A Madman’s Approach To Music And Why Can't Music Be Like A Tree?

Duncan Heining BY

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"Art alone makes life possible." —Joseph Beuys.

The Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra is unique. It's an over-used word, I know, but in this case fully justified. GIO are unique in so many ways—in the way they formed, the way they make decisions, in their make-up, how they work and most importantly how they sound. They are many things but one thing they most definitely are not is a free jazz ensemble. No tenor sax spits ire and fire and no trumpet wails a discordant blues over a wild rhythmic pulse. The trombones don't compete for attention and the pianist doesn't shatter each moment of peace with frantic atonal lines. GIO sounds as it breathes, as it feels, as it thinks and as it acts.

"Collective" is another over-used word these days. Watching its members gather before the first night of their 7th annual GIOfest last November, it seemed less like musicians preparing for a gig and more like a social occasion. Just people saying 'hello,' catching up, relaxing, glad to be back. Not that there aren't tensions. Music or life without tension—and release—would not be music or life at all but something else entirely. But GIO's music does seem to come from a very different place, one less male-dominated than so much jazz and free improvisation. Talk to any GIO member and the word 'negotiation' is never far from their lips, a genuine collective after all.

GIOfest is a musical gathering of friends. Each November, GIO brings to Glasgow a clutch of old and new co-conspirators to join them at the city's Centre for Contemporary Arts. There'll be people like vocalist Maggie Nicols, pianist Steve Beresford, vibraphonist Corey Mwamba and saxophonists John Butcher and Michel Doneda, all guests this year. And there will be local friends as well such as actor-performance artist Tam Dean Burn or Sonic Bothy, an inclusive new music ensemble that explores, composes and performs experimental and contemporary music.

To date, this vast twenty-five person, pan-musical orchestra has released six CDs, several with friends such as Maggie Nicols, bassist-composer Barry Guy, saxophonists Evan Parker and Lol Coxhill and master improviser-composer George Lewis. Each record succeeds in being distinctive in its own right, unique even, and yet definitive of GIO's sound. The group's last CD, Artificial Life, was a remarkable collaboration with Lewis. Here, the trombonist's goal was a "negotiated" performance less the consequence "of individual freedom" than the "assumption of personal responsibility" by the orchestra's members "for the sonic environment." It was evident throughout that not only did GIO's members grasp that intention wholeheartedly but that its aim reflected directly their own vision. GIO's sound is the sound of its members. Its vision is one of a living democracy of music, art and life.

Reviewing the record for All About Jazz, I suggested that this was the result of each member being able at any moment to "contribute or even shape the direction of the music" by "a process of joining and gently pushing the music somewhere new." The analogy I gave was that of birds in flight. Watching GIO and its friends perform that sense was even more clear. More than that, one could see how 'negotiation' need not imply a consensus resulting from individuals giving up some value or other. Rather it could result in new possibilities that no-one had previously considered.

GIO came into being just over twelve years ago, as founder-member, saxophonist Raymond MacDonald explains,

"A number of us were invited in 2000 by saxophonist Pete Dowling to come and play a graphic score that Barry Guy was presenting as part of the Free Radicals Festival. Evan Parker was curating that year. The piece used a lot of artwork by Alan Davie to provide the iconography of the score. It all went very well and we said, 'We must do this again. We must get a group together and play.'"

MacDonald had begun to be interested in free improvisation and was beginning to explore this in a number of bands and situations and was meeting like-minded players, who were looking for a different kind of outlet for their aspirations. "That's when I started thinking about a large group," he tells me, "that pulled together all the people around Glasgow to meet to explore free improvisation in a large group context."

However, MacDonald's plans had to wait for the right opportunity and that came with the next Free Radicals Festival in 2002. He contacted the people who had played the Barry Guy score together in 2000 and others he knew to be "passionately interested in free improvisation and committed to getting together." Assured of a gathering of some sort, his next step was to approach Graham McKenzie, the festival's director. "I said, 'We haven't done anything since but I think the time is right to do something with a large ensemble of improvising musicians," MacDonald explains. "I said I could guarantee 25 musicians—that was quite bold because I wasn't sure I could -(Laughs) and I asked Graham to hire Evan Parker to run an afternoon workshop. Graham agreed. Evan said, 'Yes," and that for me was the moment GIO was born."

Bassist Una MacGlone was one of those who attended the workshop. "I saw an article in the Herald that said there was an open workshop with Evan Parker at the CCA," MacGlone recalls. "I emailed Ray saying, I'd be very interested in coming along. Ray in his typical welcoming manner said it was okay even though it was a very busy workshop. I'm not sure how the other musicians found out about the GIO project. But that workshop was the beginnings of GIO and in the same manner as when at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama I switched from cello to the bass -I never looked back!"

The workshop was the turning point for GIO and since then it has evolved from what MacDonald described as a "raggle-taggle bunch of musicians" into something truly valuable with roots in both the community of musicians and in Scotland's rich cultural scene. And that "raggle-taggle bunch of musicians" that came together across the musical spectrum helped shape and define what GIO is musically and socially. Unlike other improvising ensembles such as Italy's Instabile Orchestra, Misha Mengelberg's Instant Composers' Pool and Alexander von Schlippenbach's Globe Unity Orchestra, GIO was never a jazz big band manqué. True, it drew on musicians from Glasgow's fertile jazz scene but it also brought in players from the folk, classical, rock and electronic worlds, as well 'non-musicians.'

Pianist and GIO general manager Gerry Rossi makes this point very firmly,

"We're clear this is not a group of jazz musicians who are making free music. It's people who are interested in music and doing it spontaneously. The background of the whole thing is important in itself but it's not important that it comes from a certain genre."

Those members who come from classical music do so with very open minds, perhaps as Rossi suggests, encouraged by 20th century composers like Markus Stockhausen, Henry Cowell, George Crumb and Cornelius Cardew, who reintroduced the idea of improvisation into contemporary composition. The decision of those members from electronic music to ally themselves with GIO is easier to explain. The use of such approaches has been a part of contemporary classical music since Messaien and Varèse and also a welcome presence in improvisation circles since the late sixties.

But what would bring musicians from a folk or Scottish traditional background to GIO? Part of the answer lies in the openness of the Scottish music scene as a whole. For example, Glasgow's annual Celtic Connections Festival attracts artists from a range of backgrounds without it ever seeming to be a case of eclecticism for its own sake. The other part of the explanation, however, lies in what Gerry Rossi describes as a Scottish "ethos of curiousness," a willingness to think beyond genre, a virtue acknowledged in the title of GIOfest 2014—"Connected Elements." Guitarist George Burt is one member, who came to the orchestra from a background in both jazz and folk music.

"There used to be a pretty busy folk scene in Falkirk, and I played double bass in my uncle's ceilidh band," Burt tells me, "not because I was a bass-player, just because there happened to be one in the house...I don't know how I managed to keep a functioning liver through those years. I was playing guitar more seriously. Players like John Renbourn, Davey Graham, Martin Carthy. I still love that stuff. Listening to John Martyn was important in my circle of friends, and I followed him into John Stevens, Neil Ardley and so on. That opened up all the Britjazz world."

Burt is perhaps best known for his successful collaboration with MacDonald in the Burt-MacDonald Sextet, one of the most intriguing groups in British jazz. The group's CDs Day For A Reason and BooHoo Fever with pianist Keith Tippett come highly recommended. For Burt and it seems other GIO members, spontaneous improvisation or collective composition, call it what you will, has its own logic and one valid as any of the other backgrounds from which they come.

"I think I've always done it," Burt explains simply. "I'm self-taught and you have to do a lot of mucking about if there's not somebody there to show you how to get a sound. There's always been a lot of DIY music making in the folk scene and the process of making up a bass part for a set of fiddle tunes is very similar to playing a completely free piece, as far as I can see. I remember seeing a connection when I heard about figured bass in baroque music. I also remember being interested in the funny sounds you can get on the guitar very early. As soon as I got one, I was fiddling with harmonics, behind the bridge sounds, rapping the sound board. The percussive approach to the guitar by John Martyn and Kevin Coyne made immediate sense to me."

Watching the ensemble in Glasgow last November over three nights, as different collaborators led, or perhaps better guided, the performance certain things became clear. Some of these 'connected elements' seemed to work better than others, to me at least. Percussionist Gino Robair's duo with John Butcher seemed so dominated by Robair's theatrics that I struggled to concentrate on Butcher's contributions. I wondered too how well the aesthetic of Lemur, the Norwegian improvising chamber quartet, sat with GIO's eclectic approach. Of course, subjective elements can also be connected. As I watched that night sitting with a friend, more a fan of straight-ahead jazz, I became increasingly aware that what he was hearing was not soothing the savage breast so much as enraging it. Perhaps that affected my perception. But these are valid questions too. If all collaborations were to work every time in every situation there would be no change, no development.

It was nevertheless apparent that the session where Maggie Nicols was our guide -A Madman's Approach To Music -inspired the orchestra to new heights. Built around a poem by bassist-improviser-poet Lindsay L. Cooper, this was a celebration of a life and a personal remembrance for some of the musicians present. Voices alternately babbled and then sustained keening Ligeti-like cries. Long notes from brass and woodwinds formed into chords that reached across the room and beyond. And finally and strangely, a brief but gorgeous fluegelhorn cadenza grew into a swelling chord across the ensemble, a combining of small sounds that softened as it mirrored the in-out motion of breathing.

Steve Beresford had opened the festival with GIO to fine effect but had also worked with a number of small groups to create a series of episodes from within the orchestra. A highlight of the latter was the acappella trio of Cliona Cassidy, Maggie Nicols and vocalist-pianist Maya Dunietz. It was one part "The Scottish Play," one part music hall and a third "riotgirlz." The collaboration between GIO and Sonic Bothy, a mixed group of adults and young people some with learning support needs, was also tender and moving. But the best was saved till last in a final set with actor Tam Dean Burn that revealed the true dramatic potential of the Glasgow Improvisers' Orchestra. As Burn chanted, nay performed, the ancient epic poem Gilgamesh, GIO marked every word, every nuance, every gesture with sounds ranging from the delicate to the apocalyptic. It was a tour de force. It was a triumph. At the heart of GIOfest and all the orchestra's work, lies an ethic that is expressed in performance, in the way its members interact and in its wider relations with the community. Once a month, GIO runs an open workshop at the CCA for anyone willing to attend. Despite myriad pressures financial and otherwise, GIO has resisted charging for these. In fact, GIO would like to make everything they did free, though that is not realisable in all situations, Gerry Rossi tells me,

"We charge £8 for concerts and £4 or £5 pounds concessions. For youth and children's workshops we're quite insistent that we don't charge for them because then it would turn into an elitist thing and we don't want that. We always try to ensure that Creative Scotland (the Scottiish Arts Council) covers the cost of delivering those."

And it's less about proselytizing and has much more to do with communication and service, as Una MacGlone points out,

"An important part of educational work is knowing how to position yourself in the best place to facilitate other people being comfortable about being creative. It's what Maggie Nicols calls, "social virtuosity." We're all basically musical inside. Our experiences in life might make us take up certain positions—we might think we're not musical and when that happens it can be hard to change that."

For MacGlone, the value of free improvisation and the workshops lies not just in what participants can learn about making music but in opening them up to possibilities they hadn't previously considered. Sometimes the process is easier with those with limited skills, "People are often surprised at their efforts, at how good it sounds," she says. "Quite often interesting things will emerge with people who are inexperienced improvisers because with experienced players it can be easy to fall into old habits. It's a case of realising that if do that, how will that affect the person next to me."

This work is central to what GIO is and what it does. Its members work with all ages from three (!) to seventy-three and across the community. "GIO Babies" for toddlers is particularly popular. MacGlone tells me that three year olds are "wonderful improvisers," though I suspect some parents might have a different handle on that!

And within GIO, there is a structure based on participatory democracy, to use a much-devalued phrase. The word "syndicalist" might offer a better description. Not that there are not tensions within this. Decisions can take a long time to emerge and such models of social organisation are difficult for funding bodies to work with or understand. Rossi's description of GIO as "a big giant" made up of each member and their contribution, applies organisationally, socially and musically. More recently, however, a committee of sorts has been established, as GIO has grown to the point where, as George Burt points out, "We're knocking on the door of the establishment and are a couple of rungs below the big funded ensembles like the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Scottish Opera. I think it's clear to the establishment that we're not going away. There is a growing interest in improvisation in academia and it's handy for the Scottish Universities to have an improvising ensemble on the doorstep."

With Gerry Rossi now its (very) part-time general manager, it will be interesting to see how GIO can maintain its democratic but loose structure and its distinctive identity in the face of such pressures. One suspects that they will be able to do so but no-one in GIO is naïve about the potential dangers involved. But one thing that makes GIO different is the broader sea within which it swims. There is in Scotland an ethos that differs from that which looms so destructively around the South-East of England and Westminster in particular and was seen in the strong 'Yes' vote in last year's independence referendum, a vote that stood up in the face of a grotesquely negative 'No' campaign and interference from major corporations. Civic values and responsibility still rank more highly in Scottish culture, if not in the Edinburgh-based Scottish finance industry. At a wider level, GIO's growth has, in part, arisen from its standing in the world of improvised music. From the outset, it was able to draw in co-conspirators who were themselves 'hard-hitters' in that world. George Lewis' name frequently springs up in conversation. For Gerry Rossi, "George Lewis is the person who has had most influence on us because he has created a number of pieces around GIO and has taken us through radical ideas. He's taken us through graphic scores and given us routes through this maze." For Una MacGlone, Lewis "is a master of creating compositions that are open enough to allow people to be creative but distinctive enough that they could only be by him." The orchestra's wonderful Artificial Life CD on Future Music Records, which received a four star rating in Britain's Jazzwise, is the most recent evidence of that. Their previous collaboration was Metamorphic Rock from 2009 on Iorram Records is just as fine and quite different.

But others too have had their influence. There's Maggie Nicols whose startling voice-led CD with GIO, Which Way Did He Go? (FMR) came out in 2005 and Barry Guy, whose two contributions to GIO's catalogue Falkirk (FMR 2007) and Schweben (Maya 2012) represent stand-out recordings within free improvisation. But the question remains, for those yet to experience GIO, what is this music about? Hearing is believing but for a possible description try this.

I imagine a music of fragments, seemingly isolated sounds that suddenly coalesce into something unspeakably beautiful or perhaps disturbingly so. Imagine a music of Babel but where for a moment all those voices speak in a single, intelligible tongue. These are similes, metaphors but with free improvisation—particularly where this is sui generis as with GIO—the language and aesthetic assumptions of musical criticism are inadequate. We can talk of cadences or crescendos or melodies or harmonies but not in ways that apply to a symphony or sonata, jazz standard or folk ballad. But to put it another way, GIO make music that is all musics, where form and content become one thing.

And how exactly might GIO's approach differ from other groups or artists who emphasise improvisation over form? Taking George Russell and Graham Collier of examples of one modus operandi, we might use the term 'co-determined form' as a description, locating the way form is determined in their cases by composer-conductor and musicians. With those like the Instabile or Globe Unity, we might describe their oeuvre as 'emergent form,' even allowing for the part played by notation in some cases. Finally, with GIO and their confreres the London Improvisers Orchestra, we may talk about 'coalescent form,' a form that results from the coming together of small particles, coalescing maybe rather than connected elements. Una MacGlone calls the process, "self-orchestration."

GIO is, after all, a testament to its members and its sound is their sound. The first movement of baroque composer, Jean-Féry Rebel's Les Élemens is called "La Cahos." It opens with a chord played by the orchestra made up of every tone in the key signature. It's an astonishing moment and how much more shocking for eighteenth century ears. But it is just a moment, albeit a glorious and triumphant one. Author James Gleick alerted us to the work of scientists such as Edward Lorenz and how chaos theory had been able to reveal patterns even within chaotic systems. We just have to find them. There are many such moments, many such patterns in the recordings and performances of the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra.

Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra Recordings

GIO with Evan Parker—Munich and Glasgow 2004 Two sets, one recorded in Munich with Evan Parker, the other au seule in Glasgow. The longest track here, "Das Grosse Spiel," mixes jazz and contemporary classical sounds to fine effect and even appears to 'swing' in its own strange way. On "Right," the interaction between the orchestra and their guest is quite perfect, allowing Parker free rein whilst offering support and challenge in equal measure. A fine debut.

GIO with Maggie Nicols—Which Way Did He Go? 2005 From the eerily sublime to the serially atonal, GIO are developing into one of the most assured improvising big bands. There's a flavour and feel to these five performances with Maggie Nicols that is truly unique. If anything her wry commentary on the opening "Improv with Maggie No-1" and her 'speaking in tongues' vocal on "Food" suggest a match made in heaven. The album closes with "Improv with Maggie No. 6," a bizarrely operatic offering with Nicols on fine form spouting what sounds like a series of oaths and curses of truly Glaswegian origin.

GIO with Barry Guy—Falkirk 2007 This represents a coming of age for the orchestra. If the opening and anthemic improvisation were not inspiring enough, the long Barry Guy composition, "Witch Gong Game II/10," that follows is astonishing. It opens out with a sax-led section that has the kind of searing intensity rarely found in music such as this. As for singer Nicola MacDonald, her "speaking in tongues" vocal recalls the great Maggie Nichols at her most wonderfully barmy. GIO grab Guy's ideas like an opportunity so longed-for, that no-one wants to waste this chance.

GIO and George Lewis—Metamorphic Rock 2009 This free improv CD was recorded after rehearsal for Artificial Life. The musicians were keen to go on playing and Metamorphic Rock justifies their desire to continue the creative high. There are some marvellous moments -the combining at certain points of George Burt's acoustic guitar with Neil Davidson's electric instrument; the playing of the three bassists; individual performances from Raymond
GIO—Poetics 2009 A rather different GIO here with guests Portuegese violinist Ernesto Rodrigues and his cellist son Guilherme Rodrigues. The emphais is more on the strings of the orchestra with wonderfully dense textures and a rich acoustic sound. Hints of Varèse and perhaps Stockhausen. Strangely strange and oddly beauftiful.

GIO with Evan Parker and Lol Coxhill—Improcherto 2012 Featuring, guests Evan Parker and Lol Coxhill, this CD reveals the awesome fire-power of the ensemble, whilst guitarist George Burt's use of form and structure adds a fresh dimension to the orchestra's work. Within that overall shape beautiful fluttering Messiaen-like passages are bracketed by explosive climactic outbursts. This is music of at times quite astonishingly beautiful textures, shimmering and translucent. Flower of Scotland, indeed!

GIO with Barry Guy—Schweben 2012 This record goes to the heart of what GIO are about. The music goes through a series of cycles, involving larger and smaller number of players, with passages of almost overwhelming intensity and periods of purposive respite. The contrast between architecture and freedom is dramastic indeed. I found myself thinking of improbable buildings, real or imaginary that seem to resist their land or city scape -La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Mervin Peake's Gormenghast, Escher's An Ocean of Knowledge, Kafka's Castle, the never built Futurist monument planned in Petrograd Tatlin's Tower or Le Mont-St-Michel.

GIO with George Lewis—Artificial Life 2014 This not a music of 'devil take the hindmost,' Sturm und Drang. Rather, it is a music of service and communion made by a collective of creative voices. There is throughout this record a wonderful layering of textures quite different from the much more traditional approach achieved by the stacking of harmonies. Here, this is achieved through the emergence of groupings of musicians/voices interacting with and supporting other such groupings. With its many moments of exquisite beauty, the best The best analogy, I can give, is that of a flock of birds in flight.

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