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The Outsound New Music Summit begins with an extended improvisation gig

Imaginative image of Thollem McDonas at work
Imaginative image of Thollem McDonas at work
by Angela C. Villa, from Joe Lasqo's blog

As those who read the schedule announcement know, this year the 13th Annual Outsound New Music Summit began this past Sunday afternoon with a general workshop on collaboration and improvisation led by pianist, composer, and educator Thollem McDonas. According to the description in the program book, the workshop was “open to dancers, musicians, filmmakers, writers, actors, fine artists, and more.” The results of that workshop were then performed last night in the Capp Street Concert Hall of the Community Music Center.

Composer and improviser Joe Lasqo was kind enough to use a post on his blog to list all of the participants in last night’s performance, together with hyperlinks to their respective home pages when those were available:

  • Thollem McDonas: piano, Franken-B3 MIDI controller, instigator/leader
  • Kersti Abrams: sax & rhaita
  • Michael Aubin: bass guitar
  • Ferrara Brain Pan: bass clarinet, flute, sopranino sax
  • Jill Burton: voice
  • Brett Carson: piano & Franken-B3 MIDI controller
  • Tania Chen: piano, radios, gadgets, toys
  • Ron Heglin: trombone & voice
  • Heikki Koskinen: digital trumpet & recorders
  • Joe Lasqo: laptop & piano
  • Collette McCaslin: trumpet & electronics
  • Michael Mersereau: guitar
  • Ann O’Rourke: percussion, electronics, vocals
  • E. Doctor Smith: The Drumstick (invented e-percussion instrument)
  • Eli Wallace: piano & Franken-B3 MIDI controller
  • Sandy Yolles: electronic percussion

Note that all of the participants were musicians, and many of the hyperlinks suggest that there was a fair amount of performing experience distributed across the group. Thus, while participation may not have been as diverse as McDonas had anticipated, there was still a generous amount of variety within the group.

Last night was structured in three parts. There was an opening group improvisation lasting about 45 minutes. This was followed by McDonas leading a discussion with the audience, after which the ensemble performed a second shorter improvisation.

It would be fair to begin any description with an introduction to the physical space. The Capp Street Concert Hall can be used very flexibly. Seating is on folding chairs, meaning that the audience may be situated according to the nature of the performance. The stage was filled with both instruments and electronic equipment, but other instruments were distributed across the rear of the hall and in the balcony above that rear area. The seats were thus arrayed as two pairs of semicircular rows, one set facing the stage and the other set facing the opposite direction. I chose to place myself on the edge of the row closest to the rear, from which I could pivot to look in just about any necessary direction.

The result was an experience as rich in spatial qualities as in its diversity of instrumental sonorities. It was therefore no surprise that, during the discussion, McDonas talked about how much of the workshop time had gone into exploring the space, discovering its potential for contributing to the music-making process, and then shaping the improvisation around those discoveries. A few of the musicians, particularly those working with electronic or computational equipment, such as Chen, Lasqo, McCaslin, and Yolles, never moved around the space. Most of the rest of the performers were far more active. Even the keyboardists took a tag-team approach to alternating on their instruments. Vocalist Burton was not only mobile but also highly dramatic, even if words were never a part of her diverse approaches to vocalization; and percussionist O’Rourke seemed determined to explore the potential for applying her technique to just about every sound-producing surface in the Concert Hall.

There was something highly infectious about this group-in-a-space-based approach to making music. I realized it when I found myself tapping out rhythms on the back of my chair. I immediately stopped myself with the stern reminder that I was there to listen. Then another voice in my head said:

Why should you stop? Aren’t you as much a part of the music-making as anyone else?

I think that side of me had a point. The spirit of collaboration had less to do with coordination among the performers and more to do with how each performer “collaborated” with the affordances of the space. While the result lacked the spirit of intricate interplay that we tend to encounter in jazz improvisations (even free jazz at its best), there was something highly stimulating about the superposition of the many acts of discovery that took place as the performers sensed their relationship to the physical space and explored it through their own sonorous expressions. One could then recognize that the space included the audience, which played just as much of a role as the physical structure in providing a sonorous environment for the performers. (McDonas even suggested that the audience could be a bit more proactive in the improvisation that followed the discussion.)

The whole event was decidedly unconventional; but it was also curiously refreshing in its uniqueness, perhaps because, in the spirit of John Cage’s philosophy, last night was all about the sounds, which took priority over the egos behind the making of those sounds.

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