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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."


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