Thoughts on Improvisation: Confessions of Cardew and Tolstoy

In preparation for a masterclass at the St. Petersburg School of Improvisation, I have been re-reading Cornelius Cardew‘s Treatise Handbook and Towards an Ethic of Improvisation. So many of his words tie in to what has been going on in the background of my life: the press and forum debates over the recent Geneva Competition (two second prizes awarded, no first), my reading Nabokov’s Lectures on Russian Literature, and Tolstoy’s Confession.

Let’s start with the Geneva Competition debate of technical mastery vs. artistic mastery. I find this argument to be rather old hat, so didn’t contribute to the forum fury it unleashed. However, I was touched by how Cardew tied this matter in with eroticism (mention sex, and you immediately have my attention) and the heaviest question (according to Tolstoy) that plagues us: what is the point of life?

From Cardew’s Towards an Ethic of Improvisation:

Postulate that the true appreciation of music consists in emotional surrender, and the expression music-lover becomes graphically clear and literally true. Anyone familiar with the basis of much near-eastern music will require no further justification for the assertion that music is erotic. Nevertheless, decorum demands that the erotic aspect of music be approached with circumspection and indirectly. That technical mastery is of no intrinsic value in music (or love) should be clear to anyone with a knowledge of musical history. [...] Elaborate forms and a brilliant technique conceal a basic inhibition, a reluctance to directly express love, a fear of self-exposure. [...]

Love is a dimension like time, not some small thing that has to be made more interesting by elaborate preamble. The basic dream – of both love and music – is of a continuity, something that will live forever. The simplest practical attempt at realising this dream is the family. In music we try to eliminate time psychologically – to work in time in such a way that it loses its hold on us, relaxes its pressure. Quoting Wittgenstein again: “If by eternity is understood not endless temporal duration but timelessness, then he lives eternally who lives in the present”.

Eternity, infinity – here lies the connection to the everlasting question of Tolstoy, one that plagued him and drove him (and drives many others) to deep depression: “Why should I live, that is to say, what real, permanent result will come out of my illusory transitory life–what meaning has my finite existence in this infinite world?”

The question of connecting the finite to the infinite lies in the practices of religion, yoga and many other philosophies that lie outside my area of expertise. It raises the question of faith, a non-rational subject on which Tolstoy writes very sensitively and rationally. But what if we take Cardew’s suggestion, as quoted by Wittgenstein, by working within time and not viewing the eternal (infinite) as endless, but timeless. Improvised music, created on the spot, is eternally in the present. Cardew writes:

From a certain point of view improvisation is the highest mode of musical activity, for it is based on the acceptance of music’s fatal weakness and essential and most beautiful characteristic – its transcience. The desire always to be right is an ignoble taskmaster, as is the desire for immortality. The performance of any vital action brings us closer to death; if it didn’t it would lack vitality.

Arguable, but food for thought. For further reading, see also Sketches Towards a Performance of Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise by Alex South and Richard Craig.


Ghost Icebreaker


My first CD, Ghost Icebreaker, is out! (And who knows, maybe my last!)

For the past ten years I have had the pleasure to collaborate with pianist Alexei Lapin. We have appeared on a number of CDs together (visit my CD shop), but this is the first I have produced, and the first where we play as a duo.

If I am not mistaken, this CD is also a first in that it contains solely original, non-Jazz improvisations for flute and piano. If I am wrong about that, I would love to know!

It will be available soon through Leo Records (LR704), but I have them in stock already. Click the “Buy Now” button to buy through PayPal.



Improvisation: Freedom and Responsibility

Maggie Nicols

On Sunday, May 20th I took part in a vocal improvisation workshop led my Maggie Nicols in Cologne. My husband is a huge fan, and signed me up in absentia while I was on tour in the US. There were about 25 of us, professional singers, lay singers, theater people, and professional instrumentalists. Some were seasoned improvisors who had taken part in Phil Minton’s Feral Choir Project, which I am deeply sorry to have missed. I absolutely love Phil Minton’s vocals, he is wonderful and grotesque, often stirring up something unrecognized and stagnant within.

I wanted to write this in order to remember several of Maggie Nicols’ exercises that stuck with me. I thought they were great ways to introduce controlled improvisation to a group.

One is to start with only a short sound, a single syllable at any pitch or dynamic (we all sang the syllable “bop”). In the beginning there is silence, then anyone is free to give a starting impulse by singing  his/her “bop”. All immediately follow, singing their own short “bop”. It will (and should) sound like a scattered cloud of notes. Then silence, then someone else (anyone) starts the second cloud of short sounds. This goes on, someone giving an impulse, others following, always with silence afterwards. After the fifth impulse there can be more freedom to develop, let things happen, sing longer notes, lose the silence, etc.

Since you have a parameter of  one syllable there is no worry “oh, what am I going to sing!?” It’s just “bop”. Hooray!

For this next exercise we split into trios. We were all free to sing and vocalise what we wanted, the only rule was that if someone stopped, we had to stop too. A wonderful way to exercise absolute freedom combined with the responsibility of listening carefully.

Some of the social implications of these exercises interested me, since I am often bothered by the line between strong individualism and social consciousness. Maggie Nicols pointed out the importance of allowing absolute freedom of expression. If it is withheld, the repressed start to look cattily at those who express themselves freely. No one needs that.

How do you exercise responsibility within this freedom? Well, in music, it is relatively easy, just listen