also lived in Paris, where I busked full-time (something I continued to do when I returned to London, and still do) and studied with Alan Silva and Aldridge Hansberry. Being a musician/artist has been my main job since then (1982?), but I’ve also worked as an analogue projectionist/ photographer /sound engineer/editor/translator at times – all jobs that one can do in between tours/gigs/music work, and that have contributed to my thinking about reproduction/synthesis/acoustics, and to my song-writing.
Main projects: being involved in setting up Resonance FM; Mass Producers (20-piece female sax/voice orchestra playing my own composed music, active 1998-2002); 50-minute solo composition/improvisation, Now We Are One Two, touring and recording over a period of several years from 1997; ongoing duo with John Edwards (Shock Exchange); Saxophone Experiments in Space, for 55 saxophones at Queen Elizabeth Hall; playing with and conducting the London Improvisers Orchestra for the last 20-odd years; improvising as part of Anri Sala’s art piece “3-2-1” for several months at the Serpentine Gallery, London; curating a series of concerts involving William Blake’s poetry and images and improvised music by various groupings; Radio art - Taking a Life for a Walk; Recording an Impression; My Foolish Machine, all for Radia/Resonance FM; travelling to northern France with a group to play for residents and workers in refugee camps.
Musician colleagues: Maggie Nicols; John Edwards; Veryan Weston; Mark Sanders; Cleveland Watkiss; Hyelim Kim; Susan Alcorn; Annie Lewandowski; Jason Willett; Charlotte Hug; Phil Wachsmann; David Stockard; Orphy Robinson; Richard E Harrison; Neil Metcalfe; Rowland Sutherland; Susanna Ferrar; Tony Marsh; Harry Beckett; Louis Moholo; Evan Parker; Rowland Sutherland and many more.
Musical development: self-taught, learned from others by listening to and playing with them – notably Alan Silva, Maggie Nicols, John Stevens, Evan Parker, Susan Alcorn, John Tchicai and Lol Coxhill.
I’m Scottish but have been in London since I was 11 years old, so I’m always thinking of myself as a Londoner. I am not thinking of myself as English, I am definitely Scottish.
I’ve been involved in free improvisation ever since playing with John Stevens for the first time.I’ve done other music as well- singing standards, singing lots of different kinds of songs and composing, but my big love is free improvisation.
My most important projects:
Working with John Stevens.
Singing with Julie Tippets. We eventually had a duo but when we first met it was within the context of Centipede, Keith Tippets orchestra. We were the only two women.
For me to go deeply into other musical relationships, would be through the Women Liberation Movement. FIG (Feminist Improvising Group) was one of my first experience of improvising with other women.I felt this desire that I wanted to find other women to improvise with. I met Lindsay Cooper at the Ovalhouse, when I was running workshops. She was doing music with a theatre group and they would come to my workshop and we got friendly. I remember saying to her that maybe we could get a women group together. I think one of the reasons I did was because I went to this Music For Socialism gig and the wonderful Carol Grimes was there, with a male band. Most of us was singing with male bands, that’s how it was. I remember saying to the organisers; ’ wouldn’t it be nice to see some women instrumentalists not just singers’. And they said ‘Get something together’. I approached Lindsay and she knew Georgie Born (who was the cello player in Henry Cow) I had met this woman on the Women Liberation scene, Koryne Liensol. And there was Cathy Williams. So we were 5 at the first gig and more women joined after that a.o. Irène Schweizer and Sally Potter. The group was based in London, but we worked with other women in Paris and various other places. So FIG was huge.
And then I started Contradictions with Koryne Liensol. That was really important, because that was a women workshop/performance group. It was based on free improvisation, but we also worked with film, movement and theatre and we devised pieces as well. The bulk of it was free improvisation. Sylvia Hallett a.o. was in that. Hundreds of women have been through that.
When I think about it I’ve worked with at lot of women and it’s great. Amongst others Caroline Kraabel, Charlotte Hug, Sarah Gail Brand and lots of great other women.
The Gathering is a huge thing for me. It is crucial. It’s been one of the most fulfilling and challenging and growth stimulating ongoing events in my life. It has had homes all over the place, lots of different venues. When we were at Community Music in Farringdon it really felt like home. John Stevens co-founded that place with Dave O’Donnell, so it felt great being there.
We meet the last Monday of the month. There’s now one in Liverpool, there’s one in Wales, there’s one in Austria.
It was founded 25 years ago in London. It came out of the frustration and arguing that was happening within the London Musicians Collective. I just had this hunger to experience something more creative with my comrades and something like a gathering. I got that from all sorts of hippies and stuff. Not that I was a hippy when hippies were around, but I was a bit of a born again hippy.
Then Loz Speyer suggested we could bring instruments. Then a week later Ian Smith, the trumpet player, phoned up and said: ‘I found a venue, I found a pub’.
At the first Gathering I didn’t know what was going to happen. We were all sitting there. Nobody knew - have we come to meet in a different way? Are we going to play?
I said ‘ oh maybe we can -uh uh uh ia etc..- you know, get your instruments out and it just turned into this sublime lunacy. It was amazing and it was so liberating. I fell in love with it right from the start. It was just what I’d been looking for, so I became the host.
I was the one that just kept going every week and that’s why it’s associated with me, but it came out of a few of us. It wasn’t just me. We’ve done concerts a.o. places at Freedom of the City and we’ve recorded. Anything can happen with the Gathering. It’s like a training ground as well for us all.
I’ve been doing workshops for 46 years. Working with old people, people with learning disabilities people with mental health problems, young offenders etc. For me it’s all about inclusion.
The experience of working with such a huge range of people, discovering over and over again that everyone is creative. That is very important.
Originally from East Africa and subsequently Cumbria, I left rural family life to study Western European classical music - first in Birmingham and then in London. There’s a whole other story as to how I left my classical orchestral/quartet/chamber music aspirations behind. It was a kind of existential crisis in my life - that telling is for another time.
It was in 1993 during my first year in London that I started to explore creative music. The post-grad course that I took at GSMD involved improvising, composing and collaborative devising of music, so I was finally picking up from where I’d left off in the undergraduate audition several years earlier. That first year in London was full of opportunities to develop foundational creative tools and I’ve been mostly based in London and building upon these ever since.
I’ve spent the last 20+ years composing, recording, performing and curating music that’s structured, freely improvised and everything in between. I've also been leading music workshops and devising and facilitating community music projects and professional development music training for college students, teachers and musicians. I think of being a musician as a vocation rather than a job. After all, it’s still a man’s world whatever we’re told to the contrary - and on top of that, the general attitude in England towards more experimental artistic work hardly encourages the artist - man or woman, to consider their activities to be a career.
My activities facilitating music within the community and education spheres are as deeply important to me as performing, composing and recording. For me it has never made sense to choose between making music and supporting others in their music making. Each activity informs, challenges and strengthens the other; it’s all about communication. I feel that exploring music and movement with 0-5 year olds has probably mentored my creative life more than anything else.
BARREL and London Improvisers Orchestra have held quite pivotal positions in my life as an improviser.
BARREL is a string project with violist Ivor Kallin and cellist Hannah Marshall. I’d played a great deal in duo with both Ivor and Hannah for years before our first time playing as a trio at the Freedom of the City Festival in 2007 and since then, we've played hundreds of concerts together as BARREL. This band offers me something really unique: an opportunity to explore a more Dadaist approach whilst simultaneously investigating and deconstructing most bowed string traditions. We've released an album with the illustrious label EMANEM and a second with Idyllic Records, the label connected to Artacts festival in St Johann in Tyrol where we performed a few years ago. It’s time we made a new record.
In 2005 I heard the LIO perform at Shifti, a mixed art form festival of improvisation at Warwick Arts Centre, and I was blown away. I joined the band soon after that and have learned a huge amount from playing with and conducting this astonishing, amorphous beast.
These two lynchpins in my London improvising life have led to an enormous amount of creative activity.
Many projects and performances have simply flowed from ongoing collaborations with Hannah Marshall, Ivor Kallin and the LIO community, such as those involving Tony Marsh (RIP), vocalist Viv Corringham, flautist Neil Metcalfe, double-bassist David Leahy, violist Benedict Taylor and German saxophonist Anna Kaluza who played with the LIO before returning to Berlin. Anna and I have continued to work together with fixed ensembles such as Hanam Quintet and Berlin Improvisers Orchestra, in addition to playing ‘ad-hoc’ formation concerts. I play fairly regularly with percussionists Mark Sanders and Terry Day, but my other main long-term collaborators are mostly main-land European artists. For example, a duo and several other formative projects with soprano saxophonist Gianni Mimmo (IT), a duo with alto saxophonist Audrey Lauro (BE) and a quartet with 3 Austrians - pianist Elisabeth Harnik, vocalist Annette Giesriegl and percussionist Josef Klammer (Barcode Quartet). These artistic relationships generally started in London, thanks to the monthly Mopomoso Club concerts and other catalytic intercultural improvisation events such as the Alpenglow Festival, supported by Sound and Music. In addition to more music-focused projects, I’ve always worked with improvising and experimental dance and theatre practitioners. Many of these collaborations have had a huge impact on my practice e.g. Guy Dartnell, Florencia Guerberof, Raquel Claudino, Tom Morris, Experiments in Spontaneous Performance, Julia Barclay Morton and Apocryphal Theatre Company, to name a few.
I’ve been living in London for just over twenty years now. I never had any intention to stay here so long! I grew up in South Wales, and moved to London to study.
I had a few experiences of the improv scene in my early days in London, and I also hooked up with an Italian drummer called Federico Ughi, and at some point we were improvising together every day. I then had an extended sabbatical from playing for a while, and returned to the London scene in my thirties, mostly playing contemporary jazz, running a band playing my own compositions. I found that on my return to playing, I felt a bit constrained by compositions and forms, and became increasingly interested in playing free, and through my connections to bassist Olie Brice and drummer Javier Carmona I began to meet up for plays and later gigs in the little venues around London that specialise in putting on improvised music. These days, the majority of my performances are free improv, although I am beginning to feel a yearning to start writing again and to take up the rather special challenge of writing for improvising. As well as playing, I also practice and teach yoga, and am a massage therapist and bodyworker. I found that I needed an outlet that’s not linked to music, but increasingly I find that there are many similarities between the two practices - both involve a deep commitment to presence and listening, and communication.
I grew up in a small town in Sussex, and went to Dartington College of Arts, because I wanted to be around people working in dance and the arts, not just music students - I considered some music students to be a bit stuffy and arrogant!
Then I went on to study composition in Paris with Max Deutsch. After two years there I came back to England to complete a teaching Certificate of Education, and decided to do that in London, at Trent Park, as I thought everyone has to experience living in London at some point in their lives. I am still here.
I taught in a school for children with physical disabilities for 8 years, 3 days a week , so perfect for developing other experimental work too, which included occasional performances with Ken Turner's inflatable events - Action Space.
The school I worked in was in Swiss Cottage, a stone's throw from The London Musicians Collective which had just taken out a lease on the building in Gloucester Avenue, Camden. This was an amazing time (late 70s, early 80s, with a space that we could turn into anything we wanted, and as well as playing a lot of improvised gigs there I also took the opportunity to organise themed events : a masked ball, a banquet (food by poet Roger Ely), an evening of self-made instruments (the first performance of Paul Burwell's Bow Gamelan), an evening of sound costumes, an evening of guitar related events (included Davy Graham on oud, and Derek Bailey and others) and festivals - women's festivals and self-made instrument festival, etc.
During that time I was in the trio British Summer Time Ends (with Clive Bell and Stuart Jones), who played at Chantenay festival and recorded several albums on nato label. Also the band Accordions Go Crazy (Mike Adcock). Both these groups combined free improvisation with song (the Kinks, Abba covers etc, or original songs), and we toured extensively in Germany and France.
I was also developing contacts and friendships in the world of dance and we had a group of improvising dancers and musicians called Still Mauve who would meet once a week to try out new approaches to improvisation sometimes at the LMC, sometimes at X6 or the artists squat Highbury Home.
At one point I had a composition crisis, where I could no longer finish a piece I was supposed to be writing for some guitarists in France. It seemed pointless to write down all these dots for other people to play. So I "gave up" being a composer, and immediately was given my first commission by Jacky Lansley - to compose sound/music for a dance piece, using improvisation, tape collage and any other means I wanted. It was liberating. Since then I have been working both as a composer and improviser for dance, depending on the dancer/choreographer. When composition is involved it is mostly process based, so will include improvisation, and recording of my collaborators, to construct something which is personal to them. Other collaborators include musicians David Toop, Elaine Mitchener, Lol Coxhill, Evan Parker, Susanna Ferrar, Paul Burwell, Maggie Nicols, Stuart Jones, Alison Blunt, Hannah Marshall, the London Improvisers Orchestra, and I still regularly play in the trio ARC (with Gus Garside and Danny Kingshill), Esha Jotwe Teka (with Potsdam based Thomas Kumlehn and Jerry Wigens) and in duos with Anna Homler, Clive Bell, Mike Adcock, Ian MacGowan, Matilda Rolfsson, and I perform solo.
The main dancer/choregraphers I have worked with include Miranda Tufnell (working with improvisation to find a set form), h2dance (Hanna Gillgren and Heidi Rustgaard), Jacky Lansley, Emilyn Claid, and the improvisers Eva Karczag and Chris Crickmay (including manipulation of objects), Rachel Gomme, Laura Doehler, Valeria Tello-Giusti and Anne-Gaelle Thiriot.
I have also composed and worked in theatre incorporating some improvisation into the compositional elements, Royal Shakespeare Company, Young Vic, Wonderful Beast, Opera North, DooCot, and composed music for many BBC Radio plays.
Now I make a living by a combination of private piano teaching (including improvisation and composition) and working with theatre or dance companies or individuals, with the occasional session for Sheridan Tongue's Silent Witness - he likes to use the strange sounds I make on viola or bowed bicycle wheel, and the occasional paid improvisation gig, the most recent was playing in Victoriaville Festival with Anna Homler, and playing in David Toop's opera "The Star-shaped biscuit", and the solo sound event in Friuli Italy.
In the late 70’s and 80’s I caught the tale end of free music provision for schools through the Inner London Education Authority, affectionately called ILEA, so myself and few other souls got grants to study at a ‘conservatoire’. I also went to junior guildhall, which was a preparation I believe for the main college. I had been playing the cello since the age of 5. My path at that point was heading firmly in the direction of classical music, which I loved. However an interest in improvisation came through listening to Jazz at around the age of 10, and my approach at that point was to listen chronologically, which I did, I think, unconsciously. Jelly Roll, Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Ella, Art Tatum, Errol Garner, Charlie Parker and on into the big wide river that was be-bop and beyond, so deep, I am still holding my breath and diving in to see if I can touch the bottom! I also loved 20th century modern classical music. Bartok, Stravinsky Ravel, Debussy, Shostakovich, and later Varese - on head phones under the covers when I was supposed to be asleep, keeping half an ear out for footsteps up the stairs – ear phones off and under the duvet. No one was wise to a secret listener! Life changers were Bartok string quartets, Rite of spring, Sketches of Spain. So my interest from 10-18 was mainly big ensembles and big sounds, conceived and executed, composed and delivered with a designed intention. The intensity and fragility of small group interaction was something that came later. However, Bartok’s spiritual depth changed the meaning of music for me, because it seemed transcend itself completely, and stopped really being music, it seems to speak of a longing for a loss of a whole society or culture in Europe, that string instruments were part of. Alongside this my teenage listening included lots of dub and reggae including Linton Kwesi Johnson, fun boy 3, Bob Marley and much dance and electronica.
Whilst going to Kingsway college for my French A level I would pass Mole Jazz a now no longer existing record shop in Kings cross and flick through the records there, I noticed a prolific artist who was new to me called Evan Parker I listened to him, and others that I had found like Air which included Henry threadgill, after my dad took me and my brother to HMV for Christmas and said “just go and get what ever you want” there in the dark corner of the jazz section I saw a record of a young black man with a neatly cropped afro and a dinner jacket playing the violin, the cover was pink and black. Billy Bang! I snapped it up, and after listening for no more than 20 seconds at home turned the record player off…..this was way off the chart! and I wasn’t sure if I was ready….
Before going to music college I had used pianos in practice rooms at school to play freely and felt much more comfortable improvising on the piano, which I did along side writing compositions and songs, than I did on the cello where my focus was more purely on classical music.
Whilst at college I had been listening to the music of Anthony Braxton and soon after, I got together with 2 friends who were also interested in ‘playing’, experimenting and using our spontaneous collective energy to make something special and unique. We played folk tunes, took them apart and improvised on fragments, we used search and reflect, toys, recorded ourselves and played things back through portable tape players improvising along, which was the most immediate and fun way of recording and manipulating sound. We did a few gigs, (including for an oxford ball, where we were quietly asked to leave!).
I soon started playing in pop and rock bands in pubs and clubs around London, and met new people around the city, gradually I realised that the music that I was heading towards was not in the library at college or shops that I visited, but was taking place live, in the city I lived in.
I started getting involved in the London Free Improvisation scene in the mid to late 90’s, as an audience member, a listener, and an observer, at places like The Red Rose Club in Finsbury Park, The Vortex – then in Stoke Newington, The Klinker, LMC & The Bonnington club, whose concerts included musicians such as Roger Turner, Tristan Honsinger, Steve Noble, Sarah Gail Brand, Maggie Nichols, Phil Minton, Lol Coxhill, John Russell, Pat Thomas, Caroline Kraabel, Viv Corringham, Adam Bohman & John Edwards amongst many others. Those concerts had a very strong impact on me, at first confusion, bemusement, and intrigue, and later captivation and a sense of a shared understanding and belonging.
In the late 90’s I met violinist Alison Blunt and played regularly with her in duo and others and formed groups that put on evenings involving music/composition including some improvisation, text readings and visuals including improvised drawing and film. We put on shows in various venues around London including The Red Rose Club, Battersea Arts Centre, Southwark playhouse with other musicians/composers and friends.
Around this time I started getting involved in devised and experimental theatre. Creating music for theatre opened lots of doorways to my improvisation much more than in contemporary music, as I was drawn to and confronted by different methods of physical performance. And the sounds and approach to playing for theatre was very broad. My uncle had a bookstall in Camden market so whenever I went there I would go in to ‘Off stage’ in chalk farm, a bookshop entirely devoted to theatre arts. Here I found stories and practice of people working rigorously with their body, not to achieve physical technical perfection, but instead to transmit something eternal through human stories. I wanted to find ways of doing that through music as well. The spirit and ethos behind experimental theatre and improvisation came delightfully together when I started working with The People Show Theatre Company in 2000, discovering later that The people Band was also born from there. The People band included Terry Day who was one of my first contacts with performing improvised music to audiences in the London Improv scene, along with Kay Grant, Steve Beresford, and Veryan Weston.
Through devised and experimental theatre the political aspect of what is being made, is more consciously on show. Although music in this context is one of a few art-forms being brought together for the piece of theatre, it however gave me the opportunity to focus on the political implications of playing and of being a musician, allowing me an chance to focus on my role both within a group of performers and in the wider context of the theatre and audience. The politics of performance has always been something that has interested me, perhaps coming through and from classical music, where for one reason and another I was not able to find a musical home. There has never been a sense of regret about this, because the musician as an agent of change and a transmitter of expressive material, is not, I believe, given full rights to develop and experiment in that environment.
When I first started to play, and now still more than ever, improvised music was as much about asking something unknown of myself, to challenge myself and to find a way with the other musicians to accept and work with the present moment. Improvised music accepts extreme and absurd parts of all of us, those aspects of ourselves our loved in this scene, or should be, and mostly, daring to be truly yourself, to risk failure, is rewarded with attention and respect. We all want to see the extraordinary happening before our eyes. I joined Maggie Nichols ‘Gathering’ at The Betsy Trotwood Pub in Farringdon, after studying at Community Music where John Stevens manual for rhythm and improvisation: Search and Reflect, was a daily practice, and through both these ways of playing in groups found a rigour and openness in group playing that was very beneficial to me personally. Intense listening became both an escape and the opposite of escape: Awareness, and an enabling to go beyond, both personally and collectively.
So with 2006 Terry Day Duo record, which marked a return for him to playing after a period of Ill health, playing in the LIO, I made some kind of a commitment through taking as many opportunities as I could to play, in order to build the reflex and muscle I hoped it would take to deserve the right to be there! I venture still forward now, into more playing and more encounters.
I grew up in Wiltshire, where I heard a lot of trad jazz and popular tunes from 30’s/40’s being played in both amateur and professional situations from people’s living rooms to pubs. I have been living in London since 1981.
I moved to London, as I wanted to pursue more music and London seemed to have more opportunities than anywhere else and a vibrant music community.
Being a musician is my main job, but I also teach music part time and work as an artist.
Having studied in the field of fine art, I have been exposed to a lot of experimental music, art + performance, which has helped widen my knowledge of the history and trends of more improvised music. I play jazz standards for weddings, parties etc, so have had to memorize a lot of well known jazz tunes, which probably influences my improvisations. I also compose and arrange music, which also affects my choice of instrumentation for improvisation.
Since 2012, I have been running The Horse Improvised Music Club, with Adam Bohman and Hutch Demioulpied. This has given me the opportunity to listen to and collaborate with a wide range of improvising musicians.
I also attended Eddie Prevost’s Friday evening workshops for many years, where I came across a diverse section of improvisers. From 1997-2001, I was part of Caroline Kraabel’s all women, large saxophone ensemble, ‘The Mass Producer’s’, which involved using a lot of extended saxophone techniques. In recent years I have been working with,Hutch Demouilpied, Adam Bohman, Richard Sanderson, John Edwards, Sharon Gal, Caroline Kraabel, Steve Noble, Verity Susman + Adrian Northover.
In the early 1980’s, I joined a big band called The Happy End, which performed political music, such as the music of Hanns Eisler + Kurt Weill. The band toured a lot and was prominent during the miner’s strike of 1984.I also designed and printed a lot of the posters for the band,as I ran a silkscreen workshop in the Ambulance Station on the Old Kent Rd. I went on to do a lot of street band performance.
At present, I perform with afro beat vocalist Helen McDonald,as part of her 70’s jazz and groove band, called ‘Future Groove’. I’m also a member of the cult band run by Davis Petts, called ‘The Remote Viewers‘ formed in the 1980’s. In 2013 I recorded an album of duo improvisations with six women, based on a text from a poem by Sylvia Plath, called ‘These Lamps’.
My most recent projects, have been at Iklectik Art Lab with The Horse Improvised Music Club and music ensembles that have arisen from this club, such as The Horse Trio, The Custodian’s of The Realm and a duo with Sharon Gal.
I was born in Brooklyn, to an English teacher father and Ballroom Dancer mother, both of whom participated in local theatre companies and encouraged an artistic life. I took to the stage alongside them at the ripe old age of six, singing and acting in musical theatre productions. Two years later my family made the standard move to the suburbs, and my new school had a very active music department. My first instrument was violin, and after a couple years I switched to flute, playing in school orchestra and big band as well as singing in choir. It all gave me a solid grounding in social music-making and perhaps contributed to my rather egalitarian attitude to music in general.
I started voice lessons in my teens to overcome some acquired singing difficulties. So when my teacher identified operatic potential at first I was thrilled. I took the challenge, concentrating on the fun, physicality, technical targets and artistic opportunities. I received scholarships to sing with the New York Oratorio Society at Carnegie Hall and then Connecticut Opera. But soon I felt constrained by the cultural boundaries of traditional opera and drawn to music being made in the present.
When I moved back to New York I ended up working in restaurants and living in a squat to make ends meet. It was a world away from the classical music environment, but I was invigorated by the melting pot of the downtown music scene. Around this time I bought a bass guitar, taught myself how to play and began performing in several bands. I was also offered many opportunities to improvise as bassist and vocalist, the voice being accepted as an instrument like any other, which was very nurturing. However the economic problems persisted and I often felt angered and limited by American culture.
So I seized the opportunity to go on the road with French rock group Deity Guns who I’d met through recording with Sonic Youth’s Lee Renaldo. I moved to Lyon for initial rehearsals, then toured France, the continent and the UK. After nine months the group split and I settled in London, which seemed the obvious choice having visited family here when I was a child. I’ve never once looked back.
During my first few years in London I played bass guitar in several bands and eventually co-founded Electropop duo Switch for which I wrote and sang the songs. When that project ended I felt a real pull back to using my voice in the open-armed atmosphere of free improvisation. I began performing along with electronics, processing my voice live as I sang. It was a freeing experience with so many new sounds to play with, but eventually I found myself relying too heavily on the technology, so went back to finding new ways to use my voice on its own, nowadays only using electronics occasionally. I’m so happy to have had the honour and pleasure to collaborate with many of the most creative musicians in London, putting together groups of various sizes including –
Veryan Weston (piano), Sarah Gail Brand (trombone) & Mark Sanders (drums)
Alex Ward (clarinet), Olie Brice (double bass) & Mark Sanders (drums)
Armorel Weston (voice), Jim Dvorak (trumpet) & Guillaume Viltard (double bass)
Richard Sanderson (electronics) & Alan Tomlinson (trombone)
John Edwards (double bass) & Steve Noble (drums)
Oren Marshall (tuba) & Sarah Gail Brand (trombone)
Lol Coxhill (sax) & Olie Brice (double bass)
Eddie Prevost (drums) & Caroline Kraabel (sax)
Adam Bohman (objects) & Daniel Thompson (guitar)
Alex Ward (clarinet)
Ntshuks Bonga (sax)
Marcio Mattos (cello)
John Russell (guitar)
Hannah Marshall (cello)
Alison Blunt (violin)
Steve Beresford (electronics)
Daniel Thompson (guitar)
Martin Speake (sax)
In addition to improvising, during the past decade I have continued to play a variety of music. I joined Apartment House Ensemble at Aldeburgh in a collaborative interpretation of graphical score Schumann : Entropic Song Meditations by Anton Lukoszevieze. I sang in several operas, including the role of Second Woman in a production of Dido and Aeneus and principal soprano in Veryan Weston’s The Mayfly. I’ve been part of Phil Minton’s Feral Choir in periodic appearances of conducted improvisations. I’ve performed with Resonance Radio Orchestra in radio plays including Tales of The Great Unwashed singing the Tina Turner song “Nutbush City Limits” and with Hauntological Orchestra singing tunes including Burt Bacharach’s “Anyone Who Had A Heart”. And I currently sing with Ad Libitum Chamber Choir (three concerts annually, from Medieval polyphony to contemporary commissions).
SARAH GAIL BRAND
As I continued my college degree, Improvisers asked me– in particular Phil Durrant and Oren Marshall- to play gigs at the London Improv clubs. I remember particularly Richard Sanderson’s gig The Club Room in Islington. I played my 2nd ever improv gig there with Oren and Steve Noble and had such a great time. I really miss that gig. It was a tiny room, but the atmosphere was great and some fantastic sets were played there. From that time I formed musical bonds and friendships that endure. I also got involved with drummer Stu Butterfield’s Changes gig, which happened once a month at the Kings Head in Crouch End. I played there on a number occasions with Stu, Veryan and other musicians – either playing jazz or Improvised Music or an experimental hybrid of the 2. In particular I met drummer Mark Sanders there and our association and collaboration has continued to this day. I would say he is the most important musical relationship I have at the moment, although Veryan Weston’s influence and importance in my life and musical direction is crucial and cannot be underestimated.
Other collaborators in my life as an Improviser include Liam Noble, John Edwards, Phil Minton, Nick Malcolm, Maggie Nicols, Martin Hathaway, Dave Whitford and Steve Beresford. I have also worked on occasion with Evan Parker and the late Lol Coxhill, who I wish I had played with more as his singular approach to the music and his resolute individuality I admired hugely. I have also worked with overseas players including the Bay Area Improvisers in California, including drummer Gino Robair and in mainland with Georg Graewe and Toby Delius. I’m currently working with John Edwards and Steve Beresford in a new trio and continuing my duo with Mark Sanders. I also have a sextet which play my compositions with edgy improvisation at the heart of the music.
For over 10 years I have been friends and worked with writer/comedian Stewart Lee, appearing in a sketch in his series Comedy Vehicle (series 1), with Mark Sanders in duo (series 2). Stewart has interviewed me on BBC Radio 3, live at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival, for his TV show and on BBC Radio 4.
I was a guest interviewer and presenter for the BBC Radio 3 programme ‘Jazz on 3’, which ran for 18 years until 2016. I made features for the show, including a programme on vocalist Maggie Nicols and had short series of interviews for the show – Unsung Heroes, where I interviewed long-term musicians of the UK Improvised Music scene, who were not often interviewed or featured in the media.
I also run a little label, regardless, where I self release although this is expensive so I issue recordings when I can afford it, basically.
I am a qualified music therapist and practiced from 2001 – 2015. I’m currently on a break from clinical work, but I supervise qualified music therapists still and train music therapists at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London, where I am a part time lecturer in Improvisation. I also coach and teach Improvised Music to undergraduates and postgraduates on the Jazz Studies programmes.
I have been playing the trombone since 1980 when I was 9 years old and at Primary school.
I am from the UK: Northamptonshire, in the Midlands and I've been living and working in London since 2005. I moved here to do a Masters in Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths. Being a musician is my main job, although only since the end of 2014. Before that I had various part time office jobs for a long time.
I am involved in organising a concert series (LUME) and associated projects. Although it’s music related the majority of the work is administration! But it has been extremely beneficial as it’s helped me to meet many other artists as well as developing my project management and fundraising skills etc – and this has fed into my own projects.
My main projects in London has been setting up and running LUME with Dee Byrne – but overall I think it’s been my work with musicians from Manchester, as this has led to the formation of my current band Sloth Racket, and duo with Anton Hunter (Ripsaw Catfish).
My main collaborators are currently Anton Hunter, Seth Bennett and Dee Byrne, but there are many others too!
My favourite instrument is my own body. I’ve had it all my life, but it’s changed a lot. I didn’t chose it, but it chose music at a time when I thought I wanted to do something more cerebral, like writing or fine art... in fact my body wanted to be at the heart of action, sound and movement, and helped my mind learn to make music.
I think the instrument that I have the most emotional attachment to is the one I to sold to Julie Kjær! It’s an SML tenor, silver plated. I bought it several years into my break from playing, when I wanted to ‘downsize’ from my Selmer Super Balanced action but have an instrument in the cupboard just in case. When I first played it I immediately fell in love with it - especially its sound. So much so I think I pretty much (stupidly) made a straight swap with my Selmer, but it immediately started me playing again as I was having so much fun with it!
Favourite instrument - difficult to say. I feel I am more of a musician than an instrumentalist. I never wanted to do that virtuoso thing. I am known for playing violin, but I was never in love with it, and always looked for something else I could do with it or or other things I could bow. While at college I discovered bowing metal - music stands, making instruments out of junk, and that stayed with me - I also discovered that by using guitarists pedals I could re-create some of the effects of pitch-shifting, delay and looping that I had enjoyed playing around with on reel-to-reel tape-recorders. So I also study violin-related instruments - the Hardanger fiddle from Norway (I belong to a group which learns this very complicated folk music) and the sarangi (Indian bowed instrument) which I continue to have lessons on and have played on the soundtrack of Lord of the Rings). Both these instruments are taught by listening first rather than reading music. So I enjoy the challenge of keeping my ear in training. I started learning piano at the ago of four, and violin as a second instrument when I was seven, I didn't choose it, and it didn't make a nice sound and I didn't like practising it. But it is very portable, unlike the piano. I found that I enjoyed playing the violin more if I was singing at the same time, so I developed that somewhat. Other things to bow - musical saw - actually it's a cheap saw from Wickes, which makes some great multi-phonics, bowed bicycle wheel, which I discovered while making music for the puppet company DooCot, (I fret the spokes using a guitarists bottle-neck or ribbed shells from the beach), anything with prongs - a sawn off lampshade is a current favourite, and vines - grape vines or Russian vine. The kemence, from Asia minor, the hurdy-gurdy. I also like to use effects pedals - loop, delay and pitch-shift - very simple ways to transform simple sounds, without using a laptop. They enable me to make low sounds which is useful if I'm playing solo as the violin doesn't go very low.
When it comes to my instrument, choosing to focus on voice was in some ways the most obvious selection, as I’ve sung since I was a child. But it was not a clear and straight path for me.
My mum grew up with two older brothers and perhaps to be heard, always forced her speaking voice as low as possible. My dad maintained that everyone should “sing from the diaphragm”, unaware that the better part of a female voice’s range naturally resonates in the head. By the time I was twelve I had less than an octave of functional notes. Rediscovering my range was an epiphany, but studying opera – a style often taught using a technique which can be harmful in the long term, relying too heavily on the muscles around the larynx for support – left me effectively stuck in one technique and unable to sound natural or even audible in the lower registers.
I finally retrained the voice properly from scratch with a most inspiring teacher here in London – Bridget de Courcy – who completely understands the anatomy of the instrument. The process took several years and a great deal of strength to complete but has given me a solid technique that can be applied to all styles.
The other thing about voice is that it is a uniquely odd instrument. It can’t be seen or touched and is extremely difficult to control technically. There is, understandably, a high level of tolerance for inconsistencies and inaccuracies in the singing voice. Yet hearing non-verbal sounds within the context of music often provokes discomfort, even while scraping and screeching in an electric guitar or sax is quite commonly accepted. As it is so closely tied to human language, a division has been historically created between the voice and other purely musical instruments, and it can be fraught with the burden of being forever assumed emotional. There is also the gender disparity – having worked as an instrumentalist I can attest to lingering sexism in music and have struggled with the expectations of being a female singer.
Despite all this, the voice is the most joyous and immediate of instruments, encouraging a strong ear and inner musicality, endlessly flexible, utterly expressive and always rewarding.
My favourite instrument is my baritone sax! I was originally an alto player and I bought the bari around 2009 I think, kind of on a whim (it was cheap) without any particular aim in mind. For a while I used it every so often on function/pop gigs, and then suddenly in the past five years it has become my main horn. I’m not sure how it happened! But I feel so comfortable on it that there’s no going back...
All my life I’ve been working on integrity. Trying to understand and to some extent reconcile or allow the different and contradictory aspects of self and ideas, which seem to conflict: silence/noise; listening/not listening; loud/quiet; self-belief/self-loathing; progress/stasis; audience/self; apartness/togetherness; recorded/live; body/soul etc.
Main project now is travelling with a group of musicians to refugee camps in order to play for the refugees. Am also planning to release a recording of my piece LAST, including my pre-recorded song performed by Robert Wyatt, played with improvising orchestra conducted by me; this was part of the fund-raising for the trips to Calais.
I’ve always used elements of movement, theatre and dialogue, sometimes in ways that other people weren’t particularly happy with, but now I think people like it. It’s something that has evolved and it’s been evolving over a long time, but it’s crystallising more and more.
When I do solo in particular, I’m doing a combination of talking, singing, philosophising. I’m quite interested in blurring the so called right and left brain. What’s rational and what’s intuitive, but all coming from that improvising place. Improvised dialogue. However there might be things that are on my mind, things that are important to me, like issues of liberation, which of course the music adresses so powerfully. It’s a musical liberation.
It took a leap forward when I was asked to do a presentation, a talking around the voice and improvisation. It was part of an event called ‘Her Noise’, about women, experimental music, electronics and stuff like that. When it got to my turn, for some reason I was very nervous. I found myself singing instead of just speaking. In my anxiety I went into sounds. I think people were so relieved that it wasn’t another powerpoint presentation. The novelty of it made it a huge succes. People loved it. Then I was asked to go to Sweden for the same organisation. So I did again. At that time the thing that was really eating away at me was the whole issues of the way people with mental health problems are treated. So that came up as an issue of liberation. The right to be unusual and different without being pathologized.
It is almost like I’m giving a presentation, but its a musical presentation. I’m very interested in developing that.
Another thing I’ve worked with, which I haven’t done for a while, is doing a workshop on magic, music and politics. I just had this idea. I’ve often brought words into the music. How would it be to bring music into the words. It was a big thing at the Rainbow Circle Gathering. Every night there used to be these debates in a big marquee. There was this young man, Derek Wall, who was a socialist green, who came to my workshops. He’d never played music in his life. He was quite shy, but he was great. And I asked him to pick a topic and I said let’s do a debate around Paganism and Marxism. So we booked the marquee for that evening. There were all these people turning up to talk and discuss. We set up John Stevens’ sustained piece and the click piece, which we’d been doing in the workshops. We explained what we were going to do and we told the workshop people to be very gentle and subliminal, so it wouldn’t freak people out.
So we just had this underlying sustained sounds and it was one of the most interesting debates I’ve ever been to, because the music made it possible for people to listen in a different way. There could be loads of people talking at once and then a speech. There were lots of different rhythms, just like the music. People weren’t freaking out. Everybody were talking at once, but there was music going on as well. And then it would stop. One of my abiding memories is Derek Wall explaining marxist theories while playing percussion. It was really nice.
I’m writing a book, called ‘Creative Liberation’, which is all about my workshop methods, but it’s also about my philosophy. I was really struggling. I have loads I want to write, but somehow I thought, I’m going to write from the same place as I improvise from. I’m just gonna close my eyes, almost going into a meditation space and see what happens. It just shifted something.
I’m interested in how free improvisation can invade every area of our lives. It’s not just in performance, but in social gathering etc.…just that thing of connecting to the source, which is where for me improvising comes from. That spontaneous source where pure potentiality is waiting to manifest.
Trio Blurb, which is John Russel, Mia Zabelka and me.
Transistions. Which is Caroline Kraabel, Charlotte Hug and me.
A new group which I’m loving (We’ve only done a few gigs) is Trio Generations.
I was doing this gig at I’klectic and on the same bill was this incredible Sweedish percussionist, Matilda Rolfsson. After that we were both at the London Improvisers Orchestra. Then she emailed me and asked if I’d like to do something with herself and piano player Lisa Ullén, whom I had met earlier at a festival in Austria. And then we sort of observed that it was 3 generations, so out of that came the name Trio Generations.
Then of course Sarah Gail Brand. I love working with her. She got a group together with John Edwards, Mark Sanders and me. My dad died when we we're supposed to do a gig at Cafe Oto, so obviously I was with my dad. But we’re going to do a gig in Austria.
Then there’s Les Diaboliques. It’s not London based though.
The name came about one of the times I was teaching a workshop at the jazz school in Paris. When I was there this anarchist journalist came up to me and asked ‘what are your future projects?’ I said ‘ I’m coming back to Paris with Irène Schweizer and Joëlle Léandre and he answered ‘Ahh Les Diaboliques…’
We’re doing a Uk tour soon. We’re doing the London Jazzfestival this year and we’re also going to Brighton, Bristol and Derby. So I’m really pleased. We’ve been going for probably 25-30 years.
It’s a great and powerful trio.
Another thing that is very close to my heart, is Julie Tippets and me. We haven’t worked together for a while. We go really deep. Two voices is lovely.
Of course the Gathering carries on. That’s really important.
Duo with Phil Minton and a trio with him, me and Steve Boyland.
The Glagow improvisers Orchestra. I love them with all my heart. I go there every year for the Gio festival. They invited me for a week of workshops and classes with them. Being Scottish of course that was fantastic. It was just brilliant. So I’m an honorary member of GIO. They’re a wonderful improvising orchestra.
This is just an extract I could mention many more.
For several years I’ve been integrating my classical violin playing roots with my many other sound explorations. The main meat of my practice is scales, classical technical studies, a little repertoire – mostly JS Bach, and improvisation. I don't consider technique to be extended or contracted, it’s just technique. I listen to a lot of music from all traditions and in all genres. That, plus some simple QiGong and breathing meditation is my basic practice.
I recently produced a tour of a piece called Rose is a Rose is a Rose is a Rose - Homage to Gertrude Stein. This work brings together music, literary text (namely Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas) and live cooking of recipes from The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook in performance. It’s been a rare and really exciting experience to tour a main-land European collaboration in England, and this was made possible by funding support from Sound and Music. Rose... was devised by Elisabeth Harnik, Gina Mattiello, Heidi Richter and myself in 2012, commissioned to celebrate International Women’s Day and first performed at an extraordinary historic venue, Kulturpension Prenning in Styria. Although there is structure and set material, improvisation is central to Rose... The tour took place 4-9th July and we are now planning performances for 2017. Please check out www.rose-homage-gertrude-stein.com for further info.
I’m currently in a bit of a state of searching around for my next direction. When I’m in periods like this I tend to become a bit of a magpie and pick things up for a while to see how they feel, and keep collecting until something suggests a direction. I’m pretty excited this week to have booked my first Bansuri lesson (one of my students, Aneez, brought me a flute back from India a couple of weeks ago), and I’m hoping that there might be riches to mine in terms of my saxophone improvising, as well as learning a new instrument and having a very elementary stab at beginning to learn the music of another culture.
At the moment I’ve three projects that I’m involved with that have records coming out, and I’ll list these in order of how close to completion they are! The first is a trio with Mark Sanders and John Edwards, and we’re really pleased to be releasing an album called Bibimbap on Two Rivers Records. Our launch gig is on 3rd August at Cafe Oto in London.
Next in line is a trio that I’m involved in with Hannah Marshall (‘cello) and Julie Kjaer (you!). We’ve recorded, and are now looking for a suitable label to put it out.
And thirdly (probably not finally for this year, though!) I’m recording a duo project I have with bassist Olie Brice in July.
And I’m also beginning to think about putting a project together to play compositions again…
Last year, 2015, I was asked to make a solo sound event in an Italian vineyard, I used vines which had been cut and dried out slightly from the previous month, then I made a backing track of sounds of the wine company who commissioned the work - bottling process, fermentation etc, and improvised using violin, saw, bicycle wheel, vines, voice with effects pedals over the top. It was to celebrate the 100th birthday of the Livio Felluga, founder of the wine Company. I recently used the Russian vine from my garden in a solo gig at the Linear Obsessional Arts Cafe.
I have also been re-connecting with playing without effects pedals in the duos with Ian MacGowan, and with Matilda Rolfsson, using a timbre based approach to the violin. I am not interested in playing fast cascades of notes, but working more on how the bow connects with the string, trying to relax more in the shoulders, and work the fingers of the bowing hand, it's also a good idea to not drink coffee before playing. I would like to be able to draw the bow without it bouncing at all. When I play with people I try not to have any preconceptions.
I am currently working on a project with Jacky Lansley, choreographer, using sounds and voices from the rehearsals, and doing a kind of musique concrete manipulation in the computer (currently using logic software). It may also involve bowing chairs. I am also currently working with an actor for Opera North doing our version of part of Wagner's Ring Cycle for 6 year olds and their families. I improvise on Hardingfele, accordion, seljefloete, and kantele, using themes from the opera.
I am also looking forward to making some more underwater field recordings soon, these don't always get an airing, just for my personal enjoyment.
As time has gone on I hope I have become more aware of how my mind can filter my ears. In other words how the judgements of our mind, that discern and carve meaning from sounds, can also dismiss them, and in doing so may miss an extraordinary moment. I never want to miss anything! As far as influences go I find things work more like I am stirring a pot, that music, musicians and influences get folded in and come round again, and again, and I am often trying bring many seemingly disparate elements together. Influences at the moment include Henry Threadgill’s Zooid, J-dilla, Hamid drake, Abdul Wadud, Beethoven, Messaien, and the devotional music of Azerbaijan.
I have recently being going back to something I used to do in my early 20’s, which is make beats/tracks in my room, with the aim of simply making me want to dance. So I guess that says that refined and unrefined rhythm is important to me, and my practice will often focus on rhythm more than specific pitches. I go through various battles with my left hand, and have been working around ornamentation for a while. Choosing no more than 3/4 notes or quartertones and simply finding ornamental patterns between them playing as fast and as slow as possible.
Like many classically trained musicians my teacher had a massive influence on me. Fortunately he was a big enough person to teach me, not ‘the instrument’ and I believe he did spend a while being puzzled as to what to do with me. I was very diligent, and had made the necessary choice- playing the cello was where I was at, and I was prepared to put in the time and effort. ‘Stop thinking about the instrument’ he would shout at me day after day.
In that kernel, is a world of truth that would later help me so much to play improvised music for people. In that intense relationship between myself and the instrument I was trying to master, I have to focus on what I am doing! Where is my mind? Where is my attention? What is my body doing? This is ultimately about taking responsibility for my own musicality. And treating it with respect, however much of a struggle it may be at any one time. I hope this has enabled me to treat the cello for what it is: an old box with strings strung on it! And simply to move myself and my limbs accordingly to create different sounds.
In terms of pitch relationships, other single line tenor instruments will often have a person playing them that will be able to teach me something amazing! The tenor saxophone is a mighty force. Coltrane and Albert Ayler, John Butcher, Rachel Musson, Ingrid Laubrock, Trevor Watts, Evan Parker: These players and this reed instrument make demands on a my chamber string instrument that bend it to braking point! However one of the joys of playing strings is their malleability to bend, de-tune, flick, poke and detach entirely from the body of the instrument. In their simple construct is an ancient quality that can call up something lost.
In terms of the relationship between practice and performance I find that it doesn’t work for me to have any specific goal in mind for a performance, that would feel contrived, and frankly its unlikely to work out. Instead I treat practice and performance as two distinct areas (unless I am learning a composition, which does happen sometimes!) I practice what I want to practice and get better at it for myself. And when I play I forget all about that, chuck it away! And just play. That way the playing and the practice can feed each other, I may notice some new thing I’m doing at a gig, and think ‘wow I’ve never done that before’, and then take it to another level at home, or decide to leave it in the past.
Improvised music is about saying there is so much more that is present in music than what you have practiced, than what you have developed through your will power alone. In fact I would say that for me personally the act of surrendering, not to others, but to what is happening, or what I am doing, but surrendering to it, is what I am interested in doing. Maybe it’s because I get bored with myself quite easily, so the idea of hearing myself playing things that I have practiced again and again is a little uninteresting and even unpleasant. Although of course it does happen! So I guess in surrendering what we are surrendering to is the moment, and to the music itself, which comes from that. That may mean having the courage to say nothing and just being there, until something grabs you to give voice.
I now live in Bristol and as a result have found myself playing more in other parts of the country, as well as London. Doing so has made me understand that the London improv scene works a hub for musicians across the country to come and play, and then return to their various and lively scenes elsewhere. This has been made more apparent as more and more musicians are getting pushed out of the capital due it’s changed status from a centre of culture to a centre of banking. There are rich activities taking place in many cities and areas of the country that reflect the legacy not just of the music that takes place in London but also in the rest of Europe and the World.
The musicians and collaborations that are important to me are possible too numerous to mention in full. But I will try. Constant groups and re-groups offer great rituals of connection that although meaningful, don’t always demand continued playing, or forming into official groups. Veryan Weston has been a very significant co-musician for me I have played in many groups with him and hope to continue to. I am delighted to be a member of Alex Ward’s quintet with truly astounding music and players. A trio that continues playfully skipping over time from one year to the next is with Tim Hodgkinson and Paul May (previously Roger Turner). A trio with Julie Kjaer and Rachel Musson has brought an amazing unity and common purpose of playing to my life. I continue to play with violinist Alison Blunt in Barrel with poet and fellow string player Ivor kallin, this is a trio that has complete trust and elasticity at it’s heart, we bring a lot of reflections and opposing energies to this group, it never stays still, it’s always alive. I play in a French/Italian/Irish/British band called ABHRA with vocalist Lauren Kinsella and saxophonist/composer Julian Pontvienne that uses the words of Henry Thoreau, which is quietly ecstatic sound world to be in. Also I have an ongoing duo With Dominic Lash, 2 groups with southwest saxophonist Tim Hill, new collaborations with Otto Willburg - Bass, Evan parker and Matt Wright – sound map collaboration, Joe Wright has been a pleasure to explore music with this last year, A trio with Terry Day and Satoko Fukuda, a trio Lauren Kinsella and Nick Malcolm - Trumpet, A raw and lovely duo with Viv Corringham – Voice, a new group with Tina Hitchins - Flute, A trio with Veryan Weston – tracker action organ & Jon Rose – violin, new playing opportunities with Guillaume Viltard - Bass, and a new trio Julie Kjaer and Mathilda Rolfsson - percussion. Phew!
Having said all that, when it comes to making my own stuff, I am somewhat of an artistic hermit, and have always enjoyed doing things on my own. I am currently working on another solo record which I suppose by it’s nature will be very personal. If I tried to describe what I am interested in conveying it would be something to do with simplicity, surprise, story, and place, I feel sure that text will be in there somewhere. I enjoy treating recording as something at the other end of the spectrum to performing, as it’s the creation of an object that can be replayed. Although I do have a lot of time for recordings of improvisation as a document, and an example of peoples work, however the best way of understanding any kind of improvisation is live, because it represents something that means something to you at that time, a moment in your life, after a day when something happened, what happened? How do you feel? What does it mean to be here? Live music is responding to those questions, and bringing you together with others too.
Recently I have been working on exploring a minor 9th interval, both in fingered notes and harmonics, right over the whole instrument,i.e. four octaves. I play around with tonal shades from subtoning to full tone, tongueing or slurred. I usually have some sort of rhythmic pulse in mind. I also have riffs that I work on in all keys, that might use more elaborate fingerings. I sometimes try to incorporate altered techniques once they are under my fingers. I try to hear the sound before I play it, but often other sounds appear.
I also have one or two tunes on the go, to play in a few keys, either well known tunes, or my own tunes. I’ve transcribed a couple of solos in the last month, one by Bud Freeman (Honeysuckle Rose) and one by Lucky Thompson on Mingus’ tune ‘Weird Nightmare’, it helps to make my fingers and mind go to new places. I try to memorise as much as possible.
I’m currently recording with The Remote Viewer’s,( Kraabel, Petts, Northover, Sanders, Edwards) I have just finished recording a second album to be released on cassette in Italy, with The Custodian’s of The Realm using text and instruments with Adam Bohman+Adrian Northover. I have recently been working with some musicians from Berlin and Italy.
In the practice of free improvisation I seek to use the voice as a pure sound source, disconnected from the strictures of linguistic communication. Cultural prejudices see it as proper for the voice to command primary attention on stage, and this is something I strive to overcome in my performance as free improvisation is, and should be, a collaboration of equal players. My intention in the process of improvising is to have no intention. I focus on the sounds being produced around me in the moment and respond intuitively. When the focus drifts, I reengage.
I am currently working on several recordings: with Lullula (the quartet with Armorel Weston, Jim Dvorak and Guillaume Viltard), with saxophonist Nthsuks Bonga, and Double Figures – a compilation of my duos with different players.
Over the last few years I’ve been especially excited by the many byways of jazz – listening, performing and composing. Last year I sang standards with the Cyril Bass Quartet, featuring Bob Sydor on sax. I also launched a quartet playing both original pieces and structured improvisations, with Martin Speake (sax), Liam Noble (piano) and Mark Sanders / Roy Dodds (drums). The pieces treated voice and sax as equal frontline instruments, with wordless vocal lines. Going forward I am writing songs – this time with lyrics – for a new jazz quintet. I find it both challenging and liberating to approach this more traditional form with its focus on harmony and melody while drawing on the experience gained from free improvisation.
SARAH GAIL BRAND
I like to use a combination of extended techniques, creating abstract sounds on the trombone with more conventional techniques. I played in orchestras, big bands, brass bands and pop bands when a young person so I want to include some melodic and conventional playing in my musical material as well as the more gestural material. It is important that I don’t assault my embouchure too much with extended techniques as it can affect my ability to play the trombone in the long term, but I also enjoy melody and phrase-based playing, as well as rhythmic material as it provided a counterpoint to other material in a group and provides contrast and colour. Plus, having a personal style is important in the development of a musical identity.
I am currently working in pop and rock music, playing and arranging brass section music. I have studied Composition to Masters level so also compose original music and hope to have this played in the future and I compose for my sextet. At the time of writing I am waiting to hear if I have been accepted to begin my PhD, which would entirely centered on my work as an Improviser.
My duo with Mark Sanders is always important to me and we have new album in production. I am also enjoying my new WToL Trio with John Edwards and Steve Beresford.
The thing that is preoccupying me at the moment is actually compsition. I like to write music, so I’m exploring ways to integrate that with my love of free improv. I’ve been trying out different methods of producing compositional structures that allow the musicians to shape the music through their improvisation. Striking the balance. At the moment I mainly do this by making semi-graphic scores for my band Sloth Racket.
My main project for the time being is Sloth Racket and I’m also working on a set of large ensemble music for my residency at Lancaster Jazz Festival this September (2016).
Louise Bourgeois; Maggie Nicols; Samuel Beckett; Henri Michaux; Thelonious Monk; Ornette Colemen.
Although it’s getting easier to be a woman playing improvised music, there is still a real disparity in the reception of our work. Improvised music is less bound by convention than many other forms of music (though conventions certainly exist here, too), but in some ways this militates against women precisely because in the absence of conventions around this music the listeners (who are still mainly male) allow their unconcious (or concious) prejudices about women to influence their perception of the quality of the music-making: a woman who improvises in an original way is likely to be ignored for being too odd or embarassing (where an original male musician would be fêted); a woman who improvises in a way that recognisably fits with or is descended from the “school” of European Improvised Music will be disparaged for being derivative of men.
There are many artists whose music or other art I greatly admire, but I’m not consciously drawing inspiration from these when I improvise. I suppose they just naturally inform my playing in different ways. I’m strongly aware of being musically inspired by every-day stuff, overheard or chance conversations in the street, walking around, hanging out with my 6 year old nephew...and breathing.
Links: Webpage www.alisonblunt.com
Right now I think my inspiration is Alex Ward - I’m in his quintet and sextet, and I find his ability to compose for improvisers and improvisation remarkable. It’s him that has convinced me it can be done! And an early inspiration - for good measure - I think I’ll never forget listening to Keith Jarrett’s album Personal Mountains when I was about 15. At the time I loved the space and time given for the improvising to unfold on that record. While what I’m doing now is quite distant to that style, I think that early experience has had a lot to answer for!
The opportunity to work solo but with a dancer or visual artist, so there is someone to bounce off. Miranda Tufnell, Eva Karczag, Chris Crickmay.
Clive Bell, David Toop, John Cage, my neighbour's forest garden, Paul Burwell, Stockhausen, my son - Maxwell Hallett and the numerous bands he plays in, English folk music sessions, Norwegian Hardanger fiddle music, frogs, wind, trees, places, Indian classical music, Ottoman classical music, London Improvisers Orchestra, all the people I have ever worked with, walking round my house looking for sounds, putting grasses in my ears and listening to the wind blowing through them, an album of Albanian folk music, Nils Oekland, J.S.Bach, the duduk, the curlew, the first bird to sing in the darkness before dawn, Tarkovsky, Svankmeier, my Mum who recited poetry and sang out-of tune lullabies to me, and my Dad who sang Schubert songs, elastic bands, bits of wood, metal clamps, metal gates, things that grow in the garden, wooden chairs, distant aeroplanes, the sound of flying geese, screaming swifts, beeping bats, The Incredible String Band, Messaien, stars, Kandinsky, the sound recordings of Peter Cusack, wind turbines.
Albums that I haven't decided to listen to, and don't know what they are.
Inspiration although through peoples music, comes most often in the daily world of chance happenings. Through trying to capture dreams or how life changes in lurches and fits, to grab something and write it, record it, or just feel it.
Poetry: Mary Oliver & Rumi. Sounds, the Fridge, a passing train. Colour, a red cabbage. I have been struck dumb by discoveries around sound and the power of vibrations in forming matter. An explicit example being Cymatics, and the work of Michael Tellinger – who found cymatic patterns in the stone formations that cover lost of southern Africa. I suppose what comes from this is that sound has a force to move and change, and that our perception of sound, like so much else, is coloured with the particular bias of being human. What we can’t hear or see doesn’t exist. Not So!
Over the last 10 years or so I have had the great fortune to travel fairly widely in main land Europe and also to Brazil and Russia to play improvised music. I have found that it is often abroad that I can get a stronger sense of the improvised music scene in London. In Italy particularly, British improvisation is treated with a great devotion and respect, in fact abroad the light shone on the approaches and energy of UK improvisation, brings out details that are easy to miss when amid gigs and formations here. Humour, eclectisism, a certain dynamic of interaction, and due to a general lack of consistent funding, the approach I think could be described as committed and appreciative with a community of people who have free music at the centre of their lives.
King Curtis-Memphis Soul Stew ( live at Fillmore West). John Coltrane-Countdown +Ballads with Johnny Hartman. John Gilmore-Take The A’Train (with Sun Ra).
‘Soul to Soul’-Tina Turner and Eddie Harris.
Bi Kidude (Queen of Taarab music Zanzibar)
Jack Brymer-Weber clarinet concerto for clarinet + orchestra. Billie Holiday with Lester Young and Teddy Wilson.
It’s not just music that has inspired me but words, science, nature, visual art, this never-boring city and so much more.
I’ve rarely met a music I haven’t liked, and I’m moved by music from many human cultures and eras. More specifically I can look at those genres with which I’ve been a bit more familiar, including musical theatre, jazz in all its incarnations, Western chamber and symphonic forms, opera and oratorio, African and rhythmic-driven music including Native American, blues, rock, punk, contemporary electronic, electropop and electronic dance.
It is difficult to prune inspiration into a list-shaped thing, but I did once compile a list of other musical pioneers who I’ve known and loved and may have played some part in inspiring my own musical exploration and vocal evolution, so here it is: Anna Moffo, Aretha Franklin, Artie Shaw, Bill Withers, Blixa Bargeld, Edita Gruberova, Ella Fitzgerald, Elliott Sharp, Emma Kirkby, Fred Frith, Gibby Haynes, John Butcher, John Cage, John Lydon, John Zorn, Joni Mitchell, Julie London, Kathy Berberian, Meredith Monk, Miles Davis, Mina Agossi, Nancy Wilson, Nat King Cole, Neneh Cherry, Patricia Barber, Peter Missing, PJ Harvey, Robert Plant, Róisín Murphy, Sarah Vaughan, Siouxsie Sioux, Tierney Sutton, Tony Bennett.
I always go blank when I’m asked about inspiration. No one person inspired me to try and do this really. I’m inspired by all the people I work with! Everyone who keeps going with it in the face of the current climate (especially in the UK).
Julie kjær's edgy and thoughtful playing and ‘dark, otherworldly imagery’ (Jazzwise) has become increasingly evident around Europe, inhabiting ground between composition and free improv. Experimenting with extended techniques, sound and rhythm she pushes her instruments to their limits.
She tours internationally with Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love and his Large Unit and she has toured internationally and recorded with Django Bates and StoRMChaser. Currently her main focus is on her trio, Julie Kjær 3, with bass player John Edwards and drummer Steve Noble. They released their debut album March '16 on Clean Feed Records.
Julie also plays with London Improvisers Orchestra and is a leader and side woman of several other English and Danish ensembles. In 2014 she was chosen to be a Sound and Music “New Voice” Artist and was chosen as a featured composer by the British Music Collection.
She associates herself with prized performers like Mark Sanders, Dave Douglas, Louis Moholo-Moholo, John Russel, Rachel Musson, Dave Liebman, Laura Jurd, Hannah Marshall, ‘Leafcutter’ John, Mira Calix, Veryan Weston and Steve Beresford.
Curated by: Julie Kjær
Thanks to: all the musicians involved, Angharad Cooper & Sound and Music & Paulo Duarte.