Tag Archives: improvisation

“Freedom” at the Vortex. March, 2016.

Orphy Robinson runs a monthly improvisation night at the Vortex, “Freedom”, at which he invites musicians to participate and plays open house. Any musician seems welcome to perform, and Orphy arranges short 15 minute sets. Not only is the music improvised, but there’s no certainty that the musicians have played together before – or even know each other.

I happened to be in London for this week’s show. I’d wanted to go for a while, but living four hundred miles away can get in the way of going to London gigs.

The nature of the event means the quality of the music can be variable: you don’t know who will turn up, or what their skill will be. But that makes it interesting, too: alchemy might happen. And it did.

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There were several “sets” – seven or eight. The first piece had Orphy on vibes with tenor player Ed Jones – who I’d not seen play for ages – together with a drummer (Alex?) who had been working behind the bar up to that point. (They’re a talented bunch at the Vortex.) It set the tone for the evening – the trio produced some excellent, impassioned music, and it was great to hear musicians being so creative.

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Not all the contributions were quite so impressive: that’s the nature of a show like this. Not knowing who or what was coming there were several players I’d really like to see again. The second piece featured Marta Capone’s highly expressive wordless vocals and Kate Shortt on cello, both inventive and entertaining. A pianist introduced only as “Victor” sounded pretty good, too.

They closed with everyone back on the stage. Ed Jones had moved on by then, which was a pity – I’d have liked to hear more of him. Another saxophonist, whose name I didn’t catch, played soprano through a variety of pedals, whilst Orphy played piano and Victor, vibes. Kate, Alex, a trumpeter, a guitarist and three vocalists crammed onto the small stage. I think the smaller ensembles worked better, but it was all pretty interesting – and great fun. As Orphy said as he left the stage, “That’s freedom”!



“Running Under Bridges”, Again. Edinburgh, May 2015.

I went back to see the last improvised performance of Running Under Bridges, a week after I saw the second. (I wish I had seen the first, too.)

This time, joining saxophonist (and co-creator of the project) Raymond MacDonald and guitarist George Burt was harpist Catriona McKay. Taking as their “score” the same images by Jo Ganter as before, with the same instructions and direction (and, indeed, some passages were recognisable between the two performances), it was a very different experience.


I can’t remember having seen an improvising harpist before, certainly not one playing steel bottle neck or tupperware on the harp. (There are a couple of jazz recordings I have which feature a harp, I think – one by Alice Coltrane, for instance.)

Having spent some more time looking at the exhibition of Ganter’s artworks and the images from which they were derived, as well as her fascinating animations of some previous performances of Running Under Bridges and a couple of improvisations by MacDonald and pianist Marilyn Crispell (a couple of videos are at the end of this post), it was easier to follow the way the musicians translated the abstract “score” into music – maybe to grasp what their process was.

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This performance felt more intimate, as if the audience was watching something very raw and personal going on. Like we were eavesdropping a private conversation between the musicians. There is an openness that improvisation brings to an event – shared by the audience, too, because we need to be open to experiment (and, at times, disappointment) – and you never know what is going to happen.

Another fascinating experience.

Parallel Moments | Longing from Ganter MacDonald on Vimeo.

Running Under Bridges: improvisation at Talbot Rice. Edinburgh, May 2015.

I spent an hour or so this afternoon in the Talbot Rice gallery, listening to the pictures. Well, listening to improvisers interpret the graphic images, which represented the scores around which they improvised. The pictures they had on their music stands were copies of the art on the walls.

The project, Running Under Bridges, is a collaboration between musician Raymond McDonald and visual artist Jo Ganter. The musicians – McDonald was joined by longtime collaborator George Burt on guitar, Stu Brown on drums, and (I think) Emma Smith on bass – used the pictures to set the rules and then took the improvisation from there.

(c) Jo Ganter, from the Talbot Rice Gallery website.

It was a fascinating experiment, clearly not free improvisation, but intriguing.

Created on a grid, some of the artworks produced a strong sense of time, with a strong melodic line from McDonald’s saxes; at other points, Burt’s choppy, abstract guitar provided the industrial noise required by the score.

The artist and musicians answered questions from the audience between the four or five pieces. It was clear that the audience were trying to understand both the music and the process – how they translated images into sound. Did the colours have meaning? (To an extent.) How were the patterns turned into music? (Through the musicians improvising skills.)

There is another concert next Saturday, with McDonald and Burt and a harpist (possibly Corrina Hewat, but I couldn’t catch the name!), working with the same pieces, and I have every intention of going back to see how it works out. (I’m thinking of submitting a photo of the Forth Bridge for them to play, too…)

Noise. Sometimes Annoys, But Often Not.

Two more improvisation gigs; when I said there wasn’t much improvised music in Edinburgh, I was wrong: I just hadn’t found it.

The more I listen to live improvised music, the more I am working out what works for me, though mostly I can’t explain it. It is easier to explain what I don’t like than what I do: musicians who create what I perceive as noise, particularly electronically generated, don’t work for me. When they open up their Macs and hunch over the qwerty keyboard, I tend to switch off.

But lots of things that I’m sure others consider noise I hear as art. It is a very fine boundary.

Both these gigs were produced under the banner of EdImpro, which seems to be a band, a collective and a promoter… The first was in the pristine white space of the university’s Infomatics dependent, and was ostensibly part of the Science Festival.

There were three acts. The first was clarinetist Pete Furniss , who played three solo pieces. Ok, he used a Mac – but to loop and interact with his music, not to create noise. Apparently with composed and improvised elements – the computer running along established rules – these were lovely pieces. Their roots were clearly classical, the lines wandering along a western tradition.

The second act were Jess Aslan & Emma Lloyd, a violin and Mac duo. It maybe it was the other way around. I couldn’t hear what the Mac was doing; the violin was making a variety of atonal sounds. Where the clarinet had reeled me in, the violin pushed me away.

The final act was – different. Pure noise, but engaging and compelling. An enigma. Jean-Fran├žois Laporte makes his own instruments; in this case, a multiple foghorn powered by compressed air. The compere said that Laporte wouldn’t be offended if the audience used earplugs. By chance rather than design, I had a pair with me, and I decided prevention was better than cure. I used them.

The horns were loud. The air rumbled, my lungs resonated. It was noise at its most elemental. But it was strangely compelling. There were overtones – not harmonies, perhaps, but undercurrents as the different horns crossed over. It was visceral.


He slowly unwound the horns. His next piece was much more playful: he stood on a table amidst the audience and swung a tin can, tied to a cord, around his head. As it circled him it generated a sound, much higher and quieter than the horn. The flying can span faster and faster, higher above Laporte’s head (and over the amused and concerned punters), its pitch rising.

As much performance art than music, this was a fascinating close to the evening. (No members of the public were hurt in the production of this performance…)

* * *

This was followed a couple of weeks later by another EdImpro gig, this time in an Edinburgh city centre pub. Well, it now calls itself a club, but since it doesn’t seem to have changed since its pubdom, pub it is.

There were another three acts. The highlight – what had roused me out into the rainy night – was a performance by percussionist Eddie Prevost. I hadn’t realised there were others on the bill.

First up was an ensemble performance by EdImpro, this time featuring a violinist (possibly the same player from the previous gig), a reeds man, a drummer, assorted Mac players – and someone on cardboard box.

No really.

Ok, the box man also manipulated sounds in a Mac, but there was something brilliantly naive about contributing to a performance by bowing a cardboard box.

Bits of the half hour performance I loved – there were some lovely moments from saxophone and clarinet, and from the violin, too – and others less so. I’m not certain the point at which improvisation goes from a bunch of soloists playing at the same time to a cohesive piece played by a group: certainly, there were times when I couldn’t perceive much interaction between the players. (I’m not saying it wasn’t there.)

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And I really liked the cardboard box. Perhaps I really liked the idea of the cardboard box, but again it added some levity to the proceedings. He generated a fair variety of sounds from the box, at times percussive, through a hum to sawing. It is amazing what you can do with a bow.

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As Eddie Prevost demonstrated. Despite having several drums set up, he concentrated on his cymbals – and mostly bowing them rather than hitting them. He even had a gadget rotating at the side of the stage to automatically play his cymbals.

His whole performance was enchanting. Prevost’s imagination seemed unbound, coming up with more and more ways to generate sound from his cymbals.

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I can’t explain why I found the noise produced by Prevost or Laporte so engaging, but both were – much more so than any electronic wibbling. It might be that the very analogue methods of creating those sounds are important took me – both using archaic techniques. But Prevost’s forty minute set didn’t drag at all. Intriguing.

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After Prevost, a Mac duo made noises which drove me from the room. Whatever it is about Mac-noise, I think I’ve a while to go before I’ll enjoy it.

Mwamba/Champion/Darrifourcq/Ceccaldi and Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra. GIOfest, Glasgow. November 2013.

One of the things I think I have missed most moving away from London is the availability of improvised music – music from the wackier end of jazz. Improvised music is a strange beast. I live the excitement and energy I’d watching live improvised music, knowing that anything could happen. But I find it very hard to listen to at home: maybe it takes too much concentration. And there is something contradictory about recorded improvised music. It has to be live, for me. This means that I have no recordings of some of my favourite musicians!

So when I noticed on Twitter that vibes player Corey Mwamba was coming to Glasgow, I made the effort to get across for the show. He was playing in a quartet as part of a four day festival of improvised music organised by Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra, supporting GIO who were playing a piece commissioned by Radio 3. How did I not know about this before?!

Mwamba was playing with Andy Champion on bass, Sylvain Darrifourcq on drums and Valentin Ceccaldi on cello, a cross-Channel quartet who had been playing a few dates in the UK. They played for forty five minutes, straight through. Mwamba was the visual centre, energetically dancing around his vibes; at times it seemed like the vibes were playing him. He played recorder at one point, too. The band were lively, energetic and played exciting music that twisted and turned. At times all four played percussion, Champion and Ceccaldi banging the bodies of their instruments; indeed, Champion and Ceccaldi routinely sought novel ways to play, Ceccaldi playing his cello’s spike at one point. They finished their with a long work out to a groove-waltz, giving a lie to the idea that improvised music is just for the head – we could even have danced to that!

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I found the GIO commission, “Parallel Moments Unbroken”, more challenging. I had seen the “composer”, Raymond MacDonald, discuss his methods earlier in the year, and it was interesting to see him put them into practice. With more than thirty performers, they need to be disciplined and organised: each musician had a pre-prepared sketch – both musical and pictorial – to play with, though they decided exactly when and what to play. MacDonald directed the orchestra at times, moderating the pitch and volume through hand gestures (though not the precise notes).

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There were moments of emotion and excitement, but the sheer number of musicians meant that some got lost in the mix. Marilyn Crispell was one of several visiting artists, and I would have loved to have heard more of her (she had played solo and small group gigs earlier in the week, so this was partly down to my choice!); similarly some of the local musicians, like trumpeter Robert Henderson and MacDonald himself on sax, played some beautiful phrases, and I wanted more of their playing. Other musicians seemed to my ears to create cacophany – I wondered whether using an electronic keyboard to produce noise fitted into the structure of the piece; it certainly didn’t add anything for me.

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But the overall effect of the piece was fascinating, worth the challenge, and one I will be seeking out again!