Sunday, June 26, 2011

John Cage

I consider John Cage to be the most powerful influence amongst experimental artists. Yet it was in Cage’s 1958 essay, “Indeterminacy”, that I realized that improvisation was not at the heart of his work.

" something that I want to avoid. Most people who improvise slip back into their likes and dislikes and their memory, and...they don't arrive at any revelation that they are unaware of."[1]

Cage sought freedom from the constructs of our selves, guiding us to new invention. Stepping back, away from the norm of melody, rhythm, sonic categorization and instrumentation, leaves us with the sound or noise that Cage was seeking. It is here that we begin to understand why he did...what he did. That is, to make all sounds equal, impartial and available within time and compositional space.

His study and infusion of Zen Buddhism was a tremendous influence and naturally supported his sonic experimentations. I can see Cage's relationship to his spiritual practice emoting from his compositions and prose. One such composition, is his 1992 piece called "Indeterminacy 1, 2, 3, 4". Cage, along with David Tudor, performed this prose-laden piece. Both instrumentation (bells, horns, etc.) and poetry are notated. Indeterminacy lays in the very loose timing of both, during performance.

"...Later, during the question period, I (Cage) gave 5 prepared answers regardless of the questions. This was a reflection of my engagement in Zen."[4]

With a Dr. Seuss-like imagination, I've tried to follow Cage's musical road maps, enjoying every bit of his creative notation. As a visual artist, I am tempted to just stop here, looking, playing and framing his scores.

Not only were his scores artful, many of the instruments he designed were equally creative and functional. One of my favorite designs is called the prepared piano. To perform prepared piano you need stuff like pieces of a bicycle tire, screws and washers. These are then squeezed and twisted between the strings of a piano, pushing the piano’s strings and acoustics out of whack, resulting in a splendid rhythm instrument. And, for the unchanged strings - melodic capabilities. Cage’s Sonata’s are a favorite of mine.

75. Blue Hawaiian Stones

[1] Musical Times, by Turner, S. S. (1990), John Cage's Practical Utopias, pg. 130.




Laurie Anderson

Last year, I attended Laurie Anderson's performance of, "Homeland". I enjoyed, and had never experienced before, a musical event where the body and score of the performance were arranged/pre-set, yet the events that effect the lyrics (in this case political), were updated in a very improvisational way during the performance. It took awhile to realize that all her inferences to our political environment were completely up-to-date, yet I recognized the musical structure beneath them, as the pieces would reprise; resurfacing again and again.

The structure of composition, no matter how simple, is a recurring theme in my work. As I teach or simply demonstrate a spontaneous improvisational piece, I'm aware of the piece’s beginning, middle and end. Through the study and shear enjoyment of classical music, my mind and body have been programmed to realize a piece through form. Laurie's free-flowing form was a great insight into how open a piece could remain, even as it is being performed...around the world. A strong endorsement for composed-improvisation.

I believe classical voice technique provides a healthy methodology and basic core values to providing long-term vocal health maintenance. Some of the techniques have to do with correct breathing, enunciation and musical phrasing. All my prior learning has informed this new music and vocal improvisation.

Laurie is a violinist, keyboard player and vocalist and in my book it doesn’t get any better than that. I was attracted to the whole electric/acoustic sound; finding a sweet connection between the more traditional, classical musical instrumentation and the avant-garde of her more experimental tunes. Though a dreamy combo, it was Laurie's humor that took me off guard. Humor in performance is something that seems to follow or precede me; never pre-planned, so I’m always surprised. To experience a performance chock full of unexpected and intelligent faux pas and witticism was really wonderful.

Bobby McFerrin & Rhiannon

In the same vein as tribal hocketing, a musical form called Song Circle is being exercised in Bobby McFerrin’s ( concerts. As he calls for audience participation, resulting in about 30 people embarking the stage, he assigns each vocal grouping a part to sing. Each member of the circle watches and listens as Bobby adds melodies, harmonies or rhythms that would help support the music most beautifully. Singers sustain this sound as parts come and go throughout the expanse of the timeless tune. Solos ensue adding long buoyant, intricately woven melodies and rhythms that carry away all other thoughts than these...caught in the flow. I’m still trying to decide if the magic of Song Circle lays in its musical form or in the extraordinary people performing it.

72. Debby at Hale Kai, Hawaii workshop with Rhiannon[1]

Rhiannon's 2008 Improvisation Workshop was held in Hale Kai, not far from Kona, on the big Island of Hawaii. Rhiannon sings with Bobby McFerrin's 12-piece vocal orchestra called "Voicestra" and teaches vocal jazz at the Berklee College of Music. For these seven days and nights she led 12 women from around the world in improvisational exercises designed to free the voice and spirit, enabling free-form compositions based on organic, instinctive, and spontaneous inspiration.

Important musical structures such as melody, harmony, rhythm, tempo, meter, language, and story telling where continually considered within new contexts; creating inspiring new experiences. Through this improvisational journey our collective "musical stream of consciousness" awoke...allowing for limitless sonority, freedom of expression and brave experimentation that encouraged the emergence of our own unique voice.

Within this celebration of spontaneity, we were given the time and means to articulate and express our culture, gender and femaleness within a neutral and supportive environment; opening me up to experience the freedom and honesty required to truly connect. This entirely improvised music, presented everything one would expect within the context of a performance environment. Melodies became endangered as they traversed from singer to singer, perpetually morphing in reaction to each new development. Individual instinct, whim and sense of play were all coveted.

73. Danc’in Improv

My experience at Hale Kai forever altered the way I think about music and sound. I now consider sound as a healing process, as well as a vehicle for self-expression, entertainment, and (her)story telling. Learning to trust vocal instincts; fulfilling an unknown part of me that can only be accessed through this improvisational “in the moment” approach.

I’m passionate about improvisation as spontaneous composition. Summoning all of ones self, while on your feet and having the musical skills to keep you standing. I now want my performances to be totally improvised. During performance, I will face the expanse of freedom, as an open vessel...with no preset plans, without notation, instrumentation or leader, presenting a complex story that can only be revealed by every-woman.

“Improvisational music, as well as composition, appears to remain the province of men.

Perhaps in a field that is already difficult for men, women don’t see any future for themselves as improvisers or composers.

Women see few if any role models or mentors, few performance opportunities in the field, and relatively no financial support to launch or sustain a career.

The socialization of women continues to reinforce the role for them of spectators, supporters, and administrators where men hold forth as participants in the art.” [2]

[1] Photo taken by Hale Kai resident, 2008 (

[2] The Other Side of Nowhere: Jazz, Improvisation and Communities in Dialogue, Editors: Fischlin, D. & Heble, A. (2004), Wesleyan University Press. Middletown. CT., Chapter: Pauline Oliveros. Harmonic Anatomy - Women in Improvisation. pg. 57

Meredith Monk

71. Whip’in Weed - Blue

For many years, Meredith Monk taught using oral tradition, as in India where the Gharanas pass down the lines of traditional raga singing.[1] Monk testifies to the complexity of transferring such emotive work to the written page. She feels some things can be lost in the translation and I agree, especially when movement/theatre and personalities are involved.

Built on quick choices and in an oral fashion, such as Bobbie McFerrin's improvisational vocalizations, I am most interested in techniques, structures and ideas to be carried on, but not the actual performance...note for note. This does not mean that I believe that notated music is less valuable, only different. As artists have become aware of the fact that much of Meredith’s work has not been transcribed, time is being spent making sure her earlier work is now documented for future performance. It's possible that this very reason has curbed the spontaneity of her John Hendricks’ vocal transcriptions of instrumental solos relieved true freedom of improvisation from many would-be vocal explorers.

Meredith Monk states that rhythm is the underlying ground for the weaving together of different perceptions. [2] As I began teaching courses, I became more and more aware that the voice might not always be used (as I had hoped) in a melodic way. The work I did through, "We Are The Music" and, "(The Anatomy Of) Improv: Voice, Rhythm & Theatrics", stepped further and further from musical form; hinging on spoken word, storytelling and improvisational and spontaneous monologues. This is in reaction to the limited vocal experience of my participants. Through reduction, I've come to understand that one can participate in a musical environment without vocal melody to carry them. In my opinion, it is rhythm that makes the music...and this, from a vocalist!

One thing I was very taken off guard by, during a New York workshop taught by Meredith's ensemble, was how calculated and composed her work was. I’d imagined a much more improvisational form of music. Instead, each part was taught in detail, no give was given to any rhythms or pitch. Then, very systematically, each part was "hocketed",[3] one on top of or after the other. Many times, movement was added to the song, such as in the piece named "Panda". Her compositions are fluid, almost thoughtlessly simple and extremely effective. There is a vocal polyphonic tradition used amongst African pygmy tribes that consists of extensive hocketing. This form also exists in the music of Zap Mama, whose founder is Zairean-born, Marie Daulne. Marie and her mother were protected by a pygmy tribe when her father was killed by Simba rebels.[4] Having saved Daulne's life, she now gives them immortality through song.[5] Meredith Monk, Zap Mama and Bobby McFerrin use this technique, as do I, when improvising live with a group.

[1] Oteri, F. J. (2000, 4 1). Composer First. Retrieved from

[2] Oteri, F. J. (2000, 4 1). Composer First. Retrieved from


In its simplest form, hocketing is the rapid alternation of rests and notes between two or more voices. When on voice pauses, the other sings, giving the effect of gasps or hiccups.


You can listen to “Music of the Rain Forest Pygmies” on this site.

[5] Wikipedia. (2009). Zap Mama. Retrieved from

Pauline Oliveros

70. Pauline Oliveros & Debby at Goddard College Residency, PT, WA '09

"I differentiate 'to hear' and 'to listen'. To hear is the physical means that enables perception. To listen is to give attention to what is perceived both acoustically and psychologically."[1]

Space is the most important music quality that Pauline Oliveros uses in her work. When I teach, often it is the space that has more clarity, makes more sense and is more pronounced than the rhythms or tones that, to me, seem so obvious. Last May, I substituted for Seattle Universities' "Improvisation in Art and Life" class. A young man came up to me after class and said, "I understood what you meant when you said, Listen to the space...the silence, to understand where you are." I was struck that a concept like "space" was taken in and understood so naturally.

A composer to the nth degree, Pauline Oliveros quite naturally developed a Deep Listening philosophy and practice, distinguishing the difference between the involuntary nature of hearing and the voluntary selective nature of listening.[2] I participated in her Vancouver, BC workshop, last year. What a gentle soul, Pauline is. She and Ione (partner and artistic director), performed that evening...roaming through sound aesthetics, ethereal happenings and attended to dreams of a "wide awake" nature. All while pushing sonic pulses around the room from speaker to speaker, making you dizzy with their dense nomadic melodies. This collaborative soundscape had an otherworldly feel. But why? From Ione's spoken (dream) word to Oliveros' sensual accordion solos, all improvised, you got the feeling that they were waiting for something. Listening to each other, to all the history of sound, technique and story that had gone on before.

“We found that it was best to improvise first and talk about it afterward. If we discussed what we were going to do, the improvisation seemed to fall flat. Improvising without discussion seemed to give us an exciting edge and arena for discovery, as the world of possibilities remained open.”[3]

Patience is the virtue here. Just now, a bee is brushing me so closely that I feel his wings on my hair and cheek, wings vibrating so loud I can't hear or think of anything else. I am a little bit afraid too. Sitting still, listening, paying attention and listening again is painfully hard for me, but a practice I am finding most necessary. If silence could be as obvious as that bee, I wouldn't have quite so much trouble paying it the attention it requires. Patience and listening are two of the most illusive and most important qualities of an improvisational life.

Pauline, when asked about how she instilled creativity in her students, reflected on the importance of facilitating a community of creative interest.[4] The word facilitate reminds me of Seitu’s (a Goddard advisor) response to a video I shared, taken of student performances during a class I was teaching. My question was, "What am I doing and what is my role?" Seitu saw that I was giving space and time for others to express and create what interested them most. Pauline is a listening facilitator, holding space and time for herself, during performance, and for others.

“My early composition was gestural rather than formal. I wrote what I heard. As a composer, I was not interested in the textbook forms presented to me in classes; rather, I was interested in sounds, in the interplay and sensual nature of sounds that ran through my mind.”[5]

[1] Deep Listening, A Composer's Sound Practice Oliveros, P. (2005), Deep Listening Publications~iUniverse, Lincoln, NE. pg. 12

[2] Oliveros, P. (2009), Retrieved from

[3] The Other Side of Nowhere: Jazz, Improvisation and Communities in Dialogue, Editors: Fischlin, D. & Heble, A. (2004), Wesleyan University Press. Middletown. CT., Chapter: Pauline Oliveros. Harmonic Anatomy - Women in Improvisation.

pg. 53

[4] Deep Listening, A Composer's Sound Practice. Oliveros, P. (2005), Deep Listening Publications~iUniverse, Lincoln, NE. pg. 24

[5] The Other Side of Nowhere: Jazz, Improvisation and Communities in Dialogue. Editors: Fischlin, D. & Heble, A. (2004). Wesleyan University Press. Middletown. CT., Chapter: Pauline Oliveros. Harmonic Anatomy - Women in Improvisation. pg. 53

~ Remarkable Influences ~ Jay Clayton & Jerry Granelli

Even with successful performances under ones belt the uneasiness of approaching a situation with out any plan is very intimidating. Jay Clayton (a historical vocal jazz phenomenon, compared to Urszula Dudziak in vocal acuity), was my first aural taste of Free Jazz (or New Music, as some call it). Jay helped open me up to experimenting with my own soundscape for the very first time. Below is an interview I penned while attending a master class that she taught along with her drummer, Jerry Granelli. The topic being addressed was: Free Jazz; Coping with fear.

Jay: “Jeanne Lee...she was one of the first sound poets because she used poetry in her solo. She had so much courage. I would just pick up a tambourine and would like shake it, at first. We’re talking about no plan and not even talking to each other...just do it. I know that’s where my roots came and gave me courage to do that. I got’a tell you I got then (you think) don’t sing...but you’re up there and can’t quit the gig. But, you have to have courage and then you go inside. It’s just like the standards; you go, wait a minute...this is not about me! You just have to feel something and just trust yourself. Really, you just go for it and you listen and you listen...always listening inside. Because where do ideas come from? We don’t know, we don’t know why we do it, that’s why we can’t ask too many questions. We just do it. The prepared part has to do with working on music and following music that you love and learning stuff. But when you’re out there, it’s trust and listening, feeling and listening.”

Jerry: “It’s just like in life. If you’re thinking up what to say to this person, you probably aren’t hearing what the person is saying at all...same thing is true with music. If I listen to the music and by listening to her (Jay), or not listening to her and just following my crosses and we meld. But fear is something you really can’t...I think every great musician I know faces it, still.”

Jay: “I hate recording that...people are surprised, but it’s true.

Jerry: “It’s true.” (Said in unison)

69. Shadow Portrait #4

Social Change & Empowerment

My personal politics rest around women and the ill equality they are dealt; a depleted economic self - poverty. Though empowerment oft is gathered through struggle, I try to disassociate myself from the negativity that this label bears, joyfully running, arms outstretched, towards my life. Yet, it is this struggle that defines my road from others and can’t simply be disregarded. Improvisation, dictates my every movement; my conscience. And is a practice as holy as prayer, embodying softness (love of self), mindfulness (listening; paying attention), kindness (compassion), intuition (sensing & openness to self, others and beyond), flexibility (willingness to change; grow), creativity (enacting newness, connecting the unfamiliar) and skill (known knowledge).

A hope of mine, for our neighborhood schools, is that the alternative model of pedagogy found within improvisation, would someday be accepted as the powerful tool it is. Improv-centered learning programs would support many of the changes our students and communities need, providing a field of listening that can grow into connections, leading to understanding or at least compassion; a first step towards social change. I believe the lack of transcribed or documented materials is an issue for most academics. Though, in actuality, it’s this medium’s strength; allowing for personal and cultural interpretation.

“In pedagogies, criticism, arts funding policies, and support structures, improvisative music is often looked at askance. Since improvisational musical practices are central to many marginalized communities (Heble: 2000), the resultant failure of scholars to investigate improvisation has led to a failure to recognize the extent to which it provides a model for flexible, dynamic, and dialogical social structures that are both ethical and respectful of identity and difference.”[1]

Given the serious lack, within the general population’s understanding of the positive effects of improvisational music, we must take a stand in representing and disseminating knowledge as to how improvisation can articulate conceptions and expressions of race, culture, class and gender within a neutral and supportive environment. Just a few nutritive qualities of a well constructed improvisational setting might include: new self awareness; histories revealed, dialog opens and connections made, time offered for working through spacious structures (visual, aural, physical, etc.); establishing value in innovation, risk-taking encouraged while failure’s denied, originality treated as gold, and a safe space for artistic/professional development.

“Improvisation must be considered not simply as a musical form, but as a complex social phenomenon that mediates transcultural inter-artistic exchanges that produce new conceptions of identity, community, history, and the body.”[2]


This international research project plays a leading role in defining a new field of interdisciplinary inquiry within the field of musical improvisation as a model for social change.