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New Music Box, Web Magazine of the New Music Center

Concert at ISIM 3rd Conference

Concert Performance
December 2, 2009
India Cooke, Joelle Léandre & LaDonna Smith

Stephen Nachmanovich, New Music Box, Web Magazine of the New Music Center, ISIM 3rd Conference, 2010

The physics of moving bodies: as I watch violinist India Cooke playing with bassist Joelle Léandre and violist LaDonna Smith, I feel their connection to the play of Newtonian forces as bodies and instruments fly around in space and time—a hallmark of improvised music. This is not to say that performers of composed music are not also profoundly tied into their physicality, but in improv the connection is front and center. As the bassist’s arm ricochets through the air with each stroke, we wonder (cliffhanger) how that stroke is going to land, how it will bounce and follow through into a one-of-a-kind sound. Sound and movement co-create each other, dance-like, along with the acoustics of that particular room, the attentional qualities of the audience, connected into context in a way that even beautiful and amazing performances of notated music seldom attain. Thus we become conscious, moment to moment, of being present at an event which can happen only once in the history of the universe. (Several months later, I’m in the car hearing whatever shuffles in next on the iPod—music from many worlds, but each recording contained within a nice, professional context. Then I hear this thwacking, breathing, harrumphing, string-and-vocal exuberance. It’s Joelle Léandre and India Cooke. As Blake said, exuberance is beauty.)

Pioneers like the Shaking Ray Levi Society in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and LaDonna Smith in Birmingham, Alabama, are combining far-out sounds with down-to-earth compassionate work with community groups, with children, with disabled people, veterans, people as far as possible from the art world and from the self-conscious avant-garde.

One pattern much in evidence is the fluid interface or continuum between improv and composition. A number of participants, like Walter Thompson and Pauline Oliveros, have contributed templates and methods for semi-structured large-group improv. All music vibrates on that continuum, and on the related continuums between freedom and form, individual personality and cultural heritage. Listening to each other’s methods and practices, no one seems to need to take a stand that x is better or more important than y.

III. Presence

Each encounter with fellow improvisers leads not only to new partnerships and new sound worlds, but to a treasure trove of research. A friend will tell me about the artists who have influenced her work, many of the names unfamiliar. After exploring their recordings, I realize that I should have known about these people long ago. One of the interesting things about living in a vast country where the arts are so vibrant and so poorly supported is that in my late 50s I keep making new friends and discovering whole new branches of music and allied arts that I had no idea existed. There is such a ferment of artistic exploration today, almost entirely below the radar of the mass media and the high-culture media.

To me, these encounters bring forward the element of music that is even more important than sound: people, interacting and present for each other. At each moment we are there to witness an event which has never taken place before and will never take place again. Of course this is true of everything in life, but improv makes the game exquisitely clear. The key to creativity, the algorithm for improvisation, is other human beings. As we realize this in our day to day practice, our art becomes, in George Lewis’s words, a power stronger than itself.